by Steve Habrat
Before English director/”Splat Pack” member Neil Marshall freaked audiences out with his 2005 girls-versus-cannibal-humanoids film The Descent, he made what could very well be one of the most entertaining werewolf horror films out there. That film would be 2002’s Dog Soldiers, a low-budget hybrid of Night of the Living Dead, Predator, The Evil Dead, The Howling, and The Wolf Man. Marshall’s Dog Soldiers is far from a flashy werewolf horror film—it doesn’t feature elaborate transformation like we saw in films like An American Werewolf in London or The Howling, and it isn’t particularly interested in commenting on the bestiality lurking in each and every one of us. Despite all of that, Dog Soldiers still unleashes some seriously terrifying werewolves on the viewer and the claustrophobic hopelessness does begin to gnaw at the viewer. It has a dark sense of humor about itself, slipping in a number of sarcastic jokes about the horror taking place around our ass-kicking heroes. It’s also extremely gory, featuring a number of stomach-churning gross out gags that make it very easy for the viewer to understand how Marshall became a member of the “Splat Pack.” You may want to approach this one with a raincoat and maybe even a barf bag.
Dog Soldiers introduces us to Private Cooper (played by Kevin McKidd), who is attempting to pass a grueling test to join a British Special Forces unit. As a final test to join the unit, Captain Ryan (played by Liam Cunningham) asks Cooper to shoot a dog. After Cooper refuses to kill the dog, Ryan fails him and sends him back home. Some time later, Cooper and a unit of British soldiers are taken to the Scottish countryside for a training exercise. Among the soldiers are Seargent Harry Wells (played by Sean Pertwee), Private “Spoon” Witherspoon (played by Darren Morfitt), Private Joe Kirkley (played by Chris Robson), Private Terry Milburn (played by Leslie Simpson), and Corporal Bruce Campbell (played by Thomas Lockyer). Shortly into the exercise, the soldiers find a SAS unit that has been ripped to shreds. The only survivor of the unit is Captain Ryan, who is babbling incoherently about his attackers. As the soldiers try to make sense of the situation, towering assailants leap out from the brush to rip them limb from limb. The group is narrowly rescued by Megan (played by Emma Cleasby), a zoologist on her way to an isolated farmhouse nearby. She takes the group to the farmhouse so that they can regroup and figure out a plan of attack, but the assailants follow them and surround the house. As the unit boards up the windows and assess their resources, they slowly discover that they are up against a pack of werewolves that can only be put down with silver bullets.
Where most werewolf horror films aim high with the special effects and make-up, Dog Soldiers dares to keep much of the elaborate stuff out of the frame. There are no static transformation scenes or lengthy glimpses of the werewolves. Early on, we get to see them only in split second bursts as they charge through the woods towards their next meal. To add extra tension, he gives us black and white POV shots of what the werewolves are seeing, something that called to mind the demonic POV of Sam Raimi’s original The Evil Dead. Once the soldiers are barricaded in the farmhouse, he circles the house to imply that there is no escape for these characters—at least while the moon is full and high in the sky. As the attacks escalate, Marshall scares us silly with werewolf claws bursting through windows and boards. Eventually, Marshall is forced to shed some light on his towering beasts and they certainly don’t disappoint. They stand menacingly over their victims, slightly hunched with jaws snapping and dripping with strings of saliva. They call to mind what we saw in The Howling, just with less hair and even freakier, if that was even possible. The true beauty is that they are practical and not done with a bunch of computerized fakery. When it comes to the inevitable transformation scenes, Marshall lacks the money to really pull off something eye-popping. Instead, he uses some smartly placed cuts and camera placement that allows the actors to reveal bits of make-up that have been added to parts of their face or hands. The rest is left up to our imagination and it’s extremely efficient.
With the special effects controlled, Marshall uses his story to add another layer of unease. While the premise of the soldiers barricade inside a farmhouse paying not-so-subtle tribute to Night of the Living Dead does send some giddy thrills, he allows the claustrophobia to really keep us gnawing at our fingernails. The ammo runs out quickly, the attacks are alarming cramped, and when a character becomes werewolf chow, our stomachs drop to the floor. Another subtle tribute to Night of the Living Dead pops up in the way that two of our central characters go at each other’s throats. There are twists with certain characters and others mislead our heroes in the fight to destroy the werewolves. There is also the lack of supplies, which forces the characters get a bit creative with keeping themselves alive. Some of these are faintly humorous (the sword, a letter opener, a can of hair spray and a lighter, and a fist fight), but they are all used to extremely gruesome effect. The highlight is easily a fistfight with a werewolf that ends with a one-liner that strikes you like a lightning bolt.
This all leads us to the violence of Dog Soldiers, which really makes you see why Marshall earned a spot in the Splat Pack (some of the Splat Pack members include Eli Roth, Rob Zombie, Robert Rodriguez, and Alexandre Aja, among others). There are stomachs ripped wide open, guts dangling in plain view, severed heads flying across the screen, and even werewolf limbs hacked off like butter. It’s a gooey blast that just keeps on delivering for horror fans. There is an added layer of “EWW” since Marshall films most of the action with gritty handheld cameras, which give the film an unshakably raw feeling. As far as the performances go, everyone does a fine job with their roles. McKidd is no-nonsense as Cooper, who is forced to become the groups leader when their Sergeant gets taken out of the game, and Cunningham is despicable as the slimy Ryan, who is up to no good from the get-go. Overall, with plenty of high-octane action, well-placed chuckles, rampaging scares pinning you to your seat, and gasp-inducing gross outs, Dog Soldiers is a must-see for horror fans. It may not have the depth that other werewolf horror films possess, but that certainly doesn’t hold this beast back. Arguably one of the scariest werewolf horror films ever made.
Dog Soldiers is available on Blu-ray and DVD.