Thursday, October 29, 2009

Dog Soldiers and The Descent: Neil Marshall, New Genre Hero

British filmmaker Neil Marshall's only directed three movies so far, but on the strength of the two I've seen, I'm willing to go out on a limb and proclaim him one of the most promising guys working in the horror genre today. His inaugural features, 2002's Dog Soldiers and 2005's The Descent, do their jobs so well that they transcend the genre.

Marshall's concise, lean style involves setting up a pretty basic fits-in-one-sentence synopsis, then turbo-charging it with clever, compact writing and solid characterizations. Seems simple enough, until you consider how few modern horror filmmakers actually get past the 'fits-in-one-sentence' part.

Dog Soldiers' conceit? A squad of British soldiers on a routine training mission in the Scottish wilds are besieged by a pack of lycanthropes, then they barricade themselves in a deserted cottage. So, yeah, it's basically a classic World War II action opus with werewolves and a dash of Night of the Living Dead stirred in.

The budget's punishingly low (admittedly, there are more convincing screen werewolves in the canon), but Dog Soldiers still nailed me to my seat, in part because of the script. The half-dozen soldiers at the movie's epicenter talk, act, and think like real hard-scrapple guys, and Marshall (who also wrote the screenplay) gives them all great, humorous tough-guy dialogue. The principals--Sean Pertwee as the commanding officer, Kevin McKidd of Rome fame as his no-bull second-in-charge, and Liam Cunningham as the resident not-so-nice special ops guy--all deliver, too.

Marshall also knows--big-time--how to jack up the tension. He sets up innumerable perils for his grunts, and engineers them with plausibility and merciless efficiency. By the time the movie's reached its fiery conflagration, the director's got his hooks in you but good.

He followed Dog Soldiers with The Descent in 2005. Again, the central concept could fit on the head of a pin. And again, Marshall makes it into something tense, taut, scary, and genre-transcending.

Fate levels an awful blow to young wife and mother Sarah (Shauna McDonald), and a year after her devastating loss she's on a camping trip with five of her best friends. The six women party and bond, then head into the Appalacian woods to go spelunking in an off-the-beaten-path cave, and the trouble--some of it rooted in their own foibles, some of it decidedly monstrous in nature--begins.

Even more than Dog Soldiers, The Descent transcends its pulpy concept. Marshall fleshes his characters out well in the movie's opening scenes, subtly laying out the individual personality traits that prefigure their fates later in the film. And he deserves commendation as much for what he doesn't do as for what he does: He never makes a big deal about his leads all being female; despite the Deliverance elements that surface, he never exploits them; and he avoids CGI, letting shadow, ambient sound, and good old-fashioned prosthetics (that's as close to a spoiler as you're gonna get, kids) aid and abet the story.

The claustrophobic cave setting's utilized brilliantly by Marshall: He turns the cavern labyrinth into a character in its own right. I love the way he uses only light from the women's own stash of flashlights, glowsticks, and lighters to illuminate the surroundings; and how the dark underlit corners of the frame seethe with potential peril. The Descent's principals, all unknown here in the states, do terrific ensemble work, and their relative anonymity as performers helps bolster that great unwritten commandment of a good horror movie: Anyone can die at any time.

Much has been made about The Descent's two endings--the more ostensibly optimistic US edit, and the darker original UK finale. Try to make sure you see the movie with the latter: It's as effective a coda as you'll see in a modern horror flick; elegant, sad, spooky, and ethereal, all at once.

Marshall's third feature, a post-apocalyptic thriller called Doomsday is high on my Netflix cue. If it's one-twentieth as good as Dog Soldiers or The Descent, it'll be another one to savor.

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