Welcome to THIS JUSTIN, a column dedicated to my love of all things weird and spooky. Each week I’ll be taking you on a deep dive into something creepy and/or crawly and talking your ear off about why I love it so much. Light spoilers ahead for DOG SOLDIERS.
It was the winter of 2003/2004. My friend Andrew was home on winter break from college in Chicago and we were looking to engage in one of our rituals from high school: go to Blockbuster, rent the worst looking movie we could find, get a pizza, and watch said movie in his parents basement. As we perused the aisles of the now extinct mecca of nerds and weirdos for a movie that fit our fancy, we found one with a name so stupid it was begging to be riffed upon: Dog Soldiers. The cover art was three werewolves in silhouette with the title splattered bloodily along the bottom third, the ‘O’s in the title being replaced with dog tags. We had a shared “you’ve gotta be fucking kidding me” chuckle, and I picked the box up to see what this shitshow had to offer. I remember seeing the back of the box, with the reviews of the film and a blurb of a summary overlaid on top of a silhouette of a bipedal werewolf sprinting through the woods. This wasn’t what grabbed my attention. It was the screencap of a scene in the film where Kevin McKidd and Sean Pertwee go face to face with a werewolf in an upstairs bedroom after it climbs in the bedroom window. To this day, that shot is burned in my brain: two hardened British soldiers, cowering before a hulking lupine beast that looked absolutely frightening. I was immediately intrigued. Maybe this movie wasn’t going to be a hunk of shit after all.
I don’t think I’ve ever had a film be further from my initial expectations of it. Dog Soldiers, to this day, isn’t just one of my favorite werewolf films, nor merely one of my favorite horror films, but one of my favorite films of any genre ever. An American Werewolf In London is definitely my favorite werewolf film and, depending on how I’m feeling, second place is either this or The Howling. But I think The Howling only beats it sometimes because of how scary the werewolf design is. Dog Soldiers has an incredible werewolf design (regular listeners of Horror Business know that one of our rules is “a werewoof jawn lives and dies on its werewoof design”) but it’s also so much more than just another early 2000s horror movie. Or even a horror movie in general.
Dog Soldiers is the story of a ragtag group of British soldiers who get dropped into the middle of the Scottish Highlands ostentatiously to participate in war games with another unit. They find that the other unit is not only carrying live ammunition but has been slaughtered en masse by an unseen enemy. As night falls, the soldiers find themselves on the run from a pack of werewolves and eventually bunker down in a cottage they find in the middle of nowhere, where they must defend themselves from the devious and seemingly unstoppable werewolves. On paper, this may sound somewhat generic. But the film excels at blending a few genres and subgenres that aren’t the easiest to pull off.
Despite the film undeniably being a horror film, it has the overtones of a classic war film. The soldiers are written believably and the initial skirmish with the werewolves feels like it unfolds as it would in real life. There’s also that smoldering machismo present in a lot of war films, although it feels super genuine in this case. It’s part action film, much in the same way that Aliens was mostly an action film with heavy doses of horror in it. The scenes where the men are escaping the werewolves is genuinely gripping, as are all the scenes of the werewolves trying to break into the house. There’s enough shoot-em-up style fun to satisfy any action fan. It also operates as a classic castle siege movie, like Night Of The Living Dead with werewolves. From the first encounter with the werewolves, to the flight to the abandoned cottage, to the boarding up of cottage and subsequent defense and the final breach, it takes a few pages from the Romero playbook. There’s even a character who is Just As Dangerous As The Things Outside.
While I typically hate character archetypes in movies, this one uses all of them in ways that are genuinely endearing: you have Kevin McKidd as Private Cooper, the quiet lead who Could’ve Been A Contender But Just Couldn’t Cut it. Sean Pertwee plays Sergeant Harry G. Wells (get it?!) the salty vet who’s seen it all, and while might be gruff with his men, he’s got a heart of gold. Liam Cunningham plays Captain Ryan, your classic bad guy who knows all the details and is an absolute dickhead to everyone else. If the rest of the men are your salt-of-the-earth blue collar fighters, Ryan is the elitist asshole who sees them all as expendable. Darren Morfitt is the wisecracking Spoon, and Emma Cleasby is the secretive Meg who brings them to the cottage in the first place after rescuing them. All of these characters are given just enough time to breathe and become realized; much like the first Alien film, you feel like you really know them and none of their deaths are easy. Be it a luckless soldier who gets dragged outside and slowly killed in the shed, or the character who delivers one of my all-time favorite one liners in the face of a certain grisly death, every death is like a hammer. There is no fat here, no red shirts to be tossed into the meat grinder for the sake of a good kill.
There’s a real chemistry between the cast that kind of tugs at the heart strings. It’s a brand of vulnerable masculinity that is a breath of fresh air in the era of Hobbs & Shaw. These are working class men whose loyalty isn’t necessarily to the Queen but rather to each other. Pertwee especially shines in this aspect as Sergeant Wells. When Cunningham’s character reveals the true purpose of their mission, Wells cracks and begins screaming at him about how the soldiers were his men. They were his responsibility, his to keep alive, to make sure they made it home. There’s nothing really dramatically addressed about that connection for the rest of the movie, but it’s obvious that Wells cares very deeply for the others and genuinely wants them all to make it out of this situation. The camaraderie between these men is palpable and real. There’s a truly standout scene in the beginning of the film where Wells tells an anecdote about an incident that occurred to him in the first Gulf War and just the sheer enraptured look the rest of the soldiers give him speaks volumes about how much they admire him. There’s something deeply endearing about that level of raw masculinity that exists in openly caring for another man and being affectionate with him without the bullshit restraint of “no homo.” There’s no toxic bullshit amongst them, no fear of openness or emotionally intimacy. It’s one of the few movies that I’ve seen that accurately captures the bond that exists between soldiers in wartime.
The horror of this movie is honestly fucking fantastic. From the opening scene in which a pair of luckless campers in the Scottish Highlands are brutally torn apart, to the later scenes of the werewolves picking off the soldiers one by one, there’s always an overwhelming feeling of dread and terror. When the crew finds the remains of the second team torn apart in a clearing, the sun is beginning to go down, and off in the distance we hear the grotesque wails and howls as the werewolves are transforming. It is absolutely chilling. We’re spared the sight of the transformation (apparently because Marshall wisely didn’t want to compete with Rick Baker’s god-level scene in AWIL), but just hearing the anguished howls of people becoming beasts is spooky as all hell. The brief glimpses we see of the werewolves in this scene as they’re hunting the soldiers is just enough to give us an idea of how monstrous they are. And the scene depicted on the back of the VHS box? My god. It’s truly majestic. Not all of the horror is of the full-throttle/balls-to-the-wall splatter variety, but oh my god in heaven the gore in this movie. So much blood getting splattered and spurted during the kills. A character is impaled on a tree, a disembowelment at the hands of a werewolf is played up comedic effect, but the visuals of internal organs spilling out of the body are fucking ghastly.
Lastly, and bestly, we have the pièce de résistance of this film: the werewolf design. By the power of Grayskull, it is gorgeous. Anyone who listens to Horror Business knows I love a good bipedal werewolf design, despite my undying love of AWIL, and this film reigns supreme when it comes to that. There’s something almost beautiful and sensual about the werewolves in this film. There’s a quiet boastfulness to how often the werewolves are shown closeup for much of the film, as if Neil Marshall is like “yeah, I made this shit; fuckin look at these sexy ass werewolves.” There’s no reserve to hide the seams; the design of these werewolves was made to be seen and leered at and gawked at. The shot with the werewolf towering over McKidd and Pertwee is set up so perfectly, with the camera tilting slowly up to reveal the werewolf as it straightens up after climbing in the window. It’s equally terrifying and alluring. The way these things move is so graceful and alien that it’s easy to buy into what the film is selling you. Apparently, Marshall hired dancers instead of stuntmen to portray the werewolves, and it shows. There’s a horrid elegance to their gait, especially the scene at the end when they pour into the kitchen to confront the surviving soldiers. It’s like they’re being poured out of a container and asserting themselves from liquid form. Their muzzles look incredibly lifelike, silky even, and honestly kind of cute despite the fact that they’re awash with blood most of the time. They’re masterpieces of both design and execution.
I love this movie so much. I can’t say I’m too crazy about the rest of Marshall’s filmography (aside from The Descent) but Dog Soldiers truly is one of the best horror movies I’ve ever seen. It combines everything you need to make a truly gripping work of horror: perfect pace, lovable characters, gruesome deaths, and genuinely frightening villains. Even the humor, as scant as it is, it just absolutely perfect. I’ve tried to not spoil it because I really want you (yes you) to watch this film if you haven’t. It’s literally everything that’s great about horror films.