After a director like Neil Marshall releases a critically beleaguered and problematic film like 2019’s Hellboy, he becomes a kind of pop culture punchline for a time. Of course, this is often a consequence in the game of putting yourself out there, but the wealth of negative attention can sometimes tend toward zealotry when the subject matter is known and beloved. All this is to say that I think it’s nice that The Trylon is giving us the opportunity to appreciate Marshall’s early work this October.
Dog Soldiers, which began script development in 1996 and is the product of an obvious labor of love for Neil Marshall and company, is loads of slippery, slobbery, and explodey fun. Without spoiling the plot, which has its share of spoilable moments, I’ll say it’s a very Scottish film about Scottish soldiers running a training exercise in the Scottish Highlands who end up on the wrong side of a governmental snafu and a pack of lycanthropic Scottish nasties. What initially feels like a straightforward action flick, with soldiers swapping gritty stories while gratuitously tossing guns to each other and performatively cocking them, gradually morphs into a claustrophobic creature feature with excellent practical effects and surprisingly huge pyrotechnics.
With no U.S. theatrical release, genre fans began to discover this werewolf gem on video store shelves in 2002. I fondly recall my first watch, which came highly recommended from a fellow video store employee who had scooped it off the new release wall. It was an informal practice of ours to work our way through the direct-to-video B-stuff that came in while we combed the catalogue for classics like The Last Wave and Roar. Wading through cine-sewage from the early aughts was perilous at times, but connecting with authentic independent filmmaking in a project like Dog Soldiers always made it worth the slog.
What struck me initially about Dog Soldiers was its sense of fun. It manages that rare and heroic indie horror feat of pulling you in without cheap gore, nudity, or schlock, without ever taking itself too seriously. It’s clear the cast and crew are having fun with light improv and self-aware gags, and Marshall’s canted vision of a soldier movie that also happens to feature 12-foot-tall werewolves remains focused on killer close-quarters action. They also really blow the hell out of some set pieces. I watched this DVD with a good number of friends back in 2002 and was pleased to find it held up nicely to multiple viewings.
Clever, economical storytelling and a dark sense of humor set Dog Soldiers apart from the action horror pack, and some brilliant casting choices of journeyman actors like Sean Pertwee (Event Horizon), Kevin McKidd (Trainspotting) and Liam Cunningham (Game of Thrones) see to its solid delivery. This isn’t a horror flick with a couple of cheap laugh lines, it’s actually quite funny straight through the end credits. Pair this with characters who don’t pee their pants and forget their training when the baddies show up at the side door and you don’t only have a monster movie, you’ve got an all-out war with the unknown. Plus, you’ve really got to appreciate the way Sarge rallies after being thoroughly disemboweled in the first act.
A cursory glance at Marshall’s resume reveals his well-developed penchant for the “small cadre of elite something-or-others find themselves in a crazy bind” subgenre of action horror. Doomsday, Centurion, and The Descent (screening as a double-feature with Dog Soldiers) are all meditations on this concept, but it started here, and it’s never been better. Marshall’s commitment to the bit included opting to shoot in Luxembourg on 16mm so that he could stretch his 2 million dollar budget to cover the costs of excellent practical effects. One can imagine this was something of a controversial decision, and has indeed followed this film across the sea of time on message boards and reissue reviews. Sure, it’s a bit grainy in its brighter moments, but you don’t let that bother you when you watch 28 Days Later, so just relax and pretend it was shot on early digital and I promise it will all be fine––fun, even!
Dog Soldiers is in the same movie family as:
- The Thing
- Cabin in the Woods
- The Final Terror
… and is screening at the Trylon Microcinema on Friday, October 4, 5, and 6 with Neil Marshall’s The Descent. Tickets available at trylon.org.
Edited by Michelle Baroody