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The Descent

The Caves Have Eyes

There is no sense in trying to rationalize a movie like The Descent, much less deconstruct its superficial brand of feminism. Yes, it features a cast of fearless women who would rather fight to the death than submit to an army of subterranean ghouls, and yes, it works rather brilliantly despite a hallucinatory ending that throws its whole premise into doubt. But as a throwback to the days when horror films were neither tongue-in-cheek nor driven solely by unrelenting gore, it is something of a revelation. The B-movie fright-fest is alive and well, thanks in large part to British director Neil Marshall.

Marshall, whose past credits include 2002’s Dog Soldiers, isn’t the savviest of storytellers, but he has a natural gift for horror, sprinkling even the quietest moments of his films with electrifying jolts that keep the atmosphere maddeningly tense. He’s hardly a pioneer, mind you. Bumps in the night that serve as harmless preludes to violence are integral to the genre. But Marshall doesn’t rush into the slaughter, as so many lesser filmmakers do. Like Steven Spielberg, who saved his Great White until the third act of Jaws to create feverish suspense, Marshall keeps his bogeymen hidden for a good 45 minutes, merely hinting at their sinister presence.

They’re worth the wait. Like Dog Soldiers, a frenzied showdown between a ravenous pack of werewolves and a British commando squad, The Descent is refreshingly simple, pitting a legion of humanoid cave dwellers against six female spelunkers. After crawling their way into a claustrophobic deathtrap roughly two miles below ground, the women begin to sense they’re not alone. “There’s something down here,” mutters Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), whose classic warning is destined to be ignored until it’s too late. Soon enough, they’re waist deep in carnivorous crawlers who lurk in shadows and emerge only to feed.

And boy, do they feed. Like the predators in movies like Aliens and 28 Days Later, Marshall’s monsters are swift, silent and insatiable, and the camera casts an unflinching eye on their savagery, even as they tear their prey to shreds. Once the ghouls make their presence known, the movie moves at a frenetic pace toward an explosive and somewhat morally ambiguous conclusion that is mostly satisfying, save for the very last shot.

If that makes The Descent sound like a typical bloodbath, it’s not. Set in the eerily narrow confines of Marshall’s labyrinthine cave, it establishes a tense mood early on, as Sarah, Juno (Moulin Rouge’s Natalie Mendoza) and the rest of their tough-as-nails crew brave the elements -- and each other’s psychoses -- to find a way out. What they find is genuine terror, stylishly rendered by a director who never misses an opportunity to deliver a deliciously cheap chill.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars