Dog Soldiers: Collector's Edition [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Shout! Factory
Review written by and copyright: Anthony Arrigo (18th July 2015).
The Film

Something that has been said many times – by myself as well as numerous other reviewers & horror fans – is there are very few truly good werewolf movies. I hate to sound like a broken record, but understanding this fact is crucial because it highlights just how difficult it (apparently) is to do werewolves right. Every few years someone does; however, every year many more get it wrong. One approach that has worked well is the deconstruction of classic werewolf cinema, eschewing the wolf-bites-man origins, the lore, the methods of salvation. This was the main thrust of then-nascent director Neil Marshall’s “Dog Soldiers” (2002), a tale of soldiers-meet-werewolves when a training mission suddenly turns hotter than expected. Marshall dropped nearly all of the standard werewolf plot elements and made a film that cuts right down to the meat – serious battles and an ever-looming threat of death that keeps our militant protagonists on constant alert. It’s been a cult hit since receiving a poorly handled release in theaters and it remains one of the best werewolf movies of the past two decades, which seems fitting given Marshal also directed one of the best horror films of the 2000's, “The Descent” (2005).

There isn’t a great deal of depth to the plot here; aside from character relationships that bring with them a history of conflict it’s pretty straightforward. A group of British Army soldiers, led by Sgt. Wells (Sean Pertwee), is on a training mission in the forest when they come across a demolished campsite. At the site they find Cpt. Ryan (Liam Cunningham), a badly wounded special forces unit leader who has a history with one of Sgt. Wells’ men, Cooper (Kevin McKidd). Ryan tries to explain what attacked him and his men, but it isn’t long before everyone finds out – werewolves. Men are attacked, blood and guts are spilled, and the survivors only escape thanks to a local zoologist, Megan (Emma Cleasby), who happened to be on the road.

Wells, Cooper and the rest shack up with Megan at a farmhouse nearby. It is soon besieged by the werewolf clan, which numbers five lycanthropes. Any chance of escape is thwarted when the car is destroyed, leaving the men to rely on their military training – and high-powered weaponry – to get them out of the cottage alive. It may not be as “easy” as it seems, however, since a couple of people shacked up in the home have secrets of their own that could jeopardize everyone’s survival.

It would have been extremely easy for “Dog Soldiers” to be a terrible film. This is almost entirely because it was made during a time when CGI was becoming de rigueur for many films. We could have gotten CGI werewolves, and history has proven these suck. Always. Instead, Marshall opted for practical FX. It was what he had in mind all along. Truthfully, I hadn’t watched this film in a while and couldn’t remember if the werewolf effects looked all that convincing. They (mostly) do, and they’re very well done. Marshall wanted these werewolves to have an elegance about them. As a result, they’re tall, lanky and move very gracefully, almost like dancers; yet they still manage to remain ferocious and imposing, especially so given their height.

Marshall’s script doesn’t win any awards for originality or climactic twists and turns, nor does it really have to. It’s clear that he’s a big fan of films like “Predator” (1987) and the early work of John Carpenter, two very obvious influences here. Instead of aping story and style from his cinematic heroes and delivering a half-baked horror film, Marshall weaves in strong, essential aspects of those pictures to make something that feels very much old school. It’s a high-energy horror thriller dripping with machismo and blood, light on the story and heavy on the terror and panic horror requires.

Video

To say Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray release is controversial would be an understatement, and many movie nerds may have seen some of the scuttlebutt on the web. Here are the facts: the film’s 1.78:1 1080p 24/fps AVC MPEG-4 encoded image looks as good as it possibly can, this according to Neil Marshall himself. Those curious to know all of the details behind this transfer can look to Marshall’s own Facebook page, where he has discussed this issue at length. I trust the man and what he says. I believe this was the best possible outcome considering the circumstances. Basically, no negative of the original 16mm print exists – anywhere – so the team at Scream Factory had only one option: 35mm blowup prints. Two were sourced for the image seen here.

When 16mm is blown up for 35mm, there are some salient issues. Namely, grain, which is all over this release like a mosquito net on a hot night in Nigeria. It’s everywhere and it’s chunky and so thick you could swim in it. This is unavoidable. The grain field alone makes this movie look like it was shot in the 80's; not such a bad thing. Colors are all out of whack, with color timing altered for a number of scenes taking place before night falls. Black levels were nuked from orbit. The lack of strong saturation in some scenes almost has them looking black-and-white. In short, as far as restored pictures go it’s a mess. But this is the best mess that could be made from what they had to work with, and it’s certainly better than the previous editions by a long way. Everyone wishes it could look better, perhaps none more so than Marshall, but for now this is definitely the best it’ll get.

Audio

Things are less controversial on the audio front, where an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround sound track (48kHz/24-bit) gets the job done without being too showy. Dialogue is nicely balanced in the mix, never losing out to the frequent spray of automatic weapon fire. I’d say it’s discernible, and to some it probably is, but those accents are so heavy it’s hard to know what’s being said at times. The gunfire is a little hollow and lacking weight. Rears are used sparingly but do come into play when the wolves are attacking from all corners. An explosion near the climax shows off a little bit of low-end frequency. An English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo track is also included. Subtitles are available in English.

Extras

We’re in Collector’s Edition territory here, so expect the requisite goodies – audio commentary, extensive documentary, featurettes, photo gallery, theatrical trailers, etc.

DISC ONE: BLU-RAY

Director Neil Marshall is on hand for an audio commentary that was recorded before any of the video issues came up, so they are not addressed here. Instead, it’s full of the usual technical and production information. One interesting fact that somehow evaded me for years is that Jason Statham was originally cast in the lead role of Cooper but had to drop out due to a commitment to John Carpenter’s “Ghosts of Mars” (2001).

“Werewolves vs. Soldiers: The Making of “Dog Soldiers”” (1080p) is a documentary that runs for 1 hour, 1 minute and 50 seconds. Is anyone else sick of these in-depth, informative pieces that cover a film’s entire production and are chock full of fascinating interviews with the production’s cast & crew? Yea, I didn’t think so. Me neither.

“A Cottage in the Woods” (1080p) is a featurette that runs for 13 minutes and 26 seconds. This longer-than-expected piece covers the design and construction of the cottage featured in the film.

A handful of theatrical trailers (1080p) run for 5 minutes and 2 seconds.

“”Dog Soldiers” photo gallery (1080p) features 47 images, running for 4 minutes and 57 seconds.

“Behind the Scenes” photo gallery (1080p) runs for 4 minutes and 30 seconds, these are accompanied by captions that explain what each on-set shot features.

“Combat” (1080p) is a short film, directed by Neil Marshall that runs for 7 minutes and 37 seconds.

DISC TWO: DVD

This is a DVD copy of the feature film.

Packaging

The two-disc set comes housed in a standard Blu-ray keep case, with each disc housed on a hub opposite the other. The cover art is reversible, and a slip-cover is included on initial pressings.

Overall

Over ten years later, Marshall’s debut film holds up well and might even play better than it did to begin with. The actors are strong the plot is lean and muscular and the effects work is quite impressive for such a low-budget affair.

The Film: B Video: C+ Audio: B- Extras: B+ Overall: B

 


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