In his canonical text Hollywood Genres, author and theorist Thomas Schatz proffers a still useful distinction, that being between “the film genre and the genre film.” In his words, “whereas the genre exists as a sort of tacit ‘contract’ between filmmakers and audience, the genre film is an actual event that honors such a contract. To discuss the Western genre is to address neither a single Western film nor even all Westerns, but rather that system of conventions which identifies Western films as such.” Like a less pretentious (and less talented) Tarantino, Neil Marshall has made a career out of mining the various “systems” that make up the action film, the sci-film, the horror film, and so on. Ideas are pilfered whole-cloth alongside certain key images, like a specific shot from Aliens or a font from John Carpenter.
In other words, Marshall takes signifiers and divorces them from their original contexts, severing their indexical relationships and placing them into a void of spot-the-reference. It’s a game, and it can be fun, like in his Dog Soldiers or especially The Descent, the two films which made Marshall’s name as a key figure in modern horror filmmaking. But it’s been a couple of decades since those early successes; the resounding failure of his attempted Hellboy reboot in 2019 and brief sojourns in episodic TV both once-invigorating enthusiasms now diminished. Schatz suggests that “as we undergo the same type of experience we develop expectations which… tend to harden into rules.” Marshall’s genre playfulness has indeed now calcified into something static and stale, going through the motions with an air of exhaustion.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that The Lair could’ve been, even should’ve been, an easy layup. Clearly designed to harken back to his earliest films, The Lair is rigged almost entirely out of spare parts from Dog Soldiers and The Descent — a squad of ramshackle soldiers, an isolated location, cramped underground photography, ferocious creatures, and a tough female lead. It’s second-hand stuff, cheap-looking and poorly acted, all of which adds up to a film that ultimately functions as a rough draft of itself. The Lair is a dress rehearsal to work out the kinks, not a final product released to an unsuspecting public. That Marshall keeps it somewhat watchable is a testament to his lingering talent, as well as his still-sharp eye for bloody gags and delightfully disgusting special effects.
Here, Charlotte Kirk plays RAF pilot Kate Sinclair. While flying a mission over a barren Afghanistan landscape (actually shot somewhere in Hungary), she’s shot down and almost taken hostage by insurgents. Finding refuge in an abandoned Russian bunker, Sinclair discovers an underground laboratory and a series of tanks containing vaguely humanoid shapes. A prolonged shootout with insurgent forces ruptures one of the tanks, unleashing a goopy monster from within (clearly a man in a suit). Sinclair eventually escapes and is taken in by a squad of U.S. soldiers stationed at a nearby camp. They don’t believe her story about these super-strong, super-fast creatures until it’s too late. What follows is a pretty decent action set piece, as the creatures lay siege to the military base and a quickly diminishing number of soldiers attempt to fend them off. This is the kind of basic stuff that Marshall excels at — putting a few people in a cramped space and having them get picked off one by one. None of the soldier characters make a real impression, despite Marshall’s attempts at giving them each a cliched personality tic (he’s credited alongside Kirk with the screenplay).
But the biggest issue is Kirk herself, who gives a painfully stilted performance. The film intends her to be a Sigourney Weaver/Ripley figure, but Kirk has almost no screen presence whatsoever, seemingly possessed of only one facial expression regardless of whatever situation is currently unfolding. She looks awkward on camera, her movements halting and forced. There’s simply no there there. (One wonders what Olga Kurylenko could’ve done with the role.) Still, there are a few merits here, and anyone looking for an undemanding creature feature with ample decapitations, torn limbs, squished heads, and even a detailed mutant autopsy will be rewarded. Fans of a certain kind of DTV genre film can consider this a halfhearted recommendation, but one still wishes for the day when a new Neil Marshall film won’t come saddled with so many caveats and special pleadings.
You can currently stream Neil Marshall’s The Lair on Shudder.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 4.