Thursday, 11 March 2010

"Me Guts Are Out!"

Being an appreciation of the works of Neil Marshall

Elevation to the status of Pulp God-head can be a circuitous business. How many films did John Carpenter have to bung out before his gore-hound public could finally turn to each other and say "Y'know what? He's the Maestro. I forgive him for Starman." It's a dangerous path, fraught with money worries, near break-downs, hubristic attempts at "Serious Art" and actors. And what's worse is that having achieved these giddy heights, having crawled your way to the top of the mountain of skulls, your undeserving public can still turn round and rip you from your pedestal if you fail to deliver the squirm. In geek shorthand it's already termed "Doing an Argento" (See also "Argento-ing One Off").

As a result of these horrors, genuine Pulp God-heads are a rare breed so it is gratifying to feel a tingle of excitement that maybe (and I mean Maybe) there is a dude who has his feet on the path; who will go for gory glory; who may live to sip the tears of the afeared from the Chalice of The Infinite Night. You can keep the tiresome buffoonery of Eli Roth, the polished jade rollercoaster that is the 'Art' of J.J. Abrams, I want it served hot, red and stoopid. I want it like this.

Fucking ridiculous.

Dog Soldiers was the first film by Neil Marshall ('cos that's who the big lead up was about. Like you didn't read the title or something?) and was, more importantly to me anyway, the first film I'd seen since I was 12 to have inspired me to play a game of Guns. It's plot is thus: SQUADDIESLOSTINWOODSFIGHTWEREWOLVES. It delivers on this breathless premise with aplomb. And poor jokes. Lots of poor jokes. And did I mention gore? Lots of gore. Yet be not fooled, making films like this 'aint easy. It's never just a question of ingredients. You need wit to keep folks on the side of something palpably ridiculous, and Dog Soldiers is not lacking in wit. It's a Clever Stupid Movie.

Dog Soldiers also has the taste and distinction to star one of the true greats of the British Film Industry. A Titan in the rape fields of indecency: Mr Sean Pertwee. Now Mr Pertwee has his detractors. People who will sink as low as to mention 'Blue Juice' at the merest mention of his name. What these plebeians forget is the sheer hard work Mr Pertwee has put into the cause of Pulp-ology. By the Prophet, the man was in Event Horizon! That earns him a right to drink free in any Harvester restaurant for the rest of his life at least! Not to mention the fun that can be had playing the Sean Pertwee Death Game, in which you guess, to the nearest minute, at what point Mr Pertwee will cop it during any film he features in. Don't worry, even I got it wrong with Equilibrium.

Okay so it was fast, gory ("ME GUTS ARE OUT!"), featured some great lines ("ME GUTS ARE OUT!") and had a bit where a dog started chewing on someones intestine while they was still alive ("ME GUTS ARE OUT!") but it didn't exactly seem like the work of a lasting talent. Post-pub barf fodder full-the fuck-on, yeah, but I wasn't particularly looking forward to seeing a film with Marshall's name on it in the near future. Hell, I wasn't expecting there to be a film with his name on it in the near future. Which made what came next a proper shock.

The Descent knocked everyone on their ass. A near perfect mix of setting, tension and sheer pulp nastiness. I mean, spelunking horror! Why did no one think of that before? As if that shit wasn't terrifying enough already! It shared Dog Soldiers sense of desperation but was slower, infinitely more atmospheric and a lot bloody scarier. It also broke one of horrors major rules, that of having an entire cast of women, not one of them brain dead, showing exactly the same mixture of terror, confusion and bravery as any bunch of movie-blokes ever would and still getting whittled to bloody match wood for their efforts. Add to all that a twist ending that ACTUALLY WORKED, and you had one hell of a knuckle biter. This Marshall chap was obviously one to watch especially when you factored in that he'd conceived and written these two pulp nuggets as well as directing them.

What mainly separates The Descent from its predecessor is its sophistication. not just 'cos it doesn't have any bum jokes in it, but because it knows exactly how to tell its story and never strays into the superfluous. You care about the characters predicament, you want them all to be alive at the end (how many horror films can you say that about?) and you feel every gnawing moment of sharing those caves with something inhuman, breathing in the darkness. Some people disagree when I suggest that it's the best British Horror in twenty years. I think they're wrong.

Then this happened.

Doomsday. Dear God.

Writing coherently about Doomsday is going to take every fibre of my mental being, so in order to delay the agony I'm going to start on a digression. I'm going to tell you about The Caligula Award. The Caligula Award was a special prize for the movie that, irrespective of quality and often outrageously at odds with it, provided the most slack jawed, disbelieving enjoyment of any film in its given year. It would have to be a yuk provider of, well, Caligula-esque crassness. A rolling juggernaut of poor taste. When I tell you that one of the previous winners of the Caligula was Wrong Turn 2, in which Henry Rollins goes apeshit on a bunch of sadistic cannibal inbreds, you'll understand that for the winner it was not enough to be so bad it was good, it had to be so good it was bad.

Shortly after the release of Doomsday the Caligula Awards were discontinued.

You can see why the studio gave Marshall a big budget. He'd a done a popular low budget horror comedy, followed it up by proving that he could make a bloody good straight(ish) fright-fest and was clearly a talent worth watching. However, you'd have thought they would stick the kibosh on any future projects after Marshall rolled into the offices, coked off his nut, waving a fistful of soiled copies of 2000AD above his head and bellowing about making armoured land carriers fight Knights on horseback. For this, surely, is the only way this stunning monument to distaste could have been pitched.

I have tried to explain the greatness of Doomsday to many in the past, unfortunately the truth of the matter can only be understood by initiates. If I list some of the salient memes contained within its buckling exo-skeleton you may begin to gain an inkling of its greatness: killer plagues, big fucking guns, hot female commandos, Scotland, Sean Pertwee, 80s worship, man-eating cults, Fine Young Cannibals, Medieval Knights, Malcolm McDowell (how come he's always in these films?), a Bentley and mayhem. Great globs of mayhem. And did I mention the gore? From the first exploding head (approx. 2 minutes in), which erupts over its surroundings like a mince filled paint bomb, I knew I was in the presence of Pulp greatness. That the film then proceeds to accelerate into insanity at a rate almost exponential means that by the end, when you're watching a car chase across apocalyptic Scotland being sound tracked by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, you've practically stopped noticing and are instead staring at the screen, slack jawed, waiting for, oh I dunno, Peter Sissons to appear with a flamethrower or Rhona Mitra to take on the characteristics of a French market seller. Doomsday pushes pulp innovation into the levels of the surreal. A lot of fatbeards were well upset when Doomsday came out, citing its obvious debt to films like (the massively overrated) Escape From New York, Mad Max 2 and The Warriors as some reason to disparage it. Let me tell you something, dullard, Doomsday does not simply 'borrow' from other films. Doomsday is to plagiarism what Genghis Khan was to neighbourly disputes. Doomsday drives a massive armoured land carrier over its 'influences' causing them to explode like overripe melons, showering pulp in every direction.

Anyway, Doomsday's biggest influence is clearly The Galaxy's Greatest Comic, 2000AD. Whole scenes are lit to make them look like Simon Bisley artwork, genres are skipped with the authority of Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill's Nemesis The Warlock and the film has that same Thrill Power rush that the comic had in its heyday. That magical commitment to entertaining the strides off all in its path through a mixture of talent, insanity and bloody mindedness. Borag Thung, indeed.

Obviously this masterwork set the bar unreasonably high. Who could top that? Jesus, why would anyone want to? Where next? The answer, gloriously, appears to be Rome.

Of course! Rampant masculinity! Bellowed pronouncements! The clash of steel on steel!

Now I must admit that there are elements that worry me about Centurion. Not least of which is its alleged 15 certificate. Will Marshall tone down the splatter to fit within a mid-teen remit? Will the carnage be controlled? Let us hope not. The possibilities for rugged, manly action (not to mention ill-advised imperialist propaganda) are practically limitless. He hasn't put a foot wrong yet, and when he has he's put it so far into the arena of the tasteless it begins to resemble one of Billy Idol's coked up fever dreams. Whatever happens I'll be sitting in row F, guffawing loudly into the gin and tonic I've snuck into the cinema, loving every blood splattered minute and praying that Marshall doesn't drop the Imperial Standard. There aren't enough directors of his stripe out there, who live by the maxim
'Entertain Vel Intereo'! Let us hope that in striving for Pulp God-head he doesn't end up taking a holiday in Argento-tania.


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