When the night is cold, and there’s a full moon on display in the cloudless sky, you may think you’re alone until you hear that howling. The goosebumps on your arms are screaming at high alert, your breathing becomes more intense, and everywhere you look, there could be a potential threat of something lurking in the darkness waiting for the precise moment to attack. This is the perfect setup for the battle between man and beast, otherwise known as the werewolf. The long-rumored creature in folklore has terrified and enticed people worldwide for centuries. Whether we read about them in books, see scary drawings of what one might look like, or even see them in the movies and television shows we watch, everyone is familiar with them. A werewolf is very much part of popular culture as it is ever so scary to imagine.
Many movies have been made surrounding this creature, and most of the time, the movies are regulated towards the horror genre and basically follow the same formula. Someone is bitten by a werewolf which will cause them to morph into one when the full moon appears, and the curse of it all is one of tragedy and sadness. Dog Soldiers, a wonderfully titled film from Neil Marshall (in his directorial debut), crafted a fun and unique look at the werewolf genre. This film was released in 2002. It opted to be different while being scary at the same time. It certainly doesn’t have the profound impact as The Wolfman (1941), The Howling, or the amazing An American Werewolf in London, but Dog Soldiers is undoubtedly good fun and has aged quite well.
So, in speaking of that, what makes Dog Soldiers a fun experience? What makes it stand out from the rest of the pack? And why should you give the movie a chance when it wasn’t released in theaters in the United States?
Like most movies within this genre, the plot is straightforward. During a routine military training exercise located in a remote area of the Scottish Highlands, six British soldiers venture into the forest, unaware of what is waiting for them. There have been stories of people disappearing from this area for years, but mostly it’s assumed that a crazy killer is on the loose. Even though no bodies have ever been located, the rumors are heard but largely ignored. Private Cooper (Kevin McKidd) is one of those squadmates dumped into this remote region.
The movie begins when a young couple is attacked and killed when something opens their tent from the outside! A bloody opening that still serves as quite the shocker. The mission for the soldiers is simple. Locate a way to avoid detection from the British SAS to thwart them from completing their task. I want only to mention certain key characters here moving forward. The following morning, the six-man squad locates the camp where the SAS is supposed to be, only to find evidence of violence and a camp drenched in blood. Only one survivor remains, Captain Ryan (Liam Cunningham). He’s injured and only makes cryptic messages about what happened to him and his team.
Afterward, the team is ambushed by a mysterious assailant who, spoiler alert, is a werewolf! As the men retreat after discovering that the radios don’t work, every movement and moment count. They make their way down a hill and find a young woman driving along the dirt road, and she stops to help them. She says she heard gunfire and ventured out to see what was happening. Thankfully, the soldiers are rescued and move towards a local farmhouse not far from their location.
It’s here where the final battle occurs, and only the strongest will survive. Sure, the soldiers have the bullets, but even though they were issued weapons at the start of this exercise, they find that the SAS members were carrying live ammunition. Megan (Emma Cleasby) is the woman who found these soldiers, and she is familiar with the area. Unfortunately, the farmhouse doesn’t have a phone, and the night is just beginning. Will they survive the night? There is more than one werewolf, as there are numerous. They are much taller, standing roughly seven feet tall, and are sneaky enough to launch attacks at the right moment. I won’t reveal the rest of the plot, but everything in between up until the ending is a pure joy to watch.
As said before, most of the werewolf genre is regulated by a formula. Writer and Director Neil Marshall decided to change things up a bit. For example, we don’t meet the people who will become a werewolf who realize this curse is upon them. They simply transform and become the ultimate killer. Sure, many of the soldiers get killed in the movie or transform, but it’s presented that a looming sadness is taking over. It’s simply nature taking its course. Also, most of the transformation is unseen due to the film’s smaller budget. It alludes to the transformation that gave the film much more suspense.
The infamous silver bullet is missing from the formula, too, and even though bullets pelt the werewolves, it barely hurts them. This movie has one thing on its mind; man vs. werewolf, and that’s it.
One of the great treats in watching this movie is catching the numerous references to other movies, especially fairy tales such as Little Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Additionally, having the film’s climax takes place in a farmhouse is a similar nod to The Evil Dead.
Dog Soldiers was a successful film despite not being released to theaters in the United States. It was instead put on the Sci-Fi Channel later in November of 2002. The movie even maintains a cult following, especially in England. A sequel was planned, which would’ve seen the return of Private Cooper, but nothing ever materialized. Even when the 4K restoration was released, Neil Marshall stated that the proposed sequels will “probably amount to nothing now.”
Even still, Dog Soldiers stands as a fun, exciting, and funny werewolf movie that anyone can enjoy, provided you enjoy that sort of thing. It follows typical horror cliches, but given that the soldiers are only privates during this “routine training exercise,” the mistakes they make feel authentic and appropriate. Seeing them either shoot the crap out of the werewolf or engage in hand-to-hand combat with one Dog Soldiers is one horror film that deserves proper recognition.
This one film would see the career of Neil Marshall take off, with his second film being his absolute best, with that being The Descent. Afterward, he continued making movies, but none of his later films were as clever or thrilling as his first two feature films. Dog Soldiers is a true werewolf movie that remains original while borrowing from its folklore. It’s thrilling, action-packed, and will have you laughing while watching it. If not for anything else, Dog Soldiers is one hell of a title for a movie.