I was reading an article in the New York Times Magazine recently about the difference between Japanese and American horror films, and one of them is apparently that American audiences require some kind of explanation to find horror satisfying, whereas Japanese viewers are content to spend 2 hours watching scary things happening without ever understanding why. Severed hands making collect calls? Water streaming from walls? Why not? The Descent doesn't provide any kind of explanation for its subterranean monsters, and it's kind of refreshing in that way. Because generally, the explanation part of fright flicks is the weakest link, providing some kind of false assurance rather than contributing to the scare.
In any case, the monsters of The Descent aren't even the scariest part. They make for a lot of good jumps and screams (honestly, I don't think I've ever screamed as loudly in my life as I did during this movie), but as is generally the case, they quickly become campy and amusing. The real fright of the film is in the cave setting itself. As one woman commented after it ended, "That was the most stressful movie I've ever seen in my life". As soon as the women start jamming themselves through tiny cramped tunnels deep under the earth, most of the audience starts squirming. The camera work is brilliant - it's incredibly claustrophobic, and very, very scary. Unlike most underground movies, it's dark as hell. True, there is a scene or two where you think, 'wait, where is that extra light coming from?', but for the most part, the movie does well in depriving you of a totalizing view, limiting lighting to a few flashlights or headlamps.
I'm not going to touch on the ending debate here, because I haven't seen the UK ending yet, but honestly, I don't really give a shit. The brilliance of the movie was in ambiance, not plot. Likewise with the Juno debate - the Lord of the Flies/treachery aspect of the film didn't do a lot for me. It probably could have been mobilized to contribute to the suspense, but in the end, it just seemed somewhat dull and trite. Same goes for Sarah's various flashbacks - the inner emotional lives of the characters were largely uninteresting to me. It's not that they were totally flat, they were just sort of dull.
Finally, one thing I (predictably) loved about the movie was seeing a horror film with a cast of women who kicked some serious ass. Awesome climbers, zombie slayers, and general badasses. Holly's leg injury? Swoon. Hooray for a movie that lets women be hardcore, but also lets them be giggling girls drinking beer and gossiping. Of course they're terrified of the monsters, but rather than run away, breasts heaving, waiting for some man to save them, they search for a way out and unleash holy hell. They figure out the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy and act accordingly. Occasionally someone does something stupid that makes you cringe, but that's the point - the characters don't have the same information that the audience does. That's what makes them believable, and all the more impressive when they figure it out. So while I said above that I found their mental lives boring, I did very much appreciate them as real women who were tough, sexy, but still human. Ok, so it was strange that some of them were wearing thick eyeliner underground, but hey, why not. The jab at Tomb Raider early on was well placed and subtle, but drove the point home. So three cheers for that. Now the challenge will be to find/make a movie that can sustain that kind of female charisma and also have male characters...