Review: Dog Soldiers (dir. by Neil Marshall)

Werewolf films have always gotten the short-stick when it came to quality product. Vampires have always gotten the glamour and choice stories to be told on film. Sure there’s been some great werewolf films like An American Werewolf In London, The Howling and Wolfen, but more often than not most modern werewolf films try to copy the early Wolfman of the 1940’s Universal horror days. I’m very happy to say that Neil Marshall, an up-and-coming director from across the pond, has taken the premise of the werewolf tale and seemlessly blended it with the action conventions of such action-horror films like Aliens and Assault on Precinct 13. He even manages to mix in the tried-and-true themes of the siege action war films like Zulu and The Alamo.

Dog Soldiers is pretty much a straight-up action-horror film with a simple and tight plot of a group of British soldiers out on n exercise in the Scottish Highlands where they soon run across a pack of werewolves. These soldiers are only part of a much larger covert mission conducted by the special operations department of the British military which seem to think that some sort of creature lives in the Highlands which they want to capture and experiment on. It is safe to assume that neither group has their plans go according to how they’ve planned them. It doesn’t take the film too long before both groups have been whittled down to a few survivors by the werewolf pack and must seek refuge in an out of the way countryside cottage.

With the help of a young zoologist, who happen to be driving by the deserted country road when the group flees from the werewolves, Dog Soldiers suddenly turn from a your typical werewolf film and into a siege reminiscent of such classics as Night of the Living Dead, Aliens and Zulu. The rest of the film is a race against the clock as the werewolves outside slowly, but gradually probe the defenses of the remaining survivors until the climactic final reel where secrets between between some of the survivors are revealed to show that the situation the soldiers have been put in were not accidental. The final half hour of Dog Soldiers is as action packed as the last half hour of Aliens.

Neil Marshall’s simple, yet tight directing and pacing of the film was helped considerably by the fine ensemble cast of British actors. There’s some fine performances from Kevin McKidd as the cool-headed Pvt. Cooper who shares abit of history with the secretive and aloof covert operator Capt. Ryan (played by Liam Cunningham). In fact, I would say that McKidd’s performance as Cooper holds the film together and keeps it from sliding into camp. The rest of the cast does a fine job with Sean Pertwee as the Sgt. Wells being a sort of father figure for the young soldiers in the squad. Emma Cleasby rounds out the British ensemble cast as the young anthropologist Megan who comes across the fleeing soldiers on the country road and takes them to the only defensible shelter in the vicinity. Her character does a good job of gradually letting out the nature of the danger they’re all in.

Any talk of the performances in Dog Soldiers will not be complete if I didn’t mention Darren Morfitt’s gung-ho and manic performance as Pvt. Spoon. His Spoon portrayal is abit like Bill Paxton’s role as Hudson in Aliens, but minus the early bout of panic and cowardice. Spoon revels in the situation he and his squad mates have been put in. He sees it as the ultimate test of British military skill and nerves against insurmountable odds. He even mentions the Battle at Roarke’s Drift to make a point to a squad mate. This is ironic since that battle was the setting for the classic siege war film Zulu which Dog Soldiers pays homage to.

The effects work in Dog Soldiers was very well done for a film that had a budget less than the FX budget of most Hollywood blockbuster projects. Some people have pointed out that the werewolves either looked like men wearing a furry suit and/or furry-looking puppets. This is further from the truth. The look of the werewolves were pretty simple and with the budget Marshall and his crew had to work with they looked pretty convincing. Neil Marshall also seemed to have taken Spielberg’s rule of showing less is more approach. We really don’t see the werewolves in full until the final twenty minutes or so. By then the film has already hooked and reeled in its audience into suspending their disbelief and just enjoying the film. Dog Soldiers also contains quite abit of gore-laden scenes that were very well done. Limbs and heads ripped from bodies abound in this film. Stomachs are gutted with entrails spilling out. There’s even a nice scene of the werewolves feeding on the remains of one of their kills that most past werewolf films don’t show on-screen. Marshall seem to have figured out that gore and scary moments can be in the same film instead of just one or the other.

2002’s Dog Soldiers was a very small film, but it was one of the first first of the last couple years that has brought back balls-to-the-wall horror, action and gore back into the horror genre. Before Dog Soldiers most horror films have sunk to the PG-13 soft horror or the cynical, self-referential films like Scream. What Neil Marshall and company have done with Dog Soldiers was to make horror the way it should be: a hard rated-R thrill-ride that takes its audience by the neck and doesn’t let go. Gorehounds and fans of horror and action films should rejoice in the finished product that is Dog Soldiers. They should also be glad to know that Neil Marshall is one director who understands what makes a great horror film. I for one can’t wait for what he intends to do next.