-By Doris Toumarkine

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With writer-director Neil Marshall's (Dog Soldiers) second outing, a recent Sundance midnight sensation, he has crafted a nifty little horror item about a sextet of Brit female adventurers who gather regularly for various adventures of the sporting kind. In The Descent, they venture to the Appalachians to explore a cave.

What helps make The Descent so engaging is that these gals are a recognizable and varied bunch who love a challenge and a good time. Back on civi-street, they are easily imagined as the yuppies or fun-loving singles next door. The film also excels with great special effects and an ingenious concept for its "monster" adversaries: These menacing creatures make sense as human, not mere supernatural, inventions. The nightmarish locale-a vast, dark, unknown, claustrophobic cave-is also striking.

Story structure is pretty much by the numbers. A year after Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) loses her husband and daughter in a car accident, she is sufficiently recovered from her grief to join her extreme-sports pals for the spelunking trip. At the cabin she reunites with Juno (Natalie Mendoza), the tough leader of the gang who is also her best friend. There's also Beth (Alex Reid), Sam (MyAnna Buring), a medical student, and the Scandinavian Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), who's one of the more athletic of this overachieving group. A standout even among this robust group is punky Irish girl Holly (Nora Jane Noone), perhaps the spunkiest of the spelunkers.

Once down under, the gang learn that Juno has brought them to an unmapped cave system in the hope that their conquest will mean the locale will bear their name. This impetuous and tragic bid for immortality sends the spelunkers into a hellish journey as they become trapped, wander aimlessly, and finally encounter murderous cave dwellers who know a good meal when they see it.

The Descent is essentially formulaic, but this reviewer's nod is in the details. And the superb execution. Production values-editing and cave design especially and David Julyan's note-perfect score-and performances are tops. Both characters and audiences benefit from the many flashlights (often on headgear) and flares that bring the horrifying cave and its creatures to life. The U.K. and its Pinewood Studios (recently hit by a huge fire) stand in well for the North Carolina/Appalachia and cave locales.

Ultimately, The Descent works because it engages and thrills throughout. There are plenty of moments that will have audiences shrieking and jumping. And, hopefully, they'll turn out in droves to find out first-hand.

With its controversial promotion of the film, Lionsgate is pushing for just that by selling the violence. Too bad it's the quality that can't be hyped. But who cares that it was Deliverance, not the likes of Night of the Living Dead, that was Marshall's influence?

-Doris Toumarkine

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