Sending half a dozen young women spelunking into an underground nightmare is such a gyno-metaphorical no-brainer that it's kind of remarkable nobody thought of it before now. No point in belaboring the obvious—dark, moist tunnels from which strange naked creatures emerge don't exactly require a Ph.D. to interpret. Still, when it comes to horror movies, oftentimes it's the most basic and blunt scenarios that send us whimpering to the nearest available light source, and Neil Marshall's admirably frank The Descent, belatedly arriving in the U.S. this week a full year after scaring the knickers off the Brits, employs its duh-worthy conceit to spectacularly creepy effect. Equally notable is the film's all-female ensemble, which is neither the usual gaggle of busty, oblivious teens nor some kind of strident feminist manifesto. Marshall simply gives us a group of longtime friends—some athletic, others bookish but game—who mightily enjoy the great outdoors—though it's hard to say exactly why, since it seems as if every time they venture 20 yards from the highway, somebody winds up dead.
As a matter of fact, the expedition that occupies most of The Descent was conceived as a distraction for Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), who lost her husband, her daughter and roughly a third of her mind in a freak auto accident while heading home from the group's previous outing, a white-water rafting trip. Haunting, sickly saccharine images of her little girl holding a birthday cake keep recurring to Sarah, who looks as if she was probably a bit high-strung even before tragedy struck; while her friend Juno (Natalie Mendoza) doesn't know of these episodes, she does sense that wallowing in grief has been doing Sarah little good, and feels guilty about having bolted after a perfunctory bout of consolation. At her command, the sextet reconvenes in the Appalachians, where Juno proposes to show them a well-known and eminently safe cave system, one with its own published guidebook. Only after they find themselves trapped far beneath the surface does Juno confess that they're actually in uncharted territory—though not quite unexplored territory, as ancient pitons jammed into the damp walls make disturbingly clear. And then Sarah sees something, something unimaginable ...
I probably shouldn't say much more, though a) I've already alluded to the big twist; b) it's not as if the film's marketing campaign is striving to keep that revelation under wraps; and c) it wouldn't be much of a mainstream horror flick if there weren't something icky down there. Part of the fun, though, is the way that Marshall, who also wrote the screenplay, strives to make his outlandish scenario at least marginally plausible, so that each new encounter with Them (I'm doing my best here, folks) adds an additional detail to the evolutionary puzzle for those inclined to reason it out. He's also managed an impressive balancing act with the characters: They've been written as simple types, so that we can keep track of who's who in the darkness (theirs and ours), but the cast of unknowns has invested them with just enough sharp specificity that we never think, "Damn, the Spunky One just bought it." Even when nothing much is happening, which isn't often, you can revel in the film's magnificently dank atmosphere; I was flabbergasted to discover afterwards that the entire cave system, numbering maybe a dozen caverns, was manufactured from digital and/or polyurethane scratch.
Sadly, The Descent's U.S. distributor, Lionsgate, has also manufactured a brand new ending—not by substituting different footage, but simply by cutting out the last few minutes of the British version, so that the movie abruptly concludes in the middle of what was once a dream sequence. Whether this was done in the interest of pacifying dopey Americans who can't handle a real gut-wrencher or—perhaps more likely—in the interest of luring fans back to the theater 28 days later with the phrase "original ending restored!" is anybody's guess. Either way, it's a bummer, but even this slightly watered-down Descent will do nasty things to your bone marrow. American movies are obsessed with the idea of progress; perhaps only a British horror film could pivot on the gradual mental dissolution of its protagonist, who ultimately devolves to the point where she's every bit as cruel, pitiless and rapacious as any of the other creatures who dwell below. It's a descent into madness—obvious, to be sure, but effective all the same.