To celebrate the 4K reissue of Dog Soldiers (2002) by Second Sight Films – and the film’s 20th Anniversary screening at FrightFest – Mae Murray offers a personal reflection on Neil Marshall’s squaddies-vs-claws horror classic…
Full disclosure: I’d never seen Dog Soldiers until recently. But with the release of Janine Pipe’s making-of book “Sausages” I wanted to know what all the doggone hubbub was about.
After a bloody prologue (oh how we love to see backpacking lovebirds eviscerated) we’re introduced to Coop (Kevin McKidd), a young Private in the British Army, who refuses to shoot a dog on the orders of commanding officer Ryan (Liam Cunningham). Whatever gig Coop was training for his compassion cost him the opportunity and (spoiler alert) the dog is still shot point blank by Capt. Ryan. Now we know we’re supposed to hate that motherfucker!
Weeks later we find Coop in the remote Scottish Highlands on an exercise with a rag-tag team led by Sgt. Wells (Sean Pertwee). When they find the Special Air Service unit they were training against — or what’s left of them — along with a wounded Ryan, the squad attempt to escape whatever unseen creatures are in pursuit. In the melee one of the team is impaled and Wells is gutted (but survives when Coop hilariously stuffs his intestines back into the wound, proving you can still have a sense of humor even when disemboweled).
The remaining party is rescued by the mysterious Megan (Emma Cleasby), a zoologist in a Land Rover, and take shelter in a house deep in the forest. Now Coop, Wells and the rest of the group must survive the full moon — and each other — until the sun rises.
At first glance Dog Soldiers has a lot of things I like (werewolves, blood, grainy 35mm cinematography) and a lot of things I don’t (all-white cast, military narrative) so it took a few days to reflect on why it’s had such an enduring impact on horror fans insatiable for lycanthropy. Other than the obvious – it’s undoubtedly one of the freshest perspectives on cinematic werewolves, especially for the time (alongside Ginger Snaps, which was released two years prior) – I came to the conclusion that the reason it’s special is because it made me care about these white men.
Coop, Wells, and Ryan have definable facial features that set them apart, but the rest of the team (Spoon? Spork? Fork and Knife?) all look the same in that white-boy-with-a-shaved-head kind of way. The fact then that I could still tell them apart by characterisation alone speaks to the genius of the script and the actors’ abilities to embody their various attitudes, desires and motivations. Indeed, this physical homogenising draws to mind one of the key ideas of a soldier: an expendable asset who is just one of many — a theme driven home by the big reveal that these men were never on a training exercise. They were bait.
We’re living in a time where the slasher movie is making a comeback, and just like Jason Voorhees – who chops up those chronically horny camp counsellors of Crystal Lake – we’re accustomed to cheering for our bad guys. Traditional horror fans love the blood, guts and gore dished out by a memorable antagonist. In Dog Soldiers however – which nods towards slasher conventions with its claustrophobic cabin location – when we lose a soldier we don’t feel elation. Perhaps this is a uniquely American, post-9/11 perspective, but I saw my little brother (who has spoken about joining the military on and off since he was a teen) in these young men, and it’s possible that the reason I couldn’t tell them apart is because they all seemed to wear his face.
It could be said that the heart of Dog Soldiers is about endurance, courage, sacrifice or any of the other values military films generally celebrate. In the end though I’d argue what is most captivating is the relationship between Coop and Wells, the humour of the screenplay and the way audiences are drawn into feelings of loss when each soldier falls, no matter how fantastic the circumstances or gruesome the set-piece. Or maybe it’s just a really fucking good werewolf movie.
© Mae Murray
Dog Soldiers is available to buy now from Second Sight Films.