Monday, May 10, 2010

Plunging the Depths of Mediocrity in ‘Descent 2’

When Neil Marshall’s THE DESCENT was released to widespread acclaim in 2005, it was clear that the film was something special and one of those singular successes that seemed to scream: “Please don’t sully me with a sequel!”. But such wishful thinking is pure naïveté in these days of super-sized Hollywood cash-ins, especially when one looks back at other “shoulda-stood-alone” horror films – PSYCHO, JAWS, HALLOWEEN, THE EXORCIST, even JEEPERS CREEPERS – whose artistry simply seemed exploited when filmmakers sought to extend the original narratives of their classic cinematic predecessors.

Now, I know that rationale counters the argument I’ve used countless times before to defend the dreaded remake – stating that the existence of such doesn’t negate the artistry of the original. But sequels are a different animal. While the remake is essentially a reinterpretation of the source material, a sequel by virtue extends the original source material, thus bringing with it the ability to alter the original narrative in some ways. Small distinction, perhaps – but one I think is important in considering THE DESCENT 2.

Picking up with the rescue of the first film’s apparent sole survivor Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), THE DESCENT 2 focuses on the investigation into the fates of the remaining members of the original film’s all-girl expedition team. The film starts weakly, with an improbable sequence of events that includes local law enforcement basically ripping freshly-sedated Sarah out of her hospital bed to lead a rescue team back down into the uncharted cave system. Factor in a trio of rescuers who go recklessly off grid in an effort to bypass the intrusive media and a ridiculously convenient elevator to take them all there, and you’ll find yourself cynically bracing for disappointment.

Forgive the first twenty minutes of the film, however, and you’ll be rewarded with something passable in the annals of horror film sequels. For once the passages start to narrow and Sarah’s memory of recent events starts to flash before her eyes, a bit of that throat-tightening sense of claustrophobia that was exploited to such marvelous effect in the original film kicks in. And when imbecilic Sheriff Vaines (Gavan O’Herlihy) shoots off his pistol, rocks come a tumblin’ down, and our team of would-be rescuers quickly finds itself trapped with the subterranean cave-dwelling stars of the first film. Search-and-rescue becomes kill-or-be-killed.

Part of the problem with sequels (and remakes, to a degree) is that the audience has traveled down the same familiar road together before, thus knowing what the impending terror looks like and is capable of. So the creative forces behind the sequel have two options: show the audience what’s behind Door #2 or give them more of what they’ve come to expect. Although the former is trickier to pull off (think ALIENS), it’s a far more effective approach to generating scares that feel fresh. DESCENT 2 director Jon Harris opts instead for the latter here, giving audiences liberal glimpses of the wall-scaling, scurrying creatures and exponentially more limb-ripping, blood-spraying violence. The result is mixed, with more of the same – recycled scares, if you will – peppered with a scarce amount of the emotional resonance of the original film.

It’s here, with its lack of emotional timbre, that THE DESCENT 2 makes its biggest blunder, reducing it to its expected level of mediocrity. The first film worked so effectively because it centered on a unique cast of well-developed characters. Even if one or two of the female spelunkers from the first film failed to stand out individually, Marshall’s script took considerable time and effort establishing the women as an authentic, cohesive group of friends, with believable group dynamics and enough natural camaraderie that the audience was invested in their fates. Here, there is little for the audience to invest in – with a subplot involving the sheriff’s female deputy bonding with Sarah over their shared status as mothers feeling forced. The trio of screenwriters responsible for DESCENT 2 – J. Blakeson, James McCarthy, and James Watkins – does manage to offer a tease of the original film’s emotional underpinning during a pivotal scene in which another character from the first film shows up and an unresolved central conflict from that film is re-opened like an old, painful wound. It’s a welcome, frustrating hint of potential amidst great averageness.

Kudos to Harris and crew for once again not shying away from an atypical dark ending, with DESCENT 2’s last frames similar to the first film’s decidedly downbeat original UK ending. The fact that I even yelled out “Oh, man…you’ve got to be kidding me! After all that?” at the end of the film is testament that they did something right in getting me to buy in – even if only a little.

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