Neil Marshall’s ‘Dog Soldiers’: A Force to Be Reckoned With

 

July 17, 2022

 

I think there’s two kinds of films, something that has a big splash when they open, and then they fade into obscurity, or films that have a life that just keep on going and people keep on talking about them. I think maybe what makes ‘Dog Soldiers’ so appealing is not necessarily universal, but it’s kind of timeless.
Neil Marshall

 

By Sven Mikulec

 

“I wanted to make a werewolf movie, a soldier movie, and a film set in Scotland.” This was Neil Marshall’s simplified summary of the initial motivation that led him to the creation of Dog Soldiers, once a refreshing low-budget horror movie with a clear comedic substance, now a beloved cult classic. Almost two decades after its initial release, Dog Soldiers remains not only one of the most impressive feature film directorial debuts, but an altogether imposing horror movie that passes the test of time with flying colors. With the beautiful 4K restoration by Vertigo Releasing and the upcoming Second Sights Films 4K and Blu-ray edition, the film’s surprising life span is further extended and new fans are bound to join the horde.

A squad of six British soldiers head into the Scottish Highlands to perform a routine training exercise against a Special Air Services unit, but upon reaching their destination, they find the mauled remains of their SAS colleagues. The single survivor is either unable or unwilling to clearly explain what the hell happened, so the group retreat to a lonely, seemingly abandoned house in the company of Megan, a zoologist who they happen to stumble across along the way. As the night quickly approaches, they realize nothing is like it seems and the danger they’re facing is much darker than they could have possibly anticipated. Repeatedly attacked by werewolves, killed off one by one by a horrifying force far more superior than anything they had encountered before, the unit tries to stand their ground and survive through the night. Morning might indeed bring salvation, but until the sun rises they are stranded in the middle of enemy territory, forced to fight on unequal terms.

 

Falling in love with the world of film with the release of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Newcastle-upon-Tyne-born filmmaker finished university and honed his craft as both a film editor and the author of several short films and TV projects. This experience gave him all the tools necessary to tackle directing a feature film, although it was a long and winding road from Dog Soldiers’ conception to its premiere in March 2002.

The year was 1995 when Marshall, in a conversation with producer Keith Bell, first pitched the idea of making a “soldiers vs. werewolves” film. As far as simple three-word pitches go, you have to admit, it just doesn’t get much cooler than this. Upon writing the first draft in 1996, Marshall spent the next six years polishing up the script and trying to secure the necessary funding. We might be talking about a low-budget film, but 2.3 million dollars doesn’t exactly grow on trees even today. This was also the reason why the movie was shot in Luxembourg, whose favorable tax policies and practical access to crew and student facilities made it a perfect (and convincing) substitute for desolate yet intimidating Scottish wilderness. When they started filming, Marshall wasn’t nervous—his professional background meant he came prepared—only excited for the project to finally get off the ground.

 

This film wasn’t like anything we’ve seen before. A huge part of its originality stemmed from the very choice of its subject. In the process of developing the story, Marshall was adamant about steering clear of the exhausted trope of how being a werewolf was a tragic experience, a terrible curse that causes suffering and misery. In Dog Soldiers, werewolves aren’t presented as damned human beings struggling under the weight of their doomed destiny–they are ruthless, bloodthirsty killing machines, functioning as a sort of super soldiers against whom our protagonists stand little to no chance. They are the unfathomable vicious forces creeping in from the darkness, which makes Dog Soldiers not so much a movie about werewolves, as it’s often classified, but rather a movie about strong, appealing and humorous human characters. Putting these people under the spotlight enables us to connect more passionately with the story, and the emotional investment logically makes the experience of watching all the more immersive and enjoyable. “It’s always about the characters,” Marshall later told The Hollywood News. “I mean, people love the werewolves, they say it’s a great werewolf movie, but I think it’s the characters they prefer.” The filmmaker explained his approach to the subject in a conversation with Den of Geek. “I didn’t want to do the classic Curse of the Werewolf story, which is essentially what all werewolf films had been up until that point. I wanted to do essentially Aliens with werewolves, in which they’re just a ferocious enemy and really difficult to kill, and who they are as people is irrelevant.”

This specific field of horror movies has featured several memorable stories over the decades, such as Joe Dante’s The Howling, John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves or Mike Nichols’ Wolf, but werewolves weren’t exactly a hot topic at the time Dog Soldiers were in development. It’s not that these creatures lack the necessary audience appeal compared to, for instance, vampires—it’s just a matter of being practical. Creating convincing werewolves is expensive and complicated. “Vampires, all you really need is a set of fangs and maybe some contact lenses,” Marshall explained. “Zombies are kind of relatively easy as well. They’re both essentially still humans, but in disguise or make-up.” When Marshall created Dog Soldiers, he wasn’t riding a popular wave in cinema, cashing in on any trends. It was a daunting, risky endeavor that ultimately paid off, as the film seemed fresh and unique, paving the path for future cinematic explorations of the topic. It’s curious to find, for example, that on Paste Magazine’s list of 25 best werewolf movies of all time as many as seven entries were made in the nineteen years after Dog Soldiers had premiered.

 

The very first thing that immediately stood out during my first viewing of Dog Soldiers was the uncharacteristic design of werewolves–not as bulky clumps of never-ending fur so much as thin, graceful creatures exuding an obvious air of pure dread. “A friend of mine drew a sketch in a pub one afternoon of a werewolf and that design ended up being what we followed all the way through,” Marshall said in an interview given to Through The Trees magazine. “I had given him a list of what I wanted, it was: two legs, looking as much like a wolf as possible. He combined the two in this incredibly elegant, lithe, almost feminine looking creature and it was almost beautiful, I loved it. That was passed on to the werewolf designers, Bob Keen and his team, who took that and refined it and enhanced it. It was a long process and it wasn’t cheap, and it did eat a chunk of our budget, but it was worth it to do it practically.”

Another reason Dog Soldiers functions as well as it does is the fact that Marshall gathered a respectable acting crew eager to participate in shooting the film precisely because it just sounded as such damn fun. Sean Pertwee, one of the leads, liked the script so much he told Marshall to feel free to use his name anywhere he pleases in the process of closing the financial construction. “And sure enough three years later, Chris Figg and Neil rang me up and said ‘We’re on, we start in two weeks!’” Pertwee remembered. Great atmosphere behind the scenes naturally led to inspired performances in front of the camera. “There was such a camaraderie within that group of actors,” Marshall explained. “I swear to God, those guys would have fought and died for each other by the end of that film. They were so tight knit as a group of friends and a group of actors and colleagues. I think Sean helped create that. He was a big part of that.”

Starring a great cast of Pertwee, Kevin McKidd, Liam Cunningham and Emma Cleasby, with Sam McCurdy behind the camera and edited by Marshall himself, Dog Soldiers is a tense, atmospheric and enjoyably fast-paced action horror film which manages to infuse the effective feeling of terror with a pinch of great humor. Its palpable kinetic energy, accompanied by solid performances by actors with whom Marshall would later continue to work on numerous projects, as well as really witty dialogue (“I hope I give you the shits, you fucking wimp” got instantly etched in my memory!) makes it easy to understand the respect it still commands today, while the filmmaker’s smart decision to avoid CGI and instead rely on make-up and body suits achieved the main goal of making these creatures less distracting and more authentic and natural. Careful attention to detail is what often separates great movies from the average pack, and Dog Soldiers is an example of meticulous planning that ought to be taught in film schools. It’s no coincidence, for instance, that the set was designed in a way that forced the werewolves to bend when entering a room, further accentuating their dominant, imposing physiques. Moreover, Marshall cast professional dancers to wear the werewolf body suits in order to achieve the desired grace and elegance of these magnificent albeit terrifying beasts. In a memorable scene where Sean Pertwee’s character gets inebriated to bandage himself up, we get an authentic sequence precisely because Marshall allowed Pertwee to have “a couple of drinks” before shooting it. It might seem small and insignificant, but it’s always the small and seemingly insignificant pieces like this that stack up to form a great film.

 

Filled with respectful references to a whole gallery of great movies from The Matrix through Zulu to The Evil Dead (Marshall: “I think I got completely carried away”), Dog Soldiers is an utterly entertaining entry into the horror genre that deserves to be referenced in the future. Marshall stated he aimed to make an Aliens-like movie and he succeeded in doing exactly that. By establishing the characters’ personalities early on in the film and bringing in the dominant enemy intent on devouring them later on, he created a believable, authentic and absorbing story in which quality substance is covered in surprisingly impressive style, without ever having to sacrifice brains for spectacle. Dog Soldiers served as the director’s entrance into the world of high-profile filmmaking, showcasing a talent so obvious it made both the critics and regular film-lovers remember Marshall’s name. And his sophomore feature—our personal favorite, The Descent–only confirmed the predictions were right on the money: Neil Marshall is a force to be reckoned with.

Infatuated with the world of film since the early days, when ‘The Three Amigos’, ‘The Goonies’ and ‘Back to the Future’ rocked his world, Sven Mikulec majored in English with a special emphasis on American culture and started an unlikely career in organizing pub quizzes. Huge fan of Simon & Garfunkel, a mediocre table tennis player and passionate fridge magnet collector, he’s interested in fulfilling his long-term goal of interviewing Jack Nicholson while Paul Simon sings ‘April Come She Will’ quietly in the background. Read more »

 

“That’s the amazing thing about the way that Neil shot it. The camaraderie in it I think is so palpable, and we shot it chronologically, which is every actor’s dream. Because when people die there was no cannon fodder, there was no… I can point at almost any movie and say, ‘he’s gonna die first, she’s going to die second, blah, blah, blah.’ Here you actually have a real sense of loss when my boys start to go. Because it was a relatively low budget movie, people were whisked off set the minute their character passed away. So there was this real hole left by these people that were flown back to England the minute their demise came up, they were off. So there’s a real sense of loss.”—Sean Pertwee

 

SAM McCURDY, BSC

British cinematographer Sam McCurdy, BSC has worked with Neil Marshall on numerous films and even high-praised TV episodes, but the collaboration started right here on Dog Soldiers. In a great talk with Nerds and Beyond, the cinematographer shed some light on his influences and beginnings in the business.

“From a very early age I knew I wanted to be involved in the film industry. I studied Graphic Art and Photography in college and photographed a lot of short films and music videos for friends while I was there. I got my start in the camera department as a loader and learned my trade through working and watching others around me. Like so many of my generation, the big influences in my wanting to be a cinematographer were movies like Star Wars and Indiana Jones. I loved that movies could be fun and enjoyable while still being able to tell a great story. I also had a real love for genre movies. I was a huge fan of John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper, but I found a real love for Dario Argento. I found his use of light very liberating with regards to how he used colors and theatrics in his staging. I also loved the big summer blockbuster movies like Die Hard and the Simpson/Bruckheimer movies. They had a huge influence on me, as they always felt so big. Something that always attracted me to cinema was being able to tell big stories in a big way.”—Sam McCurdy to Nerds and Beyond

 

A 19-minute “making of” feature taken from the DVD issue. Several very cool interviews with Neil Marshall and the principal cast of Dog Soldiers.

 

NEIL MARSHALL DEFENDING THE 2015 BLU-RAY RELEASE

“Like it or not, when the movie was originally released in the UK in 2002, the blacks were crushed, the contrast was high, the colours were rich and the image was grainy as fuck, because let’s not forget, this movie was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm. So under no circumstances was a blu-ray of this movie ever going to look as smooth and pristine as a movie shot on 35mm or any of the hi-res digital formats we use today.

So, is this version of Dog Soldiers the best it could ever be? No. Of course not. If we had the negative and a shit-load of cash we could have done a lot better. Is it the best it could be under the circumstances? Yes. Will it appeal to everybody? No. But that’s movies for you!

At the end of the day everybody involved, myself included, put in a lot of work to give the fans a blu-ray worth forking out their hard-earned cash for. And nobody involved, myself included, got paid anything for doing it. There are no royalties, ancillaries or anything else. This is not an attempt to exploit the fans. It was, on my part, an attempt to give the fans something new and unique, and not simply a repackaged version of what’s already out there.”—Diabolique Magazine

 

In 2020, Neil Marshall talked to the HeyUGuys YouTube channel about the legacy and importance of Dog Soldiers as its 4K restoration was about to be released in selected cinemas and on digital. It’s especially interesting as Marshall explains in detail the exhausting process of getting the film made, as the idea was conceived all the way back in 1995.

 

In his fantastic conversation with The Filmmaker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Neil Marshall talks about his major filmmaking influences, his passion about monster and action movies, love of practical effects and much more.

 

32 THINGS WE LEARNED FROM NEIL MARSHALL’S ‘DOG SOLDIERS’ COMMENTARY

Film School Rejects, as always, enriched the Internet with their analysis of the director’s commentary accompanying Scream Factory’s Blu-ray release. Why the film was shot in Luxembourg, what happened to Jason Statham’s lead role in the film, how it almost ended up being called Night of the Werewolves and many more interesting trivia here for all Dog Soldiers lovers to check out.

 

Producer Brian Patrick O’Toole gives a lengthy insight into his experience of transferring Marshall’s idea to the screen.

“When I was working at the studios, they had a rule: you read the first ten pages, the middle ten pages and the last ten pages. Basically you have to read something like eight scripts a day. But I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t do that because I’m a writer myself, I know sometimes movies are slow turners, you have to wait for it. And that was the case with Dog Soldiers. Neil Marshall was trying to sell it for about eight years and there were no buyers. The reason was it was written very character-driven. At the time, horror films were like Scream, you know, fast-paced and self-aware and stuff like that. Dog Soldiers was different because it really stuck with the characters.”

 

SAUSAGES: THE MAKING OF ‘DOG SOLDIERS’

Janine Pipe wrote a brilliant book that chronicles the story of Dog Soldiers and fits perfectly on the shelves of proud fans of Marshall’s debut.

Dogs has been my favorite movie since I first watched it back in 2002 and I have followed Neil’s career avidly since,” says Pipe. “Having gotten to know him and some of the cast and crew this year, and experiencing a passion for non-fiction, I knew this was something I needed to do, and the timing was perfect. Being lucky enough to have spoken with the likes of Sean Pertwee (Sargeant Wells) and Darren Morfitt (Spoon) and experiencing their love of the movie and respect for Neil, I knew I wanted to share that with others. Dogs has had a steady cult following for the last 20 years and I intend to evoke that sense of pride, fun, and friendship within the pages of this companion book.”—Fangoria

 

Horror DNA published a great review of Pipe’s work.

“The bulk of this work is a scene-by-scene retelling of the film, punctuated by behind-the-scenes information, cast and crew trivia and anecdotes. You might be thinking ‘why would I want to read the film when I’ve seen it’, but believe me, you do. You really do. Janine recounts every scene in the film in a way that is familiar but not perfunctory, and the addition of all the extra facts and stories make it a joy to read. If you only have time to read one section of this book, make it the one that covers the movie. Then go back and read the other chapters. No one reads just the middle section of a book for goodness’ sake.

Sausages: The Making of Dog Soldiers is a gold standard in film journalism and is absolutely essential for any fan of the movie as well as being highly recommended for anyone with an interest in low-budget film-making. Buy it now.”—Horror DNA

 

A MOST POTENT DISTILLATION OF TAUT ACTION, UNRELENTING HORROR AND GALLOWS HUMOR

Dog Soldiers remains his most potent distillation of taut action, unrelenting horror, and gallows humor, though. Plus, at a time when digital effects were becoming the norm rather than the exception, his insistence on using practical creatures all the way through lends them real heft and a sense of menace that’s missing from most subsequent attempts to bring werewolves to the big screen on a decent budget. The lycanthropes in Dog Soldiers aren’t out to fall in love or fight vampires or be part of a shared monster universe. They just hunt, kill, and eat—and look scary-good doing it.”—The Dissolve

 

Neil Marshall discusses why he opted for practical effects and steered clear from CGI when creating the stunningly haunting antagonists of Dog Soldiers.

 

SIMON BOWLES, PRODUCTION DESIGNER

London-born production designer Simon Bowles also used Dog Soldiers as a starting point in his long-term working relationship with Neil Marshall, as he later on earned accolades for his work on The Descent, Doomsday and Centurion. Bowles was particularly crucial in the production of Marshall’s directing debut, as he managed to create magic with an especially modest budget.

 

“The film ends with a massive explosion that destroys the Scottish farmhouse. I felt this best achieved as a scale model. A perfect 3ft (1m) high replica was built in the Luxembourg studios of the house, the surrounding forest and half destroyed yellow Land Rover outside. Five cameras caught the explosion, some over-cranked to show the event in slow-motion. Dynamic angles were chosen to increase the drama to the extent of some debris hitting the camera lens.”—Simon Bowles

 

THE WILD HISTORY OF ‘DOG SOLDIERS’

“But 2002’s Dog Soldiers dispenses with most of that, allowing the audience’s general pop culture knowledge of the genre to do the heavy lifting in service of something wilder, louder, and even stranger than what we’re usually accustomed to when werewolves are around. Instead of a movie about an individual laboring under the shadow of a curse, we get a whole pack of werewolves. And instead of that pack feasting on unsuspecting villagers or their loved ones, they’re up against heavily armed soldiers on a training exercise gone horribly wrong.

The result is one of the loudest, goriest, and unexpectedly funniest werewolf movies ever made.”—Den of Geek

 

Deleted scenes and gag reel from the DVD edition. Nice to see some laughter in such dire (wolf) moments of life-ending tension.

 

Just wanted to include a respectful shout-out to artist Christopher Lovell, who created this gorgeous poster for Dog Soldiers. Do yourself a favor and check out his other work as well, there’s a great deal of beautiful film-themed designs in there.

 

Here are several photos and movie stills taken during production of Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers. Photographed by Etienne Braun @ Centurion, Kismet Entertainment Group, The Noel Gay Motion Picture Company, The Carousel Picture Company, The Victor Film Company, Luxembourg Film Fund. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 

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