Back to the 2012 Horror Movie Challenge. Today’s selection?
It’s been awhile since I’ve seen either An American Werewolf in London or Ginger Snaps—both of which I loved—but this movie is, at the very least, in serious contention for Favorite Werewolf Film of All Time.
Four months after Private Cooper (Kevin McKidd) fails to make it into an elite special forces team, his regular unit—headed by his best friend, Sergeant Wells (Sean Pertwee)—is sent on a routine training exercise against the very same special forces team he didn’t qualify for. Unfortunately, the exercise is quickly called off when most of that special forces team—save the less-than-charming Captain Ryan (Liam Cunningham)—is found in pieces . . . and the full moon starts to rise.
1. Dog Soldiers was Neil Marshall’s directorial debut, but it’s actually the second film of his that I’ve seen to date. The first was The Descent, which, besides being any claustrophobic’s nightmare, was HUGELY critically acclaimed . . . and, admittedly, for good reason. I mean, parts of that movie are just freaky. Still, I have some seriously mixed feelings about The Descent, mostly due to a heroine who I think was supposed to be sympathetic? But I kind of hated? I apparently feel sorry for all the wrong people.
Anyway, someday I’ll give it a second go and see how I feel about it then, but I am happy to report that I liked all the men in Dog Soldiers much more than I liked the women in The Descent. The men are equally fun to watch battling werewolves as they are shooting the shit, and I like the sense of camaraderie you get from the whole team. I also really like the friendship between Cooper and Wells. You don’t need a ton of exposition to feel the history between them.
2. The acting is pretty good all around. The only one I can’t make up my mind about is Megan (Emma Cleasby), who strikes me as the weak link of the group, but that could be more related to her character than her acting. I mean, she isn’t awful. I just don’t like her as much as the rest. The three stand-outs are, somewhat unsurprisingly, Kevin McKidd, Sean Pertwee, and Liam Cunningham.
Now, I’m sure I’m supposed to know McKidd from Rome, but I’ve never actually seen Rome. I HAVE seen Grey’s Anatomy, however. Yes, yes, get your mocking over with now. I’m just delighted to watch him using his own Scottish accent for a change.
McKidd makes for a good hero. Cooper is funny, loyal, and certainly doesn’t give up easily, but he’s never so earnest or preachy that you feel compelled to roll your eyes at him. He’s likable, and that’s generally a good trait for a hero to have. McKidd brings a certain presence to the role that really makes you root for him to survive all this shit.
Sean Pertwee as Sergeant Wells is just awesome. He’s completely believable as this grizzled, badass army sergeant, but he also isn’t afraid to show pain and fear when the story calls for it. Stoicism is only realistic to a point, you know? Pertwee has some awesome reactions that really make him an enjoyable character to watch, and his onscreen chemistry with McKidd really helps to sell this bond that Cooper and Wells share.
I mostly know Liam Cunningham from Game of Thrones, so it’s a lot of fun to watch him here in something completely different. Captain Ryan is hell and gone from our mild-tempered and ridiculously loyal Davos (who I’ve enjoyed so much more in the show than I ever did in the books). Instead, Ryan is a bit of a bastard—more than a bit, to be honest—and very, very grim, willing to sacrifice pretty much anyone or anything for the mission. Cunningham makes for an enjoyable antagonist, and I’d like to see him in more things.
3. I also like how good this unit is at improvisation. Sure, they try to shoot the shit out of the werewolves, and that’s fun enough to watch. But when bullets are scarce, these guys will also defend themselves with pots and pans, scalding water, and (I shit you not) cameras with the flash on. Love. Utter love.
4. That being said, there are times during this movie where I felt that the unit could have used some lessons in stealth or survivalism. There is one character—well, I can’t really talk about him until the Spoiler Section, but let’s just say that his death can hardly be blamed on the werewolves. There’s also this matter of how we conduct ourselves in a training exercise. Clearly, I’ve never been in the military, but it seems to me that if my team was doing a training exercise where they were supposed to be behind enemy lines . . . maybe we shouldn’t be chatting so loudly to one another, or having campfires without someone on watch, or whistling as we walk like we’re the fucking seven dwarves from Snow White? (Admittedly, the whistling was pretty funny.)
Also—and these are rules for ALL horror movies, not just ones about werewolves versus the army—try and keep these things in mind, men:
A. Do NOT stand with your back to a window.
B. ALWAYS check the backseat of your car before you get into it.
C. NEVER challenge the bad guys with a “Come on! I’m right here!” no matter how frightened or frustrated you’re feeling.
These things never work out well, people. Never.
5. It’s also not a bad idea to learn as much as you can about the enemy forces.
Cooper seems to have a very, “They’re the bad guys trying to make us the dead guys, and we’re the good guys who need to kill the bad guys so we don’t end up the dead guys” way of looking at the world, and generally, I’m all for that attitude. Knowing the scientific name of the beast that’s eating you alive does nothing for you when said beast is, in fact, eating you alive.
That all being said, these bad guys are werewolves, and when there are people in your company who are dropping hints that they know more than they’re telling, I’d start seriously pumping them for information long before Cooper does. Sometimes, curiosity kills the cat, sure, but sometimes curiosity will be the thing that saves your life, you know?
6. This is a werewolf movie. As such, the werewolves are kind of stupid looking.
But they’re hardly the worst werewolves I’ve ever seen. Seriously, the day where I am actually scared of a werewolf will be the day that pigs fly, Hell freezes over, and movies stop pretending that everyone from Europe has an English accent. If the werewolves are better than the ones in Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, then I’m more or less happy. And so far, nothing, nothing, has looked worse than the werewolves in Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. Even Lon Chaney.
7. Surprisingly, I do actually kind of like Werewolf Vision. I know. That’s usually the kind of thing I mock mercilessly (nothing quite beats the pink zombie vision from Evil), but werewolves apparently see in black-and-white, and from their point of view, I keep wanting to think it’s daytime, even though it’s night. And since werewolves can actually see in the dark, I thought that was kind of cool.
8. Other than the humor—the script was just peppered from beginning to end with funny lines—the thing I liked most about Dog Soldiers was that I actually felt a little tense while watching it. You know, I was involved, invested, edge of my seat and all that. Good jump moments can be hard to do—they’re often so easy to predict—but Dog Soldiers managed quite a few of them. More than that, though, there was just a really great sense of anticipation. I was into this movie. I was engaged. So many horror films seems to forget that element, sadly.
9. About that dialogue, though . . . here are a few of the non-spoiler-y quotes I could find for you:
Joe: “This is a pile of rancid shit!”
Megan: “Now, what do you believe?”
Cooper: “I’m beginning to believe you, but I think Joe might have worded it better.”
Wells: “If we do happen to make contact, I expect nothing less than gratuitous violence from the lot of you.”
Cooper: “Go on, then, Bruce. What scares you?”
Bruce: “The self-destructive nature of the human condition.”
Spoon: “You’re just taking the piss now.”
Cooper: “What about you, Spoon?”
Cooper: “. . . there’s no argument there.”
Joe: “Brilliant. We either stay and we snuff it, or we go . . . and we snuff it.”
Ryan: “Decisions, decisions.”
Megan: “Tell me, honestly, what are our chances?”
Cooper: “Morale seems . . . good, considering. But that will only last as long as the ammunition holds out. High spirits are just no substitute for eight hundred rounds a minute, but I don’t think that’s what you wanted to hear.”
10. My biggest problem with the film might have been some of the editing, particularly in the first half hour or so of the film when the guys are traipsing all around the forest. It goes something like this:
Shot: Sergeant Wells and his men walk by some trees.
Shot: Random mountain.
Shot: Wells and the boys are walking up a small hill.
Shot: Random river
Shot: Wells and the boys are sitting at the campfire.
And so on and so forth. I don’t get it. What the hell is up with these interlude shots? Mek figured they were probably supposed to convey the passage of distance and time or something, but I really didn’t like them. Every time I had to stare at some hill or gopher or something, even if it was only for a few seconds, it would throw me out of the story. And it happens a lot. I know it’s kind of a small complaint, but I found these shots unnecessary and awfully distracting.
11. On the other hand, gore! So much gore! Blood! Dismemberment! Entrails!
12. And finally, on the subject of entrails . . . and also of pets . . .
Unlike some people in this movie, I do not approve of animal cruelty. We don’t just kill pets to prove a point, and we don’t hit our pets for simply misbehaving. That all being said, when a dog is trying to make a living man’s exposed guts into his own personal chew toy . . . we have moved past the time where you stand idly by in a corner, futilely yelling at Rover to heel. If he’s not responding to vocal commands, a swat on the head might, in fact, actually be called for. We need to be proactive about our dogs further disemboweling people who are still alive, you know?
It’s just a thought.
So, the movie begins—as so many do—with two lovers who are camping. Blarg. The woman presents the man with a silver letter opener—hot—and they move into the sexy times portion of their evening inside the tent. And just as I’m starting to think, Oh, God, could the werewolf just kill them already—because patience is not my strong suit sometimes, least of all for anonymous dead lovers, er, walking—the werewolf does, in fact, kill them. Yay! That was relatively brief. I approve. (Also, the shot of the couple frozen in fear as the tent is slowly unzipped from the outside? Nicely creepy.)
We then zoom over to Cooper, who is running away from some guys. Turns out, he’s auditioning for role of Very Special Agent in Ryan’s special forces squad. Ryan says Coop’s done awesome, but it’s more than just running and kicking ass. Cooper needs to be able to kill and do so without hesitation. So Ryan gives Cooper his gun and tells him to shoot this innocent dog. Cooper’s like, Uh, no. What the hell? Are you kidding me?
Ryan essentially calls him a pussy, asking how Coop expects to be special forces if he can’t even shoot a damn dog. Cooper’s like, I could kill the dog, if there were a reason to and not just because you’re an asshole. Ryan finally kills the dog just to prove he has the cojones to do it. Needless to say, Cooper doesn’t make it on the squad and is, all in all, considerably better off for it.
Four months later: Cooper is back on his normal team, squaring off against Ryan’s special forces unit in some kind of supposedly routine training exercise. When they find what’s left of Ryan’s unit—not much—they try to call it in, but their radio is inexplicably not working. Ryan’s still alive but badly wounded and basically raving incoherently about how there was only supposed to be one of them. Wells tells him to shut the hell up because he’s scaring the men. I kind of love Wells.
The werewolves attack as the men march out. One of the soldiers, Bruce, gets separated from the others and is so terrified that he accidentally impales himself on a godamned tree branch. I have a hard time feeling sympathy for Bruce. Nobody is fearless, of course, not even members of the military—but I guess I expect more out of these guys than impaling themselves on fucking trees. Heartless? Possibly. But that’s me.
Anyway, Bruce dies. Meanwhile, Wells is also attacked—he is cut open by a werewolf and actually disemboweled. Usually, that spells fairly instant death for a character in a movie, but in real life, you can apparently survive with your guts hanging outside of you for awhile. Which is fairly horrifying. Cooper goes to rescue him and they have one of their many awesome exchanges:
Wells: “My guts are out, Coop!”
Cooper: “We’ll just put them back in, then!”
Wells: “They’re not gonna fucking fit!”
Cooper: “Of course they’ll fit, man!”
(Wells also looks down at the mess of his intestines and says, “Sausages.” Heh. Love.)
Cooper, Wells, Ryan, and the other men in the unit (Spoon, Joe, and Terry) are rescued by Megan, a zoologist that happens by in her car. Ryan and Megan share a few glances that clearly suggests they know each other, although (infuriatingly) nobody else seems to pick up on it for about forty or so minutes. They drive to a nearby house to patch up Wells. Sean Pertwee is not entirely stoic in all of these scenes, which is excellent—a little stoicism in the face of danger would have helped Bruce, sure, but being stoic when your guts are spilling out just seems rather silly.
Unfortunately, the werewolves surround the house. They attack a few different times, and the soldiers fight them off with pretty much anything they can find. Terry is the idiot who laughs at what pussies the werewolves are while standing with his back to a window. Needless to say, he gets dragged outside, and Joe later finds his corpse being eaten. Joe makes a break for another car—the one they came in was destroyed—but he forgets to check the backseat. He realizes his mistake, attacks the werewolf, and is promptly torn to pieces.
Meanwhile, we discover that Megan was originally assigned to Ryan’s team as a zoology consultant. Ryan’s mission was to capture a werewolf and figure out some way to use it as a weapon. The training exercise was bullshit. Wells’s unit was brought out as live bait so that Ryan could lure out and then capture the monster—this is why their radio didn’t work. Ryan’s wounds have also mysteriously healed, which everyone takes as a very bad sign. Eventually, Ryan turns into a werewolf, attacks them, and runs away.
Ryan’s not the only with healed wounds, however—awesome Sergeant Wells is also doing a lot better, much to his consternation. He’s worried that he’ll become a werewolf and kill the others, leading to this conversation:
Wells: “With Ryan it only took a couple of hours, mate. It’s a full moon. I don’t know, maybe it’s like when you need to take a piss or something, I don’t know. When you gotta go, you gotta fucking go.”
Cooper: “Yeah, well, maybe it’s more like needing a shite. Just cause you need one doesn’t mean you drop your kegs and pinch one off.”
Best analogy ever.
It also turns out that Megan is a werewolf—she probably became one long before the movie started, when she went to study the lycanthropes in the area. (The boys, unfortunately, happen to be holed up in the werewolves’ house.) Initially, she had hoped that the army unit was there as some kind of rescue, presumably with a cure of some kind. Since she never wanted to be a werewolf, she tried helping out Wells and his men, figuring that they were her best chance of escape. But as the situation gets bleaker and bleaker (and Cooper announces his plans to kill the werewolves, despite what kind of people they are during daylight hours), Megan switches sides and decides to embrace what she is. She tricks Cooper into blowing up their last possible escape vehicle and lets the other werewolves inside the house. Before she can shapeshift, though, Wells shoots her in the head.
Megan’s my other small problem with this movie. I like the idea of her character, and I wouldn’t want to weigh the movie down with a lot of tedious exposition, but I feel like her story could have been a bit clearer—it was a little confusing, for a while, when she turned into a werewolf. (I could blame this on accent problems, but I was surprisingly doing pretty good at understanding the dialogue, I thought.) Much more importantly, though, it bothers me that Megan’s been repressing the change all night without any sign of physical twitchiness. I mean, she does stare meaningfully out a window once at the werewolves, and yeah, I did get a Queen of the Werewolves vibe from that—I certainly never trusted Megan, from pretty much the second she showed up on screen—but how has she been able to hold on for so long? Shouldn’t the others have some kind of clue? On the other hand, if we did see her shaking or making pained faces or whatever, wouldn’t that have tipped the writer’s hand too soon? It’s a bit of a problem for me, but I’m not sure exactly how to fix it.
Anyway. When the werewolves come in, Spoon puts up the good fight . . . I mean, he actually boxes a werewolf at one point . . .
. . . but, eventually, he bites it, if only so Dog Soldiers can have a Matrix reference: “There is no Spoon.” Wells eventually seals Cooper in the cellar and blows up the rest of the house, killing the other werewolves and sacrificing himself. (He has another moment of awesome when he talks about his inevitable doom: “I just didn’t make it out this time, that’s all. When I signed my life away on that dotted line, I fucking meant it. I am a professional soldier.” Have I mentioned Wells is awesome?)
So, happily ever after? Not quite. Werewolf Ryan survived (of course he did), so he immediately attacks Cooper. It looks pretty dire for Coop, but thankfully he finds the silver letter opener (from the beginning of the movie, yeah, that’s right, it came back) and kills Werewolf Ryan. Which leaves Cooper and Megan’s dog, Sam, the last, er, men left standing. (The fact that Sam makes it all is shocking, but maybe Marshall was trying to make up for killing the first dog six minutes into the movie.)
The film ends with a newspaper showing the picture of Cooper with this headline: “Werewolves ate my platoon.” Something tells me he isn’t going to be taken too seriously.
Very solid werewolf movie. Some problems here and there, but good acting, amusing script, and an intelligent story more than make up for it. I was very engaged the whole time I was watching the film.
I don’t know. How about watch where you’re running? For fuck’s sake.