Bad Example: The Descent – Part 2

by Jay Stringer

Let’s start off with a quick spoiler warning. Usually in the column, and especially in the last two, I try and tread a fine line when it comes to spoilers. I want to pick things apart and tell you what I think does or does not work, but I want to leave it just vague enough so that you can still watch the film. With both of the last two horror films, there are still scares there for you to discover if you sit and watch them after reading this site. Today’s film on the other hand I have to get right into a spoiler, because it’s the main reason that the film doesn’t work.

The first two films we looked at for the horror season were both supernatural. JEEPERS CREEPERS is a film that I wish I could like, but it lets itself down.  EXORCIST 3 was a film that I expected to hate, but ended up really enjoying. If we put the Christianity element of the latter to one side for a moment, we could say they were both creature features as they were both centred on the actions of a demon.

For some people that is a terrifying idea in itself. For others there will always be a degree of separation to that kind of horror –it doesn’t seem that demons exist (that’s a whole different can of worms). Other forms of creature feature can also be filtered away through logic; dinosaurs don’t walk the earth, aliens are way out in space, werewolves don’t watch porn movies in London.

But there is another strand of the genre that can hit even the most logical of us where it hurts. There are great white sharks, for instance. It’s feasible that if you went swimming in arm enough water, a shark might take a bite out of you. Okay, it’s not very likely to happen, but that’s not the point. One of the strengths of this kind of horror is that it ignores the 99% of the time when nothing happens, and makes you worry about the remaining 1%. Everyone’s been out in the ocean and had that thought nag at them, even for a second, right?

This is where kids like me form the Jaws Rule. A shark can’t eat you if you don’t get wet. It’s the only logical way to ward of the inevitability of getting eaten by a shark, right? And it works wonders, until people start to notice the smell. So then you discover showers. Hallelujah. And that works fine until you discover Psycho….

Anyway, back on topic. Creature features.

One of the many joys of The DESCENT was that it didn’t seek some far out supernatural excuse for its beasties. Hell, they weren’t even really beasties. They were just humans who stayed in the caves. Now we can take that 99% from earlier and stretch it. Creatures like the ones inTHE DESCENT are 99.99999% impossible, right? There is virtually no chance at all of a separate strand of humans existing down in a cave somewhere waiting to eat us. No way. Except of course that responsible science doesn’t rule things out completely. There would be that teeny tiny chance, and that’s enough of a chance for the premise to work.

I could write a very long and very loving Good Exampleabout that film. One of the biggest collective screams I’ve ever heard in a cinema came halfway through Neil Marshall’s modern classic, and it was a trick so good they repeated it in the sequel. So today I’m taking a look at the follow up. It has an imaginative title THE DESCENT Part Two, and a not-so-imaginative premise.

The premise itself doesn’t have to be a problem. Simple is often the best way to go. Too many young filmmakers want to show us how clever they are, but that way leads to M Night. Clarity is very important as a storyteller, and if you can’t put across information in a clear way, then you can’t tell a story. Which isn’t to say that films shouldn’t be complex and intelligent, but rather that filmmakers need to put their craft before their ego.

Neil Marshall tried to show off a little too much in his first film, DOG SOLDIERS. It’s still a fun watch, especially with some friends after a few beers, but it’s a little too knowing. It has a few too many in-jokes and it’s dialogue is a little too snappy.  He came back much more focused in his second effort. THE DESCENT was straight up, unpretentious and balls-to-the-wall. It’s a very simple narrative, and that allows Marshall to then feed in a few complex themes into the relationships of the characters. Whether it’s the infidelity, the betrayal, or the slow descent into madness of the main character, the original ending was ambiguous, but it was also perfect for the story.

Which brings us back to the sequel. Straight off I should say that the film is ruined by one stupid mistake. Depending on how you look at it the film is either let down by it’s beginning or it’s ending, and that may well be down to the director or writer trying to show off. But we’ll get to that. First I want to hand out some praise, because there is a lot that the film does well.

It’s a thankless task being a horror sequel. If there was something that worked in the first film because it was hidden, like a shark or a serial killer, then that trick won’t work a second time. You have to show the audience something different. You can go the Aliens route and switch genre, display the creature front and centre and make it all about the action, or you can stick to horror and try and provide new scares.

The Descent 2 sticks to the same ground as the first one. While we discovered the creatures at the same time as the protagonists first time round, for the second film the audience knew more than the hapless cavers. That gave the film a different dimension, a kind of tension and suspense as the audience stares at every dark shadow waiting for the reveal. The makers have taken the interesting choice of literally going over the same ground as the first film, with the rescuers coming across the dead bodies of the first film’s characters. One of them in particular plays a part in re-enacting a set-piece from the original in a very gruesome way. The knowledge we gained first time around is used in an interesting way, we get to see characters learning how to navigate around the Crawlers by staying silent, and we get to see more of the creatures social habits which gives them a depth as living creatures.

The best moment of the first film was arguably the first reveal, the camcorder scene which was the first time the audience saw one of the creatures. The scene was so effective that it is re-used here. The rescuers find the camera, and play back the footage. They jump as they see the Crawler on screen, and the fake scare i9s then turned into a real one as they are attacked whilst watching the footage. I wouldn’t want to see this done too often, but it was an interesting way to reference the first film and build toward a scare. Once the creatures are revealed it basically becomes a chase movie. Characters are killed off quickly and gruesomely, and there is no mercy shown. Make no mistake; characters have only been introduced in order to be turned into food. The while film is one big ‘red shirt alert.’

For the most part the film is handled very well. Given that it’s a thankless job, and that it would never be as effective as the first film, it just gets on with telling it’s story and supplying a few jumps. From the moment the characters get down into the caves until the moment the few remaining survivors see a way out, I was giving the film a pass mark.

But then? Oh dear.

First lets deal with my minor gripe. The climax of the film see’s the three remaining characters come across a way out. They see light filtering down through an opening, clearly a tunnel to the surface, and plan to climb out of it. The trouble is that the Crawlers also use that opening to bring food down into the caves, as we see one of the male creatures dragging a dead deer down and calling for other to come and feed. But earlier in the sequel we see a Crawler being scared away by the light of a torch. There are possible reasons; maybe only the most experienced Crawlers can handle the sunlight, maybe the one scared of the torch was younger or had never been near the surface. These are possible explanations, so it’s only a minor quibble, but it did pull me out of the film a little.

But it’s the second problem that ruins the film, and here the really big spoiler gets wheeled out.

Only one of the characters makes it out of the cave alive. Deputy Rios climbs out of the cave and runs through the forest toward civilisation. Before she can find help, however, she is knocked unconscious with a shovel by a mysterious old man from earlier in the film. He drags her back to the cave, where a Crawler jumps out toward her.

On its own I liked that ending. It was an interesting twist and something that added a new angle to both films. Perhaps the creatures aren’t unknown. Perhaps they survive with the help of some of the locals, who feed them and cover up their mess. That would set up an interesting angle for a third film, one that could perhaps lead to a satisfying trilogy. I sat and thought about that ending after watching the film and, for quite a while, I couldn’t figure out what it was that was bugging me.

What about the old man? He’s in the film on two occasions prior to that scene. Right at the start, when Sarah has escaped the caves and runs out on the road looking for help, it’s this same old man that she encounters, and he takes her to the hospital.

There was already a full blown rescue search underway at this point, with media coverage and the local law involved, why would he take her to the hospital? Why wouldn’t he just hit her over the head with a shovel and drag her back to the cave?

Well, if he’d done that, there would have been no movie.

The only reason for that character to make that choice right at the start is to justify the plot of the film. Why not have a different character? Or a different reason to begin the plot?

Shortly afterwards the same old man takes the rescuers, including two officers of the law, to an old mine shaft and tells them about the uncharted caves below the mines. Against the context of the ending, maybe he was sending a food parcel down to the crawlers. But what happens next? Another search team will then come looking and, given that a Sheriff and his deputy went missing, it’s going to become an even bigger issue.  If the local community are trying to keep a secret, then this is not the way to go about it.

And so there we have it. The film can have it’s beginning or it’s ending, but it can’t have both. It suggests that the filmmakers were trying to show how clever they are, without actually thinking it through enough to be clever. It’s a decision that ruins the film.

Next up; More priests, more dog collars and more mood. THE ORDER.

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