The chills and spills keep comin’ to agreeable effect in Brit-made scarefest “The Descent,” about six femme spelunkers in the Appalachians who discover more than they’ve bargained for two miles underground. Though less splashy than his debut feature, werewolf bloodbath “Dog Soldiers” (2002), sophomore outing by writer-director Neil Marshall is an object lesson in making a tightly-budgeted, no-star horror pic work through razor-sharp technique and committed performances alone.
Brief prologue, edited almost too tightly for its own good, sets the background as the six friends are shown white-water rafting in Scotland. In a sudden shock that proves to be very typical of the movie’s style, one in the group, Scot Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), is hit by a personal tragedy that leaves her emotionally traumatized.
Cut to a year later, and Sarah arrives with her best friend, English teacher Beth (Alex Reid), for a reunion in North Carolina, hoping to exorcise her demons with a spell of caving together. Leading the team is pro climber Juno (Australian singer-dancer Natalie Mendoza), a limber, can-do Asian-American. Also there are Scandi pro Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), her younger half-sister, medical student Sam (MyAnna Buring), and pot-smoking Irish punk Holly (Nora-Jane Noone).
Film spends only the minimum time re-introducing everyone and recapping Sarah’s trauma before heading underground in reel three. As the group rappels down into a large cavern, and then sets off into the cave system’s narrow “pipes,” there’s an immediate, growing sense of claustrophobia engendered by the realistic sound design and effects track — all hard rock, sliding gravel, dripping water and human breathing — as the women slither through tiny channels. (Apart from establishing shots of the Appalachians, entire movie was shot in Scotland and at the U.K.’s Pinewood Studios.)
After an initial snafu, it becomes clear Juno has led them to an unexplored cave system, not the one she originally announced, setting up suspicion that she’s more out to prove herself than to help Sarah recover her confidence. Then, during a tensely staged, muscle-burning hang over an underground crevasse, the women find evidence of another expedition 100 years earlier.
Even worse, they next stumble across some primitive cave paintings and find themselves pursued by a community of acrobatic, blind hominoids (“crawlers”) with an unseemly appetite for fresh flesh. As the group becomes separated in true genre fashion, Sarah finds she’s landed in their human larder.
Plot is basically a female re-run of “Dog Soldiers,” substituting six distaffers underground for the male, military types holed up in a cottage plagued by werewolves. It has the same healthy dose of gore and body parts but is impressively lean and, because of that, works in a very different way.
Characterization runs only as deep as is necessary to propel events, and no time is wasted on emotional navel-scratching. Marshall cleverly steers his distaff cast between being either macho heroines or female screamers: There’s a business-like attitude to the personalities and plotting that’s refreshing, and even when one woman morphs into a kick-ass, Ripley-like figure, it’s never dwelt upon at the expense of the whole movie.
As the super-fit Juno, Mendoza hogs the early going and is utterly believable as a pro caver. Macdonald, caked in blood and grime, comes through in the latter stages as the emotionally unstable Sarah, and Noone (from “The Magdalene Sisters”) adds some comic relief as the cynical Holly. As Sarah’s best friend, Reid contribs the most substantial acting.
Widescreen photography has a suitably grimy look underground, and saturated color for the opening and closing exteriors. Cave sets by p.d. Simon Bowles and art director Jason Knox-Johnston look just like the real thing, while music by David Julyan underscores the horror in crash-bang style.