- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 3, 2006

“The Descent” may do for spelunking what “Jaws” did for beachgoing.

British writer/director Neil Marshall shows a command of the B-movie genre that eludes stateside horror hacks. What begins as a gripping cave adventure erupts into a full-blown monster movie, and Mr. Marshall proves brilliant at exposing the thrills in each.

The film came out last year in England but is only now making its American debut. Domestic audiences expecting yet another slasher fest are in for a bloody good surprise.

Young, happily married Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) suffers the unexpected loss of her husband and daughter as the movie opens, a brutal sequence that serves as an appetizer for what’s to follow.

A year later, Sarah is still in mourning, so a group of her gal pals organize a caving expedition in the Appalachian mountains, in part to give their friend a healthy distraction.

You wouldn’t want to mess with these ladies. They’re fit, feisty and recognizably human, a rarity in modern horror stories.

The trip begins well, as the group descends into a spectacular cave opening, beautifully imagined by cinematographer Sam McCurdy.

We quickly learn one of the women, a brawny gal named Juno (Natalie Mendoza), purposely led them into an unexplored cave rather than the “tourist trap” hole in the ground they were expecting.

Within minutes the ground shakes and moans, and the women are trapped within a series of constricting caverns. Mr. Marshall evokes a potent sense of claustrophobia, letting us get very close to the frightened women who use all their climbing skills trying to get out.

Had “The Descent” carried on with this simple escape yarn, it would have been enough. But there’s more: Creatures lurk within the caverns — pale, ghostly demons with a hankering for flesh.

Sarah spots them first, but her friends believe the darkness is playing tricks on her.

We know how they feel. The film’s brilliant manipulation of light and dark is just one of “The Descent’s” strengths.

The creatures come out of hiding soon enough, terrorizing the women and making their escape plans secondary to staying alive.

Plenty of blood spills in the protracted battles, but within the film’s context it rarely feels exploitive. The all-female cast gives the horror genre a fresh new twist. The women here find their inner Mike Tyson a bit too easily, but otherwise their actions and reactions are both sensible and different from what might be expected in a male-bonding excursion.

The creatures themselves slither and slink along without the benefit of computer graphics imaging. They’re seen via twitchy camera movements that transform actors wearing monster suits into frightening beasts.

Mr. Marshall unwisely stages a gratuitous personal drama between Juno and Sarah to spice up the final reel, and he leans too heavily on cheap scares and an overreaching soundtrack.

But he’s delivered a raw, unbridled horror film — easily the scariest since 2002’s “28 Days Later” — and the best thrill ride of the summer.

*** 1/2

TITLE: The Descent”

RATING: R (Adult language, gore, frightening images, disturbing scenes)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Neil Marshall. Original music by David Julyan. Cinematography by Sam McCurdy.

RUNNING TIME: 99 minutes

WEB SITE: https://www.thedescentfilm.com/


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