Is there a more ideal setting for a horror film than a cave? (Pretend for a moment that the movie The Cave never happened.) More than monsters and viscera, great horror movies are about the keen manipulation of light and space, the mere suggestion that something lurks in that patch of darkness around the corner. While the unrelenting white-knuckler The Descent includes plenty of monsters and viscera, it's scary enough well before the creepy-crawlies first appear. Following six female adventurers through an unexplored cave system in the Appalachians, writer-director Neil Marshall creates a Rube Goldberg contraption of nightmarish proportions, with collapsing walls, bottomless crevasses, and tunnels that squeeze the abdomen like a tube of toothpaste. It's almost an afterthought that the cave system happens to be occupied by predatory beasts; these women were in serious enough jeopardy already.
Leading a cast of unfamiliar faces, Shauna Macdonald stars as a Ripley-in-Aliens type who loses her husband and daughter in a car accident following a whitewater expedition with her friends Natalie Mendoza and Alex Reid. Two years later, still shaken by her loss, Macdonald braves the trip to the Appalachians to spend the weekend rappelling through the caves, catching up with friends, and generally doing her best to put the past behind her. The plan goes horribly awry when Mendoza, a shifty Type-A personality who thrives on derring-do, leads the women to unmapped caverns deep in the forest. By the time they realize Mendoza's deception, the women have been cut off from the original entrance and are forced to search blindly for another way out. Enter the "crawlers," a breed of ruthless predators who have evolved like bats to their dark surroundings.
Keeping the pedal to the floor from frame one, Mitchell takes something from every page in the horror-movie handbook, from the subtle interplay of light and shadow to surreal dream sequences to the sort of bone-rattling shock effects that make you taste your lunch. Though he's occasionally guilty of overkill—the gratuitous opening car crash is one of those Final Destination impaling jobs—The Descent sustains a level of intensity that most horror films can barely muster for five minutes. Even before its signature image of Macdonald's head emerging from muck, the film recalls Apocalypse Now as it makes another kind of descent from civilization to savagery. It's a long way down.