We seem to have a shortage of “greats” when it comes to werewolf flicks. Think about it; in over a hundred years of horror movie history, most of us could name off a pretty sizable list of “great” vampire films, monster movies, or ghost stories. In just the last fifty years or so, we could all come up with a couple pages of psycho-slasher “must-sees” and “gotta have” zombie flicks; but if I tell you to give me say, twenty werewolf movies that you’d call keystone works in the subgenre (not simply a movie with a werewolf in it), how many of you could come up with them without cheating and copping some titles off of IMDB? The Wolf Man. An American Werewolf In London. The Howling. Ginger Snaps. I suppose I could include Nicholson’s Wolf, but I didn’t really consider that a horror film. Of course, some of you Fellow Fans will have a few on your lists that I don’t, but still; how many? Maybe it’s because of the difficulty in making a werewolf look good onscreen, I don’t know. I just know it’s discouraging at times for we fans of the lycanthropic.
Before he made a huge dent in horror culture with The Descent, director Neil Marshall showed his skills with a little werewolf film that was slim on budget, but big on passion; Dog Soldiers. The film didn’t even get a proper theatrical release on this side of the Atlantic, but fortunately a run on the SyFy Network brought it to the attention of a lot of us Yanks.
A squad of six British soldiers are dropped off into the wilderness of Scotland for an “exercise”; unbeknownst to them, they are actually being used as bait by the covert Special Weapons Division to trap a beast that has been killing campers and backpackers in the region.
Of course, the SWD isn’t out for a humanitarian award; they have cause to believe this “beast” might actually be that creature of myth: a werewolf. In typical government toadie tradition, the possibility of such a creature as a weapon is too tempting to resist; the poor band of unknowing troops is expendable in their eyes, so long as the mission is completed. However, the shady black ops officers are themselves attacked by the beasts first; when the six soldiers find the bloody, decimated remains of the SWD camp, they find themselves faced with the impossible nature of the same beastly opponents. Still, they decide that they aren’t so expendable, and the “bait” show teeth of their own. What follows is a mad, blood-soaked pursuit, ending with the soldiers barricaded in a farmhouse, making their final, desperate stand against the supernatural enemy.
The biggest (but far from the only) strength of this movie is it’s script; the characters are fleshed out enough to where you care about them, but not enough to slow the film down. Their relationships are realistic, and the banter between them is natural and accurate (I can attest to this; during my own military service, I had the honor of serving alongside some British Army soldiers); the writing is littered with witticisms and pop-culture references that add even more believability. The plot itself is simple, yet with enough turns and curveballs that you invariably find something you haven’t seen; horror is interspersed with comedy, both gallows humor and incidental quips between brothers-in-arms, which makes it all more convincing. These very realistically-portrayed men are placed in completely fantastic circumstances; this could be (and has been in many flicks) botched terribly, the film becoming a joke.
In this case, however, the situation is skillfully handled, and you can’t help but be swept up into the plight of the characters; the disbelief you are suspending is made very light indeed. Of course, without good acting, believability flies out the window, but no worries here; the acting is excellent from top to bottom. Sean Pertwee, Liam Cunningham, and Kevin McKidd shine as the principals, but the rest of the ensemble performs with such vigor that it’s impossible to doubt who they are on the screen. Marshall’s direction moves the narrative flawlessly from emotional camaraderie to frenetic action; you’ll be reminded of Predator and Aliens at times, but never to the point of feeling that this is a rip-off. Finally, the effects: Marshall wanted to go full-on practical in the special effects for the film, and the result was marvelous; I was very pleasantly impressed with the way the werewolves were handled. Point one, you don’t see them whole and in one place very often; you get a claw here, a muzzle there, or hunched, stealthy shadows in the mist. When you do see an entire beast, it’s quick; long enough for your eye to register it, but not enough to notice any shortcomings in the make- up, prosthetics, or animatronics. The blood flows freely and the gore is deliciously nasty, but it isn’t overdone or silly. The film is a beautiful example of economic filmmaking; not a moment or a line is wasted. There’s very little time that passes onscreen that something important to the plot isn’t happening, and it all forms the blocks of an entertaining and well-planned story.
Dog Soldiers is my favorite werewolf film; my being able to relate to the soldiers likely contributes to that (but if it does, I’d say that if the characters are that believable, then that contribution would be far more of a strength than a weakness). It’s one of those films that, to me, never gets old. While it may not be the be-all-end-all of horror flicks, I personally consider it pretty damn high on the list of great times I’ve spent in front of a screen.
I personally could use another good werewolf flick like this one; o’course, that’s just what I think.