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Review: “The Descent” (2005)

“Things that go bump in the night” has to be one of the oldest tricks in the Manual of Horror Movie Scare Tactics. The same goes for ye olde “trap some humans in a dark, leaky enclosed space with some heinous creatures and watch them plummet to the bottom of the food chain” maneuver and the “overconfident shepherd will lead the flock astray” bit — they’re coated in cobwebs. But when all three are done right, complaints about formulas get drowned out by shrieking. And Neil Marshall’s “The Descent” gets these approaches very right.

Set in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina and filmed in the U.K., “The Descent” is one whopper of a smashing horror film. If Marshall merely introduced the characters, then put them through seven circles of hell, “The Descent” might qualify as a solid effort. But this director goes a few better, crafting a scarefest that also works splendidly as a psychological thriller, an action film and even a character study. Marshall skips from one genre to the next with ease, flair and a fine attention to detail (the caves’ hostile darkness almost deserves to be included in the cast list). If there is a nagging flaw, it may be the meet-and-greet. These “forced bonding” scenes are so pared-down they barely manage to set the tone, and they distinguish only a few women from the pack. One of the standouts is Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), traumatized by the car crash that killed her husband (Oliver Milburn) and daughter (Molly Kayll) a year before. She has agreed to accompany her best friend Beth (Alex Reid) on a spelunking trip in the Appalachians. They reunite with friends Juno (Natalie Jackson Mendoza, lean and mean), Sam (MyAnna Buring) and Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) at Juno’s isolated cabin. Joining the group is Juno’s new adrenaline-loving friend Holly (Nora-Jane Noone). The plan is to navigate some fully explored caves nearby — a way to take Sarah’s mind off the tragedy in her past.

Remember the “flock astray” approach mentioned earlier? This is where it crops up: Juno, bored by the thought of going where thousands have gone before, deviates from the plan she laid out (to anyone who could rescue the group, naturally) and takes them into a series of unexplored caves. Marshall, in the buildup to the certain dangers lurking in the caves’ hidden nooks and crannies, does not rush to flood the screen with blood and viscera. He lets the well-designed set and lighting do the dirty work of ratcheting up the unease with nary a sound, and little blood (initially). Then again, there’s something so elementally frightening about cramped, dank spaces — spaces unseen and untouched by man and inhabited by who-knows-what? — that needs no words. Sarah narrowly avoids a cave-in that traps the women and forces Juno to confess. The discovery of old climbing equipment and cave paintings lead the women to believe there could be an alternate escape route. But “The Descent” wouldn’t be a horror movie worth its blood if the trip out wasn’t twice as treacherous as the journey in. What happens is best left observed and not explained, except to say that Sarah is convinced that while the group may be dreadfully lost in the caves, they are not alone. Before the action-loaded bloodbath begins, it’s Sarah’s mounting uncertainty coupled with all the little missteps and faint noises and bone fragments that bit by bit toy with our minds.

The second act of “The Descent,” while markedly different than the first, is no less effective. Now that he’s unspooled our nerves, Marshall lets rip vicious action sequences galore and swimming pools of blood, bone, tissue and more — enough to satiate hardcore gore enthusiasts and gross out everyone else. “The Descent” keeps the tension and horror quotient high up to the final minutes, when Marshall eases on the throttle perhaps a little too much (one could argue the end mirrors our own wrung-out exhaustion). But images of what’s happened linger unpleasantly, and the quiet lets the plights of Juno — too complex to be a flat-out villain — and Sarah — too complex to be an out-and-out angel — sink deep. That’s when the real damage gets done.

Grade: A-