[Screen It]

(2006) (Shauna MacDonald, Natalie Mendoza) (R)

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Horror: After becoming trapped in an uncharted cave system, a group of women must contend with a number of carnivorous humanoid beings that want to kill and eat them.
Sarah (SHAUNA MACDONALD), Beth (ALEX REID), and Juno (NATALIE MENDOZA) are good friends and sports enthusiasts who enjoy the outdoors. After one such white water rafting expedition, however, tragedy strikes when Sarah's husband and child are killed in an auto accident.

A year later, Beth has stuck by Sarah through the bad times, while Juno has all but disappeared from the scene. However, she has arranged for another outing with them along with several other women. They include aspiring doctor Sam (MYANNA BURING), professional climber Rebecca (SASKIA MULDER) and Juno's unofficial protégé, base jumper Holly (NORA-JANE NOONE).

Arriving at an Appalachian cabin, the group bonds and then sets out for a bit of cave exploration, with Beth and Juno hoping the spelunking might help Sarah out of her grief-based funk. The six women then enter the cave and travel deep inside it, only to have their exit cut off by a sudden tunnel collapse. Things seem bad when Juno admits she's taken them to an uncharted cave with no maps and no one on the outside knowing where they've gone.

However, the situation gets worse when the women discover they're not alone as they quickly come across some sort of cave-dwelling, humanoid type creatures that live and feed down there. Blind but featuring highly tuned ears and the ability to scamper across cave walls and ceilings, the creatures see the intruders as food.

From that point on, the women must do what they can to survive the repeated attacks, all while trying to find a way out of the claustrophobic cave system.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
For years, a popular manufacturer of English muffins touted their products' "nooks and crannies" that could hold butter and all sorts of other tasty goodies as compared, say, to plain old, flat white bread. Of course, "nacs" can hold more than just butter, including all sorts of unsavory things such as germs, cockroaches and more when we're talking about something more than a yeast-based treat.

Such baddies, however, have nothing on the inhabitants of the nooks and crannies found in the surprisingly effective horror flick, "The Descent." Despite striking similarities to the awful "The Cave" from 2005 as well as most every film inspired by the "Alien" pics, this one works in generating a believable case of some subterranean heebie-jeebies.

As in most such films, the setup is rather simple. A group of women (that being the most significant change from the usual formula) end up on a spelunking excursion when a cave-in separates them from their exit. The news gets worse when the coordinator admits she took them to an uncharted cave with no known maps rather than their scheduled stop, and didn't notify anyone of the change.

Tensions naturally rise, passageways become wetter and tighter, and courage, smarts and a certain physicality become necessary to try to get out. When things couldn't seem to get worse, however, they do, in the form of some humanoid type cave dwellers who have an appetite for explorers. Blind, but fast, and with keen hearing, they proceed to attack the women who become separated and then do what they must to survive.

While set in the American Appalachians, the film was actually shot in Scotland (and sound stages in England), reportedly on a rather low budget and with a limited number of cave sets that were reconfigured to give the appearance of multiple locations down under. Now, one cave room or passageway pretty much looks the same to yours truly, but writer/director Neil Marshall manages to keep our attention preoccupied by something other than the production design. That is, except when inducing a serious case of claustrophobia, which is then exacerbated by the arrival of the beasties who could be lurking anywhere within, yes - you guessed it, all of those nooks and crannies.

The film does require a certain dose of suspension of disbelief -- not only regarding the existence of such subterranean beings, but also why it takes them so long to realize the food -- uh, the women -- has arrived not just at their doorstep, but right onto their dining room table, or floor as it were. From that point on, it's just a matter before most of them are toast (sorry, couldn't resist), true behavior rears its ugly head, and some of the baddies get theirs in return.

With the main character -- Shauna MacDonald -- having suffered an equally bad fate in a jarring precursor to the main event, there's little doubt about who will transform into the kick-butt Ripley type character. And the action does get a bit repetitive once the attacks begin, making it a bit difficult to tell who's where and what's happening to whom, particularly when the filmmaker gets a little over-active with the camera in trying to symbolize the severity and brutality of the attacks.

Yet, despite that, some occasional on the nose dialogue, and a few characters who are barely personified before the mayhem begins, this tight little flick works quite well in what it's trying to accomplish. When you end up cheering the villains' demise -- and particularly the gruesome way in which the injuries or deaths occur -- you realize you've become caught up in a somewhat giddy, cathartic experience that pays a bit of homage to its more notable predecessors, as well as some visuals harking back to "Carrie."

Not quite up there with the first two "Alien" films but as good as or better than most anything that was influenced by them, "The Descent" is a taut, claustrophobic thriller that will have viewers squirming in their seats. It rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed July 17, 2006 / Posted August 4, 2006

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