The Decent 

OK, three new rules for horror-genre filmmakers. Listening? One: No more "jumps" wherein a character is investigating a noise, decides to her satisfaction that she imagined it, then turns to go ... and runs smack into her friend (the "Oh, it's just you" moment, accompanied by an opportunistic spike in the score) - unless done subtly and well. (And then, used no more than once.) Two: No more giggling, spectral little girls - unless you've got a particularly novel take on it. (And you don't, so just knock it off.) Three (and I can't believe I have to say this): No more use of the line, "What's wrong? You look like you've just seen a ghost ... " or any derivative thereof, in any situation where the speaker doesn't know just how "chillingly apropos" his or her words are - ever. EVER. No, it's not dramatic irony. It's stupid. Shut up.

Ex-post-facto infractions notwithstanding, British writer-director Neil Marshall's The Descent is not terrible. Reasonably far from it, rather - especially for what it is.

A year after a freak accident leaves her hospitalized and utterly grief-stricken, Sarah (Scottish newcomer Shauna Macdonald) agrees to meet close friends Beth (Alex Reid) and Juno (Natalie Mendoza) and three more (international) female 20-somethings for a caving adventure, in hopes that it'll help re-establish the bond the three women once shared. Things go awry, though, when the adventurous Juno decides unilaterally (and clandestinely) that they could all use a little more adventure and leads them to a previously unexplored cave system, where they variously get lost, get stuck, and get stalked and hunted by a race of strange, crawling, humanoid creatures with a taste for people-flesh.

And that's it, really. Marshall paces things so that the first two-thirds of the film are suspense, while the last is action. For a time, The Descent is patient and judicious, sitting on its secret as it effectively plies other avenues for tension, luring viewers to seatedges with peripheral dangers without showing its hand. When it comes, though, it comes whole-hog and screaming, with a deft combination of editing and frame-speed manipulation that aims at being mildly disorienting, but not off-putting or incomprehensible - and lo and behold, succeeds. This late-middle point is really the strongest of the picture; it is here that comparisons to Alien (frantic pace, no-see-um monsters) may be understood, if not endorsed. Before it, though, comes the awkward exposition-and-character- introduction period (the between-action, sore-thumbish downtime common to both horror and porn flicks), and afterward, the film becomes essentially a pulpy actioner, with bloodsoaked, bad-ass chicks fighting cave-beings that occasionally resemble slimy modern dancers (and, for some reason, sound like the "spitter" dinosaurs from Jurassic Park).

Here's the thing: I guess I just need to get used to the fact that when people say "scary," they don't generally mean what I think they mean. The Blair Witch Project, Jeepers Creepers, The Ring - all these were labeled "terrifying," one way or the other, but none stuck with me. And there's the difference: A truly good horror movie, I think, is a truly good, complete, fleshed-out film that happens to be terrifying, and one that stays with you. Jacob's Ladder (1990), for instance, did that; The Descent will not. The cast does an acceptable job as an ensemble, and Marshall's direction is inventive (and entertainingly Raimi-esque) in places, but the film seems stuck between two different gears. Nonetheless, it's a mostly better-thanaverage psych-thriller-cum-splatterfest, with its share of genuine, calculated squirms and (literally) visceral, hand-clapped-across-openmouth, gore-centric money-shots. Add to that at least two skillful sequences in which the empathic discomfort is suffocatingly palpable (and a refreshing `relative` refrain from CGI), and you've got a film that'll make you jump, if that's what you're looking for.



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