I’d heard good things about DOG SOLDIERS, but had never seen the film until recently. These days, a good werewolf film is hard to find. Either Hollywood is too busy giving zombies and vampires the spotlight to share it with werewolves or folks just aren’t interested in making films about man’s bestial side (the most common theme of these lycanthropy films). The standbys of werewolf films such as the mark of Satan (always a popular theme those Middle Americans eat up), the transformation spectacle (something, as I said before in THE HOWLING review, that skids the narrative to a halt), and the fear of telling a different take on the werewolf story other than the tried and true WOLF MAN tale may have led folks to believe that the genre of horror was stale and stuck in a rut in recent years. Then again, all it takes is a director with real talent to breathe new life into the genre.
Having seen and really liked both DOOMSDAY and especially THE DESCENT, Neil Marshall is a director that raises my antennae when I hear his name. Had I realized he directed DOG SOLDIERS, I may have sought it out sooner. But it did make for a fun surprise. Marshall mixes true military grit with a horrific menace. DOG SOLDIERS is most like ALIENS in that it is a military film that happens to wander into the horror genre midway. I think too many horror films try to be something else, but I think that’s going at it backwards. Marshall sets out to make a war film, then injects werewolves onto the battlefield. By doing this, the audience is thrown for a loop because aside from a little teaser of a monster in a tent at the beginning of this one, for the first half hour or so, this is a straight up army movie. Soon you are so caught up in the badass war games this squad of cool soldiers are playing that you forget that this is a horror film. When the werewolves do arrive, you as the viewer are as surprised as they are.
DOG SOLDIERS is filled with English actors who you’ve seen a million times in a million different movies. They may not be huge names, but you will recognize them by their faces. Sean Pertwee who has shown up in such films as SOLDIER, EVENT HORIZON, and DOOMSDAY stars as Sgt. Harry G. Wells (the leader of the troop) and does a great job as the gruff commander of the unit. Kevin McKidd, who is best known by me as Lucius Vorenus on ROME, but others may recognize him from TV’s JOURNEYMAN and GREY’S ANATOMY, plays Pvt. Cooper, a moralistic soldier who functions as our hero. Liam Cunningham plays Captain Ryan (a heartless special forces operative worthy of booing for his snivelly performance), but you might recognize him from CLASH OF THE TITANS or THE ESCAPIST or maybe even A LITTLE PRINCESS. All of these actors and the ones I didn’t mention are talented and up the film up a notch or two with their presence.
The werewolves here are pretty unconventional. They look like lighter furred or maybe even bald versions of THE HOWLING lycans with long snouts and even longer stilted legs. Marshall doesn’t spend a whole lot of time focusing on them and preferred to make quick cuts and shadowy frames when they were on camera for most of the film. This suggests that the FX didn’t really look too good, but then again Marshall’s quick cuts to amp up the tension and when the camera does linger, they don’t look half bad. Maybe the faces are a bit robotic and stiff and the stilts the werewolves walk on are a bit awkward, but they do make them imposing giant beasts and credit should be given to Marshall and Image FX for going the conventional route rather than CGI. Seeing shadows and forms speed past the camera is definitely more jarring and there’s a lot of it here. The budget of DOG SOLDIERS probably wasn’t immense, so this is a director creatively using his limitations to his benefit. Filmmakers could learn from this: the less we see of the werewolves, the scarier and more threatening they become. Making the cast interesting makes the scenes without the werewolves digestible too.
All in all, if you’re looking for a modern werewolf movie worth seeing that wasn’t made in the eighties, DOG SOLDIERS leads the pack. With fine acting, the debut of a talented director, ballsy to the wallsy action, and fresh twists on an old genre, DOG SOLDIERS proves that there’s still promise for an oft neglected subgenre. I’m hoping to be surprised with RED RIDING HOOD because it means more filmmakers will be tempted to make werewolf films. I’ll be seeing it this weekend probably. But if I’m disappointed, I’ll always have DOG SOLDIERS and the other films in this column to remind me how these films can be done right.