A Neil Marshall Halloween: Dog Soldiers and The Descent

Source: RogerEbert.com

As you all doubtlessly know, Spooktober is upon us, and it’s time for everyone to put on some diapers and watch the most disturbing and terrifying movies they can think of. The filmography of Neil Marshall is a perfect starting point, if you’re looking for pants-filling entertainment that’s also, um, entertaining. Among many other solid projects, Neil Marshall has directed two cult classics horror films: The Descent, and Dog Soldiers.

These are well-paced, violent, gore-soaked kill-fests, each with a pretty good story to boot. I’m a newbie when it comes to horror, but these two stuck out to me mainly as good movies in general, so that’s how I’ll be critiquing them. They’d both be well at home in a grindhouse lineup, even though they’re high-quality films, which is exactly as fun as it sounds. Many people I’ve met haven’t even heard of Dog Soldiers or The Descent though, which is a travesty. Let’s fix that.

 

The Descent

The Descent is a cool movie about grief and the struggle to escape the tar-pit that it’ll make out of your life. At least, that’s the internal struggle, conveyed through artsy-fartsy narrative decisions and visual metaphors, and it works quite well. This film is thematically simple, like most good movies (please don’t kill me, you can still pull off complicated ideas just not as often). That’s what motivates the protagonist, it’s the heroine’s (it’s an all-female cast) internal structure. Something that really rubs me the right way is when the protagonist has an internal conflict that runs parallel to the external conflict which the audience is directly watching. Sure they’re all trying to get out of a scary cave and survive, but the depths that they’re trying to escape from are obviously a metaphor for the heroine’s struggle with grief. There’s a cool lateral shot where she’s literally scrambling up a mountain of bones towards a faint light, which I choose to interpret as a metaphor. As she conquers the outer obstacles, she conquers the inner obstacles, moving past her grief as she moves towards freedom.

Marshall (he also wrote the screenplay) also spends just the right amount of time getting you to care about the characters, a group of female adrenaline junkies from the UK. They have good chemistry, they’re believable, not a single one of them is annoying, they can talk about something other than the men in their lives, and they’re all well-acted. Neat. They’re just people, and that’s all we need here. Anyhow, they go into a cave and horrible, horrible stuff happens that gives the movie its real entertainment value, and the action is made potent by the competent character buildup beforehand. You’ve seen enough of these ladies to care when someone’s throat gets turned inside out, to understand when one of them gets scared and does something panicky and short-sighted. It also helps that the mistakes they make avoid the typical “look behind you” stupidity in horror films. They’re in an unfair, impossible situation where there literally isn’t a right decision to make, so it’s believable for them to make bad choices. It’s the only way it could shake out.

Another thing that I really like about The Descent was the way that they relentlessly torture the protagonist, because your story can only end in genuine triumph if it’s also got genuine adversity. She suffers horribly at the beginning, she’s the team’s weakest link, she has to do unspeakable acts to help her friend, and she makes a truly heart-wrenching decision at the end.

My one complaint about this movie is the ending. From the bottom of my heart, the ending is shockingly lame for an otherwise amazing horror film, but who cares? The journey to reach the ending is more important than the ending itself. While I didn’t like the final shot, it still didn’t irk me as much as the one from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, which I’ve already done a whole article about. The ending of The Descent feels unoriginal and lazy, but at least the story is concluded.

One last thing I’d like to talk about is the gore in this movie. It’s done really well, because it does what it set out to do by lending impact to every act of violence. The gore here is about consequences for actions and decisions, at least as much as it’s about grossing out the audience. Even though it’s dark, it’s pretty obvious that this character is hurt badly, because her blood is spraying into a flashlight beam. This person is clearly dead, because she’s half-eaten. There’s not a lot of flair, and it conveys the realities of the situation. The gore looks realistic and never reminds you that you’re watching a movie, only that something awful just happened. When gory effects are applied to insignificant characters it can be entertaining or even funny, but it’s just sad when it happens to people the audience cares about, as it does here.

 

Dog Soldiers

Source: LSG Media

Dog Soldiers is nothing like Air Bud. You knew that, but I still had to say it. Anyhow, this is an interesting, similarly low-budget movie with lots of blood and murder, and even some explosions. It also happens to be a good film. Neil Marshall directed Dog Soldiers in 2002, several years before The Descent, and nothing will make that more apparent than actually watching it. He didn’t set out to reinvent the wheel with this movie and made a fun action-horror that would’ve been a perfect grindhouse feature back when those were a thing. It feels a lot like a slasher film, but with alright characters instead of empty-headed teens whose bad decisions are all that drives the plot forward. Dog Soldiers is entertaining, it’s fun to watch, and it never comes across as stupid.

Dog Soldiers and The Descent have very different structure and tone even though they’re both directed with the same visual style. The monsters in Dog Soldiers show up at the very beginning, where in The Descent, they didn’t make a decisive and active appearance until just past the halfway point. Dog Soldiers is about a squad of British infantry fighting werewolves, which is inherently cheesy, but this movie is completely comfortable with that. It’s comfortable with what it is, and is dedicated to fully realizing its concept. The good guys are trapped and surrounded, and they have to use limited ammunition, random objects, and improvised weapons to survive, as drama within the group makes the situation worse. If you’ve seen Aliens, Night of the Living Dead, or Assault on Precinct 13, then this film will feel familiar. It set out to be a fun, gory movie appropriate to watch with all your bloodthirsty friends, and the fact that the monsters are werewolves never detracts from that. It doesn’t feel fantastical at all, probably because of the extensive use of practical effects. The costumes also look pretty good, at least good enough not to be distracting. Dog Soldiers has a number of plot twists in it, one of which I saw coming, but some genuinely surprising stuff happened. I also cared about those events, because they happened near the end, after I’d watched the protagonists struggle for a while.

There’s some interesting camera work, especially when the shotgun is used onscreen. The camera moves back and forth with the gun’s pump-action, and it makes the scene feel appropriately violent and rhythmic, putting you in the character’s shoes in a tactile way. Sometimes, the camera is frantically whipped around to intentionally confuse the viewer, but the fact that its effect is intentional makes it forgivable. Whenever vital information needs to be shown, it gets shown clearly. One last thing that’s worth mentioning is that Liam Cunningham is in this movie, but his character is the kind of role we’d expect from Jason Isaacs. It was interesting to see Ser Davos from Game of Thrones play a shady antagonist, especially because he did a good job at it.

 

A Quick Word on Budget

One thing that consistently surprises me about horror films, especially the really good ones, is how little money they cost to make. This is old news for anyone with a passing interest in the genre, but my mind was blown when I read that The Descent had a production budget of about $3.5 million. Wow. With a $57 million box office take, it made over a thousand percent profit. This would be why most of the low-budget movies that get wide theater releases are horror films.

 

Directing

Neil Marshall

Neil Marshall directed Dog Soldiers and The Descent, but he’s also responsible for Centurion and Doomsday, which was mind-blowingly rad even though it didn’t make any money. He’s also directed for TV, helming episodes for Game of Thrones, Westworld, and Black Sails. In recent news, there’s a Hellboy remake being made and some people think it’s going to suck, but Neil Marshall is currently attached to direct it. At the very least, that project has a talented director.

This guy consistently hits it out of the park with the quality of his movies. They’re all entertaining and fun to watch, even when he went with a comparatively somber and understated tone in The Descent. I keep thinking of all his movies as similar, but the only thing they really have in common are women that kill stuff, lots of intense violence, the team-on-a-mission structure, and some of the same cast. I’m almost done gushing about Neil Marshall, I promise, but I need to mention that he writes most of these movies himself as well. These stories were his ideas, on top of everything else. These projects aren’t perfect. For example, I’m struggling to remember a lot of the dialogue, and most of the characters aren’t terribly interesting, but the sheer entertainment value overshadows those issues. If you’re having a movie night with a large group of people, any one of Neil Marshall’s feature films would be an excellent choice.

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