Dog Soldiers (Collector's Edition) Review
Geordie filmmaker Neil Marshall announced his arrival in 2002 with the barnstorming indie horror Dog Soldiers, a thoroughly British production shot on a shoestring budget in Luxembourg. It centres on a group of soldiers on an exercise in the Scottish Highlands running into something they didn't count on: a pack of werewolves intent on turning them into dinner. After coming under attack they run into a young woman who guides them into a seemingly deserted house, only to discover that their hostess isn't quite what she seems. With their ammo running low, a full moon rising and their enemy showing no signs of backing down it's doubtful the squad will last the night, but they're going to give their furry foes a bloody nose in the process...
Marshall's feature debut, which he directed, wrote and edited, is very much a grab-bag of cinematic influences, wearing its debt to gung-ho 'men on a mission' movies like Predator proudly on its sleeve, but there's also a strong flavour of any number of classic siege flicks like Zulu, along with throwaway references to many, many more movies ("There is no Spoon"). The siege aspect is important because, like all good examples of the genre, it means Dog Soldiers doesn't get bogged down with the whys and the wherefores of the situation. While there are little spurts of exposition (which often make little sense anyway) the movie doesn't grind to a halt every few minutes, nor does it belabour the point about werewolf mythology, the men just deal with their relentless enemy as best they can.
Even with its heritage being so patently obvious the film pulls off that wonderful trick of being more than the sum of its parts, as it still feels British to its core thanks to the script and the cast. Marshall populates his film with football-obsessed characters, has a little dig at the class system and he makes the bone-dry wit that's typical of people from this island into a core feature. The dialogue is ably delivered with an abundance of local slang by the Geordie-dominated ensemble which is anchored by a noble and pragmatic performance from Scotsman Kevin McKidd as Pvt. Cooper, part of Sean 'Sarge' Pertwee's ill-fated squad. Pertwee elicits a genuine sense of devotion from his men and their camaraderie shines through on-screen, paying respect to the British squaddie in a way that hadn't really been seen in contemporary movies at that time. Liam Cunningham adds some more 'proper actor' cred playing a plummy-voiced English officer (the man himself is Irish) and Emma Cleasby is the mysterious Megan. Darren Morfitt stands out from the rest of the grunts with his turn as the brass-balled Pvt. Witherspoon.
Given the economy of the storytelling and the fast pace of the action scenes the low budget doesn't come as much of a hindrance, and in some respects it's actually a bonus because there's a refreshing lack of CG which would've dated the film horribly. The lithe, other-wordly creatures were realised by putting performers on stilts and then costuming them up, which gives them an imposing height and a slightly awkward gait that only makes them seem even more sinister. Marshall also cuts the attack scenes very much like those in Aliens, the beasts attacking from the shadows in short, sharp bursts with concentrated menace that's sorely lacking from the average CG-concocted swarms you'd see today. We don't even get to see any transformation effects, the process instead happening out of shot accompanied by the sound of ripping clothes. It's one of the oldest tricks in the book but sometimes the old ways are the best, because your mind fills in the blanks and the film's raw intensity does the rest.
This reviewer is not usually one for horror but upon revisiting Dog Soldiers I found it to be immensely enjoyable, as much for the home-grown humour as anything else. In spite of the multiple shout-outs to any number of genre films, director/writer Neil Marshall's imparted a unique flavour upon his movie and the tight direction means that it punches well above its weight and holds up brilliantly years later. It's a pity that Marshall never quite fulfilled the promise that's shown here, as although he followed it up with the sublime subterranean chiller The Descent his feature career stalled after a couple more movies and he's currently jobbing as a TV director (where he was reunited with Liam Cunningham on Game Of Thrones). Hopefully he'll get to call the shots on another feature at some point.
Shout! Factory’s Scream imprint brings Dog Soldiers to region A LOCKED Blu-ray Disc in a new Collector’s Edition package, with newly commissioned cover art (original poster art on the reverse), slipcase and a DVD copy.
As mentioned above the movie was made on a modest budget, which extended to the use of Super 16 as the shooting format. It offers a bigger negative area than regular 16mm which was/is ideal for shooting such low-budget features and TV shows, and it can scrub up nicely in conjunction with the modern DI process (see Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler or Black Swan). Alas, Dog Soldiers was made at a time when the DI was in its relative infancy so it was always going to be at the mercy of the photochemical process. It had to be optically blown up to 35mm for its theatrical run which reduced detail and did little to help the graininess inherent to 16mm origination.
Why is that relevant, you ask? Well, when preparing for this new edition Shout ran into some trouble locating any pre-print 16mm elements like interpositives or camera negative to do their new transfer from, and all that could be located was two of the blown-up 35mm theatrical prints – yes, actual cinema prints – with all of the relevant flaws therein. Prints are fourth-generation elements and are rarely used for professional home video transfers unless as a very last resort because their density is quite different from the preceding elements in the chain, looking fine when projected but when translated to the linear confines of video they can come across with intense highlights and very high gamma, meaning that brighter areas look 'blown out' while darker scenes suffer from heavily crushed blacks.
Shout’s new 1080p transfer shares some of those traits, with sources of light looking overly bright and lacking in nuance, while the black levels are extremely thin and washed out, presumably having been brought up in an effort to try and recover any shadow detail that they could from the limited source materials. Scenes supposed to be set at dusk appear to have nuclear levels of brightness and yet as soon as darkness falls the image is covered with a virtually impenetrable pall of grey gloom. The movie has lots of vertical scratches extending the full height of the frame plus some obvious instability (the credits wobble about like mad), factor in some extremely coarse grain and it’s literally like watching a battered old print. A couple of changeover markers in the top-right corner complete the effect. In the darker shots you may notice a few more artefacts, like static vertical bands and a horizontal ‘rolling bar’ effect (reminds of the Laserdisc days). The aspect ratio is in 1.78 widescreen yet it lacks a smidgen of headroom, I noticed the tops of people’s heads and/or their eyelines getting awfully tight to the top of the frame on more than one occasion.
Marshall oversaw and approved this transfer and, for what it's worth, speaks very highly of it in the accompanying audio commentary, although Shout have (perhaps wisely) removed any references to the new transfer on the cover. Given the consternation that has greeted this release on the internets I found that it didn't hamper my enjoyment of the film at all. It could even be argued that the gritty, downbeat look of this edition (over and above the Super 16 origination) is quite fitting in a low-rent ‘grindhouse’ kind of way, as there’s a stark beauty to it and the pervasive darkness helps to hide the seams. I do wish Shout would invest some money into polishing up their in-house presentations a bit more with regards to painting out dirt and scratches, but in this case their shortcomings add to the charm albeit more by luck than judgement.
In terms of pure technical quality the AVC encoding deals with the heavy grain rather well in motion and there’s no sign of the aliasing which has blighted a couple of other recent Shout releases, like Escape from New York. The colour is mostly grim and desaturated but the gore’s still got a deep red tinge to it. Detail levels aren’t crisp by any objective standards yet there’s a keen sense of filmic texture regardless due to the snowstorm of grain, as this is no DNR disaster. The very hard transitions between light and dark are graduated nicely without any ugly posterization, which is more than I can say for certain other distributors.
Audio is presented in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 along with a largely pointless 2.0 option. It sounds a little constrained and boxy at times (whether that’s a limitation of the original source or the elements that Shout have used is unclear) but it’s got some clean separation across the fronts and clear dialogue, with crisp effects like the tinkling of bullet casings (I wouldn’t think they’d sound like that when hitting the woodland floor, but that’s movies for you). The rears aren’t called into action during the quieter scenes but they provide some surprisingly effective support when they do spring into life, like the ominous grumbling of thunder during the marching scenes or the whizz of gunfire when the squad is attacked in the forest. There are also some excellent moments where the werewolves clamber on the roof above you. The bass extension is moderate and doesn't draw much attention to itself. Mark Thomas' cheesy score comes through fine. I detected a couple of repeatable pops coming from the rear right speaker, again I’m not sure whether that’s source or encode related.
Shout has served up a tasty helping of extra features for this US Blu-ray release. It appears as if they weren't able to licence the existing audio commentaries or the deleted scenes & gag reel from the UK DVD, but what we get in their stead is a fresh commentary from Marshall plus an all-new hour-long documentary titled Soldiers vs. Werewolves and some other goodies. The commentary elaborates on what's said in the documentary rather than just parroting the same anecdotes, though Marshall runs out of steam near the end. The documentary covers all the bases and brings in several of the main contributors from in front of and behind the camera, including Marshall, the producers, the cinematographer, the art designer, the effects/makeup supervisors and much of the cast, with Pertwee, McKidd, Morfitt and Cleasby all making an appearance.
We get another standalone piece about the design of the cottage running for 13 minutes plus two photo galleries, one of film stills and another of production stills, the latter accompanied by explanatory captions and includes shots of Spoon's original (and much gorier) demise. Marshall's short film Combat (previously seen on the UK DVD) pops up again here, offering a humourous look at a bunch of lads and their night out on the town staged as if it's a military operation. Last on the list is a selection of trailers, some of which were designed to mimic the old ‘Be The Best’ Army adverts which UK readers will surely remember. (It’s a pity that these HD trailers offer up noticeably better picture quality than the main feature, but what can you do?)
Dog Soldiers was a real shot in the arm for British horror in the Noughties and it's been given a solid Collector's Edition Blu-ray release from Shout! Factory. The new transfer isn't as good-looking as Neil Marshall lauds it to be, stemming as it does from mediocre theatrical elements and lacking in basic niceties such as scratch removal, but the simple fact is that the original materials cannot be located so in terms of fresh 2K/HD mastering this is about as good as it's going to get, folks. In some ways the harsh appearance actually contributes to the grim atmosphere so fans of the film should forget the hype, see it for themselves and make up their own minds. The newly-made extras should also appeal greatly to fans, and although they may not offer any Earth-shattering insights it's still a bumper package for this cult gem that's still kicking arse 13 years later.
8 out of 10
6 out of 10
7 out of 10
8 out of 10