Ginger Nuts of Horror
In comparison to their eminently sexier vampire counterparts or the popular appeal of the zombie, werewolves have something of a chequered history in horror cinema. Despite the prominence of the Wolf Man amongst Universal's horror pantheon, your lycanthropes tend to be relegated to supporting cast members at best in the years that follow, often lacking the brooding romance or bleak nihilism of other horror icons or movie monsters. Outside the likes of An American Werewolf in London and the superlatively witty Ginger Snaps, it's somewhat difficult identifying films or even fiction involving them that has made any significant impact (anyone who proffers Twilight gets a silver bullet).
Then along comes Neil Marshall and his underground, down and dirty, resonantly British horror comedy, Dog Soldiers; a marriage of influences and traditions that scans like a love letter to horror action films, as well as being an uproariously funny, frightening, brilliant piece of work in its own right.
The premise is as simple as they come: soldiers versus werewolves. It should, by rights, be the kind of thing that lines the murkier shelves of DVD rental stores, garnering a whole host of middling to rotten reviews on Netflix et al.
Yet, somehow, it manages to transcend its lowly origins to become something entirely more. The characters, ably played by a whole host of British talents, are fantastic; endearing and hilarious from the moment they open their mouths, the writing witty and sardonic, laugh out loud in places, the action and horror set pieces masterfully framed, making a virtue of the film's lack of budget in ways that independent horror so often does, and which so often results in work far more immediate and impressive than big budget or mainstream contemporaries, which operate under a set of restrictions far more crippling than the merely financial.
The film does not set out to reinvent the wheel; it is not an effort to resurrect werewolves as horror icons. Nor does it attempt to delve into the symbolic nature of lycanthropy as Ginger Snaps does (though it does passingly reference that film). This is a work that just wants you to have fun; it wants you to scream, to jump, to screw your eyes shut and gag at the grue; it wants you to laugh until you're sick and then laugh some more. It is Marshall's homage to the likes of Alien, which it resembles in many respects and pays more than passing reference to, to Night of the Living Dead, to Apocalypse Now, An American Werewolf in London, Full Metal Jacket and more films and traditions than it's possible to name (there's one character whose name is nothing but a reference which leads to a very particular punchline near the end of the film). In that, it is an absolute treat not for horror fans but for cinemaphiles in general; you can spend many happy hours (preferably drunk and in the company of similarly inclined friends; it's that sort of film) attempting to identify the references; the shots and lines and phrases culled from other films, even from literature. In that, it becomes much, much more clever than its tone or premise would suggest.
It's also simply well done; beautifully framed, paced and directed, the horror beats sifting seamlessly into comedy, comedy into action, action into moments of drama and tension, nothing feeling forced or contrived...there's never a lull, never a dull moment. The characters, despite having little in the way of burdensome back stories, are so God damned likeable, or hateable, as the case is in several instances, it's a joy to be with them.
Also, there's a surprising lack of sentiment in the film; hardly anyone is spared, including the characters both the writer and audience like a great deal. It's a blood bath; an old fashioned, practical effects gore-fest with moments of stomach-churning gratuity (“...sausages!”) and luridly realised violence.
Then there's the wolves themselves. So easily made risible or absurd with over exposure, the film treats them in the same manner that Ridley Scott treated Alien's xenomorph; quick, almost subliminal glimpses through darkness and fog, leaving behind faint impressions rather than absolute images. It's difficult to tell just what these animals are, even when it's spelled out for the cast by one of the many characters they encounter; they are not only well subtly shot and framed, but bizarrely designed; extremely tall, lanky, many-jointed entities that seem to move with balletic grace, until we finally see them full on in the film's closing quarters. Impressive monsters; beautiful in the way that all half way engaging horror icons always are.
A rare film that never misses a bit, that hits its mark every single time and hits very, very hard. Neil Marshall would later move onto his entirely more serious, hardcore horror work, The Descent, but for many, this is his iconic work: a dazzling co-mingling of comedy and horror, but one in which the wolves themselves are treated with all seriousness, and a degree of respect that the innate risibility of their concept too often denies.
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