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Werewolves are Real: Dog Soldiers on Digital

  Somehow, werewolves on film are more adaptable than any of the classic monsters, despite being landed with as many rules and regulations for their portrayal as vampires. We all know the bloodsuckers have to stay out of the sunlight, must be invited in to their victim's home, are afraid of crosses and so forth, and the movies depicting them make a big deal of either sticking to that or flouting them with a "look impressed!" expression on their fanged faces, but with wolfmen and women, those rules were set down by Curt Siodmak for the 1941 Lon Chaney Jr-starring hit The Wolf Man, and was so successful that audiences thought they were authentic.

So all that stuff about silver bullets or silver anything, really, being the only thing that can kill the supernatural beasts, for example, was entirely made up for the movie, and there's some debate whether the full moon has anything to do with a legend of European folklore as it stood for thousands of years. Similar, too, the notion that being bitten by a werewolf turns you into one as well may be a factor in the legend, or it may be something the movies taught us, reaching back to 1935's Hollywood horror Werewolf of London, which otherwise concocted bits of business that did not quite catch on in the cinematic favour of the hairy creatures.

With all that in mind, and considering what audiences expect from their werewolf flicks you would think a lot of repetition would be involved in watching one - look at the controversy that running zombies generated among horror fans, as opposed to the shambling, shuffling ones. Therefore when Dog Soldiers arrived on the scene, it was welcomed with open arms, for it stuck to the rules while coming up with something genuinely different by pitting the beasts against a squad of, as the title suggests, soldiers. They are out on manoeuvres in the Scottish Highlands, and though one would rather be watching the football at the beginning, all of them would prefer that by the end.

Not so anyone watching the movie, which quickly turned into a cult film, especially on DVD which seemed to be its natural home. Many post-pub entertainments for a Friday night can be found lacking, assuming you're conscious enough to take any of them in, but Dog Soldiers made a virtue of that presentation and with its highly-charged atmosphere of machismo, liberally doused with jokes to let you know we're not supposed to take it too seriously, you would not be surprised to know British troops doing tours of Iraq and Afghanistan took it to their hearts as a firm favourite. But many who would never dream (well, they might dream) of joining up appreciated it too.

The plot was simple, pit the squaddies against the werewolves and let the blood and guts fly, as our heroes, led by Sean Pertwee with Kevin McKidd his second-in-command, stumble across a different squad of special ops, or rather what's left of them. The sole survivor of what we in the audience are very aware has been a werewolf attack is Liam Cunningham, who refuses to explain, he having been established as a nasty piece of work in one of two prologues where he ordered McKidd, who was trying to join this elite unit, to shoot a dog. McKidd wants nothing to do with this, not sure if it is a bluff, until Cunningham really does put a bullet into the pooch, thus identifying him as a wrong 'un.

That a different dog appears later on and does rather better at surviving while Cunningham meets a grisly fate tells you all you need to know: hounds may not always have a beneficial end in the movies, but Dog Soldiers represented a retribution for those filmmakers who were blasé about bumping them off. Which is curious in the case of this effort since killing canines, or lupines anyway, was the whole point of the enterprise as the squad have to hole up in a cottage as the villains lurk outside, occasionally launching themselves in Night of the Living Dead-style attacks in a siege fashion. The question of whether the werewolves could succumb to bullets was a different matter.

Indeed, in director Neil Marshall's film it succeeds sometimes to use conventional weapons whereas at other times it does not; not necessarily a flaw, since it sustains a sense of mystery about what the soldiers are up against. Marshall was seen as a potential saviour of the British horror scene with this and The Descent, but would up a little mired in television until he was given the reboot of Hellboy in 2019, which reputedly was not a happy experience for him, but did contain some of his talent with horror material. He still looks back on Dog Soldiers with great affection, and no wonder, not only is it one of the best films at putting Sean Pertwee through his paces, but it has some big laughs and real suspense as the cottage and its surroundings are demolished. As part of the British horror revival of this era, it was a gem, and though that revival took a different shape later on, this still has its ardent fans.

[Dog Soldiers has had a 4K remaster that has been released on digital, and will enjoy a theatrical run from 23rd October 2020.]
Author: Graeme Clark.


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