Good horror is hard to come by. The last few years have seen an avalanche of Hollywood fright-fests, and while a few have hit the mark, most have come up short. Even the endless list of J-horror remakes failed to capture the skin-crawling eeriness of their Japanese originals. Overwhelmed by CGI, bad direction and poor scripts, the big studio releases have forgotten the two most basic ingredients of the genre: tension and terror.
As the sophomore follow-up to his gory but entertaining werewolf movie, Dog Soldiers, director Neil Marshall delivers a balls-to-the-wall scare flick that will make you squirm. The Descent is a terrifically nasty return to form, invoking everything from Alien to Night of the Living Dead. Forget sadistic nonsense like Hostel or Saw: This monster movie is the real deal, complete with gross-out effects and edge-of-your-seat thrills.
A year after a family tragedy, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) is coaxed by her close friends, Juno (Natalie Mendoza) and Beth (Alex Reid), into spending a weekend spelunking in the Appalachian Mountains. Joined by three other women, these beautiful adrenaline junkies hope a little outdoor adventure will help their friend move past the memories that haunt her.
But when exploring an uncharted cave system, the women get trapped by an unexpected collapse. Smart, tough and experienced, they struggle against mishaps and injuries to find an alternative way out. Unfortunately, they're not alone.
Marshall takes his time introducing characters, building personalities and ratcheting up both the anxiety and foreboding sense of dread. Even before the supernatural elements begin, he succeeds in realistically establishing the intense fear of being lost in an endless labyrinth of tunnels and passages. He finds inventive and unnerving perils to challenge these pick-weilding women before finally revealing the ghastly horror that lurks in the shadows.
Marshall expertly handles the shift from psychological drama to blood-soaked spook show using an effective mix of standard cinematography and cinema verité. Once the scares kick in, he offers no reprieve, no moment to catch your breath, only unrelenting horror. The near-total darkness, particularly in the final act, sometimes undermines the action scenes, but the film is so good at creating unbearable suspense that you forgive the low-budget constraints.
Though the script could have done a better job fleshing out the characters, there's an undeniable appeal to an all-female cast. Macdonald, who bears a passing resemblance to Sissy Spacek, is effectively sympathetic as the traumatized protagonist who learns to fight for her life, and Mendoza does a good job of juggling Juno's heroism, guilt and duplicity to create a truly sympathetic villain.
The film's only glaring misstep is a last-minute surprise, added for American audiences. The British version's finale supposedly tied into the prologue hopefully it will turn up on the DVD release.
Ultimately, Marshall proves that you don't need big stars and budgets to deliver the thrills. If you're looking for an evening of good ol' fashioned primal fear, The Descent is an enthralling, gruesome ride that just might make you scream your head off.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.