``The Descent" is a new British horror movie that leaves us exactly where we want to be at a film about six women stranded in a cave several miles underground -- afraid of how in the dark we are, literally and otherwise.
It all begins with a lack of promise. Sarah (Shauna Macdonald ) loses her husband and daughter in a car accident. A year later she joins some friends, a group of outdoorsy types, for spelunking and rock-climbing in North Carolina . The women giggle about one friend's pajamas, talk about men, and throw food at each other. It all feels like the start of a bad lesbian drama or an ad for herbal tea. But we're meant to savor the cheesiness. This is as happy as things get.
It seems that in her quest for pioneering glory, Sarah's ultra-jock pal, Juno (Natalie Mendoza ), has intentionally left the guidebook in the car and led the gang into a cave that wasn't on the itinerary. (``That other cave was for tourists," she sneers.) The ladies find themselves lost and clueless about how to get out. (The mysterious scribbling on the wall might be trying to tell them something. Maybe that an M. Night Shyamalan film is playing in the adjacent cave.)
Being trapped is a terrible situation for them and great news for us, because right around the time that Holly (Nora-Jane Noone ), the ``mentalist who jumps off buildings," plummets down a hole and breaks her leg, the movie starts to treat us to the unspeakable wickedness that surrounds them. Namely, it's a gang of perfectly evolved, pale-skinned batmen, who look like fanged condoms. The cave is their home, and these girls are what's for dinner.
Before the feasting begins there is plenty of time to appreciate that these women will not be easy prey. They're brave, resourceful, educated, athletic, willing to fight, and their clothes stay on. (For lad-mag subscribers, this summer's wet T-shirt drought persists.) The movie doesn't do too much to flesh out all six women. So since five are from the United Kingdom I was forced to label them: Spiky Spice, Passive-Aggressive Spice, Post-Traumatic Spice, etc.
Selfish Juno appears to be the lone American; her decision to drag a bunch of unsuspecting Englishpeople into hostile territory under false pretenses might strike some as a tad presidential. Really, though, she's a woman who will stop at nothing to survive. She's actually Sigourney Spice.
It's nice to get a British movie that stars no dames, although you can imagine a sequel set 30 years later, with Judi Dench as Sarah and Helen Mirren as Juno, rappelling alongside Imelda Staunton and Julie Walters . I'll let them fight over who'd be Old Spice.
Until then, ``The Descent" works quite effectively. Writer-director Neil Marshall has some fun with the woman-in-jeopardy conventions of the slasher-horror flicks from the 1970s and 1980s . And the gotcha editing and use of shadows give the movie mischievous style.
Mercifully, this is not the hackwork you expect from a Lions Gate release. A Shakespearean seed of doubt is planted about one of the women's motives, and a functioning video camera contributes a texture of grainy, ghoulish realism to the proceedings. (That device actually makes you realize the film might be too polished, and that the illusion of truth digital video creates would have made the movie enjoyably harder to take.)
Otherwise there are the women themselves to admire. Of course, one doesn't pique our interest until she's vengeful and blood-soaked, evoking the ghost of Sissy Spacek's prom-night Carrie. Her graduation from scaredy-cat to wraith-like superhero is perfect for a movie whose characters wend their way through a rocky womb and its birth-canal labyrinths only to pop triumphantly through the earth at the end. That's when we know we've witnessed something special. A cult classic is born.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.