Straight to DVD: “The Descent, Part 2″

As good as the skin-crawling, claustrophobic original? Nope, but still the S2DVD release of the year so far

Topics: Straight to DVD, Film Salon, Movies,

Straight to DVD: "The Descent, Part 2"A still from "The Descent, Part 2."

Few things evoke more primal fear than darkness and confinement. The dread of feeling your way through narrow corridors where one misstep could send you plummeting down an unseen pit or plunging into a putrescent pile of goo has been best conveyed by the horror novel or short story. The horror stories of Robert E. Howard, such as “Pigeons From Hell” (silly title, great story), are filled with scenes like these and even his fantasy heroes such as Conan or Solomon Kane often find themselves navigating through tight spaces with little or no light. (Howard was pen pals with H.P. Lovecraft, after all.)

But film, a medium based on the manipulation of light, hasn’t always been the right venue to convey these fears. Roger Corman’s Poe movies of the ’60s talk a lot about being buried alive, but due to the technical limitations of the time, everything is too brightly lit in “The Premature Burial” (1962) and “The Tomb of Ligeia” (1964) to show us, let alone make us feel, that combination of claustrophobia and blindness. Instead, Corman was forced to make do with overwrought dialogue delivered by Vincent Price or Ray Milland to let us know that waking up in one’s own grave is a serious bad trip. Ridley Scott handled the inching through poorly lit crawl spaces a lot better in “Alien” (1979) after film stocks had improved to allow shooting with less light, but “The Descent” (2005) was the first movie to dwell in such high levels of darkness. “Alien” had that strobe light. “The Descent” was lit only with glow sticks and flashlights.

“The Descent” follows a group of mostly British gals who take a wrong turn while exploring Appalachian caves and plunge into a nest of blind, flesh-eating anthropoids that climb walls and track their prey through sonar. But the monsters aren’t even hinted at for the first 50 minutes of the movie’s runtime. Like John Boorman’s “Deliverance” (1972), another movie about a backwoods trip gone awry, the film’s setting proves to be the harshest adversary and generates much of the tension. Where treacherous rapids hobble Burt Reynolds in “Deliverance,” the women in “The Descent” brave cave-ins and bottomless pits with the thought that they may remain stranded in those creepy caverns. The arrival of the cannibal creatures almost relieves the tension by infusing “The Descent” with the kinetics of the action movie. To go back to Robert E. Howard, the women who aren’t done in by geology become rather Conan-like as they use climbing instruments to hack through hordes of beasties.

By avoiding or at least minimizing exploitation movie excesses, “The Descent” became a sleeper hit in 2005 and made its way onto the 10-best lists of the Washington Post and the Village Voice. It was the thinking person’s horror movie in a market crowded with “Saw” sequels and Michael Bay remakes of classic splatter films. Despite critical good will, its $26 million American gross was hardly enough to keep “The Descent: Part 2″ from going straight to DVD. For reference, “Saw V” did bigger box office in its opening weekend than “The Descent” did in its entire U.S. run.

Like “Cabin Fever 2,” another sequel to a recent horror hit that went straight-to-DVD this year, “The Descent: Part 2″ picks up where the first film left off. Sarah Carter (Shauna Macdonald) emerges from the catacombs with a heavy case of PTSD, only to be forced back into the underworld by an overzealous sheriff (Gavan O’Herlihy) who hopes to make a name for himself by finding any survivors from that ill-fated first expedition. Sarah, the sheriff, and a rescue team with British accents (both movies were filmed in Scotland, despite their U.S. setting) take a shortcut through an old mine shaft to save all that time spent rock climbing in the first film. The rescue team is quickly beset by CHUDs (for lack of a better term) and fingers are munched, monster heads are squished by boulders and arms are hacked off with climbing equipment.

Where director Neil Marshall was careful to make the lighting stem from on-screen sources in the original film, first-time director Jon Harris (editor of the “The Descent” and “Kick-Ass”) doesn’t adhere to his predecessor’s attention to detail in “Part 2.” There’s an awful lot of unexplained light in those caves this time around, making it easier to see the gory set-pieces yet robbing “Part 2″ of the narrow circumference of darkness that made the original so intense. The movie has lots of claustrophobic scenes, but not much in the way of actual claustrophobia.

But saying that “The Descent: Part 2″ isn’t as good as the stylish original is hardly a knock against it. In the pantheon of horror sequels where “Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf” or James Cameron’s “Piranha Part Two: The Spawning” represent the median, “The Descent: Part 2″ is at least the “Magnificent Ambersons” of fright-film follow-ups, if not quite the “Citizen Kane.” “The Descent: Part 2″ packs some good scares, solid production values and cool-looking monsters. It’s with this in mind that I’m awarding this movie the much-coveted “S” ranking on my newly minted SHITE meter. “The Descent: Part 2″ shoulda made it to the multiplex, as the S indicates. Now, there’s a part of the third act where it goes careening down Stupid Mountain, but that’s hardly enough to keep it from earning its S when you consider the existence of the “Transformers” franchise. “The Descent: Part 2″ is the best straight-to-DVD movie I have seen so far, period. It’s a worthy second installment.

Bob Calhoun is a California freelance writer who specializes in rock 'n' roll, martial arts and Hollywood stuntmen.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>