We all know the story of the werewolf. Under the full moon, someone transforms into a wolf-like beast with the desire to hunt and kill their prey. This person also suffers from a deep melancholy over his condition, lamenting his fate. And usually they end up dying – whether by their own hands or those of their friends or enemies. This formula has powered everything from the classic An American werewolf in London at the Marvel Studios Halloween Special night werewolf. But he was thrown out the window for Neil Marshallhis debut as a director, dog soldiers.
True to its name, dog soldiers ends up pitting a group of soldiers against a pack of werewolves. These soldiers happen to be on a training exercise in the woods when they discover that the SAS unit they were supposed to engage in a mock battle with has been torn to shreds. The sole survivor, Captain Ryan (Liam Cunningham), is in shock and can only hint at what attacked his men. But soon the werewolves attack, forcing the practice squad and a civilian named Megan (Emma Cleasby) to hide in a nearby house.
From the start of dog soldiers‘, Marshall isn’t interested in humanizing his beasts. They seem to take a perverse joy in killing – ripping through their prey with little hesitation. And unlike most werewolf movies, where the werewolf in question is little more than a rabid beast, these werewolves possess intelligence. They know how to corner their prey and when to wait for the right opportunity to strike. Bob Keenthe makeup artist behind horror classics such as candy man and hellraiser, has put a lot of effort into making werewolves as inhuman as possible. The beasts are extremely large, with lean muscular bodies and menacing golden eyes – enough to strike fear into even the most hardened of hearts. But perhaps the scariest part comes from the near-immortality of werewolves. They ignore bullets, knives and other mortal wounds: the only way to kill one is with silver weapons or fire.
In fact, a big part of why Marshall created dog soldiers is that he wanted to avoid the specific tropes that went along with a werewolf story. “I didn’t want to do the classic curse of the werewolf story, which is basically what all werewolf movies had been up until then,” he said in an interview. “I basically wanted to do aliens with werewolves, in which they’re just a fierce enemy and really hard to kill, and who they are as people doesn’t matter.” Marshall kept his word; it is revealed that the cabin in which the soldiers actually locked themselves belongs to werewolves. Worse still, novice soldier Cooper (Kevin McKidd) stumbles upon the basement where the werewolves keep the corpses of their victims hanging from meat hooks.
Marshall chooses to save the most emotional moments for the group of soldiers. Cooper and his Spoon teammates (Darren Morfit), Joe (Chris Robson), Terri (Leslie Simpson), and Bruce (Thomas Lockier) are as close as brothers. They trade jokes and butt heads, but when the going gets tough, they’re willing to lay down their lives for each other. And their commanding officer, Sergeant Harry G. Wells (Sean Perwee) acts like a father to his men. He barks commands that may seem harsh at first, but are meant to keep them alive: stay close to each other, keep a clean perimeter, and leave him behind when a werewolf attacks him. It’s a testament to the team’s dedication that they ignore his orders and patch him up.
By contrast, Ryan is an outright monster in more ways than one. When first introduced, he tells Cooper to shoot a dog that had accompanied him during basic training – and when Cooper refuses, he does the deed himself. It was also revealed that he hunted werewolves and intended to use Wells’ men as bait to trap him. Eventually, it is revealed that Ryan transforms into a werewolf himself, and he joins the other lycanthropes in attacking the soldiers. This leads to a hugely satisfying moment where Cooper engages in hand-to-hand combat with the werewolf Ryan and blows his brains out.
Wells, on the other hand, remains noble until the end. He keeps his men’s spirits alive, even when he confesses he’s afraid he’ll never see his wife again. He also has no patience for Ryan, telling the soldier, “Now you shut up like a good gentleman, you’re scaring my guys.” And when he starts turning into a werewolf, he tells Cooper to come out and tell the others what happened. This leads to one of the best scenes in the film where the werewolves corner Wells and he blasts them by pulling a pin out of a grenade and smashing the pilot light on the stove. As heroic sacrifices go, this is definitely the highest level.
In fact, the movie’s big appeal is that it’s filled with high-octane action sequences from start to finish. Bullets scatter on the ground as the soldiers fire at the werewolves. Several explosions occur, including an exploded truck. And in the most metal moment, Cooper uses a sword to impale werewolf Ryan. These scenes are proof that sometimes all it takes is a simple pitch and good character work to carry a story. And Marshall would take a similar approach for his next work. Lowering features a group of girls fighting a cave of hellish creatures, judgment Day has medieval knights in a plague-free apocalypse, and Centurions has Michael Fassbender as a gladiator. Marshall’s penchant for genre action epics even followed him to television, where he directed episodes of game of thrones, Westworldand the short duration Constantine. Work on a sequel has encountered several hurdles over the years, but dog soldiers remains a singularly compelling entry into the werewolf genre.