JUNE 23, 2015
It was only a few months before I started Horror Movie A Day that I saw Dog Soldiers for the first time, and the time-consuming process of keeping the site going meant I never got around to my planned 2nd viewing until now. What was once a potential "Non Canon" review (meaning, a review of a movie I had seen before and remembered a lot about) is now a traditional one, because I honestly couldn't remember much about it at all beyond the basic premise and the fact that I quite liked it. Longtime readers of HMAD know that the list of werewolf movies I enjoy is a pretty short one (basically the ones everyone likes, plus Big Bad Wolf), so when I say one is worth seeing, you know it's true!
(Unlike slasher movies. I really can't be trusted there.)
I think the reason Soldiers works for me as well as it does is the fact that it's not heavy with the werewolf mythology or even on-screen appearances. As Neil Marshall points out on his commentary, it's a movie about soldiers trying to survive, with the werewolves being the antagonist - if it was Nazis the movie would play out more or less the same way (the need for silver would be excised, I suspect). Indeed, one of the weaker moments of the movie is when they start diving into their backstory and explaining their connection to Ryan (Liam Cunningham), the film's obligatory asshole human. Who cares? All it does it take time away from the film's key assets, which include its breakneck pace (it's 104 minutes but feels like 85) and the loving camaraderie among the title characters. I've seen actual war movies that didn't develop such a strong bond among its primary group of heroes, even more impressive when you consider strong male bonds aren't exactly a hallmark of the horror genre.
f Plus it's nice to have a soldier-themed horror movie that's not a psychological thing about their guilt manifesting itself. I like Deathwatch and movies like that, but there are so many in that vein that it's practically a sub-genre. Otherwise, soldiers tend to only pop up in things like Aliens and its many ripoffs, where they're the backups to our real hero, and I think it's a missed opportunity considering an easy criticism of the genre as a whole is that you don't care enough about the characters and/or they don't seem to care about each other. Imagine a good slasher or something where the heroes are a "Band of Brothers" type group? One without ammo and grenades, I assume, or else the movie would be really short. Plus it's funny; I don't know if there's a term for movies that are frequently hilarious but you can't ever refer to them as comedies, but if so this would join Jaws and A Few Good Men alongside of them. Hell, it even has a goddamn Matrix joke that made me laugh instead of groan, something that was barely possible even at the time, let alone 15 years later.
As for the wolves, they're pretty good looking and all practical, thank Christ. The designers were clearly taking cues from Rob Bottin's The Howling's designs for their very tall beasties, but emphasizing the wolf look (in the face I mean), making them less "monstrous", though it's hard to tell given their gigantic size, quick cutting, and the (intentionally) dark cinematography that keeps us from getting too many strong looks at them. The movie has no transformation scene, with Marshall opting for the old-school trick of cutting away to someone's reaction of a transformation as it begins, then cutting back to a new stage already having been applied. On the making-of he defends this choice - they couldn't afford to do a big American Werewolf-style version, and he didn't want to use cheesy CGI morphing, so this was the best option and one that has its roots in the sort of movies that have kept the werewolf genre alive, so you can't really fault the decision.
You CAN fault Marshall's cutting though, which he thankfully never did himself again. There's an early scene where the soldiers are just talking about a soccer match or something and there's something like three cuts per second - it actually started to give me a headache. I don't mind this sort of stuff during frenetic action scenes (as long as it's clear what's going on, unlike say, Taken 3, which featured a car chase I literally could not understand), but when it's just a scene of people talking it makes me feel that the director or the producers or SOMEONE is assuming that we won't be interested and they're trying to make it look like an action scene. It's offensive, really. Later dialogue scenes, like when the last two men standing have their obligatory "One of us has to survive!" chat, it's cut calmly and sanely, so thankfully it's not an issue throughout the whole film, but when it happens so early on it kind of puts me in a "mood".
But that's really my only issue with the movie, which is a pretty good pros to cons ratio. The only other thing worth noting isn't their fault, but is causing so much controversy on the Scream Factory facebook page I figure I should mention it: the transfer. Apparently, the original negative for the film could not be found, so they had to use a pair of 35mm prints (that is, the same prints that a theater would show) to create this new high-def master. That would normally be mostly OK, but Dog Soldiers was shot on Super 16, so the 35mm prints were already blown up and not 100% representative of how the film looked, a problem that was exacerbated when putting together the high-def version for Blu-ray. This is why the new transfer is so grainy, but they also did a new color timing that Marshall signed off on (per his explanation on the SF page, the original version had mixed lighting causing continuity problems, so this was a chance to fix it). The grain I don't mind, but even with my hazy memories of the film I thought the new color looked wrong, and confirmed as much when I watched the bonus features, which used the older transfer (from the DVD) for its clips. Check out the comparison (old color on top, new color on bottom):
I should note that these are from the included DVD version, not the Blu-ray, but the two discs are taken from the same source, obviously. So while you can see that the new transfer has better detail and definition, the color has been shifted "lighter", which looks weird to me. I mean it all comes down to preference, and if Marshall prefers the new one I guess you can't exactly say he's wrong, but FWIW I think I prefer the older color. The brightening seems at odds with the film's exterior atmosphere; there's a part where someone says "It'll be dark soon" and it looks like it's early afternoon. Once they get to the house and lighting continuity was no longer an issue it's more in line with how it looked before; still a shift but nothing I find bothersome (so along with the improved detail it's overall easier to accept):
So like the editing, it's more of a problem with the way the movie starts, not how it ends up, and as Jurassic World is proving with its extraordinary box office run, it's more important to have a strong ending than a strong beginning. As for the extras themselves, they're pretty solid - the hour long retrospective is jampacked with fun info and recollections, such as how Kevin McKidd accidentally broke Sean Pertwee's nose during the bit where he has to knock him out, and also that he shot most of the movie with a broken bone of his one (his rib) due to an accident that occurred right before they started filming. There's also a terrific look at the set design process, with Simon Bowles showing the little model/layout he used (with toy soldier cutouts) to plan the impressive house set - which walls needed to be able to move away for the camera, how the actors could move about, etc. I always love watching that sort of thing, and the 15 minute length is perfect - long enough that it can be informative, but not so long that it starts to get boring. Marshall's fun short film Combat is also included, as is the very odd trailer that focuses on the lone female character. Finally, Marshall's commentary has some repeat info from the retrospective, and he occasionally drops to silence, but it's definitely worth a listen - not only does he explain the transfer issues, but he drops some pretty hilarious trivia, at one point even laughing about a Wikipedia claim that the film's original title was The Last Stand ("no it wasn't"). He also lays to rest the idea of a sequel and briefly explains how such talk originally started, as well as some ideas that were floating around.
Going back to the "It's about survival and werewolves just happen to be the obstacle" idea, Marshall did something similar with his followup, The Descent, of which I've always said would be a pretty scary movie even if the monsters never showed up. I'm not sure if that would work as well here, but it is interesting to see how he improved on this approach with his sophomore effort, when the original was pretty damn good to begin with. It's a bummer he has only made these two full blown horror features so far (he followed Descent with Doomsday, which had some genre elements but was mainly an action movie, and Centurion wasn't even remotely terror-related), though he's getting back into the game now with a piece in an upcoming anthology, and an episode of Hannibal (RIP) as well. I think he's a terrific filmmaker (I quite like all four of his films), and even if it's not a horror movie I can't wait until he makes another feature. Until then, at least I now have his entire filmography on Blu-ray to enjoy! When can I say the same for Carpenter or Craven? HUH? WHEN?!?!?!
What say you?