…and again, and again.
You know, I really like Neil Marshall’s films, but watching four of them over a couple of Saturday nights brings home how similar they all are, at least in the basics.
A tight knit group gets caught in an isolated spot (Scotland in three of these films) and have to fight against nigh impossible odds, with only one of them left standing at the end. Invariably there’s some treachery involved and one of the bad guys (a woman, always) helps out our hard pressed band of heroes.
Consider the evidence:-
Dog Soldiers (2002)
Squaddies on a military exercise in the Scottish highlands are being used as bait by an elite unit intent on trapping a werewolf, only there’s actually more than one lycanthrope. Our heroes end up trapped in the house the werewolf family use when they’re not furry on the outside, and under siege, while the woman who appears to be helping them is not all she seems. It’s all great fun and, at some points, reminded me very much of Night of the Living Dead, only with wolves in lieu of zombies. Some cracking dialogue, with a real sense of camaraderie between the squaddies, and a nasty piece of work villain in super soldier Ryan, whose early hostility to hero Pvt Cooper (Kevin McKidd) when he refuses to shoot a dog and prove he’s got what it takes to become special forces, comes back to bite him. If I have a reservation, it’s that the werewolves looked a bit too gangly, almost like plants swaying in the wind at times. That aside, a great action come horror flick.
The Descent (2005)
A group of six women go potholing in the Appalachian Mountains, only for reasons of her own Juno (Natalie Mendoza) leads them to an unexplored cave system instead of the ‘safe’ cavern they were supposed to venture into. The women become trapped underground and then discover that they are not alone, falling prey to hungry troglodytes. As before, after the initial scene setting and character mapping, the film develops into a tense fight for survival against non-human foes, but while the women are fully drawn there isn’t quite the same humour that was found in Soldiers. In the opening scenes we see a similar exploit of the group that ends in tragedy, with Sarah’s (Shauna Macdonald) husband and child killed in a RTA, and this sets the tone for a film that is a lot darker, bleaker, with secrets and tensions undercutting the solidarity of the group. . Gripping as the action is, with the women picked off one by one, and the troglodytes depicted in a way that renders them convincingly alien, it’s secondary to the horror of the situation, and that arises from the setting, the feel of claustrophobia evoked by being all that way underground, crawling through tight passages in the rock and dependent on fading technological devices for any light. Watching it, I felt genuinely unnerved, the film digging deep into the subconscious. As before there is a lone survivor, but Marshall plays a trump card to suggest that not all is as it may appear, leaving reality itself up for grabs. This is, I think, his best film.
Three more years and another Neil Marshall film with a title beginning with ‘D’. In view of past success he’s been given a decent budget this time out, hence the presence of Rhona Mitra and Bob Hoskins in the cast roster. The Reaper virus breaks out in Scotland and to prevent its spread Westminster has the whole country sealed off with the high tech version of Hadrian’s wall (you can find a SNP subtext in this if you look hard enough, I’m sure). Umpteen years later Reaper resurfaces in London, but satellite pictures suggest there is still life north of the border and so an elite unit led by Eden (Mitra) is sent to bring back the cure. On the other side of the wall they discover two pockets of civilisation at war with each other, a feudal society complete with knights in armour and a tribe of urban warriors with punk tastes in fashion and an appetite for human flesh. Obviously influenced by films like Mad Max and Escape from New York, this is pretty much a gonzo, over the top outing and an awful lot of fun. I remember sitting on the couch with my mouth hanging open in disbelief as the leader of the punk tribe struts his stuff like a rock star on steroids, and wondering how much crazier this could all get. And yet, if you don’t go all po-faced about it, this is a great little film, with a deliriously ludicrous plot that comes complete with a realpolitik subtext, a seemingly inexhaustible sense of invention, a rocking soundtrack, and in Eden Sinclair a heroine we can believe in. I think I may file it under guilty pleasure.
Only two years between films, which may explain why the title begins with ‘C’, not ‘D’. After their army is wiped out, a small group of Roman soldiers led by Michael Fassbender find themselves stuck far behind enemy lines and having to evade a Pict war party if they are to make it back in one piece. There are added complications thanks to treachery in the ranks, and some unlooked for help from a Pict woman exiled for witchcraft, but to be honest it’s all starting to feel a tad formulaic by now. I’ll admit that this bargain basement Gladiator niggled me early on with a title sequence that probably sounded good in theory but really didn’t come off on a small screen, with words tiny at first and then looming too large and flashing by, and while I salute the urge to authenticity represented by having the characters talk Pictish, if your subtitles are going to come small, fast and white on a white background then I’d really rather you didn’t bother. After the scene setting etc., we get down to the nitty gritty and there are some riveting battle scenes, both mass and personal combat, but all the same it had about it a sense of going through the chopping motions, with both plot and director seeming a little bit tired by now. At some point I stopped really caring and started just counting the decapitated heads.