|by U.J. Lessing
Neil Marshall creates werewolves, troglodytes, and post-apocalyptic car battles for the screen, but don’t mistake his work for simple horror. The future of the genre may rest in his hands.
A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting in a Chicago hotel lobby watching horror fans of all ages walk by. Some wore garish costumes while others sported t-shirts advertising their favorite horror films. There was way too much cologne in the air, and for a while I shared a couch with a mother holding a toddler who was chewing on a Leatherface “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” action figure. Things got especially strange when Sid Haig, the menacing force from “The House of 1000 Corpses” walked by and said hello. It was really not my scene, and it all struck me as a little immature, so I had to force myself to think back about why I began watching horror in the first place.
When I was younger, it was for the shock of it: like riding a roller coaster except this stuff was forbidden. I rented this stuff behind my parents’ back. It didn’t take long, however, before I came to the conclusion that the most creative minds were working in the horror genre—a feeling that was justified when I watched the careers of directors like Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi explode into modern culture.
The reason I’m at this horror convention is because I want to meet a director who I’m convinced is the future of the genre. Neil Marshall has made only two films, but unlike other entries, they are important works. His pacing is impeccable, his casting and directing emphasize performances in a genre that often suffers from bad overacting, and most importantly, his films are engaging to the point of being painful. It’s hard to look away for even a moment. There isn’t another horror director out there who’s career I’m more invested in: I want to see what he does next.
I met up with Neil Marshall and his wife Axelle Carolyn Marshall who worked on “Doomsday” both behind the camera as a special makeup effects artist and in front of the camera as well. I tried to hide my nervousness as we launched into a discussion about the different places we’ve lived. All three of us were trying to deal with being in one of the ugliest spots in the world, the O’Hare/Rosemont part of the city, where massive airplanes fly overhead and highways snake around the rectangular buildings.
We sat down in a quiet corner of the lobby, and Neil Marshall began to share how horror films had always played a part in his life. He grew up watching classic horror films on television with his father. The Universal films in particular engaged him: Dracula, the Wolf Man, Frankenstein.
When the ‘80s rolled around, the age of video began, and Marshall was exposed to a wholly different type of horror film, John Carpenter movies, for instance, and “The Shining.” Modern horror had entered his life, and he wanted to be a part of it. He enrolled in film school and while other students aimed their career towards fine art by attempting to emulate Ingmar Bergman, Marshall made a 30-minute gore fest about zombies.
After school, Marshall worked as an editor to pay the bills. At the same time, he began developing a script for a new kind of horror film that favored ensemble over carnage. Five years later, Marshall secured funding and “Dog Soldiers” was born.
Marshall explained that “Dog Soldiers” is first and foremost a movie about soldiers and that the werewolves are secondary. Credibility was his utmost concern. He heavily researched the way members of a military squadron worked together, and concentrated on developing a strong sense of ensemble within the cast. Some of his favorite memories are of working intensively with Sean Pertwee who portrayed the squad leader, Sergeant Wells. Marshall beams as he tells me that by the end of the film, the group of actors who portrayed the soldiers had become like a real squadron and would have fought and died for each other.
Marshall’s creature design in “Dog Soldiers” was a reaction to films like “An American Werewolf in London” and “The Howling,” where humans transform into four legged creatures that are basically large wolves. Marshall’s creatures walk upright. They were realized by placing dancers on stilts that simulated the way dog’s hind legs bend. This gave the creatures grace, Marshall explained to me. He added that when it comes to effects, he tends to avoid computer animation in general because the audience immediately recognizes it, and it’s rarely effective. He is quick to praise Steven Spielberg’s groundbreaking dinosaurs from “Jurassic Park”, but he’s equally quick to question the believability of the mastodons in “10,000 BC.”
Marshall followed up his all-male ensemble film with an all-female ensemble film. “The Descent” follows a group of thrill seeking women who find themselves trapped in an underground labyrinth of caves that are seemingly home to vicious, amphibian humanoids. Most successful horror movies are shocking, exciting, or engaging, but rarely all three. “The Descent” creates three-dimensional and sympathetic characters and places them in a frightening situation. It works on multiple psychological planes while maintaining a high level of violence and scariness. Add that the film is beautiful and perfectly paced, and you’ve got a classic of the horror genre.
Again, Marshall was very careful to select actors who were believable, and he shared with me that the casting process was rigorous and thorough. Once the actors were in place, he spent more time directing the cave dwellers than the cast in “The Descent,” in order to get their extreme creepiness just right.
A controversial element of “The Descent” was the fact that American audiences saw a very different ending than British audiences. After some consideration, Marshall decided that enough time had passed that he could share an explanation with me. When the film was shown to American test audiences, they responded more positively with the final scene cut than with it in the film. Lionsgate asked Marshall to alter the ending for American audiences, and—because he wanted the film to be widely seen here—he agreed.
Marshall pointed out that he always knew that the North American audience would eventually see the original ending, and indeed, on DVD, you can purchase the complete, “unrated” edition of the film. Marshall also noted that the change didn’t make the ending a happy ending. In both endings the protagonist is insane and alone, with blood on her hands. Ultimately, Marshall wanted to get the movie out the largest audience.
On March 14, Neil Marshall’s latest movie, “Doomsday,” hits theaters. It’s a post-apocalyptic thriller in the tradition of George Miller’s “Road Warrior” series and John Carpenter’s “Escape From New York.” After a lethal virus begins to spread over Scotland, a wall is erected to contain the virus. 30 years later, however, the virus reemerges and a team of soldiers and experts are sent into Scotland to find a cure. What they encounter is a new civilization that has risen from the ashes and doesn’t want them there.
Marshall describes “Doomsday” as a picture that’s bigger than anything he’s ever done before. He’s especially proud of the spectacular vehicular stunts showcased in the film, and tells me to keep an out for the fabulous stuntmen doing insane things in vehicles. That said he points out that, for him, the process of directing a large film with major stunts is exactly the same as directing a smaller film.
I tried to mask (and probably did a poor job of it) a bit of disappointment that this wasn’t a more realistic and serious film, but my guess is that “Doomsday” is Marshall’s attempt to revive a genre that’s been dormant since the mid-eighties. Directors like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez have dealt with their nostalgia for past films by sticking their tongue firmly in their cheeks. Neil Marshall is the type of director whose affection manifests itself in his work. I know how I will be spending my Friday.
I thanked Neil Marshall for his time and watched as he and Axelle headed out happily to explore the convention’s dealer room. Marshall is one of horror’s biggest fans, and for now, one of its biggest champions.
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originally posted: 03/12/08 23:46:23
last updated: 03/12/08 23:54:42