Since its inception in 2012, Shout! Factory’s Scream Factory imprint has provided a haven for horror titles that haven’t always been treated so well on home video. In addition to raising the profiles of otherwise marginal fare, it has also gotten into the restoration game of late. Last year, it presented the director’s cut of Clive Barker’s much-abused Nightbreed. Now it can be credited with helping rescue 2002’s Dog Soldiers from the substandard transfers that have plagued its post-theatrical life—the only life it’s ever known as far as the U.S. is concerned, since it went straight to the Sci-Fi Channel here, bypassing theaters entirely.
As writer-director-editor Neil Marshall—making an assured debut—explains on the brand-new commentary, as a low-budget independent production, Dog Soldiers was in danger of slipping through the cracks since its original film elements were nowhere to be found. Luckily, a collector who had two complete release prints was located, allowing Shout! Factory to make a new high-definition master. The results look about as good as can be expected for a film shot in Super 16 and blown up to 35mm, which means there’s heavy grain during the daylight scenes, but since most of the film takes place at night, this isn’t too bothersome. Besides, Marshall opted for Super 16 so he could put more of the budget into his werewolves, which he knew he couldn’t skimp on if he wanted them to be seen as legitimate threats and not laughed off the screen. It’s a gambit that paid off handsomely, because there’s little chance of that happening, although Marshall does make the audience wait a good 30 minutes before revealing his hairy antagonists. As he puts it, Dog Soldiers is “a soldier movie with werewolves, not a werewolf movie with soldiers.”
Fully aware of genre expectations, Marshall opens the film with the requisite scene of a couple camping in the woods who are attacked and killed by an unseen assailant. He then shifts gears twice in the first reel, first to a special-forces tryout that recruit Private Cooper (Kevin McKidd) fails because he balks when the commanding officer, Captain Ryan (Liam Cunningham, with whom the director subsequently worked on Game Of Thrones), orders him to kill a dog. Cut to one month later, when the viewer is dropped along with Cooper’s original unit into the heavily forested Scottish highlands (all the better to hide the fact that, save for a handful of establishing shots, the film was lensed in Luxembourg) for a routine training mission that turns out to be anything but.
Before night falls and the claws come out, Marshall makes sure to spend enough time with Cooper and his fellow squaddies that viewers have some idea of who they are when they start getting picked off one by one. By far the best-drawn member of the squad is its leader, Sergeant Wells (Sean Pertwee), who gets to sink his teeth into a grim, U.S.S. Indianapolis-style monologue about the fate one of his mates during the first Iraq War. It isn’t long, though, before he’s mortally wounded by a werewolf ripping his guts out—a scene Marshall stages for maximum discomfort and genuine belly laughs—leaving Cooper to take charge as the survivors retreat from their ferocious foes. Lucky for them, they run into a local zoologist (Emma Cleasby) who drives them to the nearest house, which is mysteriously unoccupied and quickly besieged by a whole pack of werewolves.
Marshall is nothing if not forthright about his influences, having his movie-savvy characters drop references to Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan and The Matrix along with the occasional apt fairy tale—“The Three Little Pigs” doesn’t come up, but “Goldilocks” definitely does—while he name-checks Jaws and Zulu on his commentary. Unmentioned by either are George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead or John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13, although it’s a fair bet Marshall had them in mind when he was plotting out the siege that takes up the majority of the film. His cinephilia is showing, though, if he thinks real soldiers would compare the blowing up of a barn to the climax of Zabriskie Point.
From here, Marshall would continue making a name for himself with the female-driven horror of The Descent, the genre grab-bag that is Doomsday, and the unfairly overlooked Centurion. Dog Soldiers remains his most potent distillation of taut action, unrelenting horror, and gallows humor, though. Plus, at a time when digital effects were becoming the norm rather than the exception, his insistence on using practical creatures all the way through lends them real heft and a sense of menace that’s missing from most subsequent attempts to bring werewolves to the big screen on a decent budget. The lycanthropes in Dog Soldiers aren’t out to fall in love or fight vampires or be part of a shared monster universe. They just hunt, kill, and eat—and look scary-good doing it. And thanks to Shout! Factory’s diligence, now the film they’re in does, too.
The key feature is Marshall’s commentary, during which he points out all of the movie references (e.g. one of the doomed squad members is a corporal named Bruce Campbell) and teases the cast that could have been (Jason Statham was originally going to play Private Cooper, but left to be in John Carpenter’s Ghosts Of Mars; Simon Pegg was offered another role, but turned it down). Other features include an hourlong documentary catching up with the cast and much of the crew, all of whom look back on the experience with great fondness, a featurette focusing on the set designer’s work on the farmhouse that is the film’s main location, and a collection of trailers. The biggest treat, though, is Marshall’s 1999 short “Combat,” which he made during the six-year search for financing. A fun lark, it presents the “battle of the sexes” as war film, complete with all the attendant sound effects, characters getting “shot down,” and so forth. Clearly, warfare has never been far from his mind.