The imminent arrival of the rebooted Hellboy will be the first feature film that Neil Marshall has directed since Centurion way back in 2010. In anticipation of what he and David Harbour will bring to the Dark Horse Comics adaptation, we continue to take a look back over Marshall’s filmography.
After his moderate success with his directorial debut, Dog Soldiers, Marshall was approached with a number of horror based projects as a result. He was reluctant to do another horror for fear it would be too similar to his werewolf flick. However, when The Descent was brought to his attention he felt it contained enough differences and he agreed. Just like Dog Soldiers, it was made for a relatively small budget but it achieved greater success at the box office making ten times as much. Grossing over £57 million at the box office it demonstrated that Marshall wasn’t a one-hit wonder, and it retains an 85% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The plot of the film involves a group of friends going caving together only once they get below the surface they become trapped and discover they are not alone. Humanoid creatures, dubbed as Crawlers, start to hunt them down which is bad enough but the group also have to confront their own inner demons and those of their friends.
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One of the first decisions Marshall made about the film was to do with the main leads opting to challenge the conventions of the day and cast all women in the roles. Wanting the achieve authenticity and avoid cliches, Marshall spoke to his female friends to help him create believable characters. Whereas Dog Soldiers was a very British film Marshall’s decisions on characters accents and the like made the film feel more open to all. Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) and Juno (Natalie Mendoza) are very strong characters and as the film progresses and we learn more about them they remain compelling. These women do not fulfil the standard horror film roles of just being there to die, they are protagonist and antagonist alike and as the terror takes a hold of them you get caught up for the ride.
The Descent is, unsurprisingly, a very claustrophobic film but not just because it’s set in a cave system. Marshall always takes the time to build on the tension throughout the duration. Too often in horror films, the scares happen too quickly and then lose momentum before the finale. In his own words in an interview for the Irish Times, Marshall said: “We really wanted to ramp up the tension slowly, unlike all the American horror films you see now. They take it up to 11 in the first few minutes and then simply can’t keep it up. We wanted to show all these terrible things in the cave: dark, drowning, claustrophobia. Then, when it couldn’t get any worse, make it worse.”
Given the setting, there are a lot of jump-scares but they never cease to deliver, and once again, similar to the werewolves in Dog Soldiers, Marshall elected to use actors to play the Crawlers rather than stuntmen. He wanted them to develop a character for their Crawler, even if they were only seen on screen for a few seconds so that they were never the equivalent of the third zombie on the left. Marshall also took things one step further and kept the actors playing the group of the friends separate from those playing the Crawlers. In fact, the first scene in which the group encounter the murderous cave dwellers was the first time any of the actresses had seen the fully made up Crawlers. Those are genuine screams of terror we see on the screen.
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One of the outstanding things about The Descent is the ending, and we are not referring to the American version. In the American version, there is a ‘happy ending’ which sees Sarah making it out of the caves alive and paves the way for the not very successful sequel. Marshall’s involvement in the sequel was as an Executive Producer, his vision of how the first film should end was very different.
In the UK version, Sarah does not escape the cave and has given over completely to her growing insanity and we see her being advanced upon as the screen goes black. This was deemed as being too dark for American audiences and Marshall relented slightly by filming them both.
The Descent is a very visceral and draining film, an audience can be left feeling physically exhausted after witnessing the ordeal, and that is due to not only the stellar acting but also down to Marshall’s script and direction. Whether it is better than Dog Soldiers is down to personal opinion but it was certainly more financially successful. It remains to be seen how Hellboy will be shaped based on Marshall’s experience with The Descent and we hope it will be in a positive way.