It’s good to see Neil Marshall back.
Not that he exactly went away. But he’s had a hard time lately making the sorts of films which he loves to make.
He vanished from the silver screen after his 2010 film Centurion into the world of television, and finally is making a comeback of sorts. His Hellboy movie with David Harbour convinced him that making big budget movies without the control he’d had in his Independent days was a total disaster, so he has now returned to making his own films his own way.
After making a historical witch-hunting drama called The Reckoning, he made a film far more reminiscent of his early films, The Lair.
He’s teamed up once again with Charlotte Kirk who not only starred but co-wrote both this film and The Reckoning. She seems almost an impossibility in our current age of androgynous stick figure female leads who are deliberately made to look less attractive and can barely fake the physical skills needed in an action movie. She is not merely tall, attractive and physically competent, but, even stranger, decidedly full figured with wide hips, narrow waist and a generous bosom.
Heck, she’s even a redhead.
She stars as Lt. Kate Sinclair, a Royal Air Force pilot whose plane is downed by Afghan Rebels.
The Rebels nearly capture her, but she escapes into an abandoned Russian research facility, hidden deep underground.
And when the rebels pursue her into its depths, something escapes from the lab, and kills most of them.
Kate joins up with a group of American and British soldiers who have a small outpost not too far away.
That night, the creatures attack…
Now, if you’ve seen Neil’s early films like Dog Soldiers, Doomsday or The Descent, then you know more or less what to expect. There are thrills and mystery, mixed with brutal violence, gore and high-octane action. The whole film revolves around three major action sequences: first, the crash and the extended pursuit by first one enemy then another; second, the siege at the Outpost; and the final battle where they take the fight to the enemy.
But Neil takes the time to set up his characters in the break between the first two, and the team are all given fairly strong personalities — even some of the ones who get killed first.
What’s more, the characters seek out answers, consider their options, make intelligent and reasonable choices, and even try to flee or get help. You just don’t see that in most horror films. They do make a serious mistake towards the end — one that the audience knows is a bad mistake — but it is justified by the code of honor these soldiers share.
Charlotte Kirk does not play the sort of superhuman female warrior we’ve become accustomed to these days. Instead, she is portrayed as a truly strong woman, whose greatest concern is her daughter back home, who longs to give up her life in the service which takes her away from her girl, but who stands up and fights because the threat is so great and there is no one else there to stop it.
All this is a solid basis for an action Horror movie, and Neil puts it all together into a compelling package, with a good cast, full of the sorts of strong, competent and casually brave male characters you won’t be finding in mainstream movies anytime soon. (at least not those without Tom Cruise flying fighter jets).
Perhaps the weakest point in the production, though, are the creatures. They aren’t too bad when we meet them in dark, but the problem is that they just aren’t very distinctive. The good thing is that they are mostly practical (and a guy-in-suit-monster makes a lot of sense when they are supposed to be mutant humans), with the CGI addition of a mouthful of long, tongue like things that help them read our minds. And the impromptu autopsy scene and its aftermath tell us a lot about the creatures without burying us in exposition. But it would have helped if Neil had given them some freakish detail which would have distinguished from all the other zombie-like mutants out there.
And, let’s face it, there sure have been a lot of them.
But there is a grounded realism to this film, a wealth of eccentric details, and even a soldier who is a compulsive kleptomaniac. This is what has always made Neil’s films shine in the cinematic darkness.
The Lair isn’t as good as those three earlier films. But it is far better than most of the action/horror films out there. It’s a wild ride.
And hopefully, a sign of what we can expect from Neil in the future…