In "The Descent," a low-budget horror movie full of tough women and creepy thrills, six adventurous girlfriends from Britain, on a cave-exploring expedition in the American Appalachians, get lost in the caverns and run into a race of flesh-eating mutant cave-dwellers who look like monster cousins of Gollum from "The Lord of the Rings" movies.
You either go for a movie like this or you don't. But though I didn't like it much, I've got to concede 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. Her overachieving, 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.
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."
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 at Pinewood Studios, west of London. 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 debate.
MPAA rating: R for strong violence/gore and language
A Lionsgate release. Writer-director Neil Marshall. Producer Christian Colson. Director of photography Sam McCurdy. Editor Jon Harris. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.
In general release.