Monday, September 25, 2006

When A Stranger Calls (2006)

Remakes aren't always a bad thing. They can present a fresh take on old material, or improve upon a movie that might not have been so great the first time around. And likewise, a PG-13 rating isn't as much of a death knell for horror movies as some people like to proclaim. Depending on the story the movie is trying to tell, there actually can be PG-13 horror movies that are scary and suspenseful.

But unfortunately, someone had to go and make an example of everything that's bad about remakes and PG-13 horror movies. The end result of that horrible experiment in filmmaking is the remake of the 1979 semi-cult classic When A Stranger Calls. While the movie had plenty of promise, what we finally got was an 87-minute definition of the word "tedious." So let's dive into the review, so I can explain just how bad When A Stranger Calls is.

Jill Johnson (Camilla Belle) is an average teenage girl with average teenage drama. She caught her boyfriend Bobby (Brian Geraghty) making out with her drunken best friend Tiffany (Katie Cassidy), and she's been grounded for a month after running up an astronomically high cell phone bill. As punishment, Jill's father is making her miss her high school's bonfire — which looks more like Burning Man than a normal high school bonfire, if you ask me — so she can babysit for Dr. Tim Mandrakis (Derek de Lint) and his wife Kelly (Kate Jennings Grant) while they enjoy a night out on the town. The Mandrakises live out in the middle of nowhere, but the kids are already asleep, the refrigerator is full of food, and Jill is free to explore their massive house. But because this is a horror movie, things don't go as easily as one would like.

As the night progresses, Jill begins to get odd telephone calls from someone whose number doesn't appear on the Caller ID or Star-69. Every time, the caller simply breathes heavily for a few seconds before hanging up. Jill grows confused and frustrated, wondering who it could possibly be. Perhaps it's Bobby's friends messing around. Or maybe it's Tiffany, who swings by the house at one point to apologize for kissing Bobby. Maybe it's Dr. Mandrakis's college-age son, who lives in the nearby guesthouse. Perhaps it's even Rosa (Rosine Hatem), the family's live-in housekeeper who is supposedly out caring for her ill mother.

The calls end up becoming bothersome enough that Jill eventually calls the police about it. The answering officer, Officer Burroughs (David Denman), tells her that unless this anonymous caller has been threatening her or being obscene, there's nothing they can do. The calls keep on coming, and we finally hear the stranger's voice (the voice of Lance Henriksen) as he asks, "Have you checked the children?" I don't know about you, but to me, that sounds like an awfully odd request coming from a prank caller. But regardless, Jill goes and checks the children like any good babysitter would, and finds that they're both sleeping peacefully in their beds. The phone rings again, and the stranger is on the other line. And what he says chills Jill to the bone: "How were the children?"

The very frightened Jill shuts all the curtains, makes sure the doors are locked and the alarm system is set, then calls Officer Burroughs back. She explains what happens, and he agrees to put a trace on the phone; Jill just has to keep him on the line for no less than sixty seconds. The stranger does call back, of course, and Jill manages to keep him from hanging up after a few seconds. Jill, exasperated, asks him what he wants, to which he gives the classic reply, "Your blood... all over me."

She disgustedly throws down the phone, but it immediately rings again. It's not the stranger calling, but Officer Burroughs, who reveals that the stranger's calls are coming from a second line inside the house. This segues us into the finale, as Jill and the Mandrakis children (Arthur Young and Madeline Carroll) must evade the stranger in the enormous labyrinth of a house, as they fight a homicidal maniac (Tommy Flanagan) for their own survival.

Folks, I'm going to come right out and say it: When A Stranger Calls is a horrible, awful, wretched waste of time and brain cells. And really, you could tell the movie was going to be bad from the very beginning. The movie shot itself in the foot big time, as every one of the trailers and television commercials blatantly gave away that the calls were coming from inside the house. It's one thing if you already knew the twist from having prior knowledge about the original When A Stranger Calls, but Sony Pictures promoting the big twist for the whole world to see right there in the advertising campaign is insulting. It would be like the commercials for The Sixth Sense proclaiming that Bruce Willis is dead the whole time, or Twilight Zone host Rod Serling telling the audience that "To Serve Man" is a cookbook at the beginning of the episode. Giving away the big twist effectively ruins any sort of tension or suspense the movie could have ever hoped to build, and that's terrible.

The original movie's opening act is the best and most memorable part of the movie, so I can't say that I blame screenwriter Jake Wade Wall for eschewing the plodding remainder of the original film for this remake. However, the remake suffers somewhat because of it. As I said in my review of the original, the plot would be better suited for a short film. I suggested the original's opening act could have been better suited as a segment in a film similar to Creepshow or Trilogy of Terror, while the remake perhaps would have been better if it were shortened down and used as an episode of something like Tales From The Crypt or Masters of Horror.

But the plot ultimately wears itself way too thin as it tries to stretch itself over an 87-minute frame. The movie's anemic structure only sets it up as a victim for nearly every possible cliché a film like this can suffer from. The Mandrakis house is at a lake in the middle of nowhere; Jill has a hard time contacting any of her friends due to poor cell phone reception; Jill goes outside and walks around instead of staying put; a secondary character's car won't turn over on the first try; there's a little black cat that's prone to causing cheap scares; they throw in some kids to give Jill a reason to stay inside the house and look for them instead of running as far away as her legs can carry her. There's even one final jump scare that looks shamelessly ripped off from Carrie and Friday the 13th.

Even if you can manage to look past all the clichés, Wall's script is appallingly bad. In my review of the original When A Stranger Calls, I complained that Carol Kane's version of Jill Johnson was kinda stupid. She just sat on the couch and cried while the stranger kept asking over and over if she'd checked the children. However, that was justifiable for the sake of the plot. The new Jill is even stupider, but this time, there's no excuse. It's a given that horror film heroines are relatively dumb, but Jill is so incredibly vapid that it's nearly offensive.

While I do respect Wall's attempts to give Jill a little more depth than her 1979 counterpart, Jill is still unfortunately flat. Never once did I feel any sympathy for her, and as the movie dragged on, I was almost cheering for the stranger to bash Jill's head in with the first blunt object he could get his hands on. Though in the character's defense, I will say that 2006's Jill does a minimally better job at being a babysitter than 1979's Jill. She actually does check the children, even if she has to be prompted by the stranger two-thirds of the way through the movie before she actually does so. At least she does the first time he asks, instead of the stranger having to ask three times like in the original.

The secondary characters Wall adds to the script are utterly useless as well, as none of them make any sort of real contribution whatsoever to the movie. I mean, most of these characters are completely superfluous, and eliminating them would have bore no consequence on the narrative at all. And just like the movie itself, most of the characters are clichés that have been done in hundreds of movies. The character of Scarlet, played by Tessa Thompson, serves no purpose outside of filling the "sassy black friend" role that is all the rage in movies aimed towards a teenage demographic.

Meanwhile, Jill's boyfriend Bobby, played by Brian Geraghty, has maybe three scenes in the entire thing. He apparently only exists to plant a red herring that's more silly than it is mysterious. And then there's the Mandrakis children, who are nothing more than two little wastes of time and space that do nothing more than whine, cry, and cause Jill to look all over the house for them, wasting time that she could be using to get the hell out of the house.

And let's not forget Katie Cassidy's character, Tiffany. The character bears almost no importance at all on the movie at large, outside of breaking up the monotony of Jill sitting on the couch by herself. Tiffany is another cliché: the party girl that drinks heavily and makes out with her friend's significant other. Frankly, if this were an R-rated affair, she'd probably be the movie's token naked girl. Though I wonder if the character was Wall's way of making a point about just how worn out this cliché is, as he has Tiffany come right out and say, "Jill, I'm a bitch. I know that, you know that, everybody knows that." But the thing is, Cassidy delivers that goofy line with a straight face. Nobody with half a brain spouts off stupid lines like that in real life, so either Wall was making a "wink-wink, characters like this are stupid" joke, or he just can't write his way out of a paper bag. I'm leaning towards the latter, personally.

The characters are awful, as are the cast. With the exception of the lead roles, every cast member is a complete non-factor. They really could have easily just pulled any random nobody who happened to be walking by the studio at any given time and stuck them in the movie. The only real redeeming factors in the entire cast are Lance Henriksen and Tommy Flanagan. Henriksen is a very talented actor whose work I enjoy very much, and it's my belief that the one true saving grace of the movie is his appearance as the voice that haunts Jill. Though he isn't utilized as often as I would have hoped, Henriksen casts an intimidating presence that the stranger's voice needs. The same can be said for Flanagan, who doesn't make an appearance until nearly seventy minutes into the movie. We very rarely see his face, but thanks to his very physical performance combined with Henriksen's work, the stranger is more terrifying than the script allows him to be.

However, the other main part of the movie's equation isn't as good as Henriksen and Flanagan. There are some actors who can take a poorly-written role and make it better with their performance. Camilla Belle is unfortunately not one of them. The character of Jill is alone for the majority of the movie, which requires a strong actress in order to fulfill the role's needs. But Belle is unconvincing, doing nothing to make Jill look like anything more than an ignorant clod. She doesn't draw any emotions outside of indifference from me. I didn't care if Jill lived or died, I just wanted her to go away. Her second-rate performance could be caused by the horrible script, or the director not getting the proper performance from his lead actress. But either way, if this performance is any indication, I doubt Belle will earn any kind of cult status as a "scream queen" in the future.

Since the movie is completely devoid of substance, it's up to director Simon West to at least give us a little style. And sadly, we barely get that. Previous entries on West's résumé, such as Con Air and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, had no need to build suspense. There is a need to build it here, but there is nearly none at all to be found. If anything, what West presents us with is a generic, paint-by-numbers movie that is thoroughly unsatisfying on almost every level. West only manages to work up two moments in the entire movie that I believe came across as being effective (the big reveal of the stranger hiding in the rafters, and a "boo!" scare shortly afterwards in the house's atrium).

To be perfectly honest, you could walk into the movie an hour late, and not have to worry about missing anything important. Nothing truly exciting or suspenseful happens until the last seventeen minutes of the movie, which only makes things drag on for far too long. And really, all that happens in the finale is some lame, drawn-out chase sequence that's been done a lot better by numerous other movies of this ilk. There is some decent cinematography by Peter Menzies Jr., but outside of that, the movie's direction is as uninspired as its screenplay and acting.

It isn't helped by James Dooley's musical score, either. The score is good, don't get me wrong, but it's much too invasive and overbearing. Its schizophrenic violins would have worked much better had the the guy running the sound mixing board turned the volume down a few notches during the editing process, but instead, the movie is just as painful on the ears as it is on the eyes.

The biggest compliment I can give the movie is that they didn't go the Scooby-Doo route and make the stranger some secondary character we forgot about. He's just an anonymous psychopath. But because the movie tries too hard to remain within the parameters of a PG-13 rating, we don't really get a sense of just how dangerous the stranger truly is. We hear that he's ripped fifteen people to pieces with his bare hands, we see a number of police officers hauling quite a few body bags out of a crime scene, but never do we attain a real sense of comprehension in regards to what he is capable of.

Instead, the stranger plays a pseudo-elaborate cat-and-mouse game with Jill that just draws on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on until you just want to see something — anything — to give you a reason to keep watching the movie. Nearly every single attempt to build suspense in the movie is fruitless, because we know the stranger is just going to keep jerking Jill's chain until the cops call and tell her where he's at.

In their interviews on the DVD's "making of" featurette, West, Belle, and Wall explain how they apparently don't like horror movies, and defend actually making a horror movie by describing it as a "psychological thriller" instead. If that's the case, then When A Stranger Calls is an absolutely abysmal failure as both a horror movie and a thriller. The movie has no suspense, almost no worthwhile scares, and a cast that would probably be better suited doing commercials or crappy soap operas instead of theatrically-released feature films. And I sincerely hope that Lance Henriksen only did this movie because he had some overdue bills that needed to be paid, because someone with his talent shouldn't have to be relegated to bottom-of-the-barrel rubbish like this. I cannot justify giving When A Stranger Calls anything higher than one and a half stars. If this was a remake that needed to be done, it could have been made a whole lot better.

Final Rating:

Thursday, September 14, 2006

When A Stranger Calls (1979)

Urban legends have been around for quite some time. These modern versions of the tall tale often take shape as campfire tales, Internet chain mail, and stories heard from "a friend of a friend." Many of the more popular urban legends are the tales of terror: stories about hauntings, gruesome murders, deceased pets. One such urban legend served as the basis for the 1979 horror film When A Stranger Calls. Inspired by one of many urban legends centering around a terrorized babysitter, When A Stranger Calls has become a popular part of '70s horror movies thanks to the minor influence it has had on the genre since then. Though it isn't quite as notable as other movies from the decade, I wonder if it should have more attention than it gets.

Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) is an ordinary high school student, hired by Dr. Alexander Mandrakis (Carmen Argenziano) and his wife (Rutanya Alda) to babysit their two children while they enjoy a night out on the town. The children are already tucked in for the night, so Jill naturally assumes it'll be a slow night of homework and chatting with friends on the telephone. But this is a horror movie; things don't always work out that way. During the night, Jill begins to get repeated phone calls that initially begin with the caller hanging up as soon as she says hello. The calls become more and more frequent, and Jill finally decides to call the police for some assistance. The officer that answers her, Sgt. Sacker (William Boyett), merely tells Jill that if she could find a loud whistle and blow it into the receiver next time he calls, he'll probably stop.

The calls continue, as the anonymous caller begins asking Jill if she has checked the children. She calls the police again, and Sgt. Sacker tells her that they'll trace the next call from the station as long as Jill keeps him on the phone for at least sixty seconds. And call back does the anonymous voice, and Jill tries her hand at striking up a conversation. This in turn creates the classic bit of dialogue:

Jill: "What do you want?"
The caller: "Your blood... all over me."

He hangs up as soon as she announces she called the police, and Sgt. Sacker immediately calls to inform Jill that the calls are not coming from an outside line... they're coming from inside the house. The caller opens the door at the top of the steps, just as Jill bolts for the front door and discovers the police on the front porch.

Fast forward seven years into the future. The caller, identified as a British merchant seaman named Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley), has been committed to a mental institution following that fateful night. It turns out that he mutilated both children with his bare hands, and called from the house's second phone line with the intention of killing Jill as soon as she checked on the children. Maybe it's a good thing she decided to hang out in the living room all night. But seven years have passed, and Duncan has escaped from the institution. Arresting officer John Clifford (Charles Dunning) has gotten out of the force and into the private investigation business, and Dr. Mandrakis hires him to track Duncan down and maybe kill him if he feels up to it.

From here, we cut to some cheap San Francisco pool hall named Torchy's. I didn't really have to say the name of the place, because it's a minor, unimportant detail. But come on, the place is named Torchy's. Either that's the coolest name for a bar ever, or the lamest. I'm not sure yet. Anyway, Duncan strolls into the place and starts flirting with a gruff barfly named Tracy Fuller (Colleen Dewhurst). She isn't exactly too taken by his advances, but he keeps on pressing anyway. He's nothing if not dedicated to what he does. But that dedication also manages to annoy one of the other patrons, who more or less defends Tracy's honor by beating Duncan bloody and throwing him out into the street.

Duncan ends up following Tracy to her apartment and lets himself in, and tries pulling the "woe is me" card. But she ain't having it, and she boots him out the door. That's what she should have done to begin with. Unless she has no problem with random weirdoes just waltzing into her apartment uninvited and making themselves at home. Anyway, he tries to get back into the house a little more forcefully, but gives that up when he doesn't get very far. I guess he's not as dedicated to his craft as I initially believed.

Shortly thereafter, Detective Clifford is out hitting the streets in search of Duncan. He follows a trail of clues to Torchy's, where he learns that his quarry was there harassing a patron the night before. He gets the patron's name and heads over to Tracy's apartment to speak to her. And let's say that ol' Clifford isn't the most polite person there is. The guy practically kicks her door down trying to get inside and speak with her. Then he has the nerve to act surprised when she doesn't believe he's a real detective. He somehow manages to talk her into letting him inside, and he tells her the story of the two Mandrakis kids. Clifford also suggests that she contact him if she runs into him again. If it were me, I would suggest that she purchase a firearm and shoot him on sight. But I didn't write the movie, so what do I know.

Later in the evening, Tracy returns to her apartment after a few drinks at Torchy's, only to discover that Duncan has broken into her apartment. He restrains her and tries explaining that he only wants to be her friend, but she manages to let out a scream, which prompts Clifford – who had been keeping tabs on her from a distance – to bust in and break things up. Duncan makes it out the back door and into an alley, managing to get several blocks away before Clifford can even get outside. Maybe if Duncan was running to the closest McDonald's, Clifford would have got him. Not to imply the guy is fat or anything, but I'm just sayin'.

Sometime later that night, Duncan acquires a bed at a homeless shelter. And I don't think he's doing too well, because he starts having flashbacks to killing the children and calling Jill, which prompts him to start having a nervous breakdown. I think it was a nervous breakdown; he just started sobbing hysterically while totally naked in the shelter's communal bathroom. Either way, I think any doubts regarding his insanity have been erased with this scene. But in any event, Clifford manages to get a few clues from some wino and tracks Duncan to the shelter. But like last time, Duncan manages to slip out through the shelter's back halls and elude Clifford once again.

So now that that's out of the way, let's find out what's been going on elsewhere. The seven years that have passed have seen Jill Johnson become Jill Lockhart, a mother of two children (Richard Bail and Sara Damman) whose husband Stephen (Steven Anderson) is a yuppie dork with a goofy haircut that makes him look like Weird Al Yankovic. Though to be honest, making that comparison is insulting to Weird Al. Stephen comes home from work late one afternoon and proclaims that he got a big promotion, and to celebrate, they leave the kids with a babysitter while they go enjoy a fancy dinner. While they're enjoying themselves and having a good time, the maître d' informs Jill that she has a phone call at the front desk. She puts the receiver to her ear, at which point she hears a voice from her past: "Have you checked the children?" Duncan has somehow found Jill once again, and the movie comes full circle as Clifford must stop Duncan before he can claim his intended victim from seven years prior.

I asked at the beginning of the review if When A Stranger Calls should get more attention than it does. And to be perfectly honest, I do not know. The middle hour is both tedious and useless, because it doesn't really lead anywhere. The movie would have been better served following Jill for the entire movie, because the storyline that we're taken down changes the movie from a straight horror film into something resembling a poorly done crime drama.

Really, if you watch the first twenty minutes and final twenty minutes, and skipped that plodding, go-nowhere second act, then you'd have seen a movie that wasn't too bad at all. And I point the finger of blame squarely at the screenplay penned by Steve Feke and Fred Walton. To be succinct, their script is ten pounds of crap in a five-pound bag. It probably doesn't help that Feke's résumé also includes such cinematic stinkburgers like Poltergeist III and Mac and Me.

The characters are so flat and one-dimensional, it's almost insulting. It's as if they were placeholders for characters. Clifford is an abrasive, obnoxious jerk despite being the hero, Duncan is more pathetic than psychotic, and the character of Tracy is thoroughly unnecessary. The only character that's remotely likable is Jill, and that's only because we're not given enough time to hate her like the others.

Even then, Jill comes across as being stupid and irresponsible. She continues to gets threatening calls, but she did almost nothing. Sure, it was smart of her to call the cops, but outside of that, she spent every last minute answering these calls. Why not call someone's parents – whether it be hers or the Mandrakises – right out of the gate? Why not call a friend and ask them to come over and keep her company? Why not even do her job and check the freaking children?

While doing that would make the most sense, the whole movie would have been ruined. She has to sit on the couch and continually answer these threatening telephone calls because if she does check the children, Duncan kills her and either he moves to another babysitter like a typical slasher movie, or the movie grinds to a screeching halt. As convenient as her not doing that may be for the story, it doesn't prevent the segment from becoming illogical and unrealistic.

Walton's direction, on the other hand, is not too bad. The first twenty minutes make for one of the more popular sequences in horror movie fandom, and the direction is a large part of it. The first twenty minutes are wonderful, as Walton sets a frighteningly eerie stage as Jill is all alone in this enormous house, yet trapped by a fear that becomes almost claustrophobic and confining. There are two moments in the movie where Walton's direction is particularly notable. One is a quite suspenseful bit where Jill hunts down the source of a bizarre cracking sound, only to discover that it's the refridgerator's ice machine. Ninety percent of the time, that would be used as a cheap scare, like a cat jumping out of a closet, but the way Walton sets it up makes it a very tense moment.

The second (and my personal favorite) portion of the segment occurs at the end, when we discover that Duncan is in the house. Jill makes a run for the front door, and just as she begins to unlock it, a door at the top of the steps opens. All we see is light from inside the room shining onto a far wall, a light which is soon filled by Duncan's shadow peering down the steps. My description does not do it justice, as this particular moment is fabulously frightening. But as the movie progresses, the direction – along with Donald Peterman's cinematography – becomes akin to just about any random cop show from the '70s before returning to a scarier horror-inclined style for the finale. However, the movie does boast an impressive, terrifying score by Dana Kaproff, though the music does get a little overbearing at times.

Lastly, the acting is give or take. Charles Dunning is supposed to be the hero, but he's just a mean, thoroughly unpleasant bully to everyone he meets. The guy treats everyone around him like dirt, and we're expected to root for him? The character isn't the least bit sympathetic, and Dunning's performance does it no favors. Besides, it doesn't help that the guy has two scenes where he chases the villain on foot, despite being a rather corpulent individual. Dunning looked like if he put any more effort into running, he'd keel over from a heart attack. I'll admit that I'm not exactly the paradigm of proper health and fitness, but couldn't they have casted a guy who was a little more in shape?

Tony Beckley's performance – the last of his career before his death due to cancer on April 19, 1980 – isn't as scary as perhaps it should have been. While I have no problems with him at all in the opening, he becomes more of a depressed, simpering wuss as the movie progresses. In only one scene after his big reveal does he actually come across as having a few screws loose, but it doesn't help anything because it's too late into the movie to really prove anything. However, I will say that he did the best with what he was given, since the script is mostly to blame for a lot of the flaws.

The best performance in the movie would have to belong to Carol Kane, mostly due to the process of elimination. Kane has garnered most of her fame from playing daffy characters like Simka Dahblitz-Gravas on Taxi and Miracle Max's wife in The Princess Bride, but her work here as the harried would-be murder victim is not bad. While the character of Jill is not exactly the brightest bulb in the lamp, Kane is believable as she moves from somewhat dismayed into terrified out of her mind.

If contained to itself, the first twenty minutes of the movie would have been up there with Halloween as one of the best movies of its ilk. The entire section of the movie is absolutely enthralling, some of the best horror filmmaking I've seen. Sure, there's the big gaping holes in its logic, but that isn't all that distracting. Want to know how good the opening act is? It directly inspired the first thirteen minutes of Wes Craven's love letter to horror films, Scream. Don't believe me? Watch both scenes side-by-side, and tell me if this doesn't seem a little familiar: A pretty blonde girl all alone, getting increasingly threatening phone calls from a deranged psychopath hiding somewhere in her house. The psychopath has already killed someone in the house, and is now after her. Yeah, it could just as easily be an homage to Black Christmas as well, but the similarities are there.

I know I've been singing the praises of that segment of the movie for the entire review, but really, it's probably the only really favorable thing I can say about the movie. The movie would have perhaps worked best if the opening had been included in a movie similar to Trilogy of Terror or Creepshow, but as it stands now, it's merely a great ingredient in a mediocre stew. I'm going to give When A Stranger Calls a thumbs in the middle with two and a half stars. But as always, your mileage may vary.

Final Rating: **½

Friday, September 8, 2006

The Descent (2005)

Horror films are designed to push the emotional buttons of those that watch them, to make their audience go past the boundaries of their "comfort zones" and confront the terrors that lie deep within the shadows of the human imagination. However, a certain phenomenon has sprung up in Hollywood in recent years: the PG-13 horror movie. While some horror movies can still be effective with a PG-13 rating, many are constricted by the rating, unable or unwilling to be truly terrifying so the movie can better serve teenage moviegoers with more delicate sensibilities.

The uprising of tamer, less offensive horror has also seen a rise in disenfranchised horror movie fans looking overseas for movies that they can get behind. Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike has been quickly gaining a cult following in America, and international movies such as 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, High Tension, and Wolf Creek have all received enthusiastic responses when released in the United States. Another of these imports was Neil Marshall's The Descent. First released in the United Kingdom in the summer of 2005, The Descent made the voyage to American theaters a year later to critical accolades and modest box office success. And folks, it just may be one of the best imported horror films yet.

One year after surviving a traumatic car accident that took the lives of her husband and daughter, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) is still recovering. To help move on with her life, Sarah's friend Beth (Alex Reid) convinces her to go on their annual thrillseeking adventure as planned. Instead of whitewater rafting in Ireland like the year before, Juno (Natalie Mendoza), the third part of their daredevil trio, has lined up a caving expedition in the North Carolina mountains. Sarah and Beth meet up with Juno at a cabin in the woods, where we're introduced to the other three members of their party: tomboyish daredevil Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), and sisters Sam (Myanna Buring) and Rebecca (Saskia Mulder).

The six camp out in their cabin for the night, then head out for the cave the next morning. They're not very deep into the cave before a particular corridor collapses, sealing off the way they came in. And that's when a bombshell gets dropped. What they initially believed was a well-scouted, easily navigable cave system is revealed by Juno to be uncharted territory. She found the cave herself, and thought the group would be brought closer together by being the first to explore it. This goes over with the other five like a fart in church, especially now that for all they know, they're trapped.

The six continue onward in search of another exit, but when Holly mistakes a glowing phosphorus deposit for daylight, she takes a pretty nasty fall and fractures her leg. But unfortunately for them, Holly's broken bones are the least of their worries. As the others patch up her wound, Sarah wanders off and sees what appears to be a very pale man drinking from a puddle. So either the kid from Powder went feral, or something is really wrong. It disappears when it senses her, and when she attempts to tell the other five, they merely dismiss it as a hallucination. But it isn't long before they find themselves under attack by a number of deformed, bloodthirsty creatures just like what Sarah described. Stuck two miles underground with no known exits, the six must fight for their lives and find a way out.

I've developed a theory that perhaps the horror genre's strongest presence in the twenty-first century lies beyond the borders of the United States. With The Descent, that theory is further reinforced. The movie is suspenseful, frightening, and absolutely enthralling. It is an example of everything that a horror movie should have: brilliant direction, a tight script, believable acting, terrifying antagonists, and a claustrophobic atmosphere. It is a truly scary and effective piece of filmmaking, and should be required viewing for aspiring horror filmmakers.

Writer/director Neil Marshall makes the most his sophomore film (following his highly-praised 2002 werewolf movie Dog Soldiers), and his work here is exemplary. Despite the plot's striking similarities to the horribly mediocre American movie The Cave, Marshall's screenplay is deceptively layered, and there is much going on beneath its simple exterior. The film's coda — both the original British one and the shortened American one — leave the viewer wondering about the deeper meanings what we have just seen. While I don't want to give anything away, one could entertain the notions that the ending could be offhandedly similar to High Tension's twist, or that it could be akin to Carnival of Souls or Ambrose Bierce's 1886 short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.

Marshall's direction is also stellar. We stay outside of the cave for the first twenty minutes of the movie, getting to know our characters, giving each of them a personality and establishing their relationships with one another. From there, Marshall spends the next half-hour building a chillingly claustrophobic atmosphere that can frighten even the most jaded of horror fans.

He radically shifts the vibe in a much different direction at about fifty minutes into the movie, as Marshall leads us down a much more visceral road upon the first attack by the creatures. During many of the attack scenes, Sam McCurdy's cinematography is shaky and the editing is frantic. The wild camerawork and editing could be seen as echoing the confusion the characters feel. We have a hard time getting a grasp on some of the action, something I'm sure the characters are going through as well.

Marshall, with the help of McCurdy's camerawork, gives The Descent a certain visual flair that does wonders to set the movie's tone. The outdoor scenes prior to entering the cave look like the colors have been washed out, seemingly beset upon by a grey/white haze that gives these scenes an eerie dreamlike quality. On the other hand, the scenes in the cave are lit either by yellow flashlights, red flares, green and orange glowsticks, or the occasional night vision thanks to the viewfinder of the group's camcorder. The lighting (or lack thereof) not only makes it easier for things to pop out of the darkness, but when used in collaboration with the tight sets, it makes the atmosphere much more terrifying. Unfortunately, the dim lighting also makes it tough to tell who is who in certain scenes. Not being able to tell the actresses apart can be pretty distracting, as some viewers might concentrate on figuring out who's in the scene instead of being caught up in the action.

The score by David Julyan is also superb, managing to be intense without being invasive or overbearing. Julyan's music is ambient and moody prior to the appearance of the creatures, enhancing the tension that Marshall is building. And after the monsters attack, the score retains some of its ambiance while becoming primal, almost schizophrenic. It was everything a horror movie score should be: supportive of the film while still managing to be scary in its own right. I similarly liked the makeup effects. Though the are concealed in darkness or low lighting much of the time (which also helps to mask any budgetary shortcomings), the creatures are very well done, as are other effects like Holly's broken leg.

But in a movie such as this, the acting is just as crucial to the movie's success as direction or special effects are. As I said before, it's rough to tell the actresses apart in some scenes, but when you can, they're great. I was especially drawn to Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, and Nora-Jane Noone. Noone is humorous and engaging, while Mendoza's layered performance made her character that much more mysterious. But of the three I named, perhaps Macdonald was the best. She hits all the right emotional buttons, paralleling Carrie White as she transitions from an emotional wreck during most of the movie into a blood-drenched killer of monsters near the end.

Online film critic James Berardinelli wrote in his review, "The Descent isn't perfect, but it gets a lot of things right." I'm inclined to agree with that statement. The Descent is violent, harrowing, and absolutely terrifying. Not once does it show any mercy, living up to its name by taking we the viewer on an unrelenting descent into terror that reiterates my belief that Eurasian horror is on a level far beyond that of American horror. While the movie is most definitely graphic, it is not the only thing that Marshall brings to the table. Quite a few filmmakers are satisfied with drowning their movie in gallons of blood and guts and calling it a horror movie, while Marshall proves that some directors remember that being disturbing is just as important as being disgusting. The film is everything that a horror movie should be, and for that, I give The Descent four and a half stars. And I can guarantee that after seeing this, you'll never catch me in a cave again. Not without machine guns and an exit strategy, anyway.

Final Rating: ****½