With his contribution to the Carry On Campaign, Stephen Swartz set me the task of doing his dirty laundry: watch a movie he couldn't bring himself to try. That was a long time ago, and I'd guess he's seen it by now, but frankly, I didn't want to watch it either. Still, I guess I had to see it eventually...

When The Descent came out in 2005 (or 2006 for us benighted Americans), it was pretty quickly fêted by pretty much everybody who liked horror pictures as a most intelligent, rewarding, and all-around excellent example of the form. Though it didn't exactly light the box office on fire, it did well enough that between its popularity and its instant-classic reviews, a sequel was, probably, an inevitability.

That sequel took four long years to materialise, as the first film's writer and director Neil Marshall, now serving as executive producer, proved exceptionally picky about which scenario he wanted to move ahead with; one might almost hope that this meant that The Descent: Part 2, would be a fairly rock-solid continuation of the original's story. It's not. Though, to be fair, it's not nearly as bad as it could have been, which counts for at least a little bit. Hell, if you can avoid making constant comparisons between the sequel and the original - a tremendously difficult task, I know - Part 2 is at worst a not-quite-all-there monster movie that's good enough by the degraded standards of horror films that it probably didn't deserve being shunted straight to video in the United States, nor its ice-cold box office in the UK.

On the other hand, it's a sequel. And sequels carry baggage; that's just the way of it. In this case, that's particularly damaging: where The Descent was almost a textbook example of how to play every trite cliché in the horror movie toolkit completely straight and with rousing success, its sequel is just as surely a crash course in using those same clichés to leaden, obvious effect.

First things first: to which film are we getting a sequel? The Descent, you may recall, had a single short scene clipped off for its U.S. release; but that wee scrap of footage was tremendously important, dramatically changing the thematic tenor of the whole movie. Without that scene, The Descent was a film with character and thematic threads left dangling; with it, the film provides a single elegant and remarkably satisfying depiction of a woman's descent into insanity after grappling with life-altering trauma. The American ending saddles the film with an aimless shock scare. It also leaves the protagonist alive, though, which is probably why Descent 2 follows that same American ending (mostly. It's not perfectly fluid, but a hell of a lot closer than the connection between any two Friday the 13th movies).

In a nutshell: Sarah Carter (Shauna Macdonald) is found by a local codger (Michael J. Reynolds) in the Appalachian forest where she and her five friends went missing after a horribly misjudged caving trip. It so happens that one of the others was related to a senator (the first point where my alarm went off that continuity was going to be a pick-and-choose sort of affair here), which means a fairly large manhunt is underway, in the caves where the six women were supposed to be, not where they actually were. A blood-soaked survivor is a pretty good lead, though, and a police dog follows Sarah's scent back to a decrepit, abandoned chapel, with a deep hole in it (we're apparently not meant to wonder how the dog followed the scent back to a cave opening through which Sarah never exited; nor what it is, exactly, that freaks the dog out so terribly when it comes shooting out of the chapel whimpering).

Sarah conveniently has amnesia, and the local cops conclude that the best way to jog her memory is to take the severely shaken, scratched and bruised woman out of the hospital and back into the caves. That leaves us with a new set of six adventurers to match the six in the original: Sarah, bossy sheriff Vaines (Gavan O'Herlihy), deputy Rios (Krysten Cummings), and three experienced cave rescue specialists Dan (Douglas Hodge), Cath (Anna Skellern), and Greg (Josh Dallas). Then follows the expected rutting around in low light, getting separated by a cave-in, spotting the hideous Gollums* that dwell in the cave and eat people, and getting eaten.

It's not wholly obnoxious, as such things go; the team of writers at least tried to respect the original, even if they had to cut some corners to get where they had to be. Loving the first film as I do, though, it's easy to make a lot out of the sequel's most obvious shortcomings: there were two things above all that made The Descent work so well, which translates to two gaping holes here. The first of these is the lack of strong, believable characters; while each of the six women in the first was a sharply-etched individual, their successors are far more Expendable Meat; I for one could only tell the two male caving experts apart thanks to their accents. The other problem is arguably worse, insofar as it leaves Part 2 crippled as a horror picture: it's not shot with a tenth the care and cleverness. Visually, The Descent was marked by some of the most incredible use of darkness and negative space in any horror film - any film, period - of recent vintage. Marshall and cinematographer Sam McCurdy used inky blacks with surgical precision, allowing us to see only what we absolutely had to see, and using unconventional lighting sources, such as glowsticks and camcorders, to make what we could see far more unsettling. McCurdy returned for the sequel, but he and Jon Harris - an editor† making his directorial debut - drop the ball entirely on that front. There are a few scenes in Part 2 that recreate that unholy feeling of claustrophobic blackness, and the second film's best scenes play the exact same trick with the camcorder's night vision mode from the first movie. But the vast majority of scenes are lit the way caves always are in movies: with thoroughly unmotivated diffuse light from somewhere up and to the back. You can see everything: and it's a catastrophe. Creeping around in the dark isn't scary when it's not actually dark, and we can see far too much of the Gollums, who look much more like men in extremely credible make-up than the shadowy, reptilian figures of the first movie.

So it's clear enough that The Descent: Part 2 was never going to live up to expectations, but things remain at a tolerable level for just over two-thirds of the 94-minute film. Then, two things happen in immediate succession that torpedo the whole affair. It's SPOILER ALERT time: first, Juno Kaplan (Natalie Mendoza) returns, a surprise survivor from the first movie who has spent the last day or so hiding in the depths of the cave where Sarah left her as bait to distract the creatures. This completely ruins one of the major thematic arcs of the first movie; or would, if anyone anywhere was inclined to let this movie's existence count within the original's continuity, which I'm pretty sure nobody does. The very next scene finds Sarah and Rios flailing about in a murky pool of liquid which turns out to be Gollum shit. It's an absurdly tacky replacement for the original's haunting pool of blood, a disgusting piece of juvenilia that's thankfully never repeated; but the whole idea of throwing your protagonists into the monsters' toilet is so baldly in poor taste that it speaks poorly of the whole damn project. After this, the film enters kicks off its climactic sequence of running about screaming and hacking at creatures with a climbing axe; which kind of happened in the first one, though there it had a primal quality that the new film totally lacks. Then comes a completely inscrutable twist ending, and the film limps off to its close.

By the end, I pretty much hated The Descent: Part 2, but I'll allow that passion rules me in that regard. For the most part, it's a perfect adequate serving of horror movie junk food: just barely creepy enough that its utter banality doesn't completely overwhelm it. Had it been better that no sequel to The Descent was ever made? Undoubtedly. But rather than be bitter that lightning didn't strike twice, let me instead thank the sequel for underscoring, in its devastating mediocrity, just how great and special the original was to start with.