New To Blu: Dog Soldiers

Dog Soldiers finally hits blu-ray this week. Check out our review.

"Dude. I told you I'm not
into beasts. No means no."
In 2005, Neil Marshall seemingly came out of nowhere and took audiences by complete surprise with a brilliant horror film, The Descent, which quickly became regarded as one of the finest of its decade. But unbeknownst to a large chunk of The Descent's American audience, that film was hardly Marshall's first strong work in the horror genre. Just three years earlier he had delivered a very impressive debut with Dog Soldiers; it just didn't get him the attention in the U.S. that it really should have. Released straight to video in America with cheap, uninspired, low-budget cover art that screamed “Sci-Fi Channel Original Movie” (and indeed, it did debut on Sci-Fi in advance of the home video release), Dog Soldiers got lost in a sea of bad horror flicks on the DVD market, and viewers could be forgiven for taking a look at the box art and assuming that it would be bad. Eventually it did at least manage to gain some word-of-mouth buzz – especially after The Descent briefly made Marshall a known name – and it turned into a modest cult classic. Now for the first time it is getting a special edition release that actually treats it like a worth-seeing cult film instead of just another generic horror flick, thanks to the excellent team at Scream Factory.

Like Hatchet or House of the Devil, Dog Soldiers is an enthusiastic love letter to the horror genre that takes elements of the classics that we grew up with and blends them into a deliciously geeky genre brew with some first-rate suspense sequences. However, this same description is also why marketing was such a huge part of Dog Soldiers' failure upon its release: if you didn't know that this was the film's intention, its uninspired advertizing would have lead you to assume that it really was just generic and cliché. And actually, the film starts off seeming a little generic, which wouldn't inspire any extra patience from already-skeptical viewers: it doesn't have the visual panache of House of the Devil, and it has a pretty weak first act that prevents you from seeing the film's intelligence and sense of humor for the first few minutes. But be patient, and don't be put off by the underwhelming opening: the payoff is great once Marshall unleashes his dogs of war.

Marshall set out to make the ultimate werewolf movie; one that really makes full use of what fierce and frightening creatures they should be. And he largely succeeded, pitting the beasts against equally fierce characters to fight them. The set-up seems simple enough: a group of military recruits on a training mission in the Scottish Highlands come up against a pack of werewolves; carnage ensues. The recipe is also very conducive to the type of genre homage that Marshall wanted to make: right from the start, he almost makes a game out of working in as many classic 60s, 70s, and 80s horror references as possible. The soldiers-vs-monsters-in-the-woods premise is pretty much a Scottish spin on Predator, the major setting is an isolated farmhouse right out of Night of the Living Dead, the film makes use of steadicam shots flying through the trees just like in Evil Dead, and there's even a gory variation on a gross-out running gag from Bad Taste. It almost feels like Marshall is challenging viewers to see if they can spot all the quick references and inside jokes. Genre fans will have a good time with it. Unfortunately this does somewhat call further attention to the weak first act, as picking out the references becomes the most fun thing as the script gets off to its shaky start. But again, stick with it: it doesn't take too long for the film to find its balance, and get very good quite quickly. Taking thriller cues from the tense siege dynamics and gritty action of Assault on Precinct 13, Dog Soldiers finds its strength in its ability to balance intense suspense and genre homage quite well.

The film obviously has a low budget, but as it gains steam, it actually uses this as a stylistic advantage. The action scenes are shot with a rough, kinetic, handheld urgency which really makes these moments pop, and keeps the adrenaline flowing. The action is also shot with a higher frame rate to give the scenes a raw, hyper-realistic edge, as was done in 28 Days Later around the same time, and more recently in Mad Max: Fury Road. It is in these sequences – which comprise much of the latter part of the film – that Marshall really shines as a director, and shows the skill for suspense and terror that would make him famous with The Descent. As a writer, he certainly had more to learn when he made Dog Soldiers (the script for The Descent is much more refined), but he shows his strengths in a few key areas: particularly his dialogue. While the soldier characters are never all that well developed, the dialogue he writes for them is great. It is snappy, funny, tough, and has a great rhythm reminiscent of the banter between the Space Marines in Aliens. The script certainly has its flaws, but it compensates for them with a strong personality that really helps to tie it together.

"We called first shower!"
But the real stars of the movie are the werewolves, and they are the film's greatest success. Marshall wanted to give us the ultimate werewolves, and he succeeded: I'm prepared to say that the beasts in Dog Soldiers surpass their forefathers in American Werewolf in London and The Howling as the coolest, most effective cinematic werewolves ever designed. The film has no CGI to speak of, and entirely uses practical effects; really, really good practical effects. An expertly-crafted combination of actors in very realistic suits (trained dancers, actually, to achieve those wolf-like movements) and lifelike animatronic facial features, these dog soldiers are a perfect example of how well-executed practical effects can be more impressive than overused CGI any day. The werewolves look genuinely real, and they make very formidable and intimidating villains.

Not surprisingly, these special effects get a lot of attention in the impressive new extras that Scream Factory has assembled for the special edition blu-ray. The short featurette from the original release has been replaced by an hour-long documentary about the making of the film, and there's another new 15-minute featurette just about how the film was shot on location. There is also a new audio commentary by Neil Marshall, who was conspicuously absent from the previous disc's producer commentary. Add in an early short film by Marshall and some other small goodies and you have a pretty impressive special edition package. And best of all, Marshall himself supervised a new HD transfer of the film for this release. It's all a definite upgrade over the previous, now out of print, non-special-edition blu-ray, which was every bit as apathetic towards the film as the original DVD. The film was shot on 16mm, so don't expect the most pristine quality ever, but it is undoubtedly the best possible transfer. As always, I must sing Scream Factory's praises for the work that they do on their releases.

Dog Soldiers is certainly not a perfect film: it has quite a few flaws along the way, and is ultimately a bit uneven. But when it is good, it is really good: even in his directorial debut, Neil Marshall knows how to craft great suspense, and he delivers a movie that works as both a solid thriller and a genre homage that fans will really get a kick out of. And if you want some seriously great cinematic werewolves, look no further. If you haven't seen it before, give it a look: it definitely deserves the added exposure that Scream Factory's special edition will give it.

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-Christopher S. Jordan