Recently, thanks to certain franchises and TV shows, werewolves have been made almost cuddly. As a remedy to those I’d like to present you with Neil Marshall’s 2002 directorial debut, Dog Soldiers, which gives the common werewolf back his teeth in a film packed with scares, blackly comic laughs and a lot of gore.
Like, tonnes of it.
Seriously, there’s A LOT of gore.
The film is economical in its setup and execution, wasting no time in setting out its stall. A band of soldiers are on a routine training mission (aren’t they always?) deep in the Scottish countryside against an elite Special Ops unit when things go horribly wrong. After being chased through the woods by the wolves, the patrol is rescued by Megan who takes them to an abandoned farm house. From then on the film turns into a siege movie, albeit one with werewolves.
A crude comparison for Dog Soldiers would be to say its Aliens crossed with The Evil Dead. And while there’s nothing wrong with being compared to those two great films, Dog Soldiers has so much more going for it. For instance, where lesser films would be worried about the mythology behind the creatures, there’s nothing here beyond a few off hand explanations of lycanthropy, and refreshingly the characters do what you’d expect of soldiers facing a hostile outside force to do; basically whatever they can to survive.
It would be entirely disingenuous to watch them try to piece together a detailed history of werewolves before taking the fight to them. And in another genius move it doesn’t have our characters exist in a pop culture starved universe where no-one has ever heard of a werewolf. In fact, one of the first things suggested is silver. Neil Marshall, also on writing duties, has his characters be savvy enough about the situation that the audience isn’t waiting for the inevitable reveal that ‘Gasp! Silver can hurt these creatures’ later on in the movie.
As well as the more intelligent approach, the film takes place in just the one location for the majority of the film, lending a great deal of claustrophobia to the proceedings causing a few of the soldiers to crack under the pressure. It gives everyone the chance to go a bit ‘Game over, man. Game over,’ which feels much more realistic than to have a more Predator approach to the situation. And this offers the audience the chance to see the camaraderie within the unit; our main character, Pvt. Cooper (Kevin McKidd, the once and future Soap MacTavish and currently, I’m reliably informed by my wife, on Grey’s Anatomy) cares for his unit and it helps the film greatly that these characters feel like real people caught up in an extraordinary situation and they remain more or less the same and don’t suddenly change into gun toting one man armies at the drop of a hat. (continues)
The small cramped space also gives the action sequences a real immediacy; with only a few men inside the house and a multitude of doors and windows to cover.
The film combines a lot of different genres and both embraces and subverts the clichés you expect with this type of film. So while you have the standard hard as nails Sergeant (Sean Pertwee; by turns incredibly tender and then hilariously as subtle as a brick), the arc the film takes him on is far more nuanced than you usually expect from this type of film. And at the same time you have the evil human character who knows more than he’s letting on, in this case Captain Ryan (Liam Cunningham; more recently seen as Davos in Game of Thrones), whose story ends in exactly the way you’d expect but is no less enjoyable for it. Everybody loves a good comeuppance, right?
The werewolves themselves are rarely seen in full; in what is perhaps a budget issue but one that works in the movie’s favour. Fleeting glimpses of the creatures running through the woods are far more terrifying than seeing it in all its glory right away. Some clever lighting and carefully chosen shots add far more to the atmosphere than any money shot could. (continues)
In fact the most terrifying shot in the movie is one where you don’t even see the wolf at all, just its breath. And it’s chilling. As I said in the introduction, this film really gives the werewolf their edge back, and makes them truly a force to be reckoned with.
Happily the film doesn’t skimp on the gore factor, which again would be disingenuous to the nature of the beast. We see the aftermath of its attacks and they are blood-soaked. As they should be.
And it is glorious.
In short, it’s probably the best werewolf film there is, although in reality it’s more a soldier film with werewolves than a werewolf film with soldiers. I don’t want to spoil too many of the film’s surprises, of which there are a few, but seek it out. You won’t be disappointed.
Oh, and it has the best Matrix reference ever.