November 6, 2003
Being a huge fan of the John Landis horror An American Werewolf in London I was very keen to see Dog Soldiers. Another werewolf movie shot in the UK using quality English actors was a prospect too good to miss. It would be gritty, dark and not afraid to shock where some U.S. movies might step back. And after the last Werewolf film I’d seen; American Werewolf in Paris, it had to be an improvement.Dog Soldiers however wasn’t the breakthrough directorial debut that it had been billed as. The film looks very cheap, but not cheap in a lack of budget way, cheap in an intentionally shot to look like a documentary way. The trailers included on the DVD latch on to the British Army adverts – giving you the viewer a set of choices to decide whether you are Army material. It’s clever, but gimmicky and the film has been shot in that same style. Jerky camera movement, slightly overexposed footage and an over-reliance on wide shots to make it seem spontaneous are perhaps the film’s biggest flaw. Rather than being shot like a film with great cinematography used to create depth and movement within the frame Dog Soldiers is shot like a training video or T.V. show. It’s as if time was of the essence and they couldn’t get the camera set ups required so had to make do with the master shots all of the time.
The cheapness of the film isn’t helped by the lacklustre performances and wafer thin script. Sean Pertwee, an eternally bad performer plays sergeant Wells. His character, such as it is, naturally looks out for his men in a ‘you dropped the six of us in a meat grinder’, ‘Dutch from Predator’ sort of way. He has no qualities that make him seem like a fully fleshed out character, so in an obviously ‘script editor’ imposed monologue he tells his men by the camp fire of an incident in the Gulf war that scared him. The tone of that sequence is so different from the rest of the dialogue and characterisation that it just doesn’t fit in. It’s as if it were added later to give Wells some much needed character.
The rest of the soldiers in Wells’ company seem to be rejects from Soldier Soldier, each with a strong regional accent to emphasise that they are from different parts of the UK. You expect Robson and Jerome to turn up and start crooning – now that would be a horror movie.
The plot of the film involves a team of British soldiers on manoeuvres in Scotland. They are competing against some Special Forces troops; led by the sinister looking Ryan (Liam Cunningham). Unfortunately there are some other creatures in the woods looking for some hunter / hunted practise, and they’re a little better equipped.
It’s not long before the soldiers realise that the exercise is over and that they need to swap their blank firing weapons for live rounds. Caught unawares, being chased and having to carry the injured they stumble across a feisty lady and her range rover. Coincidence you may think, well yes but who cares? Now that they’re safe you’d think they’d drive the hell out of there. Instead they stop at a deserted farm house. Careful now, here comes an obvious plot device. They all exit the car and head into the house, and then minutes later decide that they should really keep moving and head back to the car. Upon exiting the house (why did they bother?) they find that the range rover has been scuppered by having its engine torn out.
Oh no, now they’re stranded. The obvious plot development to have them stuck with no means of escape was used to great effect in films like Jaws and Aliens, and used to obvious poor effect in films like Deep Blue Sea and Dog Soldiers. There was no reason for them to exit the range rover; in fact there was no reason for them to stop but the director needed to get them all out of the car so that they could become stranded. Rather than writing a good reason for this to happen, he just did it and hoped no-one would notice.
So now they’re stuck in a farm house surrounded by Werewolves, giving the film a siege feeling not unlike Assault on Precinct 13. Well, it would if it were anything like as good, but it’s not. The predictability continues with the soldiers standing in front of open windows so that the Werewolves can reach through and grab them. This doesn’t just happen the once mind you, it’s a recurring theme.
There is a nice line of dialogue when two of the soldiers are looking for a character known as ‘Spoon’. The bloodied mess that they found leads to the line “There is no spoon”, a welcome homage to the Matrix.
In an attempt to get some semblance of depth to the plot they introduce a rather bizarre twist to the end, one that rather than making you look at the film again in a different light just makes no sense whatsoever. Any characterisation that they had built up, which wasn’t much, was destroyed by a cheap parlour trick of a plot twist.
The Werewolves themselves adopt the human form standing approach as seen in the Howling, as opposed to the ‘on all fours rabid dog’ approach of American Werewolf. Close up they look a little ropey, but then you should never see your creatures up close and in normal light (unless you go for the surreal Jack Goodman zombie look in American Werewolf) and even then you need a master effects guy on the job like Rick Baker. The Werewolves in Dog Soldiers do look quite frightening when seen in silhouette though. In fact there a few moments in this film that will make you jump.
It is rather let down though by its poor gore effects. One of the characters has his stomach split and what are supposed to be his intestines spill out. It instead looks like he’s just opened a large packet of sausages and he’s playing with them in his lap. It wasn’t until they said what had happened that I realised what it was supposed to be.
It’s clear what director Neil Marshall was attempting here, a British ‘From Dusk ’til Dawn’ with Werewolves. However that’s not how it turned out. From Dusk ’til Dawn had Tarantino scripting and Rodriguez directing, not to mention Keitel and Clooney. Dog Soldiers had Neil Marshall writing and directing and Sean Pertwee acting. The problem is that without the sparkling dialogue and dynamic action sequences you’re left with an absurd plot and a cheap looking film.
This is Marshall’s first stab at directing, but he has been involved in the films ‘Driven’ (Editor) and ‘Killing Time’ (Writer); the latter starring Eastenders’ Craig Fairbrass – clearly a man of great accomplishments. There seems to be an interlocking network of British film makers who all help each other out on their uninspired and industry harming films. Films like Downtime, Darklands, Shopping, Rancid Aluminium and House! To name but a few have all been released in recent years to stutter, trip and fall at the box office due to their poor quality. For the most part though it didn’t seem to harm the careers of those involved, quite the opposite in fact. Shopping director Paul Anderson went on to make Mortal Kombat, Event Horizon and Resident Evil. The other directors and writers have all gone on to work in the same clicky industry that has supported them for years, making the same awful films.
If failure and lack of talent such as this will be rewarded then we can’t really expect the British film industry to reach anything resembling a respectable position again.
In a genre littered with varying quality Dog Soldiers certainly isn’t the worst film to be added to the Werewolf roster, but by no means is it the best, nor does it make the top half. As recent British movies go too it’s not as bad as the majority, but then how could it be?