The Cave (12A) ***
The Mighty Celt (12A) **

A very bad lair day

I can only presume that the producers of The Cave were desperately racing to beat The Descent to a release date, for the films - as industry gossip must have made clear - are remarkably similar in setting, atmosphere and group-in-peril dynamics. As it transpired, The Descent broke the tape first by a matter of weeks, and will be the easier of the two to remember by dint of its exclusively female cast. It related the tale of a group of friends who go potholing in the Appalachians only to find themselves trapped and stalked by a bunch of feral, Gollum-like mutants. Yeech.

Now, with those frights and jolts still lingering, another of these fiendish lost-in-the-dark movies comes along. The journey into the unknown of The Cave involves a team of scientists rather than weekend climbers, and the location is Romania, but the ominous sense of an expedition unravelling and the slow reveal of The Horror Within bear an uncanny resemblance to The Descent. Cole Hauser plays Jack, leader of a team of professional spelunkers, including his brother Tyler (Eddie Cibrian), Buchanan (Morris Chestnut) and Charlie (Piper Perabo), who join up with a team of European scientists to investigate a deep, dark cavern, long hidden beneath a 13th-century church. The theory is that a new eco-system lies there undiscovered.

What they actually discover within the dank, dripping recesses of the cave is... well, not to give the game away, but it's slimy, and toothy, and predatory. It soon becomes clear that the significant point of resemblance here is not between The Cave and The Descent but the debt both films owe to the mother of them all, Alien. Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi shocker basically presented the blueprint for a modern genre we might call "terror incognita", not just in terms of narrative structure but in the echoing design of monster and lair. So when we look at the narrow, jagged passageways the team must negotiate we are immediately inclined to associate them with the very maws of death. It also cleaves to Scott's film in the motif of DNA contamination. Just as Sigourney Weaver was fatally incubating alien spawn, so Jack begins hallucinating after an unfriendly claw tears his skin and infects his blood. The reptilian eyes and acute sensory perception are the outward sign of his inner metamorphosis - the equivalent of Weaver's sudden nosebleed at the end of Alien 3 - and suggest to his companions that they might soon be needing a new team leader.

The Cave, a feature debut by commercials director Bruce Hunt, goes about its business with some style, particularly in the underwater sequences filmed by photographer Wes Skiles. (The expedition is pioneering a fancy new scuba apparatus that allows a diver to be submerged for up to 24 hours.) The dramatic chiaroscuro of flares illuminating the cavern lends an eerily beautiful look to the subterranean darkness, though it reverts to formula once the atrocity exhibition gets under way and compels us to speculate on which cast member is next up for a horrible death. "He was Special Forces, man!" says someone, incredulous that one of their colleagues should be so easily dispatched: he's not very special now. The film rather hurries its last 20 minutes, and the disintegrating set, a Bosch-like vision of hell up to this point, looks suddenly quite crummy. It substitutes the horripilating shocks that Neil Marshall sprang on us in The Descent for a somewhat less gory experience, reflected in its "12A" certificate. But it would have scared the bejesus out of me at that age.

The Mighty Celt is another debut feature that's shadowed by the memory of a classic. Set against the backdrop of post-Peace Agreement Northern Ireland, it recounts the story of a bullied child, Donal (Tyrone McKenna), who finds solace in helping a greyhound breeder named Good Joe (Ken Stott) train up his dogs for racing. The boy's mother, Kate, is played by Gillian Anderson, her Belfast accent sounding to these ears pretty convincing - more so than her status as Northern Ireland's loneliest single mother. Then back from exile comes mystery figure "O" (Robert Carlyle), a former IRA man who's renounced the struggle and wants to reconcile with Kate, still bitter on account of her brother's death in the Republican cause two decades before.

Writer-director Pearse Elliott almost certainly had Ken Loach's Kes in mind when he first drafted a script back in 1996, and newcomer McKenna does a good job as the misfit who befriends a tawny greyhound and names it after the legendary Ulster hero Cuchulainn - The Mighty Celt. This is the dog that Good Joe has promised to give him if it wins three races on the trot. The film is at its most potent in the ominous interplay between Donal and Joe: the boy regards the dog trainer as his mentor, even though he knows him to be unspeakably cruel. That tension is rather squandered by the arrival of Carlyle, and his effortless ease in supplanting Joe as the boy's true father figure renders The Mighty Celt more than a little glib. A subplot concerning a cache of IRA guns opens the way to a finale that pours on melodrama as thick as an Irish mist. It's muddled and mawkish, but you doff your hat to Ken Stott's glowering misanthrope and to Anderson for her willingness to dig into character, proof that her superb performance in The House of Mirth a few years back was no fluke. I wish they could find better movies for her than this.

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