Excellent werewolf pic was “too British” to get a U.S. theatrical release
By Steve Biodrowski
With Neil Marshall’s DOOMSDAY scheduled for release on March 14, now seems an appropriate time to take a look back at his feature film debut, one of the best all-out, no-apologies, hell-bent-for-leather horror films to emerge from the beginning of the 21st century—a modestly-budgeted, action-packed effort that pits British soldiers against local werewolves with a taste for human flesh. DOG SOLDIERS is derivative of any number of previous films (reduced to its essence, one might call it a hybrid of THE HOWLING and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD), but it works on its own tongue-in-cheek terms, fillings its dialogue with references to its antecedents.
After an inauspicious opening scene (as if in a FRIDAY THE 13TH knockoff, two campers in a tent get attacked and killed), the story shifts to an excellent sequence that establishes the main protagonist and antagonist who will clash later: after successfully completing a test run to prove himself worth of entrance to an elite unit, Cooper (McKidd) refuses a pointless order from Captain Ryan (Liam Cunningham) to shoot a dog, so Ryan kills the dog himself, just to show that Cooper’s disobedience was futile — an efficient piece of writing that reveals all you need to know about these two characters.
The remainder of the film follows a squad of soldiers on a training mission in Scotland, where they soon find that their war games are no game at all: they’re being hunted by a vicous pack of intelligent werewolves. The first half of the film plays like an extended chase, as the soldiers try to outrun their pursuers and get to shelter, which they eventually find in the form of an isolated, apparently abandoned cabin. The rest of the film settles into the mold of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, with the soldiers barricading the house against the threat outside, while inside the tensions established between the protagonist and antagonist boil to the surface. Some fairly predictable plot twists follow (after all, why would the cabin be empty and undamaged, unless it was the werewolves themselves who lived there?), but the film plays out like a fast-paced firefight with little time to worry about such nitpicking details.
The performances are strong and the action is intense. The werewolf makeups are convincing, and the film wisely does not rely on computer-generated imagery, opting for on-set special effects. Although writer-director Marshal aims for genuine suspense, the gore is mixed with over-the-top humor: for example, a scene wherein a disemboweled soldier is stuck back together with Crazy Glue makes you either want to bite your nails in squeamish disgust — or relieve the almost unbearable tension by laughing out loud.
Marshall also includes numerous inside jokes that reference his favorite fantasy and horror films. One character is named Bruce Campbell (after the star of the EVIL DEAD films); another is Harry G. Wells (after the author of WAR OF THE WORLDS). In one remarkable scene, after an exchange of gunfire, a character named Spoon triumphantly disses the maurading wolves: “Dog Soldiers? More like pussies!” Which of course is the cue for a lycanthrope to reach through a window and yank him outside to his death. When our hero notices the abrupt absence and asks, “Where’s Spoon?,” his distraught comrades answer, “There is no Spoon!” (Think of what Keanu Reeves says in THE MATRIX, when he learns that the spoon in his hand doesn’t really exist except in his mind, and you’ll get the joke.)
Although DOG SOLDIERS found success at the box office in its native England and cleaned elsewhere around the world, the film went straight-to-video in the U.S. – an undeserved fate, especially in the light of the theatrical release granted to the subsequent (and obviously inferior) werewolf flick CURSED (2005).
Kismet Entertainment Group financed DOG SOLDIERS. The U.S.-based company had been in operation about three months when producer Christopher Figg (HELLRAISER, TRAINSPOTTING) brought them the script by writer-director Neil Marshall. “A mutual friend had told Chris we were looking for projects,” Kismet’s David E. Allen recalls. “Christopher got us the script. When I read it, I said the same thing that the U.S. studios later told us after we made it. We didn’t get US theatrical distribution, and the reason was that it was ‘too British.’ I told them that I thought THE FULL MONTY was too British!”
The story’s outrageous action and violence would obviously play in any country where audiences enjoyed films like ALIENS or THE HOWLING. The British flavor comes mostly from the dialogue, which had the soldiers frequently referring to a game of football (“soccer” in the US) that they were missing while on training maneuvers. Fortunately, co-producer Brian O’Toole was able to change Allen’s mind and get Kismet to produce the film. Says Allen, “After I first read the script, Brian sat me down and said, ‘Look, here’s how you do this.’ There was a lot of stuff we had to take out: too much dialogue to do with the football game, which would have made the film too long. Brian insisted I read it a second time, and that’s when we decided to make it. We went to the UK in January of 2001 and started shooting in March.”
The result was a bona fide box office hit in the international market. Allen calls the overseas success “incredible,” thanks to the efforts of the British distributor, Pathe. “We had an opening in the UK on 313 screens, which was very large—MOULIN ROUGE did not get 300 screens, so we were very pleased with the [effort] that Pathe put behind it,” says Allen. “There were posters everywhere, advertising, and they did their own trailers—it was really nice. It was the #3 film its opening weekend, behind ABOUT A BOY and PANIC ROOM. The next weekend, STAR WARS [ATTACK OF THE CLONES] came out, and we dropped to #5. But the next weekend we were back to #4, and it did very well. It opened in Singapore and did very well there. It’s been sold around the world for theatrical, but our U.S. studios—they passed. Thank you very much!”
The film had its U.S. debut courtesy of the Sci-Fi Channel in July of 2002 and screened in Hollywood as part of the American Cinematheque’s annual Festival of Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction during the month of August, followed by home video release on November 5.
On DVD, DOG SOLDIERS is a potential field day for fans, who can spend hours replaying it in order to spot the many in-joke references, which include everything from THE EVIL DEAD to ZABRISKIE POINT. The film is quite open about its influences, and even casual viewers will note similarities to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and a host of other horror films. (Curiously enough, the strongest point of similarity is not to a genre film at all but to the plot of Walter Hill’s SOUTHERN COMFORT , which also detailed what happens when a group of soldiers on a training maneuvers that turns into an actual life-or-death fight for survival.)
Regarding the cinematic similarities, producer Allen explains, “Neil Marshall is such a fan of film that he put a lot of references in. It’s almost like an Easter Egg hunt, because you have to go back and watch it a second or third time to pick up all the ones that are there. Of course, the most obvious is the one from THE MATRIX: ‘There is no spoon!’ Then there is the one from ALIENS where Kevin McKidd says, ‘Short, controlled bursts!’ There’s a tremendous amount of homages to Neil’s favorite films in this.”
The success of DOG SOLDIERS was enough to generate interest in a sequel; although Marshall was asked to write a script, he was not interested in calling the shots again. “Neil has said that werewolves are out of his system, so he doesn’t want to direct it,” Allen says. “He’s a very talented man, and I think he’s going to go a lot of places.”
DOG SOLDIERS (2002). Written and directed by Neil Marshall. Cast: Sean Pertwee, Kevin McKidd, Emma Cleasby, Liam Cunningham, Thomas Lockyer, Darren Morfitt, Chris Robson, Leslie Simpson.
Copyright 2002 Steve Biodrowski