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A horror masterpiece
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The horror genre has become home to innumerable hacks, but few masters.

From time to time, a few inspired moments of stylistic brilliance cause a film to stand out. Sometimes the sheer potential of a fresh idea is enough to elevate a less-than-spectacular work to prominence. For the most part, however, every two-bit amateur director thinks he or she can craft a horror movie and the video stores are overflowing with the stunted results of their frail attempts to frighten us.

But every so often, a filmmaker comes along who not only truly knows what terrifies us but also has the ability and resources to bring his or her vision to life on the screen.

Enter British writer/director Neil Marshall's "The Descent," the best horror film since 2002's "The Ring," and an instant mainstay of the genre.

On the surface, the American release of Marshall's 2005 effort doesn't look remarkably different from any number of horror films that crawl and creep through theaters every year: a group of young people venture into an unexplored cavern and are soon fighting for their survival against unknown, inhuman assailants in the darkness. While the plot is not without a few inventive departures from the expected, it's the kind of formula one comes to expect.

Marshall, however, following up his underground cult-hit "Dog Soldiers," combines claustrophobic tension, pulse-pounding pacing, solid performances and a fantastic visual style to create a truly terrifying tour de force.

The film centers around Sarah (played by Shauna McDonald), who, having just lost her husband and young daughter in a brutal automobile accident, reunites with five friends for a caving expedition in the Appalachian Mountains. Still deeply haunted by her loss, the caverns begin to play on all her fears - well before the revelation that the six friends are not only trapped in uncharted caverns, but are also not alone.

Well in advance of any extraordinary happenings, the caverns of "The Descent" are already choked with claustrophobia and dread. The darkness and echoes play tricks on the eye and ear in a most realistic depiction of the kind of sensory deprivation one encounters under the surface. With these caves, Marshall creates the kind of primeval contested space that draws on what horror writer H.P. Lovecraft deemed the most powerful of human fears: the fear of the unknown.

"The Descent" gushes with such feelings of unease - of man encroaching on realms beyond his dominance or understanding, where every worst fear is possible in the dark. And such is the mastery of Marshall's craft that moviegoers are not just made to play witness to these fears - they become immersed in them.

"The Descent" is a film crafted with the understanding that less is more, that whatever we can imagine in those depths of subworld darkness is infinitely more frightening than anything we can create with CGI, makeup and lighting. And yet, all three of these elements are used with masterful success, implemented sparingly and skillfully when the ghoulish subworld denizens finally begin to reveal themselves to the film's human characters. One would be hard pressed to find more than a handful of more skillfully executed celluloid monsters in modern cinema.

Marshall is the caliber of filmmaker who realizes that the most frightening thing in the world can be finding a lone, early 19th century climbing spike in the wall of an unmarked cave, that fear of the dark amounts to a kind of Jungian racial memory and that our own inner demons can be just as crippling as anything in from depths of Hell.

A masterpiece of terror, "The Descent" hits all the right notes with spine-tingling, heart-racing clarity. See it at your own risk.

Grade: A

"The Descent" is rated R for strong violence/gore and language. It has a running time of 99 minutes.