Shauna Macdonald, left, in The Descent


The Descent

Stars: Shauna Macdonald, Alex Reid

Director: Neil Marshall

Rating: 18A

**** (out of five)

Released in its native England last summer, The Descent has the misfortune to arrive on this side of the Atlantic long after other, crappier movies about cavers in danger have dulled the market for its claustrophobic horrors.

But writer-director Neil Marshall’s nasty little thriller about six women trapped two miles below ground with their pent-up emotional baggage, and something far worse, stands head and grimy shoulders above such trifles as The Cave and The Cavern. This one’s got teeth.

The Descent is what you’d call a high-concept horror movie, stripped down to the barest essentials of character, situation and pacing. A year after a horrendous tragedy, jittery Sarah (Shauna Macdonald, of the BBC spy series MI-5) is taken by her friends on an adventure trip into the Appalachians, and things go very badly from there. And then they get much, much worse.

Sam McCurdy’s cinematography uses darkness and shadow masterfully, and Marshall’s script makes sure to establish its characters’ personalities and key conflicts before throwing them into hell; the threats in this film come from both within and without.

Have no illusions: This is a dark, dark ride. It’s perhaps a hair less dark than it was in the original version, thanks to U.S. distributor Lionsgate’s decision to tweak the ending, but still.

The Descent grabs you by the throat, and squeezes. And if you’re afraid of the dark, or you’ve got a thing about tight places, it’ll squeeze that much harder.