The ancient legends of werewolves have provided horror cinema with one of its staple sub-genres since the silent era. However, the silly effects and unconvincing monsters of early werewolf films often made them more comedic than horrifying. Eventually, modern technology would change that, enabling filmmakers to bring to life realistic creatures that deliver a genuine horror experience; in contrast to yesteryear's "man in a werewolf suit", today's werewolf cinema boasts lifelike seven-foot-high creatures with razor-sharp claws that tear their on-screen victims into bloody shreds. Building on this new prowess is Dog Soldiers, a 2002 production that was a joint UK-Luxembourg effort. Part horror, part action, this B-sleeper is a lycanthropic cross between Assault on Precinct 13 and Aliens. Popular in the U.K., it did not have a North American theatrical release, and thus remains obscure across the Atlantic.
A squad of British soldiers, including a failed special-operations candidate (Kevin McKidd) and led by Sergeant Wells (Sean Pertwee) on a routine infiltration training exercise in Scotland reaches their objective, an isolated base encampment in desolate wilderness where people are known to disappear without a trace, just before dusk on a full-moon night, only to find it in a shambles, littered with blood, body parts and abandoned, unfired weapons. The only survivor is the commander (Liam Cunningham), a mysterious and secretive officer associated with the shadowy special operations; seriously wounded, his cold arrogance is gone, and he pleads with his rescuers to evacuate him to safety while there is still time.
The squad salvages what they can from the charnal of the camp, and retreats into the woods, only to be set upon by the ferocious, howling, unseen creatures responsible for the previous carnage. After a fierce running battle, the squad is rescued by a Land Rover-driving scientist (Emma Cleasby) who takes them to the nearest building, a well-kept but strangely deserted farmhouse. They fortify the house as best as they can, and wait for the salvation of the morning sun.
They may never live to see that, however, because they are subsequently attacked again and again by the mysterious, wolf-like creatures that strike from the shadows and somehow recover in minutes from the countless bullets that tear through them. Every time the defenders drive them back costs both ammunition and men, and they have little of either. Eventually, the surviving soldiers find out the chilling truth, not just that their adversaries are a pack of ravenous werewolves, but also why they are there in the first place. Betrayed and seemingly doomed, the dwindling band of survivors fights on despite the desperate odds. However, their opponents, both without and within, have understimated how far their bonds of professionalism and camraderie can take them--this battle isn't over yet!
In Dog Soldiers, director/writer Marshall and his team have crafted a memorable addition to the horror genre. Fast-paced, there is frequent, well-choregraphed and realistic action, and the script is a pleasant change from the formulaic, cliched writing that permeates much of today's horror cinema. Richly characterized, the film continually maintains tension and suspense, with enough twists to keep the viewer guessing until the end (in fact, one answer is left until the credits before being given, and in a uniquely British way!) The special effects use little or no CGI by design, as the film's creators believed them to be more distracting than engrossing, and instead are based on sophisticated costumes and props, a strategy that pays off with some of the most realistic werewolves ever.
The film makes extensive use of its carefully selected, seasoned U.K. cast and their colorful accents, breaking away from the flat, listless portrayals and stilted dialog often associated with modern horror productions. Standout performances include Sean Pertwee as the consummate professional Sergeant Wells, Kevin McKidd as the intrepid Private Cooper, and Liam Cunningham as pychopathic special-ops commander Ryan.
These strengths, and an excellent attention to detail, combine into a solid production that ranks amongst the best in its class, with some carryover into the action genre as well.
Video: There are two versions, one 16x9-enhanced 1.85:1 OAR and the other 4:3 MAR (not used in this review). The transfer is clean, but grainy, with modest detail, probably due to the 16mm filming process used. Edge enhancement was not encountered, but many compression artifacts were, including I-frame pulsing, blocking (especially during dark scenes), and noise patterns. The colors are subdued, and at points the image is more reminscent of video than film. In summary, though, this disc is quite watchable, although far from reference quality.
Audio: There are two soundtracks available, Dolby 2.0 Surround and Dolby 5.1. The Dolby 5.1 track is of modest quality, making only occasional use of the satellites, and a soundfield that rarely, if ever, approaches 360 degrees in breadth. The frequency response for the most part seems flat and compressed, although dialog is clear and hiss is absent. In total, the audio is "OK," but a better mix would have enhanced the viewing experience considerably.
Supplements: The most prominent extra is a running audio commentary by producer David Allen, who sheds all sorts of interesting light on various aspects of the film, including the origin of the title, the various other films paid homage to in the script, some glitches in the script, and why Emma Cleasby is wearing a thin undershirt by the end(!).
Also provided is a making-of featurette, featuring interviews with actors Sean Pertwee, Kevin McKidd, and Liam Cunningham, director/writer Neil Marshall, producer David Allen, and visual effects director Bob Keen, providing more perspectives on the background and behind-the-scenes activities of the film.
Finally, there are international and U.S. theatrical trailers (for the abortive U.S. theatrical release).
Conclusions: This is a one of the best werewolf films ever, with a high rewatchability factor. However, the modest transfer quality, combined with a 12/16/03 re-release by Fox, fans and collectors are advised to rent now, and wait for the upcoming version in December.