Neil Marshall's "The Descent" is a British horror movie that leaves us exactly where we want to be with a film about six women stranded in a cave several miles underground: afraid of how in the dark we are.
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 lesbian drama. 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.) Then the ladies find themselves lost and clueless about how to escape.
Being trapped is a terrible situation for them and great news for us. The movie treats 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's plenty of time to appreciate that these women will not be easy prey. They're resourceful, educated, willing to fight, and their clothes stay on. Mercifully, this is not the genre hackwork you'd expect.
Marshall plants a Shakespearean seed of doubt concerning 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 that digital video creates would have made the movie enjoyably harder to take.)
Then there are the women themselves to admire. 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. (Lionsgate, $28.98)