Dog Soldiers (2002)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: August 23rd, 2022
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Werewolf mythology has routinely been an in-road for artists to explore the monstrous side of human nature. Both film and literature are full of tortured lycanthropes whose transformations into bloodthirsty beasts are agonizing ordeals ripe for both visceral and existential horrors. Werewolf stories often make it very clear: it sucks to be a werewolf. Finding all of this rote and tired by the 1990s, Neil Marshall wanted none of this when he hatched Dog Soldiers, a rip-roaring monster movie that just happens to feature werewolves as its beast of choice. For the most part, any vicious creature would suffice since Marshall’s film is a harrowing survival thriller that’s more invested in its plucky survivors than it is advancing or even subverting its mythological lore. Simply put, Dog Soldiers grabs its audience by the throat and throttles it for 100 minutes, making it more of a successor to the likes of Sam Raimi.
Joe Bob Briggs famously labeled Evil Dead riffs as “spam in a cabin” movies, where the nature of the threat could easily be swapped out so long as the setting remains (relatively) the same. Dog Soldiers really ups the ante in this respect: not only does it unleash a pack of werewolves on an isolated farmhouse, but it also features unconventional protagonists. Instead of preying upon helpless, unsuspecting college students, the wolves terrorize a group of soldiers who think they’re embarking on a routine training exercise, effectively upending the dynamic. While these guys certainly aren’t prepared to deal with werewolves, they’re well-equipped for the threat. Among them is Private Lawrence Cooper (Kevin McKidd), a respected soldier whose attempt to join a special service squad meets with failure when he refuses to follow an immoral order from the tyrannical Sergeant Ryan (Liam Cunningham). As fate would have it, Cooper and his band of brothers rescue Ryan from the werewolves before a local zoologist (Emma Cleasby) leads them to the farmhouse where they mount their defense, creating even more unease within those walls since Cooper and his men distrust the cagey sergeant.
The internal, pot-boiling strife is also reminiscent of Romero, and I suppose Cooper’s name is a nod in that direction. That became the hallmark of Marshall’s early work: the cobbling together of genre staples, an approach that culminated in Doomsday, a pastiche that might have made the old Italian rip-off hucksters blush. But that never really bothered me much, especially in relation to Dog Soldiers. I figure you can do worse than to splice soldiers and werewolves into a hybrid of Night of the Living Dead and The Evil Dead, a combination that winds up feeling inspired and spirited with Marshall’s guidance. His dedication to these idiosyncratic bunch of characters in particular is among his shrewdest moves, even if the combination of brash bad-asses and loveable goofballs feels borrowed from other genre staples like Aliens and Predator.
The sensibility here is decidedly more wry, too, which makes a big difference. Each time I watch Dog Soldiers, I’m struck by how funny it is. It seems to be rarely discussed as part of the horror-comedy pantheon, maybe because it’s not exactly a laugh riot, or even much of a hoot. Instead, the humor is a little more subtle and dry, most of it a byproduct of the soldiers’ bemused reactions to the ordeal. Despite the obviously harrowing situation, there’s something good-natured about the troop’s chemistry, making it instantly believable that these guys have been together for years and are tuned into each other’s wavelengths. Their exchanges—comedic and otherwise—feel authentically forged out of their bond, and you could just as easily imagine watching these guys hanging out in a straightforward comedy. Credit is also due to the tremendous chemistry and camaraderie among the cast, starting with Pertwee, who brings vulnerability and compassion to a role that could easily degenerate into a tough guy soldier cliché. His ragtag bunch is a lot of fun too, especially Spoon (Darren Morfitt) and Joe (Chris Robson), whose constant fretting about a soccer match he’s missing sets up a recurring gag that has a howler of a punchline during the end credits.
It’s all complemented by Marshall’s sharp horror sensibilities: he masterfully blends atmosphere, suspense, and violence, all while keeping the pacing razor sharp. Thankfully, the script doesn’t dwell on why or how werewolves have taken up residence in these woods, allowing Marshall to simply unleash them in rip-roaring fashion. He and his effects team conjure up freakishly tall, animalistic beasts—true werewolves instead of wolfmen, and gloriously practical ones at that. The violence is downright savage, too: these poor guys are put through hell, particularly those who wind up having wolves tear their guts right from their stomachs. Dog Soldiers is some true crucible of horror shit, as the rising tensions within only heighten the threat from without, and Marshall harnesses the increasingly chaotic verve for a pulse-pounding finale.
Simply put, Dog Soldiers is just a ton of fun. I know that’s not the most insightful criticism or whatever, but this movie scratches a very particular itch. Sometimes, you just need a genre cocktail that does a little bit of everything, and this one delivers action, humor, and monster movie mayhem galore. Even though I’ve said this a million times, it bears repeating: we could use more movies like this, creature features that are fun without feeling like a farce because the filmmakers respect the genre and want to deliver genuinely squeamish thrills instead of ironic, disdainful laughs. Dog Soldiers might be funny and light on its feet, but it’s no joke—and that’s helped it to age remarkably well during the past twenty years.
Dog Soldiers joins the ranks of 4K upgrades from the Scream Factory catalog, and it may be the most welcome one yet thanks to its spotty home video track record. While Scream Factory gave it the Blu-ray treatment back in 2015, it didn’t come without some caveats and controversy. Because the original negative couldn’t be secured for the release, Scream had to make do with 2K scans of worn release prints, so the transfer wasn’t as pristine as you’d expect for a film of this age. It also boasted a new color timing that carried Marshall’s endorsement but alienated longtime fans nonetheless. The new 4K release brings mostly good news: the original negative has been restored, resulting in a much more filmic look, with a more natural grain structure that isn’t nearly as distracting as the previous release. To my eyes, the color timing seems to be somewhere in between the old DVD releases and Scream’s Blu-ray: there are still some day-for-night shots that look a little wonky, but that apparently has more to do with difficulties with keeping continuity during shooting. Regardless, this is unquestionably an upgrade, and it’s paired with the same solid DTS-HD MA surround and stereo tracks from the Blu-ray.
While a new transfer is worth the price of upgrading on its own, Scream makes this release even more worthwhile with an abundance of new supplements. In addition to all of the extras on the old Blu-ray, there’s two new commentaries, one with writer and film professor Alison Peirse, and another with producers David E. Allen and Brian O'Toole. A new interview with Marshall doubles as a career retrospective of sorts as he details the majority of the films he’s directed. In “A History Of Lycanthropy,” author Gavin Baddeley gives a nice overview of the evolution of the werewolf genre, while scholar Mikel J. Koven tackles the relationship between folklore and film in his essay “Werewolves, Folklore And Cinema.”
The rest of the features return from the previous release, with the excellent 1-hour documentary Werewolves vs Soldiers providing a nice retrospective centerpiece. Other extras include a look at the film’s production design, a collection of trailers and photo galleries, and “Combat,” a short film from Marshall. All told, the 4k adds 90 minutes of supplemental material to an already robust set of extras, providing fans with about 3 hours worth of extras—and that’s not even including the three audio commentaries. I’ve seen some grumbling in certain circles about Scream Factory’s recent focus on 4K upgrades in lieu of releasing new titles to their catalog, but releases like this are more than welcome. Not only is the presentation a remarkable upgrade over a previously disappointing release, but the added extras take the sting out of yet another double dip. And if this is your first time howling at this particular moon, this is the place to start.
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