The Decent (2005): Still a Tight Fit

The Descent (2005): Still a Tight Fit

The Descent, written and directed by the brilliant Neil Marshall, was a revelation in 2005. It is begins with a shock to the system, or two, and rapidly turns into an exercise in claustrophobia. Watching it again tonight on DVD, I found it to still be a tight fit. One that manages to leave me feeling a tad panicky and breathless, despite having watched it numerous times over the years.

My daughter and I watched it initially and both of us were blown away by the mood and the many changes that Marshall manages to manufacture in the film. In terms of unique and “outside the box” horror, this talented maestro knocks it out of the metaphorical park. (The original viewing of this horror film was back in approximately 2007.)

(I will admit to being an unabashed fanboy of Marshall. This is, after all, the same man who brought us the wonderfully weird and and delightful Dog Soldiers, as well as my “go-to” sci-fi/thriller fix, Doomsday.)

Back to The Descent:  The ladies are an interesting bunch with Juno; (Natalie Mendoza) the one who seems to be guaranteed to be the “final girl,” Sarah; (Shauna Macdonald) whose mind is a myriad of mixed emotions and Beth; (Alex Reid) the observer who sets a certain chain of events in motion, heading up this ensemble effort. The dynamic between these three and its messy interlude, runs alongside the main plot, after it makes its appearance, and shows the true depth of this movie’s story.

Marshall allows us an “out,” if you will, early on in the film. The MyAnna Buring character talks of the dangers of Spelunking.  She mentions hallucinations, dehydration, and disorientation as just a few of the long list of problems that exploring deep under the earth can cause.  By the film’s end, it is all too easy to contemplate a scenario where Sarah has dreamed the whole thing up.

Juno’s affair with Sarah’s late husband, the blind and cannibalistic cave creatures, and the end battle between Juno and Sarah could all be a construct of a woman who still needs medication after the horrific death of her husband and child. Medication that she forgets to bring into the cave with her. Sarah does, after all, get stuck in that narrow and somewhat heart stopping passage between caves. Is it such a stretch to imagine that the poor woman remained trapped there and had an intense Bardo moment?

It is interesting to note that the entire film leaves one with a tight feeling in the chest, a certain breathlessness and a slight sense of panic. After that first “jump scare” (I still cannot follow a vehicle with a load of copper, or any type of, pipes in the back without an uneasy feeling that borders on paranoia.) to the final shot of Sarah’s apparent demise, the ride is incredibly tortuous and stressful. I am not, as a rule, claustrophobic. But Marshall’s offering, from start to finish, certainly puts me in that place.

Despite being over 15 years old, The Descent still manages to entertain and put the audience in a very uncomfortable place. It is available to watch, for free, on IMDB TV. If you have not had the opportunity to watch this, or for that matter, the other aforementioned Marshall films, I would highly recommend checking it/them out.

Kill List (2011): Keeping Death in the Family

Written by husband/wife team Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump and directed by Wheatley, Kill List is a tour de force of dark unsettling images and sounds. From the very first frame, the film disturbs the viewer. Despite a fair sprinkling of black humour, an overpowering feeling of evil and doom fill every moment of the film.

Neil Maskell is Jay, an ex-soldier who has become partners with his old army buddy Gal (Michael Smiley) together they work as hitmen. Jay’s wife shel (Myanna Burning) is also part of the business, setting up contacts and contracts. She also sorts out lodgings for the lads when they are on a job.

At the beginning of the film we are privy to the discord in Jay and Shel’s life. He has not worked in eight months and the money that was set aside (40,000 pounds) is gone. Jay and Shel argue a lot and their son Sam (Harry Simpson) takes Shel’s side. She is adamant that Jay get back together with Gal for another contract hit.

We can see that they have an opulent lifestyle and by the amount of money that they’ve gone through in an eight month time period that money does not last too long in their house. Jay is on medication for a back problem that Shel says is in his head.

Fiona and Jay, before the crockery goes flying.

Gal comes over with a new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer) for dinner. After a meal that culminates in Jay throwing a fit and scattering all the dishes to the floor, Gal tries to convince Jay to take on the contract with him because the money is good. Although Jay is angry about Gal and Shel going behind his back, he concedes.

The “kill list” consists of three men and when Gal and Jay meet their contact he seals the deal with his and Jay’s blood. The “hit” is on and the men go to kill their first victim.

This film has an underlying tension to it that oozes through every scene. The score is intrusive and has the effect of not only setting the atmosphere and the pace of the film but of deadening the dialogue between the characters. This combination makes the whole thing seem off-kilter, odd, and very ominous.

The score also has a fuzzy feeling to it, like you are hearing a low-pitched background roaring sound through cotton padding. This adds to the foreboding and aids the various set points of the film.

You get the feeling that none of this is going to go well for any of the participants. Events in the film, serpentine in and out causing the viewer to get lost if they are not careful; reality becomes blurred at one point in the film. The two men are hidden spectators to a strange ceremony. When the men make their presence known, the participants chase them and the accompanying noises sound like a combination of animal growls and pigs screaming. It is unsettling and scary as hell.

One of the ceremonial participants.

The film “feels” dark and each hit gets darker. The fact that each victim seems to recognise Jay disturbs him and starts affecting his job performance. There are reverences to Kiev and a job that the lads did that went wrong somehow. At one point Gal mumbles to himself that Jay is acting like he did in Kiev. This is never explored and left up to the viewer to imagine what went on.

The characters are not completely fleshed out in order for them to raise more questions than they answer. This has the added effect of keeping the viewer guessing as to what is going on with Jay. He is clearly the one with issues carried over from their past “mission.”

Gal’s girlfriend Fiona is a personnel resources specialist, whose job is to cut the fat from poorly performing organizations. Despite the fact that she breaks up with Gal, she visits Shel often and on the night of the dinner party puts a strange mark on the back of the bathroom mirror. She also takes a tissue with Jay’s blood on it.

Kill List has been compared to The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General, two  classic British horror films. Not a bad comparison as this film has all the hallmarks of a first-rate horror film thriller that will disturb you and will have you discussing it long after you’ve watched it.

I watched the film twice and found that Wheatley telegraphed his ending early on in the film. I take my hat off to him and the cast, who performed brilliantly, for what is one of the best English horror films that I have seen in ages.

I owe a special thanks to Darran over at foxiecinnamon for blogging about this film and bringing it to my attention. Good one mate.

Gal and Jay (Michael Smiley and Neil Maskell) hitmen together.

Devil’s Playground (2010): Zombies, Zombies Everywhere…

The Devil's Playground (2010 film)
The Devil’s Playground (2010 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Devil’s Playground  is director Mark McQueen‘s first venture into the feature film arena. Better known as the director of the “reality” television series The Only Way Is EssexMcQueen hasn’t done too badly in his maiden voyage.

Unfortunately the film feels an awful lot like the 2008 Brit-flick Doomsday but without the added benefit of director Neil Marshall or Rhona Mitra or Bob Hoskins. Playground does use a lot of the same actors though.

Sean Pertwee (and what would a low budget British horror film be without him), MyAnna Buring (who also was immune to the ‘virus’ that plaqued, sorry, England in Doomsday), and Craig Conway (who played MyAnna’s brother in Doomsday).

So okay we do have Colin Salmon (who has done the whole zombie bit before in Resident Evil 2002) and Danny Dyer (who is also an alumni of British horror because he played the drugged out prat in 2006’s Severance and he also did the 2009 horror film Doghouse), but, to the best of my knowledge Craig Fairbrass has never been in an apocalyptic zombie film before.

Interestingly enough the ruggedly good looking Fairbass got his start working on an English television show called London’s Burning. He went to America to work and Hollywood’s never really known what to do with him.

The basic plot of Devil’s Playground is not blazingly original. A chemical/pharmaceutical company is doing tests on people using an ‘enhancement’ drug that, apart from one test subject (Buring), is turning the participants into adrenalin fuelled scary zombies.

Craig Fairbrass plays Cole an armed policeman who is feeling a huge amount of guilt over the things he has had to do in the recent past.  His murdering a couple in their bed, with the woman being heavily pregnant, plays over and over in guilt ridden flashbacks.

Fairbass gets infected at the very beginning of the film while fighting zombies. He manges to get three injections that will hopefully stave off the virus long enough for him to find the ‘immune’ and also heavily pregnant Angela Mills (Buring).

Unfortunately, the film lacks a little in the believability department when everyone apart from Cole only have to get scratched by one of the infected zombies to be overcome by the virus. Those injections must be really good if not completely pain-free since he regularly doubles over in pain.

The other believability problem is the, unintentionally, funny instant Parkouring ability of almost every zombie. The infected folks can just naturally jump through open car windows and scale buildings like Parkour professionals. And while that is actually quite funny it speaks more of a limited stunt team who are using the same few stuntmen over and over.

The film is entertaining despite it’s similarity to many other apocalyptic zombie films already on the market. Craig Fairbrass alone  is worth the price of a DVD rental to watch this film.

Well that and seeing Sean Pertwee, sporting a huge moustache, run across a dock and steal the river police’s powerboat and speed off  into the distance.

I don’t know if he was escaping the approaching zombies or trying to get the hell out of the film.

A rating of one leisurely bag of popcorn, nothing special but still entertaining.

Doomsday (2008): Don’t Fear the Reaper

As the poster so clearly states: A New Film From Neil MarshallDoomsday is the third film to be written and directed by Neil Marshall. The first two, Dog Soldiers (2002) and The Descent (2005),  I have written about before. These three films, if watched in the order they were made, show Marshall’s growth and  increased status as a writer/director. Each progressive film benefits from an increased budget and the calibre of actors goes up as well.  More importantly, each film’s scope is enlarged; the first two films were a cozy affair. Single locale, set number of actors and scenes, FX capable but not too flashy. Doomsday in terms of all the above mentioned items, scoops them both.

Filmed for an estimated budget of $30,000,000 Doomsday looks impressive. The cast comprises the usual Marshall regulars, Sean PertweeEmma CleasbyNora-Jane NooneMyAnna Buring, and Craig Conway (Conway gives a stand out performance as the mad-as-hatter ruler of a blood thirsty mob of survivors – Sol). The cast also includes some big namesBob HoskinsMalcolm McDowell (as Sol’s pop, you can see where Sol gets his personality from), Rhona Mitra, like I said big names.

In the not too distant future a killer virus known as The Reaper sweeps through Britain. The government decide to contain the infected behind a huge fortified fence that stretches from coast to coast, cutting off Scotland completely and leaving everyone trapped behind the fence to die. The United Kingdom is condemned by the rest of the world for their actions.

Jump ahead thirty years and two things happen almost simultaneously. Satellites that have been orbiting the  contaminated area north of the fence spies movement and The Reaper has made an unwelcome return. A small group of elite specialist are drafted into entering the contaminated zone. Their mission is to find  a research laboratory that was working on a cure for the virus before they were trapped in the containment area and to find out who has survived and how.

Rhona Mitra is one-eyed Eden Sinclair (this role so obviously got her cast in Underworld 3) who leads the team of experts into the area. Eden, whose “glass-eye” doubles as a camera with video recording capability, is hard as nails and  very independent. Once she and her team breach the wall and head into the laboratory, they get jumped by Sol’s people. They are captured and as part of Sol’s twenty-four hour madness, Sean Pertwee is again killed at the beginning of the second reel.

The film has a very ‘Mad Max‘ feel to it. From the outfits that Sol’s people wear, to the vehicles they use at the end of the film in a protracted Mad Max chase scene, the film feels like an English version of the Mel Gibson cult favourites. Marshall himself stated the the Mad Max trilogy inspired him and that he was paying his own homage to the films.

It was very nice to see Malcolm McDowell as Sol’s father, the lab scientist who has decided to remake the survivors behind the wall into his vision of Darwin’s theory. His madness dictates that he can willing sacrifice his own children if they do not obey him and his rules. Once Eden returns from the infected territory with a “cure” for the reaper virus, she  sets up the very people who sent her and her team to almost certain death. She puts in motion  the mechanics for their downfall.

Doomsday is a cracking film. It has a snappy pace and the actors all do well. The bigger budget shows in the end result and I am guessing the Marshall will have an even bigger budget for his next film.

Marshall’s next film is The Last Voyage of Demeter,  Dracula fans will recognise the name of the ship, it is the one that transports the Count to England in the book. It looks as though  Marshall is going back to his horror roots. The film is due to be released in 2013. I am looking forward to it.


The Descent (2005): Girl Power

The Descent is Neil Marshall‘s second foray into the world of horror. Marshall once again wrote and directed the film, which is breathtaking in its execution. Where Marshall’s first film Dog Soldiers featured an almost all male cast (with the exception of Megan and the female camper who is dispatched at the beginning of the film) The Descent is an all female cast (with the exception the main character’s husband, again despatched at the beginning of the film, and some of the creatures in the cavern). It is almost as if Marshall is trying to develop this trend as a sort of trademark to his horror films.

The Descent begins with Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), Juno (Natalie Mendoza) and Beth (Alex Reid)  white-water rafting. At the end of the rapids are Sarah’s husband Paul (Oliver Milburn) and their daughter Jessica (Molly Kayll) who wave and cheer at the women as they near the shore. Juno stands up in the raft, arms raised and Sarah laughingly pushes Juno out of the raft into the icy water. Sarah and Beth then take the raft to shore. Sarah gets out of the raft and goes to Jessica. Beth secures the raft to a branch, while Paul helps Juno out of the water. As Beth watches Juno and Paul exchange a look, which to us the audience and to Beth, seems to show that they are more than just friends.

As Paul drives away from the river with Sarah and Jessica, he appears withdrawn and distracted. When he takes  his eyes off the road to talk to Sarah, their car is hit by a mini-van driving towards them. Paul and Jessica both die in the collision. Sarah is hospitalized and goes through a break down moment. Beth is there for her friend, but Juno who has also turned up at the hospital, bursts into tears and leaves without seeing Sarah.

One year later, Beth is driving through the Appalachian mountains with Sarah. Juno has booked a caving holiday for Sarah and a group of their friends. The idea is that this will act as a sort of therapy for Sarah. The group are going to stay in a cabin near the Cavern that they will be exploring the next day.  Sarah and Beth are going to meet with  Juno,  Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), Sam (MyAnna Buring who is turning into a Marshall regular) and Holly (Nora-Jane Noone who also appears in Marshall’s Doomsday) at the cabin.

After a night of disturbed sleep for Sarah, everyone is up bright and early to begin their descent into the caverns. Juno has a map of the caverns and Holly dismisses the whole idea of the trip as being boring since the cavern is a “tourist” cavern. The only thing missing, Holly states, are the stairs and bannisters. The girls descend into the cave and start going through it. As the group take a break for lunch Juno attempts to apologize for not visiting Sarah when she was in the hospital. Sarah is withdrawn and distant.

After lunch, the group proceed further into the cave. They end up going through a very tight space and Sarah gets stuck. Beth helps Sarah through and the space collapses after Sarah gets out.  The group now have no way to go back to the entrance. After an angry discussion, Juno admits that they are not exploring a known cave and that no one knows they have not gone to the cave she should have booked. Juno says that she has done this to help Sarah.

The girls then decide to push forward and look for another exit. They discover cave paintings and old caving equipment which seems to indicate there is another exit. They again push forward looking for more paintings and equipment as “signposts” to the way out. Holly sees light ahead and thinking they have found the exit rushes forward. One of the other girls shouts out that it can’t be another exit so soon and to slow down. Holly ignores her and takes a nasty tumble, breaking her leg.

The girls all climb down to help Holly and put her leg in a splint. While they are giving Holly first aid, Sarah looks around the area they’ve wound up in. She sees someone else in the cave. Thinking them to be more cavers, she shouts for them to help. The other’s in the group are convinced that Sarah, in her stressed state, has been seeing things. As they start to move forward, pasty white creatures attack the group.

The group scatters when the creatures attack. Juno attempts to keep them off of the immobile Holly with a climbing  pickaxe. At the apex of the fight Beth comes up behind Juno to help. Juno, thinking that Beth is another creature, acts instinctively and plants the pickaxe in Beth’s neck. Out of the six women who entered the cave, Holly has had her throat ripped out and Beth is mortally wounded,  the other four are scared and disorganised. The survivors not only have to find their way out of an unknown cave system, but they must also try  to stay alive long enough to do so.

Neil Marshall has made a true gem here. The film starts with a “heart-in-your-throat” moment. Marshall then proceeds to do everything he can to make us jump and squirm in our seats. Right up until the caver’s meet the creatures in the caverns, the claustrophobic  and uncomfortable atmosphere the group was facing  had me gasping for breath. Even if they had never met the creatures, just the suspense of getting though the cave was more exciting than what most other horror films have to offer.

This is one film that falls into that category of  “don’t miss.” Sadly the sequel,which was not done by Marshall, is a pale imitation at best. Although if you saw the original ending of the film, you are probably as confused as I was when I found that a Part 2 was in the mix.

Marshall has definitely given us a film that, quite probably, sets the goalposts for the term “Girl Power.”