There is absolutely no reason why I should enjoy this film, let alone own a copy. I am scared, properly unenjoyably terrified, by horror films. I dislike movies which glorify the armed forces. I hate gore, and suspense, and being made to guess in which order the whole cast are going to die and in which inventive way the next person is going to snuff it. I especially hate films which have an all-male cast running round casually toting enormous guns with a token female in a vest top thrown in as an afterthought.
So as you can imagine it’s quite a relief to find I must not be quite the Grinch-y, bitter, humourless scaredy-cat I affect to be most of the time, because I adore Dog Soldiers. At last count it’s one of only two horror films in my collection (hold out for 28 Days Later at some point), and on a rewatch I believe the reason why can be attributed to one thing alone: It’s all down to the Geordies.
Director Neil Marshall comes from Newcastle, you see, and in his first film, he seemed determined to give a bit of work to his fellow countrymen. Dog Soldiers has a tiny cast but most of it originated in the North East, with honourable mentions for Celts Kevin McKidd (post Trainspotting, pre Grey’s Anatomy) and Liam Cunningham (lately of Game of Thrones). Only our old friend Sean Pertwee makes the cut as a southerner, and he’s been forced to tone down his usual RP to something a bit rougher. Even the bloke who cops it in the first two minutes (‘That’s tomato ketchup’ the commentary track informs us helpfully) looks like he’s on loan from a Ken Loach film. The only way this could be more Geordie is if Robson and Jerome turned up in the middle for a musical interlude, and there’s something about the range of deadpan regional accents on display that makes lines like ‘If Little Red Riding Hood should turn up with a bazooka and a bad attitude, I expect you to chin the bitch’ an unalloyed pleasure to hear.
Anyway, back to the story. A squad of six soldiers is dropped by helicopter in the remote Scottish highlands for a training exercise. They include father-figure Sargeant Wells (Pertwee) and Private Cooper (McKidd), fresh off a humiliating audition for the Special Forces where he failed the test (and instantly gained the audience’s sympathies) by refusing to shoot a dog on the orders of crazy-eyed posho Captain Ryan (Cunningham). The training exercise goes smoothly until it doesn’t, and after joining up with a mutilated Ryan and mysterious local Megan, suddenly the squad are up against a very real enemy and my, what big teeth they have…
This set-up is enjoyable enough, taking in as it does camp fire scare stories, a discussion about the squad’s greatest fears (‘Spiders. And women. And…spider-women’), and the unexpected sudden entrance of a dead cow literally dropping into camp, but the film really kicks into gear when the group reach a remote cottage and barricade themselves in against the advancing pack of werewolves. From then on it’s a gorier, grown-up version of Home Alone, played completely straight but with enough black humour and fleeting film homages (including, improbably, more than one Matrix reference) to make it about a hundred times more fun to watch than Skyfall’s more recent attempt to cash in on Macaulay Culkin’s 90’s classic. (Although if I do have a complaint about Dog Soldiers, it’s that there isn’t enough Judi Dench thrifting home-made bombs out of household light fittings).
In and around the cottage, the squad will attempt to defend themselves with weapons including, but not limited to, hammers, gas canisters, air freshener, cutlery, a sword, boiling water, burning logs, a Polaroid camera and an unplugged electric carving knife, with varying degrees of success.
The fight scenes are fun and well done but what’s unusual are the longer talky bits in between. Traditionally the first twenty minutes of a horror movie are the only chance you’ve got to set up characters and establish relationships before the focus moves to how inventively you can kill off your cast, but Dog Soldiers has as many nice character moments and significant exchanges during the climactic final hour as in the set-up. My favourite scene in the whole thing is probably Sergeant Wells, grievously wounded on the way to the cottage, being patched up by Cooper and Megan in a upstairs bedroom. ‘Oh you….dirty fucker!’ bellows an agonised Wells, chasing morphine with whiskey as Cooper and Megan rummage around in his guts between bouts of unresolved sexual tension and asides about the original use of superglue in the Vietnam war (there’s a reason it sticks your fingers together so efficiently, apparently).
At the risk of sounding like one of That Kind of film fan, the pleasure of the scene is greatly enhanced if you’ve also listened to the commentary track. I’m not usually one to bother, but I make an enthusiastic exception for the cast commentary for this film. Apparently fresh from the pub, everyone is at the genial stage of drunk (‘I’d like to thank our sponsor Mr Stella Artois’ says Pertwee at one point) and reject the chance to drag drearily through another making-of spiel in favour of spending a couple of hours taking the piss out of themselves and each other while discussing the character of men from Hartlepool, the difficulties of working with sheepdogs that don’t understand English and the golden age of Donna Air in Byker Grove. At the same time you can also find out that Pertwee decided artistic integrity demanded he actually down most of a bottle of brandy for the medical scene, which was just as well because the second of two stage punches McKidd was required to throw to ‘knock him out’ actually connected and nearly broke his nose.
Crucially, the quieter bits also let the rest of the squad come to life. In most films they would only exist to be picked off in reverse order of how expensive they cost to hire, but here it’s a red shirt who threatens to run off with the whole film. Private Spoon is a hyperactive, gum chewing, gung-ho rubber ball of a man-child. ‘Werewolves? Makes perfect sense to me’ he shrugs. (‘Typical Hartlepool lad’ slurs a laconic voice on the commentary track). They had to tone down his death scene (‘I hope I give you the shits, you fucking wimp!’ he snarls, still manically chewing) because test audiences were so fond of him by the end they didn’t want to see him get literally pulled in half between two werewolves, which is sort of sweet if you don’t think about it too hard.
It’s not perfect, of course. Eschewing CGI was probably a good move but it means the werewolves are dancers on stilts and look…like dancers on stilts. With furry legwarmers. There’s a bitter and oddly out of character rant from Cooper at one point and a line of regrettable menstruation dialogue (leave it to Gingersnaps, OK?), and yes, Megan does go from wearing four layers of fleece to inexplicably stripping down to a vest top for her big finish. Still, there’s a lot to be said for her lone female character who is generally unflappable, competent, adaptable and in the end just trying to survive a pretty impossible situation. And aside from some low key moments with Cooper, the squad largely treat her with polite disinterest, which is refreshing.
In fact the most important relationships are between the men in the squad, particularly Cooper and Wells, and this is what holds the whole silly film together and makes me want to watch it again. ‘I love you!’ a sozzled Wells declares, blood-sodden and high as a kite. ‘Like a mate that I…love!’ (‘Should I leave you two alone?’ asks Megan, superglue in hand). The family-like squad dynamic makes you really feel the successive deaths, and the last desperate exchange between Cooper and Wells is a real wrench. ‘When I signed my life away on the dotted line, I meant it. I am a professional soldier!’ declares Wells, with a noble determination that inadvertently makes Dog Soldiers a better recruitment vehicle for the army than any number of those queasy TV adverts that suggest war is just a really hi-def video game. It’s enough to make even me, a bleeding heart liberal, think there must be something in that ‘best that you can be’ slogan, even, or indeed especially, if your best is fighting back-to-back with your best mate against an unbeatable mythical creature, armed only with a letter opener.