Plenty of film enthusiasm is oriented toward the Universal Monsters; from Dracula to the Invisible Man, these otherworldly creatures bear diverse frights that reflect man’s primal fears or the horrors of being humans. This innate profundity from the monster films allowed us to connect with them. And with our yearning for them, the devils fueled some of our beloved classic and modern horror stories that keep the monster genre alive and breathing. However, despite the ubiquitous adoration for these monsters, werewolf films are bereft of love.
Even as a staple of the horror genre, werewolf films struggle to diversify stories mainly due to the scant legroom of their on-screen myth. Unlike the vampire genre which continually transforms its lore and relevance every generation, standing the test of time with some of the most beloved horror films from Cronos (1993) to Let the Right One In (2008) to What We Do in the Shadows (2014). Werewolf films also go rack and ruin because of poor visual effects choices that render them silly or powerless, The Wolfman (2010) being one such casualty. Given that the story and the visuals are what make the classic “The Wolf Man” remarkable, the genre is riding on its coattails.
Still, the feral shapeshifter found its way into the modern mainstream media. Werewolf films like Underworld (2003) and The Twilight Saga infiltrated and are now a mainstay in our pop culture. Yet, the cultish success of the former and latter overshadowed the genre so much that budding horror cinephiles often neglect Neil Marshall’s British action horror Dog Soldiers. Even though he operated on a relatively tight budget of 2 million dollars, his directorial debut left a strong impression of what he was about to offer in the horror landscape. Unrelentingly brisk and brutal, Dog Soldiers ticks all the boxes required to make an enduring, high-octane lycanthropic feature.
The plot itself is enough to make you stay. It revolves around a group of soldiers stranded in a forlorn house in the middle of the Scottish Highlands, holding the fort against vicious-looking werewolves until daybreak. A hybrid of action and monster genre, Marshall resorts to the unimaginable horrors of being cornered by seemingly ‘mythical’ creatures we thought only existed in fairy tales. Maximizing such a decent setup, he exposes the eerie vulnerability and isolation in the middle of nowhere, fueling the tension and helplessness reminiscent of Alien (1979) and Predator (1987).
He further raises the stakes by thrusting a charismatic bunch of soldiers into the mess. Working around a fairly large pool of characters is such a hassle and a risk, and yet Marshall converted such potential defect into power. The number of characters allowed bickers and wisecracks to effectively shatter every tension with the right amount of wit and give and take behind the bedlam. The film also didn’t run out of valiant deeds and acts of bravery during bloodbaths that intensified their group dynamics and conquered our investment in their flourishing alliance in the field.
More than the humor, the 105-minute runtime nicely built the camaraderie between the characters. Strong performances by the casts, particularly by the indomitable Sean Pertwee, menacing Liam Cunningham, and stout Kevin McKidd, left us invested and rooting for them until the end. With the captivating brotherhood that smoothly ran its course through the night, we could say that Marshall unintentionally created a perfect weekend buddy film.
But Dog Soldiers revel in its grisly take on the man-wolf the most. The shredded, elite-looking beasts are at their scariest with the help of practical effects, animatronics, and dancers to bring out the best of these bedeviled creatures. The film knows that lycanthropy is the stuff of nightmare and consciously styled it as such. Their towering anatomy, sharp claws, threatening fangs, and lean and mean physique that makes the gun-bearing soldiers undeniably puny and helpless sealed the deal as one of the genre’s finest monster designs ever.
However, the final reveal will make you wish those good things lasted forever. As much as the twist heightened the tension, it could’ve used a well-structured buildup and a timely reveal. Making it all worse is the cringey dialogue and double entendre that made the person step out of character. At least the concluding fight sequences are outstanding, with adrenaline-induced escapes, werewolf boxing, heartfelt heroics, and another discovery in the house that makes us question if the human forms of the werewolves are as savage as their counterparts.
Dog Soldiers surprised a lot of horror fanatics back then and is set to shock more burgeoning ones. We could also go so far as to say that the film amplified and modernized the overlooked horrors of our beloved glittery fairy tales like Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs. Neil Marshall followed this fun horror with a claustrophobic pandemonium that is The Descent (2005), which is a testament to his continuous pursuit of spreading the horror canvas. And even after two decades, his Dog Soldiers legacy has remained unscratched.