Dog Soldiers [retro review]

“We ate all their porridge and slept in their beds — no wonder they’re pissed.”

The Scoop: 2002 R, directed by Neil Marshall and starring Sean Pertwee, Kevin McKidd and Emma Cleasby

Tagline: Six soldiers. Full moon. No chance.

Summary Capsule: Six British soldiers on an exercise go down to the woods, and are in for a big surprise. But it’s not a teddy bears’ picnic. Growl.

Rich’s Rating: This is the reason I will never go hiking in the Scottish forests, ever.

Rich’s Review: For those of you who don’t know, yours truly is a fine resident of the sceptered and glorious isle of the United Kingdom, so what better way for me to kick off my first brand new mutant film review than by reviewing a British film, written and directed by a Brit, starring Brits playing Brits, and set in… well, Scotland, but that’s close enough.

When this film was released to cinemas over here in the UK, it came out with so little fanfare that I almost missed it; which would have been a terrible shame indeed, considering the pure unadulterated quality this film contains. Instead, thanks to this film and The Blair Witch Project, my calm and reasoned psyche is now forever scarred in such a way that even thinking of staying in forests at night makes my skin physically crawl off my body in search of the nearest metropolitan area, possibly as some form of independent survival instinct.

What’s that, you cry? Tell us what the film’s about already instead of waffling on about yourself? …very well.

As I understand it, when you’re in the military of any nation, the top brass like to send the squadies out into completely uninhabited areas to play at being soldiers. I believe this is called ‘training’, or some other military terminology, like ‘bunker’ or ‘second front’. In Dog Soldiers, Sgt. Harry Wells (Sean Pertwee) and his squad of 5 are dropped in the middle of Scotland’s woodland on such an expedition, much to the displeasure of every member of the squad, who all had better things to do with their weekend than tromp through acres of Scottish timber in the freezing cold.

If only that were the least of their problems… you see, it turns out that there’s a reason that part of Scotland is pretty sparsely inhabited, and it has nothing to do with the area’s lack of cable access or good satellite reception. Instead, it comes in the form of a number of big, hairy, angry and dangerous inhabitants. No, not WWF wrestlers. Werewolves. Spads of them, in fact. After a couple of less than successful encounters with their furry pursuers, and a more useful encounter with helpful researcher Megan (Emma Cleasby), the battered soldiers make it to the only house in the area, there to muster their defences till help arrives.

What also bears mentioning is the presence of a second British unit in the area, some special forces whose encounter with the werewolves is a spectacular failure, and whose only survivor, Cpt. Ryan (Liam Cunningham), is about as trustworthy as one of those ‘I wish to deposit 800 billion dollars in your bank account’ e-mails I get sent every day. For his own safety, Cpt. Ryan is forced to shelter with Welles’ squad and the stage is set for the majority of the film.

House. Men with guns. Lots of werewolves. By the time we’d reached this point a scant 30 minutes into the movie, I knew I’d found a new favourite.

Ultimately, it’s hardly an original premise – it’s Aliens, or Assault on Precinct 13, or even Zulu. However, the performance of the various squad members, as their desperation increases and their ammo runs low keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout. And unlike the films it obviously draws references from, sandwiched nicely in between the intense terror and desperation moments are thinly-spread layers of black comedy, like a perfectly made sandwich, if the bread was the terror… and, well, you know what I mean.

Whether it’s the back-and-forth banter of the soldiers as they bicker about meaningless trivialities, or some truly inventive battlefield surgery (I’ll never look at superglue the same way again), the bits of this film that didn’t have me gripping my seat arms had me rolling in the aisles instead. However, the ushers quickly came in and asked me to stop, so I settled for just chuckling to myself.

It’s not all wine and roses though. The plot, as I’ve said, is fairly derivative, and the twists, such as they are, aren’t particularly inventive or hard to predict. However, if you’ve gone to watch this film for plot twists or originality, you’re probably missing the point. As a no-frills, unpretentious ‘survival horror’ film, Dog Soldiers provides a nice twist on a popular genre, with a bunch of good acting and some non-hokey werewolves as well.

Be warned, however, that the effects aren’t for the weak of heart or stomach. It can get a little gory at times, and there’s internal organs all over the place in some scenes. Also, as you would expect from squadies in this situation, the language is pretty coarse from the get-go… some grounded in British slang, some all-purpose swear words, but all pretty offensive if you don’t like that sort of thing.

However, I’d be remiss in not mentioning the one other thing in this film’s favour before ending this review. This film, as well as being darn good on its own merits, has earned a special place in my heart for establishing a new cinematic record: ‘The Longest Set-up For A One-Line Joke (Which Is Really Funny) In Cinema History.’ Showing the kind of mutant dedication Justin demands from his staff (backed up by the threat of a week locked in the Mutant Office’s cupboard with only a copy of Battlefield Earth for company), I’ve meticulously timed this joke – there’s precisely 96 minutes between the set-up and the punchline. Whoa.

In short, a great action/horror film you wouldn’t take your granny to.

Justin’s Rating: I’d take my granny to this, she LOVES horror movies! Seriously!

Justin’s Review: Zombies. Vampires. Werewolves. To a lesser extent, the Shriners. All of the above are horror monsters that infect humans to grow their ranks. Sure, maybe you just wanted to be coming down with a bad bout of the flu, but tough luck when the next day all you’re thinking about is eating brains and drinking blood (horror monsters don’t have a palate for fine food, and they generally make rotten vegans). They’re effective fear machines because they present a double threat: to either kill you personally, or turn you into one of them. Neither of these options appeal to most of us, unless you look really sharp in a red fez.

While zombies have become little more than the horror version of stormtroopers, bumbling about until it’s their turn to take one for the team, and while vampires have just shot themselves in the foot by overdosing on both Anne Rice and Buffy, werewolves have a bit of freshness hanging from their jaws. I like that. I like you. Would you like a cookie?

Dog Soldiers, a title that is either brilliant or incredibly stupid (I haven’t decided which), is a horror/action movie that happens to be a frisbee full of fun. Sure, it’s derivative (take your pick: Aliens, Predator, Night of the Living Dead, An American Werewolf in London, heck, even Braveheart), but at least it’s a wide range of rip-offs. And a major plus in its pocket is that Dog Soldiers belongs to the “we stay and fight” school of horror, instead of the “we flee and shriek like Catholic schoolgirls” school right down the road. Why Catholic? It gives it color, that’s why!

On an exercise mission (involving a cardiac aerobic workout, a light grapefruit breakfast, weight lifting, and power walking), a team of very talky soldiers find themselves in Werewolf Country. That’s the middle of Scotland, if you’re picky. Dry B&W POV shots and a “Mom, what’s for dinner?” disemboweling later, and our boys are on the run from some cranky pooches.

If you don’t care about your characters, you won’t root for their survival; and here, it’s all about the caring. These are funny, excitable and resourceful men (plus one woman, a — why not? — zoologist) who are given to bouts of snide dialogue and weapon innovation when we need it the most. As they get trapped inside a house and are stalked by the beasties from beyond, the fun is just beginning.

Like Aliens, there is the gung-ho jock, the second-in-command who has to take over the squad, the betrayer, the outsider woman who proves she’s on the level with any man, and even an acceptable substitute for welding: nailing up boards! Oh, you’d think you were on the Tool Channel, with punny pudgy men and their svelte lobotomized counterparts waxing fine on the subject of pine wood treatment. Except here, these boards have a very practical purpose. That’s right, to get shredded by werewolves time and again. Why bother with the nailing? Well, at least it looks theatrical.

What really steams my rice is that someone in a marketing department over here thought it’d be a swell idea to disguise this movie just like any one of thousands of low-budget, hokey-looking titles. The U.S. box art is horrible, the trailer downplays a lot of the humor, and it got zero support from any studio. Fortunately, that’s what we’re here for, to dig out the shiny… silver bullet from the steaming pile of doggie poop. Sorry to be so graphic, but you don’t know what we’re up against.

They mostly come out at night. Mostly.

You could have someone's eye out with that!

Intermission!

  • This is one of the few films to actually set a precise date when the film takes place. The football (soccer for you non-Brits out there) game the soldiers are constantly talking about actually took place on 1 September 2001, and the scoreline for that game shown at the end is the correct scoreline for that game.
  • The piece that Megan plays on the piano halfway through the film is Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”, roughly translatable as “moonbeam.” The link is obvious, but is possibly also a nod to An American Werewolf in London, the soundtrack of which consisted entirely of songs with “moon” in the title.
  • Lots of pop culture references throughout the film, including a mention of the famous ‘Kobayashi Maru’ scenario from Star Trek.
  • Squad member Campbell’s first name in the credits is listed as ‘Bruce,’ a tribute to The Chin himself and the Evil Dead films, which partially inspired this film.
  • The zipper sound of the jeans seguing into the zipper sound of the tent was subtle but very effective.
  • Funny moment: soldier is nailing a door shut, werewolf hand pops through the letter opener, soldier doesn’t even pause to switch to hammering the hand and then back to the door.
  • Never a good idea to insult your enemy when you think he’s beat.
  • Kids! Fun things to do with krazy glue!
  • Other fun Aliens comparisons: the soldier giving the girl something for good luck (in Aliens a locator, in Dog Soldiers a rabbit’s foot); the counting of the ammo and weapons; giving the weapon to the girl; the girl having been the only one of them that knew what they were dealing with; the girl driving the team out of danger in a vehicle; the girl stripping down to a tank top; the monster hiding in the back of a vehicle.
  • Because of this film, makeup and industry technological contributions became recognized by the Academy Awards in 1981. This film’s visuals earned makeup artist Rick Baker the first ever Academy Award to be bestowed upon a special effects artist.
  • The film is set in Scotland but was filmed in Luxembourg. Perhaps Scotland was closed for the weekend?
  • In the scene where Welles asks Cooper to knock him out, not only was Sean Pertwee actually drunk in that scene, but Kevin McKidd (Cooper) misjudged the distance of his second punch, hitting his co-star square in the face.

Groovy Quotes

Welles: Now listen up, I wanna make this quick and to the point, ‘cos just like you, all I want to do is get home, jump into a warm bed with a nice hot woman and watch the footy.

Welles: We are now up against live, hostile targets. So, if Little Red Riding Hood should show up with a bazooka and a bad attitude, I expect you to chin the bitch!
Witherspoon: Know what this reminds me of? Rourke’s Drift. 100 men of heart, making a desperate stand against 10,000 Zulu warriors. Outnumbered, surrounded, staring death in the face and not flinching for a moment. Balls of British steel.

[facing a werewolf]
Cooper: Don’t….stare….back…
Witherspoon: Can’t…help….it….

[Joe, looking for a werewolf, suddenly stops]
Joe: You’re behind me, aren’t you…

Megan: How do you think morale is holding up?
Cooper: Pretty well, all things considered, although high spirits are just no substitute for 800 rounds a minute.

Wells: Yeah, well, this gives me better piece of mind, sir.
Ryan: You want piece of mind? Run for your lives before they tear your legs from under you.
Wells: Now you just shut up like a good gentleman. You are scaring my lads.

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6 Comments

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