Movie review: 'The Descent'

EntertainmentMoviesBritainMyAnna BuringAlex ReidJon HarrisJohn Boorman

2½ stars (out of four)

In "The Descent," a low-budget horror movie full of tough ladies and creepy thrills, six adventurous girlfriends from the United Kingdom, on a cave-exploring expedition in the American Appalachian mountains, get lost in the caverns and run into a race of flesh-eating mutant cave-dwellers; these "crawlers" look like monster cousins of Gollum from "Lord of the Rings."

You either go for a movie like this or you don't. But though I didn't like it much, I've got to admit that "The Descent" is a nerve-jangler. Writer-director Neil Marshall (who made the 2002 new-wave werewolf movie, "Dog Soldiers") keeps sending his spelunkers through dark tunnels, trapping them in rock slides, suspending them over vast chasms and finally flinging those ravenous, mostly male little monsters at them--a series of bad trips that plays like a feminist "Cave of the Living Dead" nightmare.

Marshall also tries for some psychological depth and human drama--and that's where the movie falls short.

One of the movie's daring explorers, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), is recovering from a breakdown after a tragedy that occurred during the gang's last outing (a white-water raft run in Scotland) a year ago. Her over-achieving, bossy friend Juno (Natalie Mendoza) has planned this rock-scaling holiday partly to help Sarah regain confidence. The other adventurers include Sarah's English teacher friend Beth (Alex Reid), punkish parachutist/base jumper Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) and Swedish half-sisters Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) and Sam (MyAnna Buring).

Marshall describes "Descent" as "'Deliverance' goes underground"--and that comparison to John Boorman's 1972 classic is a delusion of grandeur. "Deliverance," adapted from James Dickey's novel, was a masterpiece of realistic horror; "The Descent" is simply a shock-`em, shake-`em genre piece with scare scenes that, however effective, suggest cheap-shop versions of a lot we've seen before, from "Friday the 13th" on.

In fact, "The Descent" might have been a better movie if Marshall had dispensed with those subterranean crawlers altogether and turned it into a more realistic story about six friends getting trapped underground and trying to fight their way back up. Watching those gray, slithering beings chasing and biting the women makes it hard to maintain any suspension of disbelief--much less summon up any memories of "Deliverance."

It's also hard, even aggravating, to try to accept one of "The Descent's" main premises: that Juno would lie to her five friends about which tunnel system they were entering in order to increase what she regards as the pleasurable risk, thereby severely complicating the group's escape route after the rock slide and making it almost impossible for others to find them. (This is how she helps a buddy after a breakdown?)

The actresses are good, especially Mendoza and Reid, but, beyond screamfests and laughing jags, Marshall's script doesn't give them much challenge and hardly any interesting dialogue. Noone, who was great as Bernadette in "The Magdalene Sisters," is particularly wasted.

"The Descent" was primarily shot in Scotland and in Britain's Pinewood studio; it's a clever fake, but after a while, the caves begin to look set-bound. (Those crawlers don't help matters.) It should be mentioned though, that "The Descent" won best director and best technical achievement prizes from the British Independent Film Awards. Whether it could have scared us more, as I think, by concentrating on realistic people and terror and forgetting those creepy little crawlers…well, that's open to discussion.

mwilmington@tribune.com

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'The Descent'

Directed and written by Neil Marshall; photographed by Sam McCurdy; edited by Jon Harris; production designed by Simon Bowles; music by David Julyan; produced by Christian Colson. A Lionsgate release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:39. MPAA rating: R (for strong violence/gore and language).

Sarah - Shauna Macdonald

Juno - Natalie Mendoza

Beth - Alex Reid

Rebecca - Saskia Mulder

Holly - Nora-Jane Noone

Sam - MyAnna Buring

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