Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Dog Soldiers

Dog Soldiers (2002), the feature film debut of director Neil Marshall, is proof it's not what you do but how you do it that matters. The film offers very little in terms of originality; even its DVD cover notes it's a cross between "Jaws, Aliens, and Predator with a werewolf twist," but it's put together with enough energy, humor, testosterone, action, suspense, and just the right amount of creep factor to make it the best lycanthrope picture since the glory days of The Howling and An American Werewolf in London.

A squad of British soldiers (among its members are Sean Pertwee as the grizzled sergeant and Kevin McKidd as the main character Cooper) is on a training exercise in the Scottish wilderness when it stumbles upon the dismembered remains of the Special Forces team they were supposed to operate with, along with the injured Captain Ryan (Liam Cunningham). As the night begins to grow, the squad is attacked by a ferocious enemy with a lot of hair, claws, sharp teeth, and a bad attitude. The men are saved by Megan (Emma Cleasby), who drives them to an isolated house where the werewolves besiege them, and the humans try to survive the night as their ammunition and numbers dwindle.

I'm trying to think of a plot element in Dog Soldier that hasn't been done before, and I can't seem to recall any. We get the soldiers fighting off the first wave of monster attacks, the escape attempt that ends disastrously, the infected member of the group putting the others at risk, and the final confrontation with one big, bad baddie, but like I said, it's done remarkably well with great conviction on the part of the cast. The characters might only be written in the most basic terms - the hero, the gruff leader, the girl, the sneak, the scared kid, the gung-ho soldier - but the actors all work together, and no one seems out of place.

McKidd is effective as the soldier who has to take charge eventually, but it is Pertwee who is easily the best.  Let me tell you; if I'm ever in combat, this is the guy I want to lead me. Tough (even with his guts hanging out, he continues to fight), no-nonsense with a sharp sense of humor ("If Little Red Hiding should turn up with a bazooka and a bad attitude, I expect you to chin the bitch."), and always looking out for his lads, he's the perfect sergeant. He even gives the movie some emotional pathos, talking about signing his life away for king and country and always in possession of his wife's picture. Cunningham is also good as the slimy weasel Ryan with whom Cooper has an uneasy past, and you know has a secret. Also of note is Darren Morfitt as the wild man Spoon who relishes the chance to re-enact a horror-movie version of Zulu.

Filmed on a low-budget in Luxemburg at mostly one location, Dog Soldiers never feels cheap or small. Granted the one full transformation occurs off-screen (but is built up effectively), but the werewolves look great when we see them. Marshall creates tension by keeping them in the shadows, only showing glimpses of fangs, snouts, or claws or giving us black-and-white point-of-view shots. Plenty of times we only see a claw slashing through a window or a door as the soldiers desperately try to fight them off.

The movie also a strong sense of humor but not intrusively so. The soldiers have a great repertoire with each other and some hilarious dialogue. They get some great lines in the face of death; one soldier, realizing he has been ambushed, grabs his knife and rushes the nearest werewolf. And I won't dare reveal the movie's capping joke as the end credits begin to roll.

In short, if you're a horror fan, Dog Soldiers is worth checking out. It strikes a fine balance between the horrific blood-and-guts stuff and the more tongue-in-cheek macho humor. Easily the finest of its sort since Predator.

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