No disrespect for my own gender is intended when I say that women are traditionally the shriekier sex in horror movies. And sure enough, some of the femme adventure junkies who willingly climb into a foreboding, unmapped cave deep in the Appalachian Mountains in The Descent are inclined to let loose some mighty screams. But that's only because, in the prelude adventure that opens Neil Marshall's wily, exhilarating, and psychologically canny modern horror pic, the girls negotiate perilous white-water cascades in bobbing rafts and triumph!
To a woman, the six friends who meet up a year later for some extreme spelunking in this rewardingly terrifying little British production a boo! beaut out of 2006 Sundance are specimens of resourcefulness and physical conditioning; to watch them revel in what their muscles (and some cool technical gear) can do in such a dark, claustrophobic landscape is a marvel. And Marshall, whose 2002 cult-hit creep-out Dog Soldiers featured six guys plus werewolves in the Scottish woods, hints at just enough psychic unease among the women (some nursing emotional scars from an accident following that rafting trip) to foreshadow trouble even before things go wrong underground. Terribly wrong. ''Hey, there's something down here,'' one member of the party observes, in classic giggle-and-shiver language right out of the horror-flick bible. Before long, each woman is battling for her life against predators that well, let's just say Gollum might be a distant relative of these monstrous nightmares-made-flesh.
The bowels of the earth, the pit of madness, the collective unconscious, the elemental feminine core call it what you want, Marshall is thoughtfully postfeminist enough to leave room in his scary story for metaphoric musing on the nature of femaleness assuming there's any time left between the jumping and screaming his playful pacing incites. Without being so crass as to assign ''types,'' he suggests a little something in each woman that contradicts her athletic confidence and messes with the myth of female cooperation. (Are the members of this sorority capable of turning on one another?) And although he'd never suggest that all men are slime, he doesn't stint on the scummy ruthlessness of his humanoid cave dwellers.
Working with an admirably toned cast of not-so-known players (among them Edinburgh-raised TV actress Shauna Macdonald as the jumpiest of the sextet and Moulin Rouge's Natalie Mendoza as the most mysterious), the director of The Descent is savvy enough to suggest even more than he shows. And he's old-school enough to load up on glimpses of good, clean, gruesome gore. Made with a connoisseur's love of muck, blood, inky darkness, and equal parts elegance and ewwww, The Descent raises the level of the post-“Blair Witch, post-“Open Water horror game.