October Horrorshow: Dog Soldiers

Horror is a blanket term that encompasses more subgenres of film than any other. It’s a taxonomy based on the types of threats protagonists must overcome. Aliens, slashers, zombies, vampires, ghosts, monsters and all their variations…The list goes on and on and on. Everyone has their favorites and their least favorites. For myself, nothing causes the heebie-jeebies better than a ghost flick, while zombies do a fine job of scratching my post-apocalyptic itch. But, one cannot live on a diet of specters and ghouls alone.

Today’s film features werewolves — classic creatures who had their heyday in film many, many decades past. Werewolves have always been a bit of a goofy monster for me. The lore around them is so specific and so silly. They only appear during the full moon. They can only be killed by silver bullets, which means for most of human history, there was no defense against them. Or did silver-tipped arrows work in a pinch?

Werewolves have origins in European folklore going back a thousand years and more, and this lends the creatures an aura of superstition. They were thought up and propagated by a people yet to beat back the shadows of the night with electricity, and who were still dominated by the Church. It’s a peasant heritage that makes it difficult for werewolves to fit in modern world tales. Despite this, there have been some very good werewolf movies in the last 35 years or so. An American Werewolf in London and Wolf come to mind.

Dog Soldiers, the 2002 film from writer/director Neil Marshall, is a decent entry in the werewolf subgenre of horror. In it, a small unit of British soldiers, led by Sergeant Wells (Sean Pertwee), and featuring the film’s main star, Kevin McKidd as Private Cooper, has been dropped into a remote location in the Scottish Highlands for a training exercise. Unbeknownst to them, the unit is actually bait. The UK government has apparently gotten wind of the creatures up north because they have been making hikers and campers disappear on a regular basis. In response, a special forces unit, led by the unscrupulous Captain Ryan (Liam Cunningham), has concocted the ‘exercise’ to use Wells’ unit to lure out a werewolf. But, things don’t go to plan. The quick mission turns to an all night siege in an isolated farmhouse.

Dog Soldiers is more about action than suspense. As such, scaring the audience seemed to be a secondary consideration for Marshall. That’s fine. James Cameron proved long ago that battling monsters in a closed environment can cause knots in one’s stomach just as effectively as a slow creep up a set of stairs in a slasher flick.

What works really well in Dog Soldiers is the increasing plight of Wells’ unit. With every assault on the farmhouse, the small group is whittled down a bit more, and their stock of ammunition creeps closer to exhaustion. This is a well-worn formula, and one borrowed from war flicks. Generally, the more hopeless the plight of the heroes, the better. The true degree of difficulty in telling a story like this is resolving it in an acceptable fashion. It’s almost a writing exercise in that way. Paint oneself into a corner, then extricate without making too much of a mess. One of these days a writer will figure out how to do so without using an explosion or two, but until then, Marshall’s solution is just as good as any other used by filmmakers from John Carpenter to Zack Snyder.

Dog Soldiers premiered as a television movie here in the states, and that seems fitting. It lacks some of the polish one expects from a theatrical release, and fits right into the time when cable channels were beginning to break away from the content constraints network channels still operate under. As a horror film, it’s far better than most of the bottom feeding dreck that’s produced. But it’s slipped into obscurity and that is probably where it will stay.