Horror films divide moviegoers into love ’em or loathe ’em camps, and I confess to being in the former. If you’re an aficionado who appreciates horror’s unique mix of camp and catharsis, The Descent is for you. Director Neil Marshall masterminded a 2002 scarefest, Dog Soldiers, in which a platoon of British Special Forces trainees on a practice mission in the Scottish Highlands were beset by a pack of werewolves. His new movie puts forth a similar scenario; but this time the group in trouble consists of women, and the dread is deeper, murkier, and altogether more dreadful.

The film follows six outdoorswomen-buffed-up rock-climbing and rafting types-on a spelunking adventure deep in the Appalachian woods. Things quickly go awry. The women lose their way in the immense caverns, and after a long crawl through a narrow passage, a cave-in seals off the way out. Panic mounts when the hubristic leader, Juno, confesses she has led the group astray; this isn’t actually the cave they set out to explore (and where park rangers might mount a search), but another cave altogether, uncharted and unknown. No one knows where they are, and there is no way back. The only hope is to plunge deeper in.

The sense of stricken entrapment is suffocating, and this could have been simply a survival thriller, along the lines of 2004’s Touching the Void. But Marshall goes a step farther. Not only are the women trapped, but...they’...

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About the Author

Rand Richards Cooper is Commonweal's contributing editor.