Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Dog Soldiers (Great Britain, 2002)

Dog Soldiers is the wave-making 2002 debut of director Neil Marshall, who made even bigger waves (and got a lot of good press) with his 2005 follow-up The Descent (trailer) and then got the typical third-film scrubbing with the highly derivative but highly enjoyable and entertainingly trashy Doomsday (trailer) in 2008. In all three films he shows a sure directorial hands and a good grasp of narrative structure — let's hope he manages to show the same in his upcoming fourth feature, Centurion, which is reportedly a sword and sandal film set in 117 A.D.
But to return to Dog Soldiers. The tale is an uncomplicated one. A bunch of soldiers under Sgt. H.G. Wells (Sean Pertwee) drop down into the backwaters of the Scottish Highlands for some training maneuvers with some Special Forces already somewhere on site. But when they locate the Special Forces base camp, all they find is a lot of blood, unused weapons and an injured and gibbering Captain Ryan (Liam Cunningham). With nowhere to go they make their way through the forest, only to be attacked by big, unseen creatures. On the run, they stumble upon a back road just as local gal Megan (Emma Cleasby) is going by in her Landrover and they all manage to escape, taking refuge at the nearest house. Once there, they find it deserted and in no time at all they are trapped inside surrounded by werewolves. The beasts might not have balls (in a physical sense), but they sure are hungry. The fight is on to survive until sunrise, but although the soldiers have weapons they are very low on silver...
Marshall’s modestly budgeted debut film is a surprisingly effective and enjoyable return to the werewolf film, one of the less popular mainstays of filmic horror and one of the most difficult to make work. But, along with Ginger Snaps (2000/trailer), Dog Soldiers is one of the best lycanthrope films to be made in decades. But whereas Ginger Snaps liberally peppers its narrative with allusions to puberty and awakening sexuality, Dog Soldiers remains firmly rooted in the traditional and visceral but adds a nice dose of black humor. Nothing really all that new, maybe, but well done and fast: once it starts moving, the narrative slows down occasionally only enough for the viewer to catch their breath and keep track of what’s going on, but in general the flick barrels along at an enjoyable, adrenalin-stoked speed. True, at the start of the movie there is one character too many, which makes it difficult initially to keep them apart, but once the sun sets and the full moon rises the numbers quickly get reduced to a more manageable amount. Considering how little time is given to character development among the manageable amount, it is notable that the remaining characters actually mange to assert something known as personality.
Not to say that the movie doesn’t have its small flaws. The differing times it takes for various people to change seems a bit indiscriminate, as is the motivation of one character in particular. And while it is nice to see some good old fashion hairy suits instead of CGI — anyone remember the laughable werewolves of An American Werewolf in Paris (1997/trailer)? — the werewolves in Dog Soldiers don’t always look all that convincing, which is probably why Marshall makes the wise choice of showing the only in parts or quickly. But none of the flaws found in the film are really all that surprising for a budget-strapped production, nor do they really do all that much damage to the movie. And in any event, Marshall makes up for them by really throwing blood and entrails around with free abandon — who would ever expect that a single man could have soooooooo much uncooked blutwurst inside.
In short, Dog Soldiers is a debut film to be proud of that might not add anything new to the genre but is nonetheless a fast-paced, exciting and bloody ride spiced with just the right amount of humor. You might forget it a week or two later, but while you're watching it you'll be anything but disappointed.

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