Directed by Neil Marshall, starring Shauna McDonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Sakia Mulder, Nora Jane Noone, MyAnna Buring, Oliver Milburn and Molly Kayll

Neil Marshall seems to have the knack of turning out highly accomplished and well-crafted horror pics. 'Dog Soldiers' (2002), about a group of British military men falling foul of bloodthirsty werewolves, received much critical acclaim. In 'The Descent' Marshall has again delivered the goods. This time, however, he uses the unfolding horror to bring out the darker side of human existence. What we are ultimately presented with is a descent into madness.

The story concerns a group of six women who undertake a caving expedition deep in the Appalachian Mountains. It's their yearly adventure, yet on this occasion it is tinged with sadness, as Sarah (McDonald) is still recovering from a breakdown after the deaths of her husband and daughter in a car accident.

Juno (Mendoza) is the leader of the group, who charts a path to an unexplored cave. Along for the ride are Beth (Reid), who has reluctantly come to look after Sarah; Holly (Noone), a wild base jumper and the half-sisters Rebecca (Mulder) and Sam (Buring).

Marshall lends much visual expression to the scenery beneath the earth's surface. Yet, while the women navigate the beautiful surroundings, it quickly becomes evident that Sarah has not fully recovered and the mental scars are still very much hovering over her. Things are further complicated when a rockfall blocks the route back to the surface. Suddenly the fragile state of one group member takes on lesser importance.

Juno's insistence on making this maiden trip into the unknown without navigable assistance throws the entire group into peril. Out of desperation they start to splinter in the hope of finding another exit. Tightly framed shots of the women squirming their way through marrow channels heightens the sense of foreboding.  Marshall skilfully transforms his thing of beauty into something most unpleasant.

Fleeting images of white scurrying in the distance serve as a precursor to the main terror. When revealed, fearless predators emerge, once humanoid, but now savagely adapted to living in the dark. The now exhausted explorers have invaded their territory and numerous bloody showdowns are about to begin. The violent exchanges are expertly choreographed, no doubt influenced by the likes of 'Alien' and 'Predator'.

However, it's not all action-filled. When old secrets from the past are revealed, the ties that once bonded this group of women are irretrievably severed. The impact this has on the emotionally wounded Sarah brings about a chilling metamorphosis that conversely deserves much sympathy. For it is a desperate cry for help.

An intelligent addition to the horror genre, 'The Descent' boasts fine performances from Shauna McDonald, Natalie Mendoza and Galway-born actor Nora Jane Noone, who provides the few moments of comic relief in Marshall’s story.

James McMahon