October is Horror Movie month, where we let down our hair and celebrate all things macabre and scary! Not that we don’t during the rest of the year, but still… HORROR MOVIES! People who don’t like horror are encouraged to check back November 1st for less bloody and/or disturbing films. For everyone else, let’s put on our galoshes and WADE INTO THE MIRE!
Hello and welcome to Werebeasts Week here at Late to the Theater! This week’s selections are hairy, scary, and usually unfairly judged – They just want to be understood! Or fed! Either way, we’re looking at people who sprout fur, fangs, and bad attitudes this week, so make sure your shots are up to date and you’ve packed a doggie bag*. Let’s get going!
Today’s entry is Dog Soldiers, in which a group of British Army soldiers/football hooligans encounter werewolves while on an exercise in a remote part of Scotland. It will contain spoilers!
So let’s get going!
Dog Soldiers was written, directed, and edited by Neil Marshall, who’s written and directed some pretty fantastic films over the years, in addition to some of the most well-received episodes of Game of Thrones, namely Blackwater and Watchers on the Wall. He knows tension, action, and characters, and it shows. There’s also a vein of jet-black gallows humor running through the movie; it, along with the spot-on performances, is one of the reasons that this almost 15-year-old film still holds up.
The effects are all practical, and the werewolves are towering man-beast hybrids. They’re lean and leathery, with great shaggy manes. They remind me of Bernie Wrightson’s illustrations from Stephen King’s Cycle of the Werewolf.
The film actually has two intros: the first is two campers who are swiftly dispatched by the titular werewolves. They seem like an actually nice pair of people, and are written with more depth than the usual monster-fodder. The woman gives the man a silver dagger, and then they begin making out. There’s a brilliant gimmick involving a zipper that leads into a monster attack, and then the couple are done.
The next intro is a soldier in special forces training. Kevin McKidd, of ❤ Rome ❤ and Trainspotting fame, is just on the cusp of passing his test when he meets with Captain Ryan, who is played by none other than Liam ‘Davos The Onion Knight Seaworth’ Cunningham himself. Cunningham is miles away from his salty, crotchety GoT character, instead playing a cold and calculating Captain. How cold and calculating? As a final test of Cooper’s training, Ryan commands Cooper to shoot a dog. Cooper refuses, saying he could kill a dog, but he won’t kill a dog for no reason. A scornful Ryan fails Cooper, calling him weak and useless.
A month later, Cooper has joined a unit on a training exercise against an SAS unit. He’s now led by working-working class and all around good guy Sergeant Wells, played by Sean Pertwee. I’ve seen a lot of military films, and having worked with veterans of the various branches, I am very hard on films that do a poor job showing unit camaraderie; Dog Soldiers is one that gets it right. It’s up there with serious war films like Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Three Kings, or Breaker Morant. Fans of Aliens and Predator will also see some worthy parallels, such as ‘Short controlled bursts’ (pronounced ‘barsts’ in a Scottish accent), or in Cooper giving Megan a weapon. Of course it has a lot of nods to Zulu and even a few outright mentions, but I’ve never seen Zulu so I can’t remark on that. The jokes, the talking bollocks, most movies have those: what put DS above so many others was the caring shown by Sergeant Wells. A sergeant can’t be a dick to his unit all the time, that’s just not sustainable and it also doesn’t work for chain of command. The unit has to trust the leader, or else there’s no point.
The SAS squad send up a distress flare. Investigation reveals an absolute mess at the SAS campsite: blood everywhere, but no bodies, trank darts, some heavy duty hunting equipment. … And one survivor, the previously mentioned Captain Ryan, who was leading the squad. They patch him up, exchange their blank rounds for live ones, and set out to figure out what they’re dealing with. While being chased by werewolves through the trees, they lose Bruce, and Sergeant Wells is badly wounded.
Along the way, they encounter Megan, a local who knows what they’re facing and leads them to a place they can hole up and tend their wounded. And in the quaint little house in the Scottish countryside, they make their stand.
The character interactions are really what make the film, and the little moments between people. For example, when Cooper is tending to the screaming, thrashing Sergeant upstairs, downstairs we see the toll it’s taking on the others, in their tightened jaws and miserable expressions. Or when Wells relinquishes command to Cooper, and demands to be knocked out. Special mention has to be made of McKidd’s performance, especially in those hilarious moments that perfectly toe the line of comedy without edging into parody, like when he’s flailing on the floor by Sarge’s bed, or burrowing through the walls of the cottage to escape the werewolves. Or when one of the werewolves snatches a shotgun and fires back, nearly missing Joe.
Or how Spoon turns out to be really into the whole situation.
Pretty soon, it becomes clear that Captain Ryan and Sargeant Wells are going to turn, and then it’s just a waiting game.
It’s hard to classify a movie with so many gunfights, fistfights, explosions, and action sequences as horror, but Dog Soldiers is exactly that. After the adrenaline surges there are moments of quiet dread, of nervously regrouping and planning and worrying and boarding up gaping windows, or tending the increasingly unwounded wounded. There’s the human aspect of horror as well, as Ryan turns out to be pulling a Burke from Aliens/Dillon from Predator by using our protagonists as bait.
I think the only weak spot in the film is Megan – not that the actress wasn’t good, but her speech at the end bordered on nonsensical. Her monologue just didn’t make much sense in context: “Being nice to women will get you nowhere, but being nice to me will get you killed,” she says. What? The delivery was good, but it meant nothing.
Although this is now one of my favorite reaction gifs EVAR.
So that’s it for Dog Soldiers! I hope you enjoyed this little write-up about one of my favorite monster movies. Tune in Friday when we take a look at 1942’s incredible Cat People, a fascinating slice of old-school horror/noir. Serbian legends, black panthers, giant shoulder pads – there’s nothing I didn’t love about Cat People, and you’re going to hear all about it!
Have a great day!
*And it’s also Return of the Bad Puns week. I’m so, so sorry.