"THE DESCENT" — *** — Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Jackson Mendoza, Alex Reid; rated R (violence, gore, profanity, vulgarity, brief drugs)."The Descent" may have some conceptual elements in common with last year's sci-fi/horror dud "The Cave," but it does several things better . . . not that that's a difficult task.
In particular, this low-budget British import vividly conveys an almost phobic sense of fear. Fear of the dark. Fear of falling. Fear of the unknown. And most of all, that breathless, constricting, panicky, paralyzing sensation of claustrophobia.
As such, this won't be easy viewing for those who are afflicted with those common fears.
The film has some genuine jolts, and its vivid, scary atmosphere is what sustains the characters when the plot becomes predictable in the final third.
"The Descent" refers to a cave expedition. A group of close-knit female friends has decided to explore an underground cavern as part of a bonding trip. They're hoping to cheer up one member of the group, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), who recently lost her husband and daughter in an automobile accident.
But it's tricky going inside the cave, and a resulting accident seems to trap them there. But there's worse news. They're not alone. Predatory, human-like beasts have detected their presence, and they begin picking off the women one by one.
Screenwriter/director Neil Marshall does make the most of his limited budget and the appropriately creepy setting, just as he did with his 2002 cult favorite "Dog Soldiers." But he can't resist throwing in some over-the-top gore, and the characters are a little one-note.
Of the actors, Macdonald has the meatiest role and plays the most sympathetic character. However, the film's real stars are the acrobats, dancers, gymnasts and stunt people who play the creatures — nasty, snarling things that pop out when you least expect them.
"The Descent" is rated R for strong scenes of horror violence (various falls and spills, creature attacks and violence against women), some graphic gore and creature goo, some strong sexual language, including profanity, slang and suggestive humor, and brief drug content (use of prescription medicines). Running time: 99 minutes.