Neil Marshall’s 2002 film Dog Soldiers was a shot in the bloodied arm of the horror genre, and now he is back with his own script, a variant on the same theme. The marketing punchline shows he means business this time. But if you are not afraid of the dark. You will be after this.
Unusually, it is an all girl cast. Six of them, in fact – adventurers meeting up for their annual dangerous sports challenge. This year it is caving in the Appalachian mountains, and leader Juno (Natalie Mendoza) has a few tricks up her sleeve. Top of her published list is to give Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) some respite from the terrible events of the last year. Sarah lost her husband a year back in gruesome circumstances, shown as an early adrenalin rush by Marshall, who never misses a trick in the manipulation of his audience.
The sextet bond briefly at their overnight residence, but Sarah is uneasy. Marshall cranks up the tension – a flurry of crows here, a wolf howling in the distance there – cliches all, but given just the right frisson by the director. Juno’s steely jaw meanwhile hints at a dark secret or two bubbling beneath the surface, and then we’re off.
The girls experience initial euphoria at their discoveries in the upper cave, and during one tightrope scene I could almost hear the Bodyform singer warming up in the wings, but then trouble strikes in the form of a rock fall that blocks their route back. Juno lets slip that she left the map in the car, and that it would be no use anyway since this is not the “tourist trap” cave the others thought they were visiting. Great. Next the action-packed Holly (Nora Jane Noone) finds her early bravado shattered in a bone crunching fall. Not one for the squeamish, this! The girls panic, and that classic cry of horror films of old goes out: “Is there anybody there?!”
“Yes” is the inevitable answer, but it is the rescue party from hell. A group of humans lost in the caves have devolved into slavering predators of the dark. And by the look on their Nosferatu features, they are in need of a meal. Panicked, the group splits up and it is not long before tragedy strikes, Juno lets slip a revelation or two and Marshall orchestrates a bloodbath with cheerful abandon.
Horror fans will love it, for its mixture of original thinking and cliches. Marshall delights in dropping the music prior to jolting his audience on their popcorn-spilling rollercoaster, a technique successfully employed in the Alien films. Sufferers of claustrophobia might want to avoid the scene where a wedged-in Sarah has a realistic panic attack, but for fans of Marshall’s previous work The Descent will offer plenty of thrills and spills.