By C. Michael Forsyth
I’m not ashamed to admit that the 2005 British movie “The Descent” scared the living daylights out of me. In fact, I’d have to count it among the most frightening flicks I’ve ever seen. The predicament of the six female spelunkers trapped in the bowels of an Appalachian cave and stalked by cannibalistic mutants is plenty harrowing even BEFORE the monsters show up. The heroines must combat claustrophobia, cave-ins, narrow tunnels that trap victims like rats, perilous drops and more. Of course, when the naked, drooling “crawlers” begin to pick them off, the situation gets worse in a hurry.
Now, the premise was not especially original. ‘The Cave,” which was released the same year, introduced a more novel concept: a germ that causes every living thing it infects to become vampire-like. In contrast, creepy underground races have been haunting our imagination at least as far back as “Superman and the Mole Men.” (And let’s not forget the old Weekly World News mascot Batboy, who looks like a benign version of the crawlers.) But the realism of the cave sequences (although filmed on a set) gave the movie a powerful impact. And while the crawlers are not all that tough as movie monsters go (a fit woman can beat one in a fair fight and their heads cave in easily), the slimy, maggot-colored critters really do make your skin crawl. Plus, forgive me if this sounds sexist, but the fact that the unlucky cave explorers were all women – with no male “protectors” — heightened the terror level.
Still, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to a sequel. We all know the vast majority are gratuitous, a naked ploy by money-grubbing producers to squeeze every last dime out of an idea. And since in most cases, the creators have gone onto bigger and better things and the follow-ups are turned over to young hacks with no loyalty to the original, the result is almost always disappointing. In this instance, although the original’s writer/director Neil Marshall stepped aside for director Jon Harris and writer J. Blakeson, he remained on board as producer. The creative team stays true to the themes of the original and manages to recapture the tension and claustrophobic horror.
Instead of doing the obvious and mimicking the original’s successful formula – say, by sending down a fresh crop of all-girl adventurers — the filmmakers pick up the story where the last one left off. Sole survivor Sarah (Shauna McDonald) has somehow made it to the surface and stumbles out of the woods. Traumatized and bloodied, she is unable to recall anything about her ordeal. Accompanying a mixed-gender rescue party, Sarah reluctantly returns to the cave in search of her companions.
Early on, I thought I’d pegged the movie as a turkey. The sheriff (Gavan O’Herlihy) makes some absurdly stupid decisions that strain the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief. For starters, he drags Sarah from her hospital bed to return to the cave, supposedly to help the rescuers negotiate their way through the maze of tunnels – although she clearly has amnesia! And HANDCUFFING himself to another person while fleeing the carnivorous sub-humanoids isn’t exactly prudent either.
Sarah’s abrupt switch from shell-shocked victim to monster-killing superwoman – ala Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in “Aliens” – is also a bit hard to swallow. And, at first, it seems like the characters, who quickly get separated due to a cave-in, are going to be bumped off in fairly predictable order. But the encounters with the crawlers are truly terrifying and exciting, each one a well-executed set-piece. The outcome of these battles rarely seem predetermined; I defy you to guess correctly who will die and when. As in the original, the intensity of the relationships gives the movie some dramatic heft. And the themes of revenge and self-sacrifice are revisited here.
In one aspect, this movie is actually an improvement over the original. The characters look different and are distinctly drawn. In the original “Descent,” the women looked and sounded so much alike, other than the exotic, indomitable Juno (Hong Kong- born Natalie Mendoza), I had difficulty telling the women apart and was even unsure of how many of them there were! Here it’s easier to root for particular characters to survive.
Like the original, the movie has a downbeat and rather puzzling ending. Maybe some kind reader will explain it to me in a comment. Or perhaps all will be made clear in the inevitable “Descent 3.”
So, as sequels go, I have to give this one a solid B+. Maybe not as fresh and shocking as the original, but spooky enough to merit a place on your Netflix queue.
To see the book trailer for C. Michael Forsyth’s critically acclaimed horror novel Hour of the Beast, and hear Chapter One read by the author, CLICK HERE.