For the past few months, when I'm reviewing a DVD, I've got into the habit of
replaying the movie on mute while I write. But with Dog Soldiers
become a bit of a problem, because I keep un-muting the T.V. to watch the movie,
and I can't seem to pull myself away long enough to sit down and type.
Dog Soldiers is survival horror. It's clear that writer/director Neil Marshall
grew up loving the same horror movies I did: Aliens, Dawn of the Dead, Evil
Dead II. You replace Aliens' aliens, Evil Dead II'sÖ um, evil
dead things, or Dawn of the Dead's zombies with werewolves, and you've
got the basic set-up for Dog Soldiers. The thing is, in spite of the obvious
influences and film references ("short, controlled bursts" anyone?), Dog Soldiers
rises above the level of homage or wanna-be or knock-off to become, on its own
merits, a bloody good entry into the survival horror genre.
On the DVD's extra features, the film-makers say that Dog Soldiers "isn't
a werewolf movie with soldiers. It's a soldier movie with werewolves." Well, I'm
pretty sure that video store clerks aren't going to plunk Dog Soldiers
down on a shelf between Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. Still, Dog
Soldiers does capture the soldierly comradery that combines casual insults
with "I've got your back" loyalty. Which, when the wolf's at the door and the
shite hits the fan, makes for much more compelling story-telling than, say, a
group of Noxzema-clean teens moonlighting from their day-jobs on the WB.
Oh, yeah, and they're not just soldiers, they're soldiers from the British Isles.
Which means thick accents and plenty of wankers, tossers, and bollocks. I'm not
sure if it's because I've had some practice seeing Trainspotting, The
Commitments, and The Van, but I actually managed to catch most of the
dialogue the first go 'round.
Of course, the soldier and Brit elements wouldn't mean much if they weren't carried
off so beautifully by both the writer and the actors. The first half-hour has
a lot of talking and very little action, which may have some people itchy, but
I loved it. After spending some time with the soldiers, listening to them joke
and tell stories to piss the time away, you still may not be able to tell them
apart (a common problem when you get six guys with the same skin color, shave
their heads, and put them in uniforms), but you start to like the blokes well
enough anyway. And when you do finally get their names straight, you realize that
most of the actors are as convincing soldiers as any you'll find in serious "looking
for lots of Oscar noms" soldier movies.
What else have we got? Spot-on camera work, down'n'bloody 80s-era squirm-in-your-seat
gore, and a few ridiculously over-the-top moments that work precisely because
they are so over-the-top. Oh yeah, and Dog Soldiers is funny too. (Sample
lines: "Sweeping patrols between each of these bunkers. They'll have the whole
sector wrapped tighter than an Eskimo's nad-sack.", "We are now up against live,
hostile targets. So, if Little Red Riding Hood should show up with a bazooka and
a bad attitude, I expect you to chin the bitch!", and "We either stay and snuff
it, or we all go...and snuff it."). The fun's not just in the dialogue, but in
the situations that arise as these soldier lads go toe-to-toe with the big bad.
You're screaming one minute, then laughing, then feeling like you might hurl.
Sometimes all three at once.
And, of course, the key to survival horror, properly portraying what it feels
like to fight, tooth-and-nail toÖ wellÖ survive, even when death's a breath away.
The characters in Dog Soldiers use everything that's on hand to fight the
werewolves, not in a Junkyard Wars A-Team way or a "Thank God I took physics
class" McGuyver way (both cool in their own fashion), but in the "panicked people
scramble for something -- anything -- that will keep them alive for a few
more seconds" way. There's a haphazardness to the thing that makes even the most
unlikely moments seem perfectly real.
If there's one weakness to Dog Soldiers, it's that, though the creature
design is great (in some shots, the werewolves are massive and elegant at the
same time), the creatures themselves are not realistic enough to stay on camera
for very long (of course, they didn't have enough money to hire Stan Winston).
This alone might be enough to make some people turn off their "suspension of disbelief"
switches, which is too bad, because then they'll miss out on a hell of a good
yarn while they're busy nit-picking.
I'm giving Dog Soldiers a nine for now, but it's the sort of movie
that could creep up to a ten during repeated viewings. I just feel cheated because
us Yanks didn't get a chance to see this beauty on the big screen.
The featurette starts out with talking heads interspersed with scenes from
the movie you already watched, but stick around (or fast forward) for some good
stuff on the werewolf effects. The producers' commentary track, meanwhile, is
footnoted guide to all sorts of details you might have missed the first time
around. Not a lot of extras, but also no time-wasters.
DVD Extras Rating: 5