There are certain directors that come along whose careers seem to be intrinsically connected to their first movies, to the point where it can sometimes overshadow their other works. Whenever anyone brings up Sam Raimi as being attached to a project you get ‘the Evil Dead guy?’ in response, even though he’s worked on many other projects with very different tones since.
Because his first film was such a hit it’s become THE film of his career. Neil Marshall is another of these directors, who no matter what work he produces people will think of Dog Soldiers before anything else. And it seems that after spending the last twenty years making film and TV of varying styles he’s going back to his roots for his latest film, The Lair, which feels like a spiritual sequel to his debut movie.
Much like Dog Soldiers, The Lair pits a group of soldiers against a monstrous foe in a fight for survival with a cast of weird characters and fun banter, though this time we’ve swapped the forests of Scotland for the hills of Afghanistan. The film opens with British Air Force pilot Kate Sinclair (Charlotte Kirk) on mission over Afghanistan, where she and her partner are both shot down. As the two pilots eject from their craft and manage to land safely they come under attack from insurgents in a fight that leaves Kate as the only survivor. Forced to run from the scene as more enemy fighters close on her position, she stumbles across an old soviet bunker, a warning hastily scrawled on the outside, and the doors chained shut.
Coming under enemy fire, Kate enters the bunker, hoping that it can provide her shelter, or perhaps a weapon. With the insurgents stalking her through the halls and tunnels beneath the surface Kate finds evidence of startling experiments having been conducted within the bunker; and when one of the creatures inside the lab if freed and starts killing everyone, she manages to escape to the surface. Picked up by a group of American soldiers and taken back to their base, Kate knows that the creatures are still out there and tries to convince the commanding officer to listen to her before it’s too late.
There’s very little to the plot of The Lair that will feel new or innovative. The abandoned bunker where twisted experiments were being conducted has been used more than a few times, and the base under siege from monsters isn’t even a new plot for Marshall. But this isn’t a film that’s trying to tread new ground. Instead The Lair is trying to appeal to fans of these particular tropes and stories, and to the people who enjoyed Dog Soldiers, and because of that Marshall is able to put his focus elsewhere in the film, and to just have a bit of fun with things.
One of the things that made Marshall’s first two films work well was the camaraderie that his characters had with each other. Whether it was a group of soldiers stuck in the woods whilst the football was on, or a bunch of women going caving together, Marshall was able to very quickly establish clear characters, demonstrate the bonds between them, and get the audience liking them. This is something that is present in The Lair, but takes a little while to get going. For the first act of the movie Kate is on her own, and Kirk, who previously worked with Marshall on his 2020 movie The Reckoning, does this well. Once Kate meets up with the American soldiers we’re slowly introduced to our core cast of characters; a mix of US and British troops.
Kate is the outsider in this situation, and we meet the others through her experiences at the base. A such we get small snippets of background on the people present, an explanation for why they’re in a unit made up of fuck-ups and losers. The concept of a group of soldiers who are the people that the army wants to shove in a crappy base and leave them to their own devices because throwing them out would be too much trouble is a fun one, and it means that Marshall can get a bit arch in their portrayal and characteristics. But it does become clear that the soldiers there care for each other and know each other well as you see their inside jokes and shorthand coming through in their dialogue. Some of the best of this is the moments of culture clash between the American and British soldiers, especially with Welsh soldier Oswald Jones (Leon Ockenden).
The stand out of the film, however, is Hadi Khanjanpour, who plays captured insurgent Kabir. Rather than going the same route as Dog Soldiers and Captain Ryan (who was also captured by the protagonists and spent a while tied to a chair), the film doesn’t have Kabir turn on the soldiers. Instead, it becomes a narrative of these two sides at war with each other working together against a common foe. There’s even a sequence where he describes growing up in a country under invasion from the soviets, of watching his friends and family killed, that seems to give the foreign soldiers a moment’s pause as they start to consider that perhaps the insurgents aren’t who they thought they were. Sadly, the rest of the movie ruins this as every other Afghani present in the film is an antagonist out to kill the heroes. But Kabir is at least presented as a decent character.
I can’t talk about a monster movie and not talk about the monsters, so let’s get into it. The creatures in The Lair aren’t going to be as memorable as the werewolves in Dog Soldiers or the crawlers from The Descent, both of which were great designs. The creatures in this movie are less distinct, and their design feels like something that I’ve seen before more than once. That being said, there is a certain thing that they do that feels like a surprisingly creative moment, and their origin was genuinely surprising.
Luckily, the monsters here don’t have to be distinct, they just have to be a deadly force overwhelming the heroes; which they do well. The best thing about the monsters, however, is the fact that they’re practical. Whilst CGI means that films are capable of bringing the most fantastical design to life it does also mean that you often feel that what you’re looking at isn’t real, and on occasion performances suffer from having to interact with nothing. The Lair chooses instead to stick stunt actors in monster suits, and it’s such a great choice. The practical approach makes the film feel like an old-school monster movie, and that’s definitely a plus.
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Whilst the film itself is enjoyable, the physical release is somewhat lacking. Other than the film there’s a short behind the scenes segment that’s mostly just clips from interviews with a few of the films cast and crew. Mostly they talk about what their characters are like, which if you’ve already watched the film you know. There’s a little bit of talk about what filming was like and how well the cast got on, but there’s nothing truly revealing or interesting here. There’s nothing about the making of the movie, the design and creation of the monsters, or what shooting the action was like. Compared to home releases of Marshall’s older movies, which would come with all of this plus a commentary or two, the DVD feels ridiculously light. You’re basically just paying for the movie, which does help those who don’t have Shudder, but for those that already do there’s no real reason to go out and get the physical release.
The Lair is Marshall going back to the movie that made him a hit and putting that formula in a new setting, and despite it being quite obvious that it’s the same kind of movie it’s incredibly good fun. Marshall has tried a few different things, and whilst his work is entertaining, this feels like where he excels. It might not have much substance, and it won’t become a film that people hold up as a masterpiece, but it’s the kind of film you can have a lot of fun with, a film that you can put on a guilty pleasure list, and that you can stick on whenever you want a bit of schlock. And as someone who likes a bit of schlock every now and then it’s a lot of fun.