Neil Marshall's first horror outing, the werewolf gorefest Dog Soldiers, was a well-made but ultimately forgettable romp. His second time up at bat, however, the British director whacked one right out of the park with The Descent, which arrives on DVD this week. In a year full of flashy, unremarkable splatter flicks and half-baked remakes—well, okay, The Hills Have Eyes had its moments, but Black Christmas looks appalling—this is one taut, terrifying movie that's truly worth its weight in gore.
Set in the Appalachians (though filmed in the U.K.), The Descent follows six female outdoors enthusiasts on a cave expedition. One of them, Sarah (the wonderful Shauna Macdonald), lost her husband and young daughter in a gruesome car crash a year earlier, and the hope is that the trip will bring her closer to her friends and out of the mopey fog she's been in ever since. It might have worked, too, if reckless, bossy Juno (Natalie Mendoza) hadn't taken it upon herself to make a mess of their plans. Oh, and the fact that the cave they've chosen to explore is particularly treacherous. Not to mention populated by something awful . . . something that, if you're lucky, might only rip your throat out. Marshall expertly makes use of sound and darkness in ratcheting up the suspense, packing his protagonists into tight spaces and layering on the dread in a way not seen since the first Alien. His actresses are uniformly excellent as well, their characters one minute united and the next as much a menace to one another as the evil dwelling underground. The Descent's claustrophobic edge may feel slightly blunted outside a darkened theater, so be sure to watch it in the dark with the volume cranked up for full effect. Among the bonuses of the unrated DVD release are director and cast commentaries, featurettes, deleted scenes, and an alternate ending.