Most people I know love Dog Soldiers like long lost family, but I also know a handful of people that hate it like a step dad, which never ceases to surprise me. While it may not be a perfect movie, Dog Soldiers is pretty fucking good. It is certainly better than 90% of shit being produced, especially in the action and horror realms. The first time I saw it was at All Freakin’ Night at the Olympia Film Festival around 2002 or 2003. I didn’t know anything about it, and when it came on in the middle of the night I was caught from the first frame. I immediately told everyone I knew about this British werewolf movie I just saw. I raved about it for months on end. Thinking back on it, I’m a little surprised no one told me to shut the hell up.
Dog Soldiers works, and works well, as both a horror movie and as badass action. It has all the things you want. And more importantly it has elements that far too many films of both genres lack in recent times. First off, there is actual tension. When I watch movies like Quantum of Solace or Taken, which are end to end action, I get bored because there was no stress or strain. Those movies move so fast that there isn’t time to build up any pressure in the audience, there is nothing to give a shit about. Writer/director Neil Marshall (The Descent) knows when to slow things down in Dog Soldiers in between moments of frantic action, and how to use these moments of down time to make the action that much better. He lets you stop and catch your breath, but at the same time he’s upping the ante because you know what’s out there, you know what’s coming, and with each pause the character’s already precarious situation becomes more and more tenuous. You know what sucks almost as much as fighting an eight foot tall wolf man? Knowing that at any moment you’re going to have to fight an eight foot tall wolf man. But Marshall also knows when to kick it into gear and get to some action. One thing this movie has is an effective balance between action and understatement.
The second thing Dog Soldiers has that action and horror movies don’t bother with anymore is actual characters with actual relationships. The soldiers of Dog Soldiers feel like people instead of caricatures or stock cutouts. Unlike a lot of the movies with large casts I’ve watched lately, like Friday the 13th 2009, Dead Snow, and April Fool’s Day 2009, among others, I can tell these people apart, they have personalities. And without resorting to obnoxious little cheats that movies like Domino use, you know, where they pause as each character is introduced and throw their name across the screen in some silly font. Sorry, I mean some cool font, cool was the word I was looking for. That gimmick only works in Biozombie. And guess what? The bits where the pace slows down for a second is where these characters develop, and when there are real, well wrought characters to relate to and care about you care about them, like what happens to them, and that adds what? You guessed it, it adds tension. Now you’re getting it. (When was the last time you cared about anyone in a Michael Bay movie? That’s right, never.)
The movie starts with a couple camping in the Scottish Highlands getting eaten by some sort off screen monster, Evil Dead style, but you can tell it’s scary as hell from the way they scream. The movie then jumps to the remote woods in Wales, and Private Cooper (Kevin McKidd, Trainspotting) running through the forest. Turns out he’s auditioning for some elite military company run by Captain Ryan (Liam Cunningham). You can tell right away Ryan is a fucker, he has one of those faces that makes him look like a jackass, and you want bad things to happen to him. Cooper does well, but fails one last test. He refuses to shoot an innocent dog for no reason, and is subsequently returned to his own unit. This is important because it lets us know that not only is Cooper pretty much a badass, but he has a heart as well. He could be in the special forces, he has the necessary skill set, but he also has a conscience and convictions.
A month later, Cooper’s squad, led by Sergeant Wells (Sean Pertwee) is dropped into the Scottish Highlands on what is supposed to be a routine training mission. We all know that routine training missions never go as planned, and we also know that some shit went down in these same woods a month ago, so we know that one or two things might go awry. Cooper obviously fits in better with the soldiers in this group. They’re just young men who joined the military, more concerned with the soccer match they’re missing than with combat, and they all look up to Cooper because they know how badass he really is. Wells is a father figure. He is that stock older army guy that has been around, seen everything, and has sage wisdom to dispense as needed. This character could easily have been flat and generic, but Pertwee gives him a depth and humanity that would have been lacking had the role gone to, say, Lorenzo Lamas. For all the bantering and shit talk, this unit feels like a family, and the connection and fondness they feel for each other is real.
Whilst on this routine training mission, the boys stumble across the decimated remains of another army squad, though this one had all sorts of fancy, high-tech gadgets with them, and no specific military markings. There is only one survivor, the horribly wounded Captain Ryan. You knew he was going to come back and fuck everything up.
Before long, whatever slaughtered Ryan’s troops comes back for seconds, and they run like motherfuckers. In their haste they run into Megan (Emma Cleasby), a zoologist who is studying, of all things, werewolves, and who takes them back to her house, where the shit really hits the fan.
Dog Soldiers has an old school sensibility to it—no CGI, dudes in monster costumes that look a little absurd (however, Marshall does a pretty good job of letting you see just what you need to see, and leaving the rest off screen, or in shadows), a low budget, and all of that. It is a prime example of a movie doing a lot with a little. Most of the action takes place in a single location, Megan’s creepy old house in the woods. There a lot of explosions and gunfire, but the effects are otherwise pretty minimal. The movie relies on storytelling and character development, as well as a dude fist fighting with a giant man wolf, in order to move it along.
In this movie you root for the characters. You want them to win. There is an emotional investment that it seems like everything I watch lately lacks. This isn’t like one of those stories where as soon as you meet a character you can’t wait for them to die. The only unknowns in Friday the 13th 2009 were where, when, and how they were going to die, not if. Here there is a definite if. There is a sliver of hope that someone might make it, that someone might live, but also the very real possibility that they won’t, that they are all fucked. That’s way more compelling than waiting for abrasive teens to get hacked to bits with a machete, and I’m someone who loves waiting for abrasive teens to get hacked to bits with a machete.