The Descent: Part 2 first published by Sight & Sound, December 2009
Review: Neil Marshall‘s The Descent (2005), at least in its full UK version (curtailed slightly but significantly for US audiences), closed with a cliffhanger. It was not just that its protagonist Sarah Carter (Shauna MacDonald) was last glimpsed clinging for dear life to a rock shelf in an underground cavern, but also that the entire film was rooted in a deep-seated ambiguity that remained unresolved to the very end. On the one hand, the film offered all the tropes of a survivalist creature feature, as six ‘chicks with picks’ were seen fighting off troglodytic monsters in the dark – while on the other hand, it slyly suggested that these atavistic encounters might just be unfolding in Sarah’s damaged psyche, as our heroine, still profoundly traumatised over the deaths of her husband and young daughter a year earlier, faced the monstrous, all-consuming guilt, anger and despair lurking in the inner recesses of her own mind. When fellow adventurer Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) declared, “This is not caving, this is an ego trip,” there was the sense that she might have been speaking truer than she realised – and it was this alternative route through the film’s shadowy narrative, captured in part by the film’s equivocal title, that lent The Descent a real psychological depth to outlast all its sensationalist thrills.
Four years (or, in narrative time, two days) later, Sarah has re-emerged from the labyrinthine depths, covered in blood that is not her own and unable to remember anything (beyond impressionistic flashbacks) of what happened either to her or her five missing companions. In a move that conforms more to the demands of genre than of reality, local Sheriff Vaines (Gavan O’Herlihy) insists that Sarah, though nearly catatonic, should nonetheless join an immediate search-and-rescue mission back into the cave system, and so our heroine, recovering fast, finds herself once again fighting tooth and nail to survive the blind but ravenous ‘crawlers’. Which is to say that first-time director Jon Harris (editor and second unit crewman on Marshall’s original) is essentially retreading old ground here. There are more rock collapses, more claustrophobic jump shocks in the dark, more bestial attacks, more life-and-death dilemmas, more girl-on-girl mud-wrestling, and more (literal) cliffhangers – there is even more ‘found’ footage from the first expedition’s video camera, for which Harris, rather than lazily falling back on old rushes from the first film, has instead reassembled the original cast in reconstituted sets. Harris plays his frights by the book, strictly adhering to the pattern whereby any character’s sigh of relief is immediately followed by another onslaught of murderous creatures (human or otherwise) leaping out of the dark – and The Descent‘s original DP Sam McCurdy returns to make effective use once again of the characters’ limited light sources (and, this time, thermal imaging gear) in what is a naturally pitchblack environment.
There are some newer elements in The Descent: Part 2. A mixed-sex expedition replaces the original’s all-female party, arguably diluting along the way the earlier film’s freshly gendered take on horror (although it is still the female characters, and especially the mothers, who really count here). Contrasting with the sustained gravity of the original, there is an odd flush of toilet humour, with Sarah and Elen Rios (Krysten Cummings) discovering in one scene that they are – literally – in deep shit. There is even a redemptive aspect to the climactic scenes, as Sarah is finally allowed to make good for her own inhuman treatment of Juno (Natalie Mendoza), the treacherous friend whom Sarah had wilfully left for dead in the first film.
The problem, though, is that as Sarah is rehumanised, her story is thoroughly disambiguated, and while the new film still flirts occasionally with the notion that what we see may all be in Sarah’s head (with lines like “your mind plays tricks on you”, “the lady’s a fuckin’ psycho,” etc), by the end Sarah has ceased to be the film’s experiencing subject, and we are forced to conclude that this is, after all, just another monster movie – if one that delivers plenty of savage spectacle. The coda may bring an unexpected new twist, but it is one that seems designed merely to usher in the next inevitable sequel, rather than to reverberate and ramify in the darkened cavern of the cinema.
* * *
Synopsis: Appalachian Mountains, USA. Two days after a party of six female cavers has been reported missing, old-timer Ed Oswald chances upon one – Sarah Carter – on a woodland back road. Bloody, traumatised, and unable to remember anything of her experiences, Sarah is co-opted by suspicious local sheriff Redmond Vaines into joining a search party for the five other women. Shown to a creaky old mining elevator by Oswald, Sarah descends once again, along with Vaines, his deputy Elen Rios, and Pulaskie Mountain rescue volunteers Dan, Greg and Cath. As they go deeper, and find a woman’s eviscerated body, Sarah’s memories return, and she flees into the darkness. Vaines runs off after her, and the gunshot he fires causes a cave-in, further separating the group. A digicam with recordings of the previous party’s horrific experiences is discovered, and Dan, Greg and Cath succumb in turn to attacks from blind troglodytic ‘crawlers’. Sarah saves Rios from a similar assault, while Vaines finds Juno, who has survived alone in the caves for two days and is none too pleased to be reacquainted with the woman who left her for dead there. After insisting that Sarah continue to wear cuffs, Vaines stumbles over a cliff edge; as his weight pulls Sarah from above and a crawler climbs (and bites) him from below, Rios hacks off Vaines’ arm, freeing Sarah and sending him plummeting. The three remaining women head to the surface, where Sarah first risks her life to be reconciled with the dying Juno, and then sacrifices herself so that Rios can get back to her beloved daughter. Once outside, Rios is attacked by Oswald, who pushes her unconscious body back to the cave mouth.
strap: Jon Harris’ subterranean sequel retraces (and disambiguates) the steps of the original, while rehumanising its heroine