A group of soldiers dispatched to the Scottish Highlands on special training maneuvers face their biggest fears after they run into Captain Ryan – the only survivor of a Special Ops team that was literally torn to pieces. Ryan refuses to disclose his mission, even though whoever attacked his men might be hungry for seconds. Help arrives in the form of a local girl who shelters them in a deserted farmhouse deep in the forest…but, when they realize that they are surrounded by a pack of blood-lusting werewolves, it's apparent their nightmare has just begun! (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)
Before he became the go-to director for epic action on television (including Game of Thrones, Black Sails, and Constantine), before he created the best British horror movie of the last decade, The Descent (2005), (edit to add) and before his attempted reboot Hellboy failed due to producer/studio influence (2019), Neil Marshall made an outstanding feature directing debut with Dog Soldiers (2002). This hyper-violent, horror-themed ode to Howard Hawks’ siege westerns, men-on-a-mission movies (like Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen, 1967), Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort (1981), John McTiernan’s similar military vs. monsters action/horror hybrid, Predator (1987), and the rural cabin terrors of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead (1981) set the stage for a career making efficient, gory, budget-conscious action. Every second of Dog Soldiers reeks of a first-time filmmaker with something to prove. In his zeal, Marshall makes a number of rookie mistakes. He needlessly over-cuts expositional scenes (he acted as his own editor), he swish the camera around so frequently during action sequences that it becomes nauseating, and he over-telegraphs too many of the scares. So, from a purely technical standpoint, he still had a lot to learn (his independent budget and lack of production time didn’t help matters, of course), but his future value as a filmmaker still shines through the occasional growing pains.
At this point, Marshall’s greatest skills were still found in his writing. Dog Soldiers is built off the foundations of all of the movies I mentioned above, as well as all the various media that preceded and proceeded those (for example, Walter Hill desperately wanted to be Sam Peckinpah and Hawkes’ movies were remade many, many times). But Marshall found ways to make the oft-told stories and long stale clichés exciting again by combining them in fresh ways. The economical narrative is accompanied with plenty of tough-guy jargon and postering, but its actual gender politics are more complex its mostly male cast implies. Just like the Peckinpah and Hill movies it pays homage to, it’s actually pretty critical of masculinity and military might (check out Anya Stanley’s excellent retrospective editorial, Gender Bashing: What it Means to Be a Man in Dog Soldiers, for a better look at said gender politics). Again, Marshall’s ingredients were familiar, but the actual flavor of his action-horror medley was richer and contemporary. This marks Dog Soldiers as an early entry in the post-9/11 pantheon of referential horror and anticipating and existing alongside more influential (for better or worse) movies, like Marcus Nispel’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) remake and Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever (2002).
When Dog Soldiers was first released on US Blu-ray by First Look Studios, the results were middling. The 1.85:1 transfer was mushy, flat, and rife with compression noise. Scream Factory’s Blu-ray ran into rights issues and was held back for about a year. However, it was a blessing in disguise, because during this time they were able to find ‘better’ film (not negative) elements with help from Marshall himself. This new 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer is an improvement on some levels, but still might not be what fans expect. It’s important to acknowledge that Dog Soldiers was shot on Super 16mm film and that it will always be grainy. This release does a much better job preserving that grain as grain, rather than blotchy digital noise. Comparing detail levels and color quality, however, is a bit more difficult, because the contrast is a lot harsher and the gamma is much brighter.
Apparently, Marshal was somewhat involved in the transfer (he at least ‘approved’ of the 35mm print they scanned) and has stated that he prefers the more acrid appearance (a friend that saw the film multiple times during its original UK release tells me that the theatrical version was pretty high contrast). But it’s also safe to say that the crushed blacks and super bright whites, both of which squeeze out a lot of subtle detail (especially in the blazing backgrounds and dark interiors), are problematic, as Marshal has personally acknowledged. A plus is that the edges are much better delineated than they were on the flat and washed out First Look disc. A minus is that it’s just so damn dark now. Compression effects aren’t too problematic, but I noticed a number of what I think are telecine machine effects that don’t show up in the screen caps. And, strangely enough, most of these have a tendency to strife horizontally. Image stablization is also a bit off, but the shaky camerawork usually negates this issue.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack comes off better, though I don’t know if it’s any better than the First Look disc’s TrueHD track. The film’s modest budget does rear its head in terms of the depth of the sound design. Aside from a very convincing helicopter drop at the beginning of the movie, most of the mixing is either thin or produced in an artificial-sounding manner. The thin stuff features clear dialogue (it dips a bit too low when characters are whispering) and taut incidental cues (footsteps, guns cocking, shuffling clothing). The more produced sequences sound tinny, but do include a number of well-placed and very loud directional pieces. The heavy LFE presence (usually bullet fire and growling) helps thicken the whole track wherever action is concerned. Mark Thomas’ brilliantly heroic and brassy score sound great when it’s given full reign over the soundtrack, but is sadly lost beneath gunshots during the action scenes.
Commentary with writer/director Neil Marshall – This new commentary replaces a couple of group commentaries (one with the producers and one with Marshall and members of the cast & crew) that adorned previous DVD releases (I assume Scream Factory couldn’t secure the rights to those or they would’ve included them, too).
Werewolves vs. Soldiers: The Making of Dog Soldiers (1:02:00, HD) – A new retrospective documentary that traces the production, from influences, to financing, production/costume design, special effects/make-up effects, casting, and more. It includes interviews with Marshall, producers Christopher Figg and Keith Bell, special effects artist Bob Keen, special effects supervisor/creature designer Dave Bonneywell, production designer Simon Bowles, director of photography Sam McCurdy, and actors Kevin McKidd, Sean Pertwee, Darren Morfitt, Leslie Simpson and Emma Cleasby.
A Cottage in the Woods (13:30, HD) – A closer look at the model versions of the sets with Bowles.
Combat (7:40, HD) – A short film Marshall made in the lead-up to his feature debut.
Besides the other commentary tracks, the only ‘important’ extras missing from Pathe’s UK DVD release are a series of deleted scenes and a blooper reel.
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