Dog Soldiers (2002) Once Bitten…

Written and directed by Neil Marshall (The Descent, Doomsday, Centurion) Dog Soldiers was Marshall’s first feature length film. It has an impressive cast – Sean PertweeKevin McKiddEmma Cleasby and  Liam Cunningham. The film takes place in Scotland and at the beginning of the film we see a man and woman camping in the Highlands. As they are relaxing in their tent, the woman gives the man (played by Marshall regular Craig Conway) a silver letter opener. Soon after the couple are attacked and we presume killed.

The film then moves on to a chase. One man Private Cooper (Kevin McKidd)  is being chased by a group of soldiers. He is soon caught and taken to the ground. The man leading the chase is Captain Ryan (Liam Cunnigham). After Cooper’s capture, Ryan explains that a dog gave Cooper away. This whole event has been Pvt Cooper’s entrance exam for joining the Special Forces.  Captain Ryan tells Cooper that he has done well and that if he wants  to be in the Special Forces he has to be ruthless. Ryan then orders Cooper to shoot the dog that gave him away. Cooper refuses and Ryan shoots the dog himself and returns Cooper to his Regular unit.

Four weeks later Cooper is out on a night-time exercise in the Scottish Highlands. He is part of a six-man squad lead by Sergeant Harry G. Wells (Sean Pertwee). Their mission is to meet up with and train against a squad of Special Forces Soldiers (SAS). When  Cooper and the squad find the  SAS camp, it has been destroyed and  all the occupants killed, except for Coopers “old friend” Captain Ryan. Ryan has been injured.

The squad then take Ryan and head for help. While they are moving out, several shapes in the area are moving around the squad. The shapes start attacking and in the rush, one of the squad is impaled on a tree branch and Sergeant Wells is injured. Cooper fights off Wells’ attacker and the remainder of the squad retreat.

They then bump into a woman in a Land Rover – Megan (Emma Cleasby) who drives them to a farmhouse. Once inside Megan explains that the things that attacked the soldiers were werewolves. Ryan confirms this, when he finally tells the group that the SAS had been sent there to capture one for research. The group then barricade themselves in the farmhouse and prepare to defend themselves until daylight.

This film contains a couple of  ‘firsts‘ not least of which is the fact that Sean Pertwee actually makes it to the end of the film. Pertwee is almost always cast as characters who expire dramatically in the first or second reel of a film. He has been: eaten alive, blown up, decapitated, et al. He is the English version of Michael Ironside. This is also the first film to feature, to the best of my knowledge, werewolves and soldiers as adversaries.

Marshall moves this film along at a great pace. He has also  made an almost perfect blend of the  thriller and horror genres. The casting was spot on. As the audience we love Cooper, hate Ryan, and feel for Wells. All the actors in fact do their roles justice. Emma Cleasby as Megan is at turns, appealing, wistful, attractive and finally scary.

Watching this film you can see why Marshall is a member of the unofficial “Splat Pack,” a term coined by film historian Alan Jones in Total Film magazine for the modern wave of directors making brutally violent horror films. The film is brutal and it is violent, but it also has it’s fair share of irony and humour. This was Marshall’s first time at bat and he knocked it out of the park.

It is plain to see that Marshall has a certain panache when it comes to the genre. His second film,  The Descent makes Dog Soldiers look like a walk in the park in comparison. His third film in what I like to call his “Horror Trilogy” Doomsday  shows a fine tuning of his skills as a story teller and the calibre of his cast reflects this.

I think Marshall may soon be established as the unofficial leader of the “Pack.”