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The Descent

(2006) *** R
99 min. Lionsgate Films. Director: Neil Marshall. Cast: Shauna MacDonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Buring.

Last year, Hollywood issued a mediocre action-horror-thriller called The Cave, in which spelunkers in over their heads engaged in mortal combat with nocturnal creatures. While American viewers were yawning over The Cave, viewers in the UK were enjoying The Descent, a film with the same essential plot but considerably more tension.

A shocking tragedy sets the stage for one damaged woman and her five friends to get away from it all. On the heels of a nervous breakdown, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) reluctantly agrees to make an Appalachian cave descent, purportedly well-planned by tough-as-nails best friend Juno (Natalie Mendoza). Their spunky, spelunky girlfriends include the particularly athletic Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), boldly sassy Holly (fearsome-loveable Nora Jane Noone of The Magdalene Sisters), med student Sam (MyAnna Buring), and skittish Beth (Alex Reid), who humorously points out, "I'm an English teacher, not fucking Tomb Raider."

Above ground, the friends evince the joys and pains of womanhood. In each other's company, they see the promise of liberation and support as antidotes to the drudgery and, in some cases, social harms they're escaping. But the selectively tried and seemingly true trust amongst these friends and acquaintances meets an ultimate test when the descent turns grueling. What they find down there on their own are jumpy scares and primal horrors borne of darkness, blood, and barely explicable beasts.

Those wholly convincing creatures—slimy, hairless, unreasonable clamberers—propel the film's splattering gore, but there are plenty of other squirmy moments involving claustrophobic passageways, vertiginous heights, and interpersonal horrors of accidental betrayal. Sarah and Juno's shared motto, "Love each day," seems nastily grand-designed to mock their haunted, perhaps doomed lives. The Descent has the quality of a nightmare rooted in what may be the women's greatest fear: facing the harsh world alone.

Writer-director Neil Marshall opens the film with a familiar confusion of fright and glee, as three women squeal and scream with delight on a whitewater raft. Marshall's film later becomes spatially disorienting, and though that's also part of the design, he makes his audience work a bit too hard to wot what's what: risking coherence, Marshall leans too heavily on quick cutting and dark visuals during the conflagrations of man and beast. That issue aside, The Descent is a lean, mean genre exercise for those who prefer their horror full-blooded.

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