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Dog Soldiers (2002)



You get the sense from watching Dog Soldiers that first time writer-director Neil Marshall had this great idea for a survival horror movie about werewolves, but also in the back of his mind had created a colorful cast of action-cliché characters and ultimately decided it would be fun just to pit the two against one another in an action-horror mash-up with a little British humor thrown in for good measure. There's no doubt that the mix of thrilling chase sequences and wince-inducing gore is fun to watch, especially when the word "bollocks" gets tossed around a lot during these scenes. But the fun in Dog Soldiers lasts for merely the first act of the film. After that, the film slows down considerably and the remaining two acts are comprised of predictable action and boring characters. It's a shame to see a promising director run through his reserves so quickly.

During a routine training exercise in the middle of the woods in Scotland, a troop of British soldiers discover the mangled bodies of their training partners, the Special Forces team, and its leader, the vile Captain Ryan (Liam Cunningham) wounded and near death. There isn't a lot of time for speculation since the attackers, a pack of lycanthropes (werewolves), are coming back for more. This leaves the British troop one option:  run. Taking Captain Ryan in tow, the team fleas through the woods to a nearby road while the werewolves chase them in a series of scenes made all the more terrifying by the fact that the troops don't have live rounds in their guns. But then, the squad encounters Megan (Emma Cleasby), a zoologist that just so happened to be driving by. She takes the men to a local cabin and it is here where we are finally introduced to the team:  Private Cooper (Kevin McKidd), the hero of the movie, Sgt. Wells (Sean Pertwee), "Spoon" Witherspoon (Darren Morfitt), and Private Joe Kirkley (Chris Robson). Our heroes spend the rest of the movie fending off the werewolves from entering the cabin while learning more about the origin of their attackers.

In setting the first half of his film in an outdoor arena like the woods, Marshall allows himself room to dictate this epic battle between humans and werewolves, resulting in some vividly captured action sequences. He races his hand-held camera through the forest right behind his characters; these scenes almost immediately call to mind Sam Raimi in the Evil Dead series. This guerilla-style camerawork places the audience right in the thicket of the chase, so much so that when a solider turns to fire at his attacker and we discover that he is shooting blanks (this was supposed to be a training mission after all), we're just as scared as he is. As for the werewolves themselves, their role in these action sequences is confined to the framing of their claws as they swipe at a victim. No doubt this is Marshall's attempt to hide some of the downfalls of his low-budget film, but these shots also provide unequivocal thrills. By framing the creatures as such, Marshall is not allowing his audience to see their stature in comparison to the heroes and is being vague about how many there are. Instead he's inviting his audience to imagine the size and number of these creatures and truly imaginative filmgoers will not help but thrill themselves during these chase sequences.

Strangely, Marshall throws an abundance of humor into these heart-pounding chases, and for the most part, these bits work. The most dominant strength of Marshall's script is the dialogue, which often views dire situations as ripe for comedic interludes. Take, for instance, a scene where Sgt. Wells lies in the middle of the forest staring at his intestines, which have just been ripped unceremoniously from his body by the nasty swipe of one of those aforementioned werewolf claws, and he cries out to Private Cooper, "My guts are out Coop!" to which the Private replies, "We'll just put 'em back in then." If such an exchange is not your idea of humor, then do not continue to read on as I reveal that after debating whether or not the guts will actually fit back into Wells midsection, Cooper decides to push them back inside anyway. Marshall's script is compiled mainly of dark, sardonic, humorous bits like this one, but also contains a lot of British humor and a few good action-film-oriented one-liners. A favorite of mine comes at the beginning of training exercise when the Sarge instructs his team, "Just because we're firing blanks doesn't mean we have to be thinking nice thoughts." Expect not to catch all of the humor in one sitting as so much is being tossed out with all that is going on. I for one did not figure out that there was a Corporal Bruce Campbell character until I read the end credits. I also missed a few quips because I either couldn't understand them (most of the accents here are quite thick) or could not relate (a few jokes are made at the expense of England's football teams), but the ones that did come through worked extremely well to establish a humorous tone for the film.

It is in the beginning of the second act that Marshall moves his action from an open woodland area to a confined cabin space and the film loses much of its previously discussed appeal. That cabin is a dead zone for the film, relegating the thrilling adventure of the first act into a predictable formula. Where the woods provided a limitless zone for the creatures to surprise the audience, the cabin provides windows for characters to stand in front of and mutter something about "this wasn't so bad" before getting sucked through that same window and killed. Knowing where the entrances in the cabin are severely limits the thrill of the unexpected (compared to the framing of the werewolves claws mentioned earlier). If there is a sound coming from the front door, then that's where the werewolf is. It's not like the woods where a howl in the distance could be mean trouble from all sides. Marshall's static camera has all the entrances covered so there isn't a chance of a werewolf sneaking in without someone noticing. There is a formula for the kills that reads like an equation:  character standing near an entrance + sounds coming from that entrance = character being killed. I thought this equation went out with the slasher era of films.

A second victim to this dead-zone cabin is the characters. Though their dialogue remains in the same humorous tone (the Sarge asks for some "super glue and Whiskey" to patch up his intestines), they are much more moronic and compulsive. One of the best plans that the soldiers come up with to defeat their attackers is to send one willing soul running out of the cabin with a flare in hand which distracts the werewolves long enough for another character to reach a barn with a truck. Trouble is no one seemed to have thought about how the man with the flare will outrun the werewolves to get back into the cabin before he is torn to bits. I could understand this lack of rationale from teenage heroes but not trained solders. There is also never talk about food or ammunition conservation. Oh, and one of characters actually winds up getting wounded by his own shotgun when one of the creatures pulls it through a hole in the door and uses it on him. And that's no joke.

An entertaining film can carry its audience only so far before the audience demands more. I allowed Dog Soldiers to entertain me through its first half but then demanded it to compel me with its potential greatness. Instead it tossed me headlong into a formulaic horror picture that has been made for decades and has much better incarnations out there. I would have liked to have seen a version of Dog Soldiers where the soldiers are stuck in the woods and can't retreat to the cabin. Or, if the cabin had to be used, then at least populate the cabin with the werewolves and have the humans infiltrate it. But there is no need to watch the humans defend the cabin from the creatures outside. That was Night of the Living Dead and it did a much better job with the scenario. Dog Soldiers learns how to entertain its audience but unfortunately it never learns any new tricks.