Lycanthropy April - Dog Soldiers
Night of the Living Dead with Werewolves.
Sure, doing the usual “this mixed with that” Hollywood approach sounds like I’m doing this film a disservice, but nothing could be further from the truth.
For our second film in Lycanthropy April, we’re taking a look at Neil Marshall’s debut feature film, Dog Soldiers. And it very much does play like Romero’s zombie classic…just take out the undead and replace them with werewolves. So what we as viewers are left with is a siege movie but not with the threat of an unyielding swarm, eroding both defenses and sanities but an aggressive force constantly testing our main characters’ wits and defenses until something finally gives and the feeding can begin.
To offset this, we can’t have the usual rag-tag group of survivors thrown together by destiny, as so many zombie siege films present. No, instead Marshall, who also wrote the film, sets the stage for a company of soldiers, supposedly on a training mission, to be the prey for our sharp-toothed full moon worshipers. Before I get too ahead of myself, why don’t I give you the obligatory plot blurb first: A British squad finds itself dropped off in the Scottish highlands in a training exercise against a team of SAS commandos. Upon finding their competition completely torn apart with only the badly wounded yet enigmatic Capt. Ryan surviving, the squad must switch from blanks to live rounds in order to defend themselves from the beasts now hunting them. Holed up in an isolated cabin with the help of a passing zoologist, can these soldiers hold their ground for just one night?
Well, I think we all know the answer to that question…otherwise, it wouldn’t be much of a horror movie, would it? But, again, I won’t get ahead of myself here. The film’s pre-credits sequence starts us off with a couple on a camping getaway. Obviously, we know the fate of these two as they serve to give us an idea of what our soldiers will be up against later on in the film but also gives us our Checkov’s Gun literary device as well. The movie’s not horribly obvious with it…and, I’ll be honest, the only reason I name drop it is that I’ve been seeing a lot about that particular narrative device lately, so it’s fresh in my craw, so to speak.
While we don’t spend an extensive amount of time getting to know the soldiers that we’re supposed to be bonding with, Marshall is very efficient with his time and actually succeeds in making us care about these guys regardless. Sure, I could tell you that…but in doing research for this review by looking at other reviews, it really shows how successful Marshall was in that each previous review I read or listened to picked a different favorite out of the lot. I personally loved Sean Pertwee as Sgt. Welles (after H.G. of course). Some may side more with our main character Pvt. Cooper played by Kevin McKidd…others might favor super-macho “Spoon” Witherspoon played to an 80’s action movie T by Darren Morfitt. This isn’t just a compliment to the writer/director, but also to the cast themselves, as at any point an off performance could have forced this film down a far more campy road. And while there is humor present, these bits all arise in the moment…instead of say a line or two forced in for a guffaw. [Marvel Studios…we’re looking at you. Again. – Ed.]
Having referred to 80’s action movies…it’s an interesting artistic choice to have the film’s soundtrack veer more into that direction than a standard creepy horror movie vibe. I have to admit that it took me a moment to get used to it, but by the time the film was over, the music had lined up with such films as Predator or Aliens…a great mash up of mainly macho army themes with this horror undercurrent that does capture that unique essence.
Another thing that helps you ease into that 80’s action film vibe, and unfortunately this isn’t a good thing, is the look of the film itself. Now, I don’t mean the cinematography, which is very well done, but instead the film itself. For a movie released in 2002, it should look better than this. Now, sure, it was a low budget indie film funded, by all things, a spinach magnate…and the money saved by filming on super 16 mm as opposed to standard 35 mm allowed for the fantastic practical effects seen throughout the film (as the director was adamant that there be as little CG as possible), hey, that’s a decision I’ll support all the live long day. But, for reasons covered fantastically by the folks over at Good Bad Flicks, the film was indeed shot in 16 mm and then upscaled to 35 mm and it REALLY shows on Shout Factory’s blu-ray. This is a very grainy film. You don’t notice it as a viewer once we get into the night and the action begins…but when the film starts, this does take a moment to adapt to.
Lastly, it should be noted that the werewolves we see here are much sleeker than those we’ve typically seen in cinema up to this point…but it certainly wouldn’t be the last time we see lycanthropes of this nature again. Far from it, as just a year later, the Lycans in the Underworld series, the first film of which was released just the next year in 2003, would also use this people-on-stilts-with animatronic heads approach. In that regard, it should be lauded as a bit of a trailblazer. The other practical effects, the various blood and gore, is very well done and, again, is a bit of a lesson to modern filmmakers on any budget that when it comes to this stuff, practical is gonna be CG nearly every single time.
When you find yourself within a particular type of story, in this instance a siege, it’s hard to take what can end up being an old and predictable story type and keep it fresh…keep the surprises coming. Marshall does a great job in making sure the audience stays on their toes and sprinkles in just enough hope that maybe these guys will make it out alive…all the while stacking the odds monumentally against them and thickening an atmosphere that screams that no one is getting out alive. Yes, you have the usual betrayals, the infected-among-us trope, the alphas’ pissing contest, but we’re made to care for these guys so much that it seems hardly worth it to acknowledge these tropes. Instead, it’s like a wooden roller coaster. Sure, they have ‘em at every amusement park and they’re all generally the same…just the details are a little different. But you know what? They’re still a blast…and it’s mainly because of those little details. And while his most recent film, Hellboy, was less than stellar [Not entirely Marshall’s fault by the way. – Ed.], Dog Soldiers shows what Neil Marshall is capable of, even this early in his career, if left mostly unfettered. It’s definitely worth a look.