If the stories are to be believed, it all started with a napkin.
Over the course of the special features included on the long-overdue Blu-Ray release of Dog Soldiers, the first film from director Neil Marshall, he twice (once in the commentary, once in a documentary) recounts the tale of how he and a film producer buddy were out getting blasted on whiskey one night, and his friend signed a contract on a napkin indicating that he promised to make Marshall’s first full-length, Dog Soldiers. Astoundingly, the drunken promise came true, albeit six years after the fact. Marshall then went on to direct a stone-cold horror classic in the form of 2006’s The Descent, which lead to other, lesser features, and eventually a gig helming some noted Game of Thrones episodes. All because of a napkin.
Now, it’s all come back around to Dog Soldiers, a soldiers vs. werewolves tale set in the Scottish highlands that may very well be the best werewolf film since 1981’s An American Werewolf in London (not that that’s a hard bar to pass, mind you, as thinking of even one exemplary werewolf flick between those two decades is a hair-raising challenge). Yes, the plot unfolds in somewhat predictable fashion: a group of soldiers are on a routine training mission, discover a camp seemingly raided by brutal attackers (save for one survivor), eventually discover that werewolves are real, and retreat out to a cabin in the middle of the woods wherein they must fight to survive on their own, etc., etc.
These plot machinations feel familiar, but they’re presented in a delightfully upfront way: none of the soldiers are out-and-out clichés (there’s no “too aggressive” or “too nerdy” one, for example), thereby making them relatable as real characters, allowing the audience to be genuinely wrapped up into whether they’ll live or die. Thankfully, Marshall also introduces the werewolves early, spending little time building up the “clues of discovery” gambit when a few well-timed action sequences will do. Some frenetic editing helps, but the variety of shots to choose from is what gives the cuts a nice even flow, even if the film’s color palette isn’t anything to write home about.
Yet what makes Dog Soldiers really bear its fangs is how once the soldiers end up in the cabin in the woods, surrounded by their lupine hunters, what starts really gnawing on the soldiers is how they even got here in the first place, sensing that there may have been conspiratorial factors outside their control. Their arguing, bickering, and ultimate fact-finding gives the film an unusual air: that of an Agatha Christie-styled locked-room murder mystery, contained in one location with suspicions riding high. In fact, the film’s “big reveal” is carried out in the spirit of Christie’s The Mousetrap, her sole stage play, wherein our villain is very much the last person you’d expect.
It’s that bold internal drama that helps separate Dog Soldiers from other violent horror films of its ilk, with the film working more as a “smart action movie” that just happens to have werewolves, than a werewolf movie that has too many pesky human scenes in the way. That being said, the too-convenient and too-optimistic ending only makes Dog Soldiers feel more conventional than it really is, a minor masterpieces that proved to be the mere appetizer for what Marshall would accomplish with The Descent, which to this day stands as a feminist horror milestone with few equals.
Given its anticipated Blu-ray release, Dog Soldiers: Collector’s Edition‘s bonus features aren’t exactly plentiful, but by and large, they are good. Neil Marshall’s commentary track runs through everything from how the genesis of the film started to clarifying some of the errors on the film’s own Wikipedia page (working title of “The Last Stand”? Marshall ain’t havin’ it). He does, however, note that for a time he almost had locked down then-newcomer Simon Pegg for a role, but his commitment to be in Edgar Wright’s first film (Shaun of the Dead) was too overpowering.
An hour-long making-of documentary features interviews with the cast and crew and proves decently informing, but the real takeaway is the inclusion of Marshall’s early short film “Combat”, which uses nothing but over-the-top sound effects and a wild, swinging camera to show the ups and downs of a date, with the sounds of explosions and crowd cheers highlighting the internal significance of every single social interaction one has, making for a striking short debut.
Ultimately, Dog Soldiers proves to be a great horror treat, although nowhere near as analogous or interpretive as The Descent turned out to be. Throughout horror movie history (and especially outside of the classic Universal lineage of monster flicks), werewolves have always been difficult creatures to nail down, much less make effectively scary; the 2010 Benicio del Toro flim The Wolfman proves to be one of the more recent examples as to how not to create an ongoing sense of dread using these creatures. Marshall understood what made werewolves truly terrifying though: through their relentless bloodlust and willing to organize and plot with their own kind, these werewolves were, in many ways, like us, and being on the receiving end of our own tactics may in fact be Dog Soldiers‘ most terrifying revelation.