The imminent arrival of the rebooted Hellboy will be the first feature film that Neil Marshall has directed since Centurion way back in 2010. In anticipation of what he and David Harbour will bring to the Dark Horse Comics adaptation, it seemed pertinent to take a look back over Marshall’s previous features, starting with 2002’s Dog Soldiers.
Dog Soldiers is an action horror film that sees an unfortunate group of squaddies’ training exercise goes awry when they become targeted by a pack of hungry werewolves. Due to the very British language and slang in the script, also written by Marshall, you can understand why it was premiered on the Sci-fi Channel in the United States rather than in theatres, it feels very much aimed at a British audience. That said it still managed to take £5 million upon release, netting a profit of nearly £3 million based on the budget. It put Marshall on the map as a director to watch out for and earned him a place in the ‘Splat Pack’, a term invented by film historian Alan Jones for directors like Marshall who make violent horror films.
The film stars Kevin McKidd (Rome, Kingdom of Heaven, Trainspotting) as Private Cooper who fails to become part of a special forces unit led by Liam Cunningham’s (Game of Thrones) very unpleasant Captain Ryan. We already know that Ryan is going to become a character we will hate when he orders Cooper to kill a dog for no reason; and when Cooper cannot do it, Ryan shoots the dog himself. Four weeks later, he and the rest of his squad, led by Sergeant Wells (Sean Pertwee, Equilibrium, Event Horizon, Gotham), are dropped into the Scottish Highlands on an exercise which means they will miss out on seeing the England v Germany World Cup match.
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From there things go from bad to worse when they discover Ryan, as the lone survivor of his brutally slaughtered unit, and as the sun sets they start to be picked off by the same killers. It becomes quickly apparent that their assailants are werewolves and as they attempt to flee they run into zoologist Megan (Emma Cleasby) who brings them to a deserted farmhouse. At this point, it becomes a siege situation as the group try to last the night.
As low budget horror films go, Dog Soldiers is superb. It combines the shocks and gore of The Evil Dead with the humour of Aliens, and the special effects rate up there with An American Werewolf in London. Instead of using CGI for his lycanthropes Marshall elected to have dancers instead of typical stuntmen to highlight the monsters almost fluid movements. They wore full body suits which utilised animatronics. Marshall felt that too much CGI would take the audience out of the action. Given how some ropey effects can be incredibly jarring, such as the de-aged Jeff Bridges in Tron: Legacy, it was the right decision to make. The werewolves are not comedic looking things, they are full on scary creatures with the intelligence of a xenomorph rather than mindless beasts. The choice also means that the effects still hold up today, some seventeen years after release, and it is still just as terrifying.
Although Marshall’s script certainly would not win any literary prizes, the cult classic has gone on to become highly quotable. The back and forth banter of the men flows so naturally, you could believe they really were soldiers. Part of the success of this is due to Marshall’s authenticity, because his father and grandfather both been in the military. Wells’ speech about chinning the bitch Red Riding Hood is one of the many laugh-out-loud moments that Pertwee delivers with a perfectly straight face.
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Another crowning moment that bears mentioning is the scene in which Cooper has to perform improvised surgery on Wells due to a werewolf’s best efforts to disembowel him. As the story goes, Pertwee requested that Marshall let him have ‘a few drinks’ before the scene to better play it. It is an outstanding scene and being drunk for it did mean that Pertwee did not feel the misjudged punch from McKidd that actually landed.
Marshall created some really believable characters. Of those that survive the initial attack, you become truly invested in their survival. One such scene involving one of the squaddies, known as Spoon, is simultaneously the best and worst of the entire film. Spoon goes head to head with a werewolf toward the very end and it truly looks like he is going to be successful – until a second werewolf shows up. There’s been plenty of films where deaths occur but an audience hasn’t connected with the victims; but it is the skill of both the actors and Marshall that make you yell at the screen in response. Marshall actually cut part of Spoon’s death because he was both concerned about the level of gore and that it would take too much away from the punchline highlight of Spoon’s last words.
Laden with pop culture references throughout, Dog Soldiers has very much cemented itself as a cult classic. Although it is not Marshall’s biggest money maker – that claim belongs to The Descent – it is well worth a re-visit before Hellboy comes out. Drawing more on the comic books the rebooted Hellboy is meant to be more gory and darker in tone, which is why it has earned an R Rating. If Marshall is able to draw on the skills he demonstrated in Dog Soldiers, they will hopefully contribute to its success.