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‘Dog Soldiers’ is a horror-action mashup made in heaven

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Dog Soldiers

Written and directed by Neil Marshall

U.K., 2002

English writer-director Neil Marshall’s value as a commodity in the filmmaking business as cooled off somewhat in the wake of an extraordinary first few years of the new millennium. He mostly concentrates on television now (which, in his defence, is where a lot of incredibly talented people opt to work nowadays), but from 2002 to around 2008, his name was synonymous with terrifically high-octane, bone chilling horror-action films. Things took a turn with Doomsday (2008), which received significant studio backing but flopped at the box office, followed by 2010’s Centurion, which received an extremely quiet theatrical release. Say what one will of his latter theatrical efforts, nothing will quench the lustre of his 2002 debut, the insanely amusing Dog Soldiers.

Set in the Scottish Highlands, Private Lawrence Cooper (Kevin McKidd) is one of a few soldiers assigned to an important drill, the purpose of which is apparently to prove the platoon’s worth against another special forces unit. Cooper once had the opportunity to change rank, tested by the infamous and ruthless Captain Ryan (Liam Cunningmham), but failed at the final hurdle and was sent back to regular army duty. Now he, Sergeant Harry G. Wells (Sean Pertwee), and a handful of other British grunts are traversing a gloomy, cold forest, awaiting the next move of their opposites. However, the skirmish proves anything but, as humungous werewolves begin assaulting them, tearing whomever they get their claws on limb by limb. A wandering zoologist, Megan (Emma Cleasby), proves their only ally in what promises to be a nightmarishly long night in the woods, one in which Cooper’s old nemesis, Captain Ryan, ends up playing a crucial part.

Dog Soldiers is a bit along the lines of Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004) insofar as its story is drenched in horror aesthetic, yet the film itself is not as frightening as its premise suggests. In Wright’s film, the comedy and love story are just as important if not more so than the looming zombie apocalypse. In the case of Dog Soldiers, the action and terrific camaraderie between the soldiers truly anchors the picture, all the while reminding the audience that the occurrences themselves are indeed horrific. Neil Marshall has concocted an extraordinarily entertaining mixture of buddy film, war film, action film and horror film. Working on a modest budget, he and his crew string together visually impressive scenes that strike the right balance of horror and relatively epic action.

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However neat looking the werewolves are (and they do look pretty amazing), it is the cast of characters that make the movie so darn enjoyable. In so many military themed films, the individuals involved are crass, testosterone-filled jocks that either seem to oddly detest working alongside their colleagues or are steadfastly intent on displaying vomit inducing levels of machismo. Such is not the case in Dog Soldiers. Granted, Cooper, Wells and the other members of the unit are crass, but there is a warming sense of kinship and understanding between them. They are soldiers, thus trained be ready for battle, which requires an important level of toughness, yet they have genuine personalities like regular people do. One of them mopes about how he wishes he could be watching an England-Germany football match, über critical training drill be damned. Better still, they behave as though they appreciate one another’s company. They may not be the best of friends, but under the present circumstances they are obviously getting along as well as men stuck in the lost Scottish Highlands in miserable temperatures, missing out on a big game, are going to. Kevin McKidd and Sean Pertwee, the latter who can be presently seen as Alfred Pennyworth in the Gotham television series, give surprisingly balanced performances, juggling the requisite army tough guy attitude with a more humane, sensitive sides. These soldiers are not the typical lambs to the slaughter. Well, most of them will, in fact, perish, but the viewer might actually not want to seem them dispatched so grotesquely.

Having established charismatic characters worthy of the viewer’s empathy, Dog Soldiers can let the proverbial feces hit the fan. Limited means aside, Director Neil Marshall throws everything he can at the screen to create a lunacy-filled, intense night of Man-versus-monster mayhem. The film obviously sports a grungy look to it and it works very much in its favour, creating a sense that the movie could have come out of the long line of drive-in, b-movie gore fests from the 1970s. The makeup, costumes and special effects are all rooted in simple practical materials that the filmmakers push to the absolute highest level possible. Dog Soldiers relishes in showing the damage a werewolf bite or slash can cause on weak human flesh, with characters having to survive with stomach churning holes, the worst case being that of Sergeant Wells, who must undergo amateur surgery to fix his dangling intestines. Through it all, the film strives to keep the terrible circumstances within the realm of the horror genre. Some of the outcomes of the characters might sound amusing on paper, but watching them produces, at best, nervous laughter because so much of it is really gross, not to mention befalling characters the viewer has grown to like.

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Even the action itself is very well staged, successfully keeping things fresh and wild enough even though a lot of it consists of soldiers firing at werewolves with whatever little ammunition they have left. Director Marshall intelligently creates stress-filled mini episodes within the larger attack sequences, thus putting multiple characters directly in harms way simultaneously. Best of all, the unfortunate soldiers are fending off beautiful looking monsters. Clearly a lot of effort was invested into making the werewolves as scary looking as possible. It is their size that, more than anything else, proves unnerving. In a nutshell, they are massive creatures that absolutely dwarf Cooper and company.

Dog Soldiers is barrels of fun. It looks great and creepy, the actors put it finely tuned performances, the pacing is extremely brisk and the action is a blast, no pun intended. After seeing it, it should come as no surprise that director Neil Marshall was called upon for future projects, either firmly in horror camp (The Descent) or tinged with some of its elements (Doomsday). Rumors abounded for long time about a possible sequel, but 13 years removed, that is looking increasingly unlikely. Truth be told, it doesn’t even need a sequel. Dog Soldiers is essentially perfect just the way it is.

-Edgar Chaput


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