The tragedy of “The Descent” is that it is about a group of good-looking young people who go spelunking and are attacked by otherworldly creatures — the same plot as last year’s crappy “The Cave,” in other words, which means some will dismiss it as a copycat.
But the similarities between the films are coincidental, another example of the frequent phenomenon where two nearly identical films are produced at the same time (“Dante’s Peak” and “Volcano,” “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact,” “First Daughter” and “Chasing Liberty,” etc.). And as usual, there is one clear victor: Where “The Cave” was a dull wreck, “The Descent” is a truly terrifying horror flick, with suspense, gore and grip-the-armrest thrills doled out in equal measure. Bring a change of pants, because this one’s a soiler.
We have six women in their early to mid-20s, most of them British, all gathered in the Appalachian Mountains for a weekend of camping and exploring. They used to meet often for rugged outdoor adventures, but a year ago Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) suffered a personal tragedy that still haunts her. This is their first attempt to regroup since the accident.
Juno (Natalie Mendoza), a brash American, says she’s “never been lost” in these parts, and that she knows just the spot to go spelunking: a pristine cave system that’s barely been touched by anyone else. And so the nubile young women descend into the virgin chasm, excited and nervous but eager to discover what thrills await them down below. (I tried to write that so it didn’t sound dirty, but then I gave up and embraced the dirtiness.)
What awaits them, as it turns out, is bad stuff. Writer/director Neil Marshall builds tension slowly and episodically, first allowing the women to suffer setbacks common to spelunking — injuries, cave-ins, and so forth — before introducing them to the supernatural terrors. But Marshall is so good at creating creepiness in the near-darkness that this would be a pretty enthralling suspense film even without the Gollum-like beasts that eventually beset the ladies. Even the “ordinary” sequences of crossing perilous ravines and dealing with a particularly gruesome broken leg are gripping.
Some small attempt is made early on at establishing the characters, but it really boils down to Sarah, Juno, and Sarah’s best friend Beth (Alex Reid). Those three points on the triangle shape what comes next, as the attack of the monsters necessitates that strategies be devised and alliances be formed. And let’s just say that when you’re being pursued by bloodthirsty creatures miles below the Earth’s surface is a lousy time to be deciding who you can trust, you know? You’re gonna wish you’d had that sorted out sooner.
The film’s prologue, in which Sarah’s accident occurs, is horrifically satisfying on its own, but I think it does the film a mild disservice. It establishes Sarah as “the main character,” which means we think of her differently and fear for her life a little less. In a film with no clear main character, there is far greater suspense over who will live and who will die. (The film’s original ending, as seen in the U.K., comes around to that prologue again and thus makes better use of it.)
But that’s the movie’s only letdown, and maybe it’s just as well. If there were any more suspense, the film might be lethal. This is good old-fashioned terror here, bloody and frightening and skin-crawlingly spooky. You may never go spelunking in uncharted Appalachian caves again.
A- (1 hr., 39 min.; )