English writer/director Neil Marshall is a modern-day rarity: A director of horror/action genre movies who’s become a name in the field with original screenplays as opposed to remakes or adaptations. He first caught attention for Dog Soldiers, which violently pitted a British Army squad against vicious werewolves. Later, he garnered mainstream acclaim for The Descent, in which a group of female cave explorers are hunted by subterranean ghouls. He followed that with Doomsday, an ultra-violent homage to the ’80s sci-fi/action films of John Carpenter and George Miller, with Rhona Mitra as an action heroine stuck in a walled-off Plague Zone. (It’s fashionable to dismiss Doomsday as a step backward for him, but I for one loved the bloody thing.)
In 2007, he married writer/actress Axelle Carolyn, having met her when she interviewed him for Fangoria Magazine – a match made in Horror Geek Heaven. Now he’s back with Centurion, a bloody work of historical fiction loosely based on the legend of the Ninth Legion – a Roman military detachment that vanished during the violent conflict with the Picts in A.D. 117 Scotland. In Marshall’s film, the Ninth is massacred by Picts led by Olga Kurylenko and Axelle herself, and a lone Centurion (Michael Fassbender of Inglorious Basterds) must lead a handful of survivors back to Roman lines.
I and other writers sat down for a round-table interview with both Marshall and Carolyn about the film and their respective careers. In lieu of presenting the entire session, here’s a look back at Marshall’s films, along with some noteworthy quotations from the interview itself.
I grew up watching Westerns. To me this is a Western – it’s a Western from the Romans’ point of view, this was their first Wild West, their West Frontier, ‘the lawless land.’ From a film point of view it’s very much parallel to the Western with the landscape. What I particularly had in mind were John Ford’s cavalry Westerns; the Romans as the cavalry and the Picts as the Commanches, Apaches, whatever. It comes from that same kind of world. (Neil Marshall on Centurion)
Dog Soldiers (2002)
Marshall’s debut feature actually has a lot in common with other “arrival films” of genre filmmakers who start out in the world of indie horror, particularly Bad Taste, the kickoff film by the now-ominipresent Peter Jackson. Both are just-for-fun gore-fests built on the premise of heavily-armed soldiers battling monsters, (cannibal aliens for Jackson, werewolves for Marshall) and both are imbued with the infectious moviemaking-as-playtime vibe of fans eagerly recreating their favorite Hollywood genre tropes locally (the New Zealand coast for Taste, the Scottish wilderness for Soldiers).
The setup couldn’t be more basic – or more promising: While engaged in a war game exercise in the middle of nowhere, a group of hard-bitten British soldiers find themselves instead facing a pack of werewolves. In genre terms, it’s built to satisfy jaded horror/action fans right off the bat with its plentiful splatter and werewolves that actually do look like immense human/lupine hybrids rather than unshaven men or Twilight-style inflated puppies. But it’s the details that caught critical attention and flagged Marshall as a talent to watch. His compositions and sense of action-geography are clean and professional, his pacing is tight and he puts just enough focus onto the personalities of the human characters.
It’s good drama! War provides great stories, heroes, fantastic characters. In this case, what was interesting about it to me was all the gray area. Heroes and villains on both sides, I kind of embrace that, not to make it clean cut. I was doing a difficult thing anyway – tell the story from the Roman point of view when they are, in essence, the villains. But I wanted it not to be about the Roman Way, but the individuals – these men who just want to get home. (Neil Marshall, on Centurion)
The Descent (2005)
In his follow-up film, Marshall opts to break a whole bunch of Hollywood rules all at once: a morally ambiguous genre film with an all-female hero cast, set mostly in near-total darkness. The result remains arguably his best film.
A group of female cave explorers are trapped in a maze of underground tunnels inhabited by a family of nocturnal subhuman flesh-eaters. Another simple premise, once again all about the execution. It’s a rare movie that can make what is essentially 90 minutes of claustrophobia, grueling violence and emotionally-unstable leads into entertainment, but it manages spectacularly.
Neil made it very clear, day one, “We’re going to put you through hell.” And then he pretty much did. It was unbelievably cold, we shot in the Highlands of Scotland in February – sometimes it’s cold, sometimes it’s wind, sometimes it’s snow, and everything, every single shot was outdoors. (Axelle Carolyn, on making Centurion with her husband Neil Marshall)
If Dog Soldiers was the quintessential fan-turned-filmmaker debut, Doomsday is the quintessential fan-turned-filmmaker-with-clout epic of indulgence. It’s neither as solid as Soldiers nor as polished as The Descent, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a total blast.
An unashamed, affectionate mash-up of John Carpenter’s Escape From New York and George Miller’s Mad Max films, the premise finds Amazonian model/actress Rhona Mitra (currently wasting her time on TV’s The Gates,) as a refugee from a walled-off, plague-devastated Scotland, turned British super-soldier and dropped back into the plague zone to investigate rumors of survivors and a possible cure. Instead she finds a war between two plague-immune tribes – one cannibalistic, the other … well, you kinda have to see it.
It has its problems. The wide-scale scope frequently runs away with the story, and it crosses the line from “homage” to “retread” too frequently. But as a drive-in style throwback you can do a lot worse, and the aforementioned surprise of the second tribe is just too inventive not to find impressive.
Centurion, starring Michael Fassbender and Olga Kurylenko, is now playing in limited release, and is reviewed on this week’s episode of Escape to The Movies. Neil Marshall is next slated to direct Burst – a 3D horror film “about people exploding” for producer Sam Raimi. He is currently executive-producing wife Axelle Carolyn’s debut horror film, The Ghost of Slaughterford.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.