It's very tempting to over-praise The Descent, a horror film by Neil "Dog Soldiers" Marshall released last year in Britain and most places that aren't the United States. There is no genre of film so regularly ruined by inane scripts and boilerplate technical proficiency as horror, and so to stumble across a scary movie that's actually scary - really scary - is almost a religious experience. A while ago I mentioned that I keep going to stupid horror movies on the odds that one of them will eventually be worth it; well, here it is.

If you've read anything about it, you've probably ran into several "it's like Movie X meets Movie Y" formulations. Which, if it does nothing else, suggests that originality is not The Descent's strong suit. I certainly don't mean for that to sound like a criticism, because when everything works as well as it does here, familiarity is hardly a sin. Anyway, my formula is "Alien meets Apocalypse Now" for reasons that I'll get into.

With pronounced economy and efficiency, the film opens by introducing us to a sort of club of six women dedicated to the pursuit of extreme adventure sports, re-banding a year after Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) has suffered a terrible personal trauma. For their first new adventure, they elect to go spelunking in a new cave system; very new indeed, it turns out, when the most anarchic of the six, Juno (Natalie Mendoza), tricks them into entering a heretofore-unexplored cave.

From the very start, here are the two things that we have in The Descent that we have virtually nowhere else in the last twenty-five years of horror:
-A cast of adults, whose adult issues will form part of the plot.
-Six characters who are introduced in such a way as to make them distinct and interesting; and who will develop as the film moves along so that they are not Expendable Meat and their deaths will be moving and painful to the audience.

So right off, this is already a more mature and relevant film than say, Saw II.

I can't discuss the film without being a little bit spoilery, so if you have any desire to see the film (and I recommend heartily that you do, with the warning that it's on the upper edge of R-rated gore), it might be best that you stop reading. If you don't care about such things (I tend not to), go right ahead, but I'm putting the rest in an extended entry. And do please come back after you see it, even if it's not to read; there's something very useful at the end.

Although the film is fairly egalitarian towards its ensemble, the beginning and ending of the film are all about Sarah, who starts the plot off by losing her husband and five year-old daughter in a car accident. And from then on, the best and scariest parts of the film take place almost exclusively in her mind: long before there is any reason to suspect that Something Bad is afoot, the film is already choking on its on foreboding, with Sarah hearing her daughter's voice in every dark corner of the cave. One such moment early on provides one of the most-effective "boo!" moments I've ever seen: a combination of sound and editing that makes a fairly typical "oh-look-scary-no-wait-it's-just-a-false-scare" gag so entirely effective that I - I, who never fear anything in a movie - screamed a little tiny bit.

I'd go so far as to say that the first half, in which this psychological horror story tilts towards the psychological, is much the scarier. Not that I want to slight the second half. I have not seen Marshall's previous film, nor do I know a blessed thing about cinematographer Sam McCurdy; but they are geniuses. I can not name one single film in my memory which so completely and unceasingly taps into the primal fear of the dark, and this is done to greatest effect after the midpoint of the film, where the women encounter the cave's native inhabitants: a population of clammy, pseudo-human predators possessing neither sight nor smell. And yes, they look like Gollum, which is variously used as a description or a criticism in nearly every review I've found.

The Descent comes down a bit from its heights at this point, but it's still the best film in its style (we could call it a slasher film, but that's inapt for all sorts of pedantic reasons) that I am familiar with. Unlike most low-budget horror, the monsters are effective, or at least they're more realistic than silly, and they're a more than credible threat. Credit here to the gore effects, which are not, unlike in nearly every American film post-Friday the 13th just for show, but actually serve to raise the stakes.

Back to the look of the thing: considering it was almost entirely made on a soundstage, the caves look amazing; not for one moment did I doubt the reality of what I saw. Marshall and McCurdy use the setting to its best effect, building a claustrophobic atmosphere that becomes worse and worse as the film winds on. The film is shot in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, but once the film enters the cave, it hardly ever takes advantage; with only weak light sources, many of the frames are over half black, with one or perhaps two lights illuminating one corner. The black becomes both an unknown space and a crushing barrier, the anemic pools of light the only safe place in a giant patch of darkness.

After the women have been tormented, and some killed, the film becomes the Sarah Show again, to its benefit. Throughout, there have been traces of Heart of Darkness in the way that the cavers have had to be ruthless and even brutal to survive in such a raw and inhuman place; the film tips its hand in a shot that directly copies one of the iconic images from Apocalypse Now. Sarah rises from beneath a pool of blood, her face streaked with red (and there are very few images more compelling and horrifying than a person coated in blood), and from that moment she adopts the savagery of the beasts pursuing her, the only way she might survive (the only other person whose behavior so far has also been "savage" is also the only one who makes it past the creatures in the end).

Some reviewers have tried to put a feminist spin on the plot, but simply having a cast of strong women is not the same as feminism. That it is female-specific is without doubt; even after the attacks begin, Sarah is still prone to visions of her daughter, and motherhood is a key component of her arc. And without getting into a whole gender-issues thing, a woman being covered in blood signifies different things than a man being covered in blood. I regret that the climactic confrontation is essentially played as a catfight (you took my dead husband!), but it does make things a bit interesting - I just feel that a feminist writer would never have gone that direction.

Ultimately, though, it's just scary. Compared to virtually every contemporary American horror film, it's a work of art, and it proves that the genre works better with actual characters rather than Dead Teens Walking; but there's no emotional payoff. Still, seeing a genre tune played as well as it can conceivably be played is a pleasure unto itself, and it's a visceral example of how much more effective a film can be when it's seen in a theater, in the dark. I can praise it no greater than this: for the first time since my age was in the single digits, I had a hard time getting to sleep because of a scary movie.

SUPER-DUPER MEGA SPOILER: the film doesn't end where it ends. Roughly 35 seconds were cut from the ending that the rest of the world saw, apparently because Americans don't like ambiguity. So while we get an ending that makes it a film about how violence drives a woman to insanity, such that she will be forever stalked by the ghosts of her victims, everybody else got this.

A case study in how little it takes to scuttle an entire movie. With this in hand, the first and second halves of the movie tie in much better, the birthday cake visions suddenly become a useful plot point rather than a character element, and the "motherhood" theme is brought front and center for its final bows. Plus, the last shot is just so well-done! Please notice also that the number of candles jumps from five to six, which I refuse to believe is a continuity error. If this isn't on the DVD, I'm storming Lionsgate with a pitchfork.