British, 2002, 105 min. – Rated R
Writer/Director: Neil Marshall
Starring Kevin McKidd, Sean Pertwee, Liam Cunningham, and others.
There seems to be a slow (read: glacial) realization going on in the collective hive-mind of horror directors. After years of dreadfully over-the-top gore-fests, endless sequels to movies that should never have been filmed in the first place, and enough dead teens to fill Forest Lawn, a few young upstarts over the last few years have rediscovered some of the basic tenets of the Good Horror Movie:
1) It doesn’t take a big budget to create big chills
2) CGI is not the Holy Grail of monster creation
3) Just because you don’t have big stars doesn’t mean you won’t be noticed, and
4) It’s the thing that isn’t seen that really scares the crap out of people
Thus we have horror movies that worm their way into the public consciousness every now and then: The Blair Witch Project, Ringu, May, Ginger Snaps, 28 Days Later…. This is not to say that these movies are not without their problems, and I’m not sure I’d even consider them classics of the genre. But they DO get reviewed by even the most Genre-Deprived critics, usually in glowing terms, and more importantly, they get seen. By fairly large numbers of audience-goers — ones who previously thought the ultimate bogey came equipped with a standard-issue goalie’s mask — or possibly a bladed glove.
Neil Marshall not only took the GHM lessons to heart, but he found a way around the flaws that usually bedevil a neophyte director’s first foray into the darkness. Dog Soldiers is a stunning start to a (hopefully) long career in the movies. Dark, nasty, clever movies with very sharp teeth, if we’re lucky.
After a small teaser of an opening, the movie gives us Cooper (Kevin McKidd), a soldier being tested for the Special Forces, and Ryan, the officer who has the final say about his qualifications. Cooper fails, not because he doesn’t have the chops to play with the Big Boys, but because, in a tense scene of mental brutality, it turns out he has just a bit too much humanity about him to pass the final hurdle — he won’t shoot a dog.
When we next see Cooper, he’s on a training mission in the Scottish Highlands with a squad of typical grunts, led by Wells (played wonderfully by Sean Pertwee). During their maneuvers, they stumble across the bloody remains of a Special Forces unit, all dead but for its commander — Ryan, the homicidal bastard from Cooper’s testing.
And then all Hell breaks loose.
Oh. Did I mention the werewolves? Yes, this is a werewolf movie, certainly the best one since the eighties, when An American Werewolf in London, The Howling, and The Wolfen all vied for the honors of “Best Treatment Of A Lycanthrope In Film.” Ultimately, they each failed (to a greater or lesser degree, depending on your frame of mind): The first two because they were too campy to be truly spooky, and The Wolfen because it tried too hard to recreate werewolves as a sentient race of uber-wolves, rather than true shape shifters. Dog Soldiers evades the failings of the earlier movies by shifting the focus — to paraphrase the director, they didn’t make a werewolf movie with soldiers in it, they made a soldier movie with werewolves in it.
This seemingly minor shift in point-of-view pays off in spades. The first squad-member to die, for example, doesn’t fall under the hands (well, paws) of the enemy; instead, he panics when his rifle jams, and instead of following his training — clear the jam, keep your head, continue firing — he turns and runs blindly into the forest, only to impale himself on a broken branch. Death comes, not from the supernatural powers of the werewolves, but the all-too-plausible failings of the untested soldier. He forgot his training, and paid for it with his life.
It’s that military-minded attitude that keeps this movie tightly-focused. When the men need to split ranks in order to better ensure their group survival, it usually comes at the likely cost of individual life. Too bad, soldier. This is the Army. And the actors play the parts with just that mentality, that commitment to duty. The individual is nothing. The squad lives on.
The werewolves are not CGI. They are guys in masks, products of some makeup man’s tireless work. Which is exactly as it should be, because when they finally appear, they never overwhelm the essential story with the ‘ooh, aah’ complications of a grand special effect. They look real enough that you don’t start counting the stitches in the seams, but they don’t look so amazing that you are taken out of the story by their presence. They exist.
Which is the whole point of horror in the first place. To convince you that the legends are true….
I’ve made this comment elsewhere, and I’ll repeat it here: Dog Soldiers does for werewolf movies what Near Dark did for vampire movies. It makes us reinvent a standard trope in our own minds, and it forces us to readjust our conceptions of what we consider a werewolf movie to be.