Written By: Kyla M. West
What mammal has, powerful, long-limbs, two hands, a shaggy head, and only shows its true colors once a month? You guessed it! Many of my exes. Werewolves.
Or, shape shifters? Rather, wolf men…er, lycanthropes, was it?
Yes, the formidable beasties that take human and bestial forms, with myriad translations and interpretations of the myth. In 2002, a cult classic was unleashed upon the masses, where werewolves perpetuate their infamous interspecific hostility by slaughtering innocents…No, I’m not talking about Underworld (2003) here.
I’m talking about Dog Soldiers (2002).
Now, as you may know by now, dear reader, I tend to take on pieces that have a certain heart to them, something that I’ve found a deeper connection to…
I can’t promise that this will be one of those pieces.
Sure, I know my way around military mannerisms after accompanying my husband for 4 of the 7 years he served in the U.S. Army. And yeah, I’ve spent the majority of my lifetime and career dedicated to wild canines, with a particular penchant for wolves. I’m not quite a zoologist…but I’ve worked at the Philadelphia Zoo. That counts, right? Years ago I saw England and Ireland, but not yet Scotland, though I admit a few of those pan-overs sure looked a lot like the wilds I’ve worked in and explored in both upstate New York and Washington. And oh yeah, for the supernatural aspect, back in high school kids were so afraid of me that at one point I think the rumor was that I practiced witchcraft (really, people?). But let’s throw the baby out with the bathwater here and focus on the point: this movie is just damn fun.
But first, let’s be honest. I may love movies, but I’m an amateur when it comes to an honest-to-goodness review of quality, or the director’s ambition, acting skill, and how this movie compares to others in its genre. So buckle up ladies and gentlemen, and get ready for a wine infused conglomeration of words and wit as we raise a bottle for one of cinema’s best micro-budget works of gold.
So we have director Neil Marshall, who has probably done some great things on other movies I don’t know about – or more than likely, has directed movies I’ve seen but haven’t paid the director any mind, starting us off with a rousing introduction to our story. On this episode of Werewolves Gone Wild, our requisite werewolves take as much pleasure in unzipping a prey-filled tent as the prey take in unzipping each other’s jeans. Somehow, between the beginning of this scene and the end of the movie, the silver letter opener belonging to the young, soon-to-be-eaten couple ends up in the possession of the werewolves. But we’ll get back to this later, because this isn’t really important until the end of the movie.
When we meet two of the leading roles in our film, my first reaction was to instantly recognize actor Kevin McKidd, whom I know from several shows and films, though my first cinematic exposure to him was the romantic comedy Made of Honor (2008), where I remember him portrayed as the royal Scottish dreamboat, who comes with a notably large…family estate. What excited me more is the entrance of Liam Cunningham – in my mind he is none other than Ser Davos Seaworth, the (adorable) Onion Knight, and is one of my favorite characters on Game of Thrones. Seriously? 2019 until I can get my next GoT fix? Looking at you, George R. R. Martin…you better be on that keyboard click-clackin’ away at book 8.
In Dog Soldiers, Sergeant Wells (Sean Pertwee) and Private Cooper (McKidd) lead a lackluster team of British armed forces who would rather be spending their time anywhere but on this training mission in the highlands. What immediately stood out to me is the realistic way in which these actors portray their military roles, understanding fully the temperament required to deal with what the stateside military refers to as, ‘the Suck’ (shared suffering amongst soldiers). Little do these British Joes know that their expedition is going to turn to a nightmarish fight for survival, and their training has hardly prepared them for this adversary.
I say this in a very foreboding way, but one of my first criticisms is actually the way in which the squad handles their incoming attack from the bloodlusting werewolves. Supernatural or not, any soldier worth his or her salt has the training to deal with the adrenaline rush and all-out shootout that these men faced in the woods. I say this, but perhaps the appearance of 7-foot tall, nigh impenetrable beasties could make even the bravest man crumble. But that’s showbiz for ya, and I suppose we wouldn’t have as silly a story if this reflected the true grit of our service members.
What I can say is that I appreciate the nuanced script in this film, which only adds to the aforementioned authenticity that these actors use in their exchanges. For example, when the squad’s Sergeant Wells has his gut busted open by one of the werewolves, the first notion is for his soldier to try to help him stuff his organs back into place, to which Sarge replies, “they don’t f*cking fit!” to which the retort is, “Of course they’ll fit, man”! I swear to you, this is not far from the types of exchanges that you’d see in the field amidst soldiers.
After being hunted by the ultimate predator, losing one man, and coming across a mangled Captain Ryan (Cunningham), the squad’s only hope finds them – a young woman driving through the woods by the name of Megan, played by…Emma Cleasby (phew! Thanks Google). Megan conveniently transports the traumatized group to the only house nearby, a recently occupied yet strikingly vacant home, where the men usurp the premises and strategize their survival plans. This includes, of course, consuming the hot meal that the homeowners decided to leave on the stovetop. Megan, over time, reveals that she knows quite a bit about these mongrels.
The determined werewolves continue hounding the squad, suspiciously familiar with every opening, nook and cranny of this cottage in the woods. The soldiers, of course, are ready for them. Faced with limited ammo, the team uses whatever they can find in the house. Resorting to axes, boiling water, hammers, a sword, and (my favorite) a camera flash, the squad prepares for a fight against an enemy they are only now starting to believe in. The fast-paced, sometimes subtle and detail-oriented action sequences are interjected by witty one-liners and creative ways to retaliate sudden werewolf attacks. Even the family’s dog, Sam, gets his own amusing scene when he tugs fervently at the Sarge’s bloodied bandages, as if the call in the wild had suddenly livened him. These interactions between beast and man make the scenes believable if occasionally a little humorous. Clearly, the actors are taking their roles seriously and it pays off, despite when the film’s lack-of-budget comes through and you are reminded that this movie won’t be breaking any box office records. Best of all were the brave souls who were hired to walk around and pose in the lanky werewolf suits – but in all honesty, their plight was well worth the effect. I was relieved by the lack of CGI; the artistry in this film comes not only from creatively shot sequences, but old-school special effects that bring the film together like bangers to mash.
One by one the squad is picked off, and here’s where the plot gets confusing. For some time now, the soldiers have been intent on obliterating this pack of werewolves. When the squad learned that the very house in which they found shelter was none other than home to said beasties, Megan defends them by calling them good, kind people. However, Megan is also seen roused by the call-to-arms, and took fire at werewolves that came too close to comfort. But then she flip-flops once more…As Captain Ryan and Sergeant Wells succumb to wounds that slowly turn them feral, the plot twist is revealed. Megan, despite her very convincing joint effort in fighting the werewolves off, decides she will reveal the whole truth: that she is part of this dysfunctional family of lycanthropes. Yet, it has taken her until the end of the film to begin to turn (I’ve seen this three times now and I still don’t quite understand the logistics of this twist). Fortunately, Pvt. Cooper has the sense to place a bullet in her brow before her truest form is revealed.
As the werewolves close in, Sergeant Wells makes a final effort to save his squad of imperfect privates, quickly proving his character to be one of the highest quality blokes in the film. He even sacrifices himself so that Pvt. Cooper can carry on (with the family’s dog) and make it out of this Hellish night alive. All seems calm until Pvt. Cooper faces off with Captain Were-Ryan in the cellar, where our protagonist finds the silver letter opener amongst human carcasses and rubble. Ironically, Megan had mentioned earlier how no self-respecting werewolf would ever keep silver in their house… and yet here we are. Fortunately, Pvt. Cooper has the sense to use the makeshift weapon he’s uncovered; weakening Captain Were-Ryan enough to end his life with a final blow.
After a gory, seemingly never-ending night, Pvt. Cooper emerges as the lone survivor of the battle that has taken place on the grounds in which he stands. Much to my relief, Sam the border collie also made it through without harm. Nevertheless, Pvt. Cooper is left alone to process the turn of events in an ambiguous and unsettling daybreak to carve a new way forward with nothing less than a broadened perception of how many mysteries the world has in store for us all.
In its entirety, Dog Soldiers resurrects elements of classic horror while bringing a militaristic twist to the old fable of werecreatures. With a spot-on script, convincing actors, and just enough blood and gore to make you finish your bowl of popcorn, I would add this film to any list of cult classics, and I’d say has easily earned a spot in my Halloween flick lineup.
(Header Image courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes)