DEATH FROM BELOW
After the ultra low-budget werewolf romp Dog Soldiers, Neil Marshall drops audiences into the full-blooded terror of The Descent. DVD Review picks the brain of British horror’s brightest star…
Going Underground: Leigh Singer
There’s no doubt that we’re drawn to horror movies by the thrill of the unexpected or fear of the unknown, but, at the same time, one of the genre’s reassuring aspects is how fans can identify their favourite directors by their adherence to a familiar style or subject matter. Witness George Romero and his lumbering zombie hordes; David Cronenberg’s clinically gruesome “body horror”; Wes Craven and his post-modern, slick slasher flicks. Thus Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers, an action-packed werewolf caper stuffed with blood, guts and bloke-ish comic banter, attracted a cult following eager to see his next mix of, in the director’s own words, “a few shocks, a few laughs.”
So what does he do? He knocks them down with The Descent; a grim, grisly, relentlessly dark trip into grief, madness and flesh-eating cave dwellers. “I didn’t want to repeat the formula and make the same film twice,” shrugs Marshall. “I knew I wanted to do a really scary film and terrify the life out of people. This one goes straight for the throat. I love messing with people’s heads.”
Call Marshall, an affable 35-year old Geordie, a sadist (cinematically speaking, of course) and he takes it as a compliment. No wonder. A quick summary of The Descent deliberately suggests a direct sister film to Marshall’s feature debut. That had six squaddies, eventually holed up in a farmhouse, fighting off mean-tempered lycanthropes. The Descent sets up half a dozen women, cavers who go off-map in the depths of the Appalachian Mountains, trapped and forced to fight for their lives in subterranean passages and crawlspaces against a different breed of carnivorous beasties. The early jokey moniker, “chicks with picks”, used for this film harks back to Dog Soldiers’ more jocular tone, giving no indication of just how pitch black – literally for most of its running time – The Descent gets.
“I really wanted to explore the darker side of human nature and the darker side of my nature as well,” Marshall confirms. “The film isn’t about the fact that they’re all women. It isn’t a chick flick, it isn’t about girl issues, it’s about survival issues.” Or not, given the gruesome fate of most of the cast. But there’s a serious point Marshall had to address, given the unpredictable science of box-office. Dog Soldiers scored well with young lads, but wasn’t so appealing to female viewers. What would reversing the gender make-up of his protagonists do to potential audiences?
“The key research for this was, what could we do to keep the original Dog Soldiers audience and still get girls in,” Marshall explains. “That wasn’t the reason to make it an all-girl movie but it was certainly worth thinking about. It would be great if this were a film that girls were dragging their boyfriends to see – because the girlfriends will appreciate it for different reasons.” Marshall lets rip a conspiratorial grin. “Boys being inherently a little shallower may simply appreciate the fact that there’s six beautiful girls onscreen – there are worse ways to spend a couple of hours.”
Dog Soldiers’ cast weren’t big stars, but actors like Kevin McKidd and Sean Pertwee were both recognisable faces. It’s unlikely, though, that many people will previously have seen much of the actresses in The Descent, Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid and company. Not that that fazed them, or their director. “I was just after the best people for the jobs,” Marshall states matter-of-factly. “They brought not only their acting qualities but also a great deal of enthusiasm and no qualms about getting their hands dirty. I made it very clear to them that it was going to be tough, that they were going to go through a lot of physical hardships and they were all up for it.”
“What was really good about them is that they weren’t lying,” he adds, mindful that sometimes actors can say anything to land a role. “Not a word of complaint. And even if they had, I’d have said, “Sorry, I warned you. You still have to get in the pool of blood.’”
Keen to get the cast into the all-action mindset that the shoot required, Marshall and his actors spent several days white-water rafting, caving and abseiling. “That was great fun and a good bonding exercise,” he recalls. “They turned into a bunch of adrenalin junkies!” It also meant they’d have some real-life frame of reference to call on for the caving dilemmas their characters face - which obviously wasn’t the case for being hunted by hungry subterranean humanoids. Marshall could have chosen anything to put deep in the cave network as the film’s antagonists: aliens, ghosts, giant bugs, you name it. But he decided early on to keep the premise as “realistic” as he could.
“The original concept was that they should be humans who have evolved to exist underground and that stayed,” he explains. “It was the science behind that that dictated how they were going to end up looking – sort of pasty and pallid and very fit. They lost their eyesight because they live in the pitch black, tuned their hearing better and have a sonar capacity like bats – I mean this is all over hundreds of thousands of years as the colony have evolved in theses caves. They function as a society, hunt as a group, men, women and children.” Imagine a pack of six-foot homicidal Gollums, whose precioussss is your own flesh, stalking you in the dark and you have some idea of Marshall’s “crawlers”.
On-set, Marshall upped the suspense by keeping the actors well away from the crawlers until it came time to shoot scenes with them. “They were getting really, really nervous about it,” he chuckles. “They didn’t know what to expect, hadn’t seen any pictures and it was a lot of fun playing around with that. So when we did the take and introduced the crawlers, they just snapped and went running off into the dark screaming.”
Nevertheless it seems the actors quickly got to grips with the crawlers - and their own characters’ grisly fates. “They looked forward to their death scenes,” Marshall observes. “I think it’s something unique for an actor to do – live a death before your own time’s up. We filmed it in linear order so when each character came up to their death scene, we shot it and then they wrapped and were finished with the film. We did it the same with Dog Soldiers. It works for the actors and it works for me. It’s a journey that they go on.”
As creepy as the crawlers are, the general fear factor is greatly increased by the dank, dark, claustrophobic caves they call home. This isn’t an environment you’d want to be trapped in alone, let alone having dozens of deformed flesh-eaters for company. Astonishingly, as Marshall proudly relates, “there isn’t a single real cave in the entire film.”
“It’s the fine work of my production designer Simon Bowles and Director of Photography Sam McCurdy,” he says generously. “The trick was not to have any lighting source in the caves other than what the girls would have had – that made it immediately more claustrophobic. There were a couple of CG set extensions but just making them cold and wet was the key. The cave that we went to down in Derbyshire was just like that, slimy and cold and dripping – not a comfortable environment.”
For a film shot almost entirely in Shepperton Studios outside London, then, with a cast of characters five-sixths of whom are Europeans, it’s interesting that Marshall chose to set the film in backwoods America, specifically the Appalachian Mountains. The reasons were twofold. Firstly, as Marshall correctly identifies, it solves the problem of “trying to find a remote but highly accessible area. The concept of people living out in the woods – you want to pick an area where conceivably these things could exist and thrive and where no one’s ever been.”
Secondly, and in a more movie-oriented move, Marshall was paying homage to a particular favourite. “I wanted to set it there as a tribute to Deliverance.” The 1972 John Boorman classic had Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight leading a band of city slickers through brutal encounters with nature and some sexually frustrated hillbillies, who may not have wanted to eat their prey, but certainly had some other unpleasant plans involving the idea of “pork”.
Deliverance is one of several cinematic references that keen-eyed viewers might spot (perhaps most explicitly when Macdonald’s Sarah rises out of a steaming pool - of blood - much like the iconic shot of Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now). It’s the sort of “quoting” (or, as its critics would have it, uninspired theft) that’s come in for a lot of stick in recent years but Marshall remains defiant for his own motivations.
“For me it’s paying tribute to the films that have inspired this one,” he argues. “Also there’s a generation out there who aren’t aware that’s there’s a film called Deliverance and if seeing this film alerts them to the fact it’s out there, then maybe they’ll go and check it out. At heart it’s just a bit of fun – a nod and a wink to people like me out there who are going to get these jokes. If it distracts from the film then it’s done badly. If you notice it, great, if you don’t, it makes no difference. That’s the way it should work.”
Deliverance, Apocalypse Now…it’s no stretch to see the movie era that’s chiefly inspired Marshall. “The great films of the 70s were allowed to have a little ambiguity,” he claims. “One of my favourite films of the 70s is [hot-rodding road movie] Two-Lane Blacktop - I love the ending of that film, when the film just burns out in the camera. The last great horror ending for me is probably John Carpenter’s The Thing. I love that ‘What happens next?’ thing where you leave it hanging. Trying to figure out what the fuck it means doesn’t deter your enjoyment of the film, it actually improves it.”
It’s a hint to the ambiguity of The Descent’s ending, which obviously won’t be revealed here. One thing that can be safely said, since Marshall’s as good as admitted it anyway, it’s that it’s not happily ever after for all concerned. Again, as a devoted horror fan as well as a filmmaker, he’s fairly unrepentant about why. “Horror’s the one genre where you can do it and not enough people try,” he grumbles. “The British scene has been incredibly dormant for a long time. I wish more directors like Danny Boyle [28 Days Later] would turn their hand to horror more often. There’s still an inherent snobbery in this country.”
So what messes with the head of Britain’s current foremost head-messer? Marshall lists a fairly conventional list – Alien, The Omen, The Shining – before recalling a less heralded source. “Years and years ago I saw a great thing on an old black and white TV,” he remembers. “The Legend of Boggy Creek. It was a pseudo-documentary about Bigfoot made in the 70s and it absolutely scared the shit out of me. This was years before The Blair Witch Project. It worked an absolute treat, although I was 12 or 13 when I saw it.”
Still, as with the switch in tone between Dog Soldiers and The Descent, it’s probably best not to pigeonhole Marshall as solely a horror director. He lists several intriguing upcoming possible projects, including a war film and a nifty take on the Excalibur myth, partly in response to his contempt for recent Jerry Bruckheimer / Hollywood production King Arthur (“there’s a damn good reason no one told the ‘true story’ before,” he winces, “it’s because it was shit”).
“I’d like to go off and explore something else,” Marshall says, “and maybe come back refreshed to horror in another couple of films’ time and start splashing the blood and guts around again.” He lets slip a mile-wide smile. “’Cause it’s fun.”
LET’S TALK ABOUT SEXES…
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Uzi 9mm to 5
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis play three hard-working, heavily armed and near unintelligible office workers, sick of being exploited by their female boss (Demi Moore), who take matters in their own hands by blowing up not just their office but the entire block it stands on