Dog Soldiers (2002)
Dir. Neil Marshall
31 for 31 is a curated film program for the month of October. Conceived of as a compilation mixtape, the program explores the historical and cultural legacy of Horror cinema. Consider this my billet-doux to the genre.
From Lon Chaney to Michael Jackson, werewolves have been mainstream for ages, making them a natural and necessary addition to this mixtape. They’re all-star movie monsters, so it’s a damn shame that there are so many forgettable werewolf titles. Forgettable, or memorably bad — looking at you, Project Metalbeast… Asking what’s top dog usually boils down to either The Howling or An American Werewolf in London. For my money, London is Best in Show. It’s the purebred standard and clear champion at the Westminister Werewolf Show, but for October 17th, I’m adopting a mutt. Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers may have a spotty pedigree, but it’s a worthy addition to the werewolf lexicon.
The werewolf’s curse is a popular device to explore a variety of themes. 2000’s Ginger Snaps, for example, uses it as a provocative metaphor for burgeoning womanhood. When the titular Ginger’s wolf bite coincides with her first period, the juxtaposition is obvious. Most werewolf films are essentially variations of this structure. Our protagonist gets mauled by a “sheepdog” or “bear,” and then they start to transform and must piece together what really happened. It’s a winning formula, albeit a bit played out.
With Dog Soldiers, writer-director Neil Marshall takes that trope behind the shed and Old Yellers it. He has little interest in mining for any subtext. Instead, he answers the age-old question of “what would happen if a pack of werewolves ambushed a squad of soldiers?” Pretty much this, it turns out. Following the initial attack, the soldiers retreat to a nearby abandoned cottage and prepare to make their last stand against the surrounding beasts. It’s pretty much Zulu with werewolves, and one of the characters even references that desperate defense with a sardonic quip.
Werewolf movies live or die on the look of their lycanthropes. A poor design can sully an otherwise great picture. Hell, Silver Bullet drops a full letter grade on the teddy bear alone that attacks Gary Busey. Luckily, Neil Marshal’s pack is an interesting breed. These 7-foot tall beasts are tall enough to play center in the NBA and vicious enough to disembowel you with one swipe. Teen Wolf, this is not. These are some bad bitches.
What elevates this from being low-grade dog food is that the characters are not just red shirts waiting to be ripped apart, but realistic and likable personalities. Led by an ensemble of British “that” guys like Davos Seaworth and Lucius Vorenus (Liam Cunningham and Kevin McKidd respectively), it’s a surprisingly well-acted film. This is definitely a “dude movie” ala Predator with lots of testosterone, but the characters are fleshed out well enough to make you give a shit about their survival.
Although it might not mean much, Dog Soldiers still earns its place amongst the best werewolf movies. It’s not the Alpha, but this mangy, untrained tyke is still perfect to unleash on a Saturday night.