British horror movies received a welcome jolt to the heart when Director Neil Marshall gave us the darkly witty and thoroughly engaging Dog Soldiers, a fairly low-budget escapade that did a fair amount of good for werewolf movies too. He followed up his well-received debut with the extremely successful The Descent, a pitch-perfect horror which had none of the dark humour of Dog Soldiers, but had the same well-developed camaraderie which worked so well with his all-boy team in 'Soldiers. In The Descent, however, it was all-girls, and Marshall brilliantly conceived a group of likeable tough chicas who viewers actually cared about.
For this third outing, Marshall wrote and directed Doomsday, an eagerly anticipated but utterly abysmal mish-mash of poorly-developed concepts and flagrantly ripped-off ideas (everything from Mad Max 2 to King Arthur was thrown into the mix). It was awful, and not helped at all by a selection of characters who you didn't give a damn about, played by a cast who couldn't act (led by Tomb Raider video-game model Rhona Mitra). His latest, Centurion, a tale of a group of elite Roman soldiers caught behind enemy lines, opens in UK cinemas next week, but I suspect that it will take a little longer for him to overcome the stigma from Doomsday.
Please be aware that those who have not seen The Descent should go and do so asap, and that the following review may contain some spoilers for the original film, as they set up the story for the sequel.
With the success of The Descent, the commission of a sequel was not wholly surprising, although those in the UK who have seen the first movie will probably remember that it did not really leave things open for any of the characters to return. Quite a dark movie, the original saw how an entire group of female climbers on a caving expedition were decimated by a bunch of genetic aberrations, humans who have 'evolved' into blind underground cannibals that rely on some form of echo-location to track their prey. One of the girls, Sarah, the reluctant member who was trying to recover from the loss of her husband and child by going on this ill-fated trip, was changed significantly by the events, having to adopt an animalistic demeanour just to survive the experience. The leader of the group, Juno, the girl who foolishly decided to take them all to an unmapped cave and not alert the rescue teams as to their location just in case they got into trouble, also ended up accidently wounding Sarah's best friend, and then left her behind, her survival instincts taking over. After Sarah discovered this, she left Juno disabled in the cave for the creatures to get her, and then ran for what she assumed to be an exit, and made it back out into the outside world.
For the US release, that's where it ended. In the UK, however, the closing shot of the movie was of Sarah waking in a 'room' deep within the cave, realising that she had only dreamt that she had managed to escape. It was dark, raw and perfectly suited the feel of helpless, hopelessness examined across the narrative. Still, despite my not liking the manner in which they 'reworked' the ending (a little like the 'happy' version of I Am Legend, which left things open for the originally planned sequel), I have to say that I quite liked the idea of returning to the caves for a sequel with the lead girl, Sarah, intact.
The Descent Part 2 picks up where its predecessor left off. Sarah has just escaped from the horrors she experienced within the Appalachian caves, and is found, rescued and taken to hospital. Practically catatonic, unable to recall any of the horrific events that took place, she is treated with disdain and disbelief by the local authorities, who have employed a new rescue team of cavers during their conduct of the urgent hunt for the missing girls. But, despite her amnesia issues, and the obvious trauma that she has been through, Sarah is taken back to the caves by the reckless Sheriff, and compelled to join the rescue mission. When they start to find bodies and bones, they become increasingly wary of Sarah herself, believing that, since there was nothing else that could have killed the girls, Sarah, as the sole survivor, must be the psycho. Of course, it is not long before the new team realise that Sarah wasn't so delusional in her assertions that they were 'not alone down there' and, as the bodies mount up, she has to once again find the animal within that she needs to help the others to survive the ordeal.
I never really thought of The Descent as comparable in nature to the first Alien movie, but Part 2 made me reassess that. It highlights some real parallels between the two movies and their respective sequels, Part 2 definitely acting (at least initially, in its setup) as 'Aliens' to Part 1's take on Alien. If Alien/The Descent pitched Sigourney Weaver/Shawna McDonald as the unlikely heroine (and survivor) from an unexpected threat, Aliens/The Descent 2 brought her back in amidst a bunch of disbelievers, who return to the original site, thinking they can handle themselves, and soon find that they need her to fight off the real enemy. And it actually works as they only use the setup and don't follow through down the action movie guns n' ammo route of Aliens (although they may do if they do another one).
Pleasantly, The Descent 2 takes this basic Aliens premise and also reworks it with a quaintly British style, using the same crew (and some of the same cast members) and the same Brit locations to recreate the same feel. It cleverly plays up to the original movie's strengths - most notably the claustrophobic tension - and does not make this a sequel that is all about the gore (not that it isn't even more violent). They could have easily gone with 'more violent deaths, more gore' as a basic starting point, but instead appear to have put some thought into what actually made the first movie work, and paid heed to those elements. That said, with a much smaller budget, I guess they did not really have the option to fully go down the Aliens route of bigger stunts and scale (and action, as aforementioned). Still, it worked out for the best in the end because this smaller-scale, more claustrophobic low budget Brit-styled horror is far from the botched mess that was Director Neil Marshall's follow-up to The Descent, the bigger budgeted Doomsday. Here, debut Brit Director Jon Harris (who was editor on the first one, as well as a bunch of other Brit flicks like Layer Cake and Eden Lake) acquits himself fairly favourably, and the whole project was allegedly overviewed by Marshall himself, the end result feeling very much like another chapter in the same universe.
Bringing back a few familiar, established faces (Sarah being the most obvious one, but the others get a few flashback/video diary moments), they do not flesh out the new characters as much as they did in the first movie. Still they try and offer us a few distinctive and somewhat likeable entries, and the 'order of deaths' is pleasantly unpredictable. Shawna McDonald brings the same, initially-distraught-but-eventually-determined characteristics to her role as the reluctant heroine. UK fans will remember her as a regular but relatively minor character in Spooks, but little else, which is a shame because her performance in the Descent showed some promise. Even if she offers nothing wildly new, perhaps this return to her most distinctive role will revitalise her career, and it certainly helped guarantee that this low budget sequel would at least get a (somewhat deserved) theatrical release in the UK rather than being peddled Straight-to-Video as it was in the US.
Along for the ride we get Brit stalwart Douglas Hodge (Red Cap, Vanity Fair) as the leader of the new caving team, with newbies Anna Skellern (an Australian cutie reminiscent of Mary-Elizabeth Winstead - John McClane's daughter in Die Hard 4.0) and Joshua Dallas (a US actor soon to be cameoing in Thor) comprising said team. A couple of US actors play the local sheriffs - Krysten Cummings (is that a porn name?) and Gavin O'Herlihy (Brad from Superman III!) - and try and reinforce the fact that this is supposed to be set in Canada, but honestly the first movie felt like it was an all-UK offering and worked well in that regard, so they really should have stuck to that formula.
Similarly, the all-girl crew of the original (apart from being fleshed-out) offered something novel to the genre, and whilst Part 2 probably could not justify imitating that set-up, its standard cast of 3 girls and 3 guys takes it further into generic teen-slasher territory. A bit more of an introduction would have worked wonders here, perhaps with some of the cast getting into trouble in the caves before they encounter the creatures, and the lack of character development does make an impact on your reaction when they start getting picked off. Still, for taut tension and cleverly conceived jump moments (however predictable you might assume they are, they can still get you) this entry treads the same ground as the original to surprisingly good effect.
Made on a slightly bigger budget than the first film (but $10M is still less than the average DTV Seagal actioner, and those look horrendous) the film feels like a decent effort, but is not quite the same quality as the original. But the professional crew have worked wonders considering the restrictions, and bring us some authentically eerie and remarkably elaborate cave settings for the characters to explore.
Overall it is clear that this film was made only as an afterthought, spurred by the surprising success of the original, and you cannot escape the feeling that they were more interested cashing in on the name than on creating an imaginative follow-up. Indeed, this one paves the way for the planned third movie, which has the chance to go in a different direction but probably will not, the somewhat random ending almost spoiling the whole film, so clearly was it intended to pave the way for another instalment. But, despite all this, it is not a bad sequel, playing to the originals strengths, giving us some of the same solid Brit horror that Marshall started off in the first place, and allowing fans of Sarah and her cave-diving crews to follow them as they go full circle on their second caving journey. It may not be particularly noteworthy, but it's still a surprisingly professionally-made, shock-and-gore creature-feature which manages to hit some of the right notes.
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