SIX thousand miles of windswept coastline, rugged mountains set against dramatic ever-changing skies, ancient castles and lochs so deep, who knows what lurks beneath the cold, dark water?
Scotland's unique landscape has been celebrated in prose, poetry, paint and of course on film. From the Forth Bridge in Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, to Pennan in Local Hero to Rosslyn Chapel in The Da Vinci Code, Scotland has movie star looks.
Dramatic scenery and historic settings are one thing, the couthy Kailyard-type countryside another, but brace yourself because Scotland's got a dark side that's coming to the fore. The realm of werewolves, Nazi zombies and, as in horror master Neil Marshall's new film, Doomsday, marauding cannibalistic hordes who'd barbecue you as quick as look at you, Scotland is increasingly the blood-spattered backdrop of horror movies.
This month sees the release of two horror films. Doomsday, award-winning writer/director Marshall's biggest project to date, with a budget of 20 million, and the altogether smaller but still perfectly formed Outpost, for which producers Arabella Page Croft and Kieran Parker, the film's Glasgow-based producers, picked up a Bafta in March. And, just like the dead-eyed hordes that lurk down every dark alley in such fare, there are more to come.
An adaptation of blockbuster novelist Clive Barker's Book of Blood finished filming in Edinburgh earlier this year, a low-budget feature, Dungeon Moor, was shot in Dumfries late in 2007 and Richard Jobson's latest, New Town Killers a thriller starring Dougray Scott, has just wrapped in the capital.
So what is it about Scotland that's so right for the horror genre?
"My relationship with Scotland goes way beyond making films," says Marshall in a Newcastle accent softened with a slight transatlantic twang. "I came on holiday here for years as a child, my parents had their honeymoon in Scotland, and I got married here last year." Sticking with what he knows, after tying the knot in the gatehouse of Edinburgh Castle, Marshall and his new wife held their reception in The Witchery. The date? Halloween, of course.
"Scotland is part of me, it's in my blood. I'm a Geordie but I love Scotland dearly. When it comes to a landscape against which to make movies it's just so cinematic and it still feels very untapped."
Of Caledonia's cinematic cheerleaders, a former 007 and a Jedi knight now advertising aftershave are usually the names mentioned, but Neil Marshall might just give them a run for their money. When he burst onto the scene with Dog Soldiers in 2002, it was obvious that his cinematic vision was intertwined with the landscape and lore of Scotland.
The film, about a group of soldiers trapped in a remote wood being terrorised by werewolves, was set in the Highlands – but, for budgeting and logistical reasons, largely filmed in Luxembourg. The Scottish setting, albeit mocked up, was vital to the film.
"The idea of doing a werewolf movie in Scotland seemed so obvious to me it was surprising that no-one had done it before," says Marshall. "Scotland's landscape is just so wild and beautiful and rugged. And I love the drama of the weather – it's so changeable and unpredictable. The landscape can be stunningly beautiful with blue skies or it can be dark and moody and menacing with cloudy skies."
Moody and menacing are key words in Doomsday. With a plot centred on cannibalistic hordes running amok in the post-apocalyptic wasteland that is Scotland in 2033, it's unlikely the film will be used as a promotional video by VisitScotland any time soon, but Marshall has a cult status in horror circles and it's no small deal that he celebrates, albeit in his own gory way, our bonnie land.
Doomsday allows Marshall's apocalyptic vision full flight. Infected by a lethal virus, Scotland is declared a "hot zone" by the London-based government and effectively quarantined. A 30ft barrier is erected to contain the virus, meaning Scotland is sealed off from the rest of the world and left to die. Well, until the seriously capable and improbably named Major Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra) leads a crack team into the desolate land to find a cure for the virus, which has re-emerged in London. The cast includes Bob Hoskins and Malcolm McDowell, as well as Scots David O'Hara and Martin Compston and the film has Marshall's usual cocktail of homage and humour as well as buckets of gore.
The best horror films offer some kind of metaphorical or allegorical element as ballast for all that blood. A comment about society, or the human condition allows them to transcend the blood and guts and offer something a little more thought-provoking. Marshall's premise of a Scotland abandoned to anarchy by a corrupt political elite in London must offer some scope for allegory, I suggest. "It's independence taken to its extreme, I suppose," he says with a laugh.
As for the settings, there are post-apocalyptic cityscapes – Glasgow tenements wrapped in creeper vines, a deserted Queen Street Station, all cracked concrete and fissured Tarmac. Then there are stunning rural backdrops complete with fortified castles, craggy glens and forbidding forests patrolled by armour-clad henchmen.
So how did Marshall select where to shoot?
"I know a lot of the country really well so some of it is from my memory," he says, "but sometimes I bring in a local locations manager who comes up with things I could never have thought of.
"We were supposed to shoot at Doune Castle but it didn't work out. Blackness Castle came up and since it was close to Edinburgh we went to have a look. It just had everything that we wanted. We were very lucky."
But in a 66-day shoot – Marshall's longest to date – only ten days were spent in Scotland. The rest of the time a "body double" was used: Cape Town, South Africa. Marshall had been told that it was ideal for the purpose and despite initial scepticism he was convinced. "The landscape, the rock formations, I thought it was about as close to Scotland as you're likely to get, outside of Ireland or Wales," he says.
"It's really frustrating when a film like Doomsday has to be made elsewhere for purely financial reasons. We did a budget for shooting it in Scotland and it came out at something like 60 million dollars, which was three times as much as we had to make the film. But even if we'd had the money we would still have had to compromise a lot. We never would've been able to shut down Queen Street Station or any of the main streets in Glasgow and we could do that easily in Cape Town.
A key dramatic scene in the film is a high-speed car chase. "In an ideal world I would have loved to film that on the main road to Glencoe but it took us three weeks to film and there's no way we could have shut that road for that long," says Marshall. "We found a private road in Cape Town and we could do what we wanted with it."
Balancing the budget is one obstacle to production, but there are others. Glasgow has a reputation for first-class post-production facilities and excellent technical crews, but travel too far beyond the central belt and film-makers hit real logistical problems. Jenny Williams of the Glasgow Film Office knows first-hand, though, the positive impact of Marshall's shoot on the local film industry. "Doomsday was a really big production. They brought over a full South African crew and employed a lot of crew locally," she says. "A lot of the facilities companies got work out of it too.
"The great thing about Glasgow is that within half an hour of the city you can be out in the countryside. For films that require any sort of wilderness, we've got that pretty close to our cities, which is really lucky."
But why does she think Scotland is so right for horror? "Both Outpost and Book of Blood were shot in the winter so there were plenty of hours of darkness to work with," she says. So there is an upside to Scotland's winter gloom.
And it's not just the winding streets of Edinburgh's Old Town, the grid of Glasgow's city centre doubling as the US, or the drama of the hills and glens, that attracts celluloid attention. Dumfries and Galloway hosted 57 shoots in 2007, including five feature films. "The south-west region is very diverse," says Mark Geddes of South West Scotland Screen Commission. "We have a large coastline, we have mountainous landscape, we have flatter plains, small villages as well as larger towns. You can kind of get Scotland in miniature in this one area."
He adds: "We're fortunate in that we've got a lot of atmospheric rural locations that are ideal for horror. If you've got wide open spaces with lots of sky it can create more atmosphere for that kind of film."
And with 37 per cent of the UK land mass and only eight per cent of the population, Scotland certainly offers plenty of space. So from all of that, where is Marshall's dream destination? "Glen Affric," he says. "It's incredible up there. But also out to the coast – Kinloch Moydart. There's just so much of it.
"If I've got to pick one location, though, I think Rannoch Moor is the place I most want to capture. It's epic, it's vast – a beautiful place."
Like Hitchcock's cameos, Marshall's trademark is using Scotland or Scottish actors wherever possible. Doomsday even has several in-jokes included purely for Scottish viewers. I suggest to him that we're lucky to have him and he laughs modestly, "I do my best. I do like to plug it as much as possible." sm
n Doomsday (18) is released on Friday 9 May.