by Mel Valentin
"Dog Soldiers," a low-budget, modestly ambitious combination of "Night of the Living Dead," "Aliens," and "The Howling," is the rare genre exercise that never strays from its genre roots or influences, but still manages to deliver a uniquely engaging, if gore-drenched and blood-filled, viewing experience. In short, "Dog Soldiers" takes a premise perfectly suited to a low budget, an isolated group, a farmhouse, desperate circumstances, marauding supernatural creatures (in this case, a werewolf pack on the hunt for fresh meat) and almost alchemically combined these elements into a highly enjoyable horror/werewolf genre bender that will both stand on its own as a fan favorite and signal the emergence of a new writing/directing talent, Neil Marshall.Not all is perfect in Dog Soldiers, however. Marshall opens Dog Soldiers with a double prologue, switching unnecessarily between three scenes, one set in the present, the second two hours earlier, followed by a flash-forward four weeks later. The opening scene is almost completely unnecessary, introducing two disposal characters, a first taste of blood and gore (and to introduce an object that will play a key role at the climax). The second scene involves a training exercise, introducing the central character, Private Cooper (Kevin McKidd) and his all-too-human antagonist, Captain Ryan (Liam Cunningham). Ryan, it seems, is testing Cooper as part of the final exam to become a member of an elite fighting force. Cooper fails, ostensibly for refusing a direct order.
"'Night of the Living Dead' crossed with 'Aliens.' Need I say more?"
The flash-forward leaves us with Cooper and a squad of army reservists, led by the earthy Sergeant Wells (Sean Pertwee), on a training exercise in the Scottish Highlands. The other men seem more interested in an upcoming football match between England and Germany than in the training exercise that promises to rob them of their weekend. Alas, the squad encounter more than they bargain with when they come across Captain Ryan, seriously injured but still alive. Ryan is the sole survivor; his elite squad ambushed by werewolves. As night descends, panic sets in, leading to a mad scramble across a rapidly darkening forest, a werewolf attack that leaves one man dead and the sergeant mortally wounded and Cooper taking a leadership role.
A fortuitous coincidence leads the squad straight into a quiet stretch of road and Megan (Emma Cleasby), a local zoologist who takes the men back to a nearby, abandoned farmhouse. There, Cooper tries to patch up Sergeant Wells (a blackly comic scene involving Superglue), direct the men in defending the farmhouse (by boarding up windows, etc.), and obtaining answers from the duplicitous Captain Ryan, all while fending off periodic attacks from the werewolves (regular bullets wound the werewolves, but only temporarily). Silver, of course, can be used to dispatch the werewolves. Pity, however, that none can be found in the abandoned farmhouse (where, as in a familiar fairy tale, food lies on plates in bowls, uneaten, waiting for the expected return of the regular occupants of the farmhouse). The attacks come at regular, rapidly shrinking the group of survivors until one or two (or more) are left for the final confrontation with the werewolves.
As in better genre efforts, once the premise has been laid out through exposition and character action (and interaction), Dog Soldiers kicks into overdrive, with only the occasional bridge or transitional scene between the action set pieces (partly to push the audience toward the one or two or more plot turns that will decide the fates of the individual characters). The set pieces are generally handled with skill and imagination, hampered only by the inevitable revelation of the werewolves in all their shaggy, man-in-suit splendor. Plot wise, there’s the oddly expedient werewolf behavior that illogically allows the soldiers to regroup and repair the breaches in the farmhouse's defenses when another attack could take all the soldiers out. Sadly, Dog Soldiers suffers from dodgy, sometimes risible makeup effects (there’s an interrupted transformation scene, but nothing approaching the innovative transformations scenes found more than twenty years ago in American Werewolf in London or The Howling’s).Dog Soldiers is also hampered by a third-act plot turn that seems to cross the line from comedy into misogyny.
Dog Soldiers more than makes up for its minor flaws, however. On the plus side of the ledger, Dog Soldiers offers a consistently high gore content, well-staged action scenes, economical delineation of characters (through, an occasionally impenetrable argot), and predictable, if nonetheless satisfying, plot turns. In summary, a weak opening, a problematic third act turn, and weak makeup effects are the only flaws worth noting in a nearly flawless genre entry. Dog Soldiers fully deserves a strong, nearly unqualified, recommendation, especially for genre fans.The forthcoming sequel, "Dog Soldiers: Fresh Meat," promises to follow the central character from the last minutes of the final scene in the first film into all-new encounters with werewolves and members of the Special Forces. Sadly, Neil Marshall isn’t involved in the sequel. He’s moved on to writing and directing another horror film, "The Descent," wherein a group of adventurous female cave divers find themselves menaced by subterranean predators and intra-group conflict.
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originally posted: 08/18/05 20:32:07