I’m gonna come right out and say it: there aren’t all that many good werewolf movies. For reals, think about it. There’s obviously An American Werewolf in London at the top of the heap, then stuff like The Howling, Hammer’s Curse of the Werewolf, The Wolf-Man (but that’s sort of janky by today’s standards)… Sure there are a bunch of other ones, but how many of them are actually good? Well, I’d contend one of the truly great ones is a relatively new one: Neil Marshall’s 2002 16mm soldiers-versus-werewolves movie, Dog Soldiers.
Marshall has become a pretty prestigious director from his work on Game of Thrones and other TV epics, but he got his start in features with this low-budget affair he wrote and directed in Luxembourg (passing for Scotland). But, for being not particularly expensive, the movie is incredibly impressive in terms of its cast, its setting, and its werewolf design. It’s got references to many big movies, but they don’t detract from the story at hand, which involves a small group of soldiers and werewolves in a forest. It’s so simple, but the beauty of Dog Soldiers has a lot more to do with character relationships than innovative storytelling.
In the Scottish wilderness, a team-building military exercise is happening for a small group of British squaddies led by Sgt. Harry G. Wells (get it, H.G. Wells?). Wells (played by Gotham‘s future Alfred, Sean Pertwee) is a hard-ass, of course, be he truly loves his guys. Those guys include Cpl Bruce Campbell (Thomas Lockyer) and Pvts ‘Spoon’ Witherspoon (Darren Morfitt), Joe (Chris Robson), Terry (Leslie Simpson), and Cooper (Kevin McKidd), who had once trained for special forces. They’ve all heard some strange stories about monsters in the woods, but they don’t take it seriously; they’re just campfire stories. That is until one evening when they happen to come across a slaughtered group of special forces and their nearly-dead commanding officer Capt. Ryan (played by Game of Thrones‘ Liam Cunningham).
In their retreat, they run into (or get run into by) a zoologist named Megan (Emma Cleasby) who takes them to seek shelter in an empty farmhouse, where they can attend to the wounds of Ryan and Wells, who got his guts slashed open by one of the creatures during the harried escape. Cooper now has to step up and become the leader, and they have to figure out what to do with a pack of 8-foot-tall werewolves. Soon, Ryan’s wounds start to get miraculously better, and it becomes pretty clear that Ryan knew what was in those woods long before any of them ever showed up. Were Wells and his men just bait for something far more sinister? Does it even matter when everybody’s gonna werewolf-die?
As I said, this movie has references to many different horror films and people. Obviously there’s H.G. Wells and Bruce Campbell, but there are also plenty of references to other werewolf movies, The Evil Dead, Aliens, and even an oblique reference to The Matrix (“There is no Spoon”). There’s also a fair amount of Night of the Living Dead in the farmhouse — a single set and surroundings which allow the action to ebb and flow as each attack takes place. While these are fun and are a treat for movie geeks, they’re by no means the only reason to enjoy it. Director Marshall has stated that he considers this a soldier movie with werewolves and not a werewolf movie with soldiers. It really doesn’t matter what the threat is, just that the threat is there.
That being said, the werewolves in the movie are nothing short of glorious. While they didn’t have the money to do a full-on Rick Baker or Rob Bottin werewolf transformation sequence (it’s more just a person goes behind a table and comes back up all wolfy), the design of the puppet/costume is exactly what werewolves should look like. The hardest part about werewolf movies is deciding how much of wolf versus man they should be, and each film really takes its own liberties. But the bipedal, big-headed werewolf of comic books and things is my personal favorite, and it’s particularly hard to do. In this instance, I’m glad Marshall’s team went Howling over American Werewolf.
And, in truth, the best thing about the movie is just how well the actors all relate to each other. Those characters feel real and lived-in, and we enjoy spending time with them. To the point that, when they inevitably start getting picked off, we truly feel sad. “Not X! He was my favorite character!”
Pertwee is the perfect surly sergeant who can instill both fear and respect. This also is one of the many films where Pertwee gets eviscerated by some sort of evil creature; it seems to happen to him a lot. Cunningham is known to people nowadays as the kind and loyal Davos Seaworth, but here he plays the iciest of duplicitous people. We’re never sure if what he’s saying is the truth, and he seems unwilling to give the other guys any inkling of his true intentions. And everything circles around McKidd who is the stalwart hero that ties everybody together.
Special commendation should be given to Cleasby, who has the pitiable task of being the lone female in a cast full of tough guys. She really holds her own and brings a class to the proceedings. Her character, Megan, definitely feels other to the squaddies, but she’s also smarter in a lot of ways and becomes probably one of the most interesting characters in the whole movie.
Dog Soldiers is available now in a really great Blu-ray set from Scream Factory. While the movie was shot in 16mm, and hence can’t be up-res’d to full HD, it looks and sounds as good as is possible. It features a new commentary by Neil Marshall and a new making-of, featuring interviews with cast and crew. It’s a definite pick-up for fans of the film, of Marshall’s filmography, and of horror in general.
This is, for me, easily one of the top five werewolf movies of all time and has been a favorite since I saw its U.S. premiere on the Sci-Fi Channel (before it was Syfy). Give it a watch if you haven’t, or just haven’t seen it recently. It’s a bloody good time.