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American horror flicks have been in a real rut of late, from the wave of watered-down Japanese horror remakes to the overhyped, disappointingly tame pairing of genre titans Freddy and Jason. Judging by Neil Marshall’s The Descent, it takes a Brit to remind us Yanks how it’s supposed to be done. Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) and her female friends are established as a rugged, outdoorsy bunch in the opening scene of white-water rafting. But after tragedy strikes Sarah’s family, her buddies decide the best therapy is…cave exploration, naturally. Meeting up with their American friend Juno (Natalie Mendoza), who incidentally may or may not have slept with Sarah’s husband, they venture into an unexplored Appalachian cave system where they find themselves very unwelcome guests. Without giving away too much about just what these plucky spelunkers encounter, picture a blind, even paler Gollum with anger-management issues and a taste for human flesh. But thankfully, we live in a post-Buffy world, which means that beautiful girls in danger don’t simply whimper and run—they roll up their sleeves and commence kicking ass, transforming from J. Crew–modelesque damsels into badass babes along the way. Cinematographer Sam McCurdy visually strands the viewer right alongside the protagonists in impossibly narrow, barely lit passages. Often, two-thirds of the screen is pitch black, a lone flashlight beam providing both the only illumination and a chiaroscuro effect that heightens the sense of claustrophobia. Marshall’s script has a recurring theme of rebirth, and viewers obsessed with reading every film as a subversive political metaphor should have a field day with the charismatic American who lies to her UK allies, eventually embroiling them in a bloody, complicated war. Sure the film has cheesy dialogue (After a cave-in blocks their escape route: “This is not good, guys”) and plot holes a mile wide (Why wouldn’t a blind predator rely on a heightened sense of smell?), but it also contains tight pacing, plenty of expertly timed scares, and the generous helping of unapologetic gore that’s been missing from the glut of “horror” movies currently plaguing American screens. The Descent brings the pain in more ways than one, and reminds those of us west of the Atlantic that we need to step up our Grand Guignol game.

—Jason Powell