The film was originally released in 2002 and has now been rereleased in a lush 20 year anniversary edition. Restored in 4k this crackling debut feature follows a troop of British soldiers who, on a training exercise in Scotland, run into a marauding pack of werewolves. Taking shelter in a local farmhouse things go from bad to worse and culminate in a bloody showdown reminiscent of such siege spectacles as Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and Straw Dogs (1971).
Marshall’s goal here is plain from the outset, we’re here to have a blast. But does he succeed? In short, yes, but with caveats.
Save the cat, shoot the Dog!
With two cold openings that establish the Chekhov’s gun we see again in the finale and our hero and villain (Kevin McKidd and Liam Cunninham respectively), who along with Sean Pertwee add a level of heft to the film’s otherwise amateur cast), Dog Soldiers has an immediate buzz about it from the start.
The high energy editing and the sometimes-works-sometimes-doesn’t-banter of the soldiers create a happy-go-lucky amateurishness to this film that can’t help bring a smile to your face. It’s a plucky, against the odds piece of cinema that makes one think of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II (1987) through its use of slapstick and crude humour. This is a film that embraces its genre, cliches and all, and throws everything against the wall (including its cast) to make its brief runtime a lean, mean and snarling good time.
That’s not to say there aren’t quiet or horrific moments amid the action. Marshall is canny enough to know that his audience needs time to adjust as the stakes get higher and that a comedy horror requires some…well… actual horror in order to work.
Thus, his script includes some nice character moments between the action. Highlights include Sergeant Harry Wells (Pertwee) telling ghost stories around a campfire, soldiers noodling away on pianos between attacks and later, realising he is doomed to become a werewolf, Sgt. Wells sharing a moment with Private Cooper (McKidd) and resolving to spend his last moments of humanity trying to save his lads.
On the more unsettling side there is trail of breadcrumbs the boys find as they realise the house they’re in might not have been their best choice and the quietly shocking reveal of a character thought long dead being tortured and slowly consumed instead. It’s a moment of genuine dread that establishes then the werewolves as something to truly fear. A similar approach to Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004) where it is the cast and their reactions to things that give us the humour, not their furry/undead antagonists.
It’s a wise decision and this back and forth tension between fast and slow, comedy and horror shows glimpses of the budding talent that Marshall would go on to solidify in future works like The Descent (2005) and Game of Thrones (his episodes Blackwater and The Watchers on the Wall being some of the saga’s most explosive – literally in the case of the former).
Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough!
There is a fireside, boys-own-adventure mentality in Dog Soldiers that lifts the film above its limitations. The cast is game throughout, throwing themselves into the high octane action scenes that, among other things, see the boys dazzling the werewolves with a camera’s flashbulb and throwing boiling water into their face as bullets run dry. Sean Pertwee at one point went so method that he allowed himself to be punched in the face whilst performing, albeit accidentally.
It’s an energy that carries over to the story with the gang seeming to revel in their situation, salivating as they switch from blanks to real bullets and comparing the action they are going through to the siege of Rourke’s Drift in Zulu (1967) albeit without the classic film’s scale or gravitas. It’s a two-world-wars one-world-cup british approach to things that can sometimes trouble you, but here is ok.
This is a film, after all, where the reveal of werewolves is met not with derision and horror, but with shrugs and a desire to get on with things so they can watch the footy. The soldiers choosing to turn towards their enemy rather than run away. A hyper-testosterone Predator (1987) approach to things which is undeniably fun given its ridiculousness.
Indeed there is a fist fight towards the end where Darren Morfitt’s Spoon, now fully out of ammo, decides to brawl with his attackers instead. It’s stupidly over the top and in another film would be met with derision but here just fits the brief. It’s great. Instead of moaning and wringing their hands before turning on one another (see every zombie film ever for that formula) here the boys remain focussed and a singular team. One is inclined to cheer for them to the end, even as they are inevitably cut down one by one.
Howay the lads!
So a faultless masterpiece then? Well…no. As stated before the dialogue provides most of the humour but can at times land with a clang. There is a recurring joke about things being bone which, like Mean Girl’s (2004) fetch, just wasn’t going to happen and Emma Cleasby’s Megan, the only female character, has a couple of lines during the climax that are achingly bad. Such moments feel like a joke made down the pub has been given flesh rather than the cool moments Marshall maybe thought they would be.
In fact Cleasby’s character doesn’t really have a purpose other than to be the resident werewolf expert but, in a film where the boys already seem aware of the rules of werewolves she quickly becomes redundant. It’s a shame as her backstory is a good one and, developed further, could have helped add a sense of quiet tragedy to proceedings. Something that the werewolf mythos often carries with it.
Harking back to the original quote this article started with though, Marshall was here for a good time and not to create a social realist drama so the trimming of such fat helps keep things moving. Having everyone moping and considering their (im)mortality would have just dragged things down. We aren’t here for that, we’re here to see the British Army headbutting lycanthropes, and Marshall gleefully provides this.
So, don’t think about it. Just get your mates around, put on your england football top, crack open a beer and enjoy the action. Now in 4k!
Editor & Artwork: Richard Williams