Dog Soldiers Review
There's a moment in Dog Soldiers that almost sums up this entire film - there's just been an attack by a number of werewolves on the cottage in which an army unit is sheltered that is only just being held. There is general confusion, a number of injuries, the full moon is up and the night has only just begun. What happens? Well, one of the privates says that he would love nothing more than a cup of tea and so reveals, like Tim Brooke-Taylor in The Goodies, the Union Jack worn underneath this so very British and very entertaining film, in which a pack of werewolves come up against a small group of soldiers with starched upper-lips and the two dig in to fight it out until morning.
Dog Soldiers opens with two prologues - one featuring an attack on a young couple camping in the wild and the other with Cooper (McKidd) on a training mission to determine his suitability for entry into special ops. All is going well until the commanding officer, Captain Ryan (Cunningham), orders him to shoot and kill a dog, which he refuses to do. Ryan kills the dog instead and instructs Cooper that he is unsuitable for a position in his team.
Four weeks later, Cooper is back with his normal unit under the command of Sgt. Wells (Pertwee) on training manoeuvres in Scotland and, after some basic character building, including the discussion of that day's England v. Germany football match, which they're missing, and a conversation that betrays the film's roots in horror - 'What scares you the most?' - the night is interrupted by a cow - yes, a cow! - landing on their campfire. Clearly, something is very wrong, a feeling that is strengthened by the next day's discovery of Ryan, also on patrol with his unit. The problem is not so much that Ryan is there, in Scotland, also on patrol but that he is now in a critical condition with the rest of his team missing presumed dead. Taking Ryan with them, Wells and Cooper try to lead their team out of the forest but they come under a number of vicious attacks. With one man dead and Wells and Ryan now injured, the unit commandeer a Land Rover in the forest and tell the driver, a local woman called Megan, (Cleasby) to take them somewhere to recover. She takes them to a cottage where they find themselves surrounded by a pack of werewolves. With the full moon only just risen, it's going to be a long night...
There is no denying that Dog Soldiers has a plot that would be liable to float away in anything more than a light breeze but where other films labour under the false pretense that they have depth and real meaning - and how few films actually do - Neil Marshall, who is directing from his own script, seems content to say no more than, "Werewolves versus the army - bit of horror, bit of humour - that's pretty much it" and, for once, gets on with delivering on his promise. Indeed, it's rare that a film describing itself as a comedy horror lives up to either claim, with honourable exceptions permitted to the films by Henenlotter, Raimi and Jackson, but Dog Soldiers actually delivers, containing both a fair number of shocking moments and good jokes. Therefore, the werewolf attacks on the cottage are suitably scary but are bookended with moments of pitch-black humour. Of course, whether or not this works will depend on your personal tastes - the horror is quite tame given the rating and the humour is resolutely British. As a result, it's hard to see anyone outside the British Isles finding Ryans clipped request to use the bathroom after he's been vomited on that funny but even in missing the odd step, Marshall directs with real verve throughout and barring one or two cliched shots (slo-mo approaches to camera firing a shotgun and the like), Dog Soldiers is actually rather impressive.
The cast does well throughout with Pertwee, McKidd and Cunningham being the the core group of actors in the film, around which most of the action is centred. Sean Pertwee does the gruff sergeant role without missing a beat and Kevin McKidd plays Cooper as an army grunt that, despite what he says to the contrary, is clearly unhappy not being in special ops. As Ryan, Liam Cunningham effectively plays the fox in the hen house, never letting McKidd get comfortable and wearing down the morale of the rest of Wells' team as the werewolf attacks become ever more effective. As the sole female member in the main cast, Emma Cleasby does well but is very much a token female and feels like a late addition to justify some of the later lines in the movie. Otherwise, the rest of the cast are simply set up to be slaughtered by the werewolves with the exception of Darren Morfitt as Spoon. Whether he's accepting the fact there's werewolves outside without questioning it in the slightest - he is from Hartlepool, after all, where they once hung a monkey because the locals thought it was a Frenchman, a fact pointed out on the commentary - or simply resorting to a fist-fight with a couple of werewolves when he runs out of ammo, Morfitt is the unlikely star of Dog Soldiers and on watching it a second or third time, his is the role that stands out above the others.
Morfitt, unfortunately, is the actor who is required to say the film's only truly unforgivable line of dialogue, whereby he refers to the position of his army unit as being similar to Zulu, one of a number of references made throughout this DVD. Forget the comparison as it is one that is made rather more hopefully than realistically - Dog Soldiers is much closer to The Evil Dead than Cy Endfield's 1964 dramatisation of the battle at Rorke's Drift and, were it not for Peter Jackson's Bad Taste, this film would surely be the best first effort in horror since Sam Raimi's debut. Where the two films connect are in the obvious use of an isolated cottage in the middle of a forest, the stuffed animals on the walls, the similarity of the werewolves point-of-view shots to Raimi's shakey-cam and ram-o-cam and a short scene with some tender piano playing amidst the horror (alright...Evil Dead 2, but you get the point). Finally, there are the parallels between Cheryl's attacks on the cabin when Ash is alone and the werewolves' attempts to get into the cottage including the trapping of obviously rubber hands in doors that are being slammed shut.
What's interesting is that Marshall has avoided looking to The Howling, An American Werewolf In London and Ginger Snaps for inspiration, naming most of the werewolf movies made in the last twenty-five years (we'll ignore Mike Nichols' laughable Wolf), as he must have known that, in terms of effects, there was no way he could compete. What John Landis and Rick Baker did in An American Werewolf In London was to bring the werewolf transformation into a brightly lit living room in suburbia. On a very limited budget, Marshall has his cast crouch over in pain or fall behind the kitchen table in the manner of Carry On Screaming, keeping with the homegrown feel of the film's opening scenes and similar to the way in which The Evil Dead's or Bad Taste's slightly shoddy acting is matched my slightly shoddy effects.
None of this is to disprect Dog Soldiers in the slightest. Instead, praise is due for the manner in which the director, cast, crew and production company have managed a small budget to produce one more example of great horror debuts that make up what they lack in finance with imagination, wit and energy. If Neil Marshall can continue what he started here, one hopes that he has a bright future ahead.
Dog Soldiers was originally filmed in Super 16 and was blown up to 35mm for its cinema presentation. On the commentary provided by the film's producers, they note that this was of little importance when shown in the US where it went directly to video/DVD and then to television but in Europe, Dog Soldiers was released in the cinemas. Having only seen it on DVD, I cannot offer an opinion as to how this transfer appeared but the film as shown here is good if a little rough. Whilst not looking like it was specifically made for television, it falls short of the type of image quality you would expect off a 35mm film print - the colours can be a little muted and the cinematography can be slightly too sharp but, overall, Dog Soldiers is just missing that sparkle, however difficult that is to quantify. Don't let that put you off, the image quality is still good, suited to the type of movie this is and, once the initial scene with the campers is over, you'll barely notice a problem.
Otherwise, Dog Soldiers has been transferred anamorphically in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 with eighteen chapter stops.
The soundtrack is presented in English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and is really rather good throughout. Given the film is quite dialogue-driven, particularly with a large central cast given equal amounts of the script, most of the audio comes through the front centre speaker with the left/right and rear speakers used to good effect during the action scenes.
However, whilst the mix is fine, some of the sound effects are noticeably odd with the werewolves sounding more like sheep at times than how you would expect and the gunshots sound limp. Given that this reviewer has only ever heard double-barrelled shotguns and air rifles rather than MP-5's and pistols, it is entirely possible that my impressions are rather closer to how Hollywood, rather than reality, imagines gunshots to sound. NRA members throughout the world can, of course, comment below.
Only English subtitles are provided.
Dog Soldiers is complemented by a wide range of extras, from the obvious (deleted scenes, storyboards) to the unexpected (Combat, Neil Marshall's short film) and includes the following:
Cast And Crew Commentary: Pertwee, McKidd, Cunningham, Marshall and the DP (Sam McCurdy) follow a few drinks in the pub with a recording of their comments fuelled by, in their words, Stella Artois. The commentary is chaotic but entertaining throughout and one of the few commentaries that made this viewer laugh out loud. Needless to say, Pertwee, McKidd and Cunningham are rather dismissive of their acting with Cunningham being the butt of most of the insults, forced into finishing the commentary by copying Marlon Brando's last line in Apocalypse Now as a reference to a joke earlier in the film. Marshall is a good focal point for the commentary and uses the opportunity both to point out continuity errors and the references to other movies contained in Dog Soldiers.
Produce Commentary: David Allen and Brian Patrick O'Toole, two of nine producers on Dog Soldiers contribute a less entertaining commentary but one that provides more information on the development and background of the film than Marshall provides in his. David Allen, as the CEO of the company that funded Dog Soldiers, provides most of the information here with O'Toole being a slightly annoying contributor. Unlike the commentary provided by the cast and crew, Allen and O'Toole are less reticent to honour the debt this film owes to The Evil Dead, commenting on a number of scenes that indicate the similarities between the two films.
Trailers: There are four trailers in total, three of which spoof army recruitment adverts, always beginning with the line, "You're part of a six-man unit..." and ending with a question/answer designed to get the trailer into a flood of flash-edited highlights. These are fairly wittily produced but are let down by the last trailer, the aptly named Quotes, which is little more than a series of highlights with quotes superimposed on the action. It isn't let down that badly, however, that it resorts to having to quote gurning poster-whore Paul Ross from the News Of The World ("it's a rip-rollicking roller coaster of a movie and my favourite werewolf/action/army film this year")
- Woman (1m07s, 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic, Dolby Digital 5.1)
- Man Down (1m07s, 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic, Dolby Digital 5.1)
- Weapon (1m01s, 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic, Dolby Digital 5.1)
- Man Down (1m07s, 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic, Dolby Digital 5.1)
Making Of Dog Soldiers (19m35s, 1.33:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): This is a decent making of that doesn't outstay its welcome yet manages to interview all the key personnel both in the cast and crew with the exception of Emma Beasley. There is sufficient detail included here on the acting, the use of effects such as the animatronic werewolves without being excessive.
Gag Reel, Outtakes (8m36s, 1.33 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): Broken into eight chapters, this contains footage edited from the film that was originally included to develop the characters and story as well as a small number of outakes included in the last chapter that are only mildly amusing. All of these deleted scenes are available both with the original soundtrack and a commentary by the director.
Combat (7m35s, 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): This short film by Neil Marshall is a night in a pub set to a soundtrack of military samples including gunshots (arguments), dive bombing (man running to the toilet to be sick), Morse code (a £5 note being tapped on the bar) and, best of all, a radio being tuned in as a man scans the bar looking for a prospective partner. The whole film revolves around a woman telling a man at a table in the centre of the pub that it's all over between them, the understanding of which is made possible both by the acting and the soundtrack. It's a good idea, it's good fun to watch and isn't too long.
Storyboards (Still Images, 1.78:1): This extra contains stills of storyboard images for scenes titled Fetch and The Barn though it would be giving away too much to explain what happens in these scenes. The relevant sections of the film can be played after viewing the images.
This DVD is a particular treat as such a low-budget film could have been sneaked out without extras, as many distributors have done so before, but the fact that Pathe have included a good set of bonus features as well as exclusive Region 2 content - such as the cast and crew commentary - that makes this DVD the choice over the other regions available.
It ought to be said, with no regard as to how bizarre a concept it sounds, that werewolves are not the easiest monsters on which to project depth and intelligent metaphors. Vampires can obviously be used as a metaphor for HIV and to connect the concepts of youth and eternal life. Zombies tend to be used as a mirror that can be held up to society and The Mummy is used to demonstrate how love continues to live over thousands of years. Werewolves, however, are not much more than simple killing machines when transformed and it is only when in human form that intelligent themes can be extracted. Filmmakers, therefore, have tended to avoid putting a clever subtext into werewolf films - look from 1982 onwards and there's really only Ginger Snaps and Wolf.
Dog Soldiers, on the other hand, doesn't really try and it's to this film's credit that, like The Evil Dead and Bad Taste, it was the right decision for Neil Marshall to make for his debut feature. It might look as though it was made for television, the performances might be less than stellar and the special effects not awfully special but the enthusiasm with which Marshall, his crew and his cast have transformed what could have been an ordinary little shocker into not only the best British horror of recent years but is probably the best werewolf movie since 1981's treble of The Howling, Wolfen and An American Werewolf In London as well as the best British example since 1961's Curse Of The Werewolf. Sure, it can be clunky but, like the group of soldiers it protrays, it never admits defeat. Instead, it charms the viewer, drawing them into the enthusiasm that Marshall and his actors bring to the experience rather than excluding them, providing a very enjoyable 100 minutes that will prove infectious enough to persuade the average viewer to come back more than once. Dog Soldiers is highly recommended indeed.