Neil Marshall

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You can always gauge the cultural anxieties of a time by the themes of its horror stories.

The vampire myth – made popular by Bram Stoker with the 1897 publication of Dracula – was grounded partly by the unchecked spread of syphilis when diseases transmitted by blood caused a lot of medical and cultural hand-wringing.

The werewolf was born from the tendency of those affected by black vapours to turn dangerously criminal under the influence of the full moon, a phenomenon that gave us the word 'lunacy'.

Even today, the best horror stories come from stuff we imagine could almost be real, whether it's a killer alien that digests its young into the living (Alien) or a family of inbred psychopaths in a forgotten rural backwater ( The Texas Chainsaw Massacre , Deliverance).

How about a race of subhuman carnivores that evolved deep within the Earth's cave systems, laying in wait to feast on the flesh of adventurers?

That's the question posed by 36-year-old Scottish writer/director Neil Marshall in The Descent. "They're cavemen that never left the caves," Marshall explains over the phone from the UK. "What we knew about them is that they were humans who evolved underground. Their hearing ability is batlike but I basically wanted them to be an offshoot of the human race." It's this nightmarish scenario Marshall plunges his protagonists into, an all-female group of caving enthusiasts.

In the cult horror hit Dog Soldiers in 2002, Marshall's heroes were a small squad of infantrymen holed up in a forest cottage, set upon from all sides by werewolves. But the girls from The Descent had it much tougher.

"It did occur to me a few times," Marshall says when asked how hard it could be hanging around a cast of young women young female cast, all of them running around in skimpy caving gear, "but it also could have turned into my worst nightmare. They went through a lot more than the guys did for Dog Soldiers. We put them through climbing training, white water rafting and we all went caving together. Even when we were in the studio it wasn't easy, because at Pinewood studio they don't have any heating. It was freezing on set and they'd spend the day soaking wet.

The Descent is the continuation of Marshall's self-described 'return to the roots' of horror. With the genre increasingly kneecapped by big studios making asinine, computer-generated remakes of classics, there's little room left for the classic scares and gore from good old monster movies made by auteurs who truly love the genre.

"Basically my movies are a reaction to those films," Marshall says. "The horror scene of the 70s and early 80s influenced me the most. I really wanted to go back to films like The Shining and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and make movies that were hard hitting and dark, no happy endings."

Currently prepping big budget sci-fi action film Doomsday, Marshall's cult pedigree has carved him a powerful new place in moviemaking. So even while his movies offer no light at the end of the tunnel as the bodies pile up, the ending's shaping up very happily for the director himself.

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