Responsible for arguably two of the best horror films of the 21st century in Dog Soldiers and The Descent, Neil Marshall’s name used to be synonymous with, at the very least, a bloody good time. More recently though – since his brief foray into TV, helming huge episodes of Game of Thrones, Westworld and the like – his features haven’t so much taken a bit of a knock as they’ve fallen off a cliff. The one-two of 2019’s dire Hellboy reboot, and 2020’s even-more-dire witch drama The Reckoning well and truly knocked his name out of favour for many. And whilst his latest – good old fashioned monster mash The Lair – is definitely a swing in the right direction for the director, it’s unlikely it’ll win him any new fans.
Re-teaming with co-writer and lead Charlotte Kirk, Marshall plays to his strengths here, throwing back to his roots with a motley crew of down-and-out soldiers, facing off against a horde of grizzly-mouthed unmentionables. Buckets of blood, cheesy one liners and men in rubber suits aplenty; but whilst The Lair does feel every bit like a spiritual cousin to cult classic Dog Soldiers, it’s certainly missing both the latter’s wit and charm.
From its John Carpenter-esque opening titles, to its ragtag band of misfits (lead by a one-eyed, baseball-bat swinging Army Major), it’s clear what Marshall and Kirk are going for with their script here: a big, loud and very openly stupid genre movie. And for the most part, that is, very plainly, what we get.
Hefty chunks of it play like particularly silly video-game cutscenes, with characters barking ridiculous dialogue and cracking wise, totally uncaring that their pals are having their faces torn off five feet away. If you’re into this sort of thing, it’ll never really matter that the garbled plot doesn’t make a lick of sense, that the whole thing looks like an unimaginative TV movie shot in a quarry, or that half the cast are putting on some frankly ridiculous accents; the effects are fun and the gore’s gnarly enough to very easily win over a genre crowd. But that’s about as far as it goes: bare, disposable fun that falls apart the second you start to sober up, despite some semblance of a grander design.
Like the fact that the script goes out of its way to build a diverse team, and even goes so far as to give Taliban prisoner Kabir (Hadi Khanjanpour) an entire redemption arc (complete with heartwarming flashback), actually digging into the grey area of war and humanising a classic American enemy. Before of course bookending the film with faceless Taliban fighters being mown down by American soldiers en masse.
Or Kirk’s lead, a single-mother turned exceedingly deadly RAF captain, who might miss her kid, or feel guilty for abandoning him to constantly throw herself into suicide mission after suicide mission, but loses focus every time we even get close to anyone talking about their feelings. Sometimes, even the basics are off; at one point, she makes a random allusion to being afraid of heights, despite being a *pilot*, before launching into the film’s final act with a tactical decision that literally equals suicide for everyone involved.
There’s plenty to pick at, although ultimately it is just messy – if well-meaning – genre fun, doling out the absolute bare minimum to get by. Any film that opens on a stylised vanity card that returns “A Neil Marshall Movie” though is surely capable of more. At the very least, some more three-dimensional characters.
The Lair screened as part of Arrow Video FrightFest 2022.