Thursday, October 9, 2014

HubrisWeen, Day 4: Dog Soldiers (2002)

As I have said previously: I love werewolves, but werewolf movies tend to be unforgivably terrible. Much like killer crocodile movies, I will watch them if given the opportunity, but I never expect anything good.

It's not, therefore, very hard for me to be pleasantly surprised when I end up liking a werewolf movie. It's not hard to be better than any of the sequels to The Howling, for instance. However, sometimes it's possible for me to encounter a werewolf movie that rocks my face off--and that is a joyous occasion indeed.

We open in the highlands of Scotland. A young couple, whose names I am not going to bother providing for reasons that should be immediately obvious, are out camping in celebration of the bloke's promotion or something. as the two sit around the campfire, his partner presents him with a decorative dagger and then she playfully admonishes him that, "It's solid silver, so don't lose it!"

He really ought to have listened to her, but when someone or something outside starts to unzip the door of their tent as they are in the process of getting hot and heavy--he reaches for a torch. (A flashlight to us Yanks, as I'm sure many of you might object that a flaming stick would make an excellent weapon) Well, illuminating the interloper just serves to insure that he gets a clear view of his partner being yanked out of the tent by her ankles before her blood splatters all over him. And then whatever dragged her to her doom comes back for him...

Meanwhile, in a completely different remote area of Wales, Private Cooper (Kevin McKidd), is fleeing from several armed pursuers and a dog. He almost escapes, particularly after taking out three of his pursuers with one torch--so I guess it does work as a weapon--but the dog is a bit better than he expected and he is soon surrounded. Captain Ryan (Liam Cunningham--Davos Seaworth to you Game of Thrones fans) congratulates Cooper for his almost-successful escape, whilst holding a gun to his head. As it turns out, this was a test in order for Cooper to see if Cooper was worthy material for special forces unit.

Cooper almost passed as he evaded capture for close to 24 hours. However, Ryan has a task for Cooper that he must complete if he doesn't want to blow his chances of being accepted--Cooper must shoot the dog. Cooper objects that he will not kill a dog for no reason. Well, Ryan has no use for a softie on his team so he tells Cooper he has failed--and then Ryan shoots the dog himself. That Cooper then slugs Ryan on the jaw means he's definitely blown his chances and Ryan now just plain hates him.

Four weeks later, in the highlands of Scotland again. A squad of British Army soldiers is dropped off via helicopter for an exercise. The orange plastic on the barrels of their rifles indicates that they are toting blanks only. Among this squad, we recognize Cooper. In short order we are introduced to the troop's leader, Sergeant Harry G. Wells (Sean Pertwee); our comic relief, Private "Spoon" Witherspoon (Darren Morfitt); Private Terry Milburn (Leslie Simpson); Corporal Bruce Campbell (Thomas Lockyer); and the dour Private Joe Kirkley, who is very upset about missing a football game for this exercise. And yes, many of the character names are jokey references, but you won't notice in the film itself.

We quickly learn, via the bantering and bickering that sets the personalities of our characters, that the exercise is a competition against special forces. Obviously this is a bit of a sore spot for Cooper, and Wells gives his sympathy but at the same time can't help telling Cooper that he's glad to still have him in the unit. As the group makes their way through the woods, Cooper mentions he's heard stories about disappearances in these woods--like the couple from the beginning.

Little does the group realize they're being watched from afar. And look who it is on the other end of the binoculars: Cooper's old friend Ryan. Ryan radios someone else that the "flock are headed for the fold", so it's pretty clear that this is not as typical a training mission as the squad was led to believe.

That night, the squad warms themselves around a campfire at the base of a cliff. They exchange quips about what scares them, with Cooper joking that his fear is, "Spiders. And women. And spider-women." But it's Wells who brings the room down by telling them the story of what scared him during a tour in Kuwait. See, he knew a bloke who got a tattoo of the Devil and said that if he died his soul would go to heaven but the Devil could have his skin. Well, soon enough that bloke stepped on a land mine and was reduced to charred, unrecognizable chunks--except for the perfectly untouched tattoo of Old Scratch.

The mood manages to get even lower when a mutilated Highland cow plunges onto their campfire. Terry reacts by trying to kill a dead animal with an automatic rifle full off blanks. The group laughs about it once they calm down, but now they know something is amiss. In the morning they follow the trail of blood left by the cow--and discover the Special Forces camp. What's left of it, that is. There are blood and entrails strewn about and all the radio equipment is smashed. All the guns in the camp are fully loaded, so nobody got off a shot before they were ambushed. Even weirder, the camp is strewn with the sort of equipment you would use to trap a wild animal--like tranquilizer darts and nets.

However, Ryan suddenly jumps out of hiding, still alive. Mostly. His chest has been torn up by claws or teeth and all he can say is, "There was only supposed to be one," over and over as they bandage him up. Just then, Bruce discovers that their own radio, which can't get a signal, has a tracking device inside it. Spoon is the first to notice that dark is falling--and then the sound of unnatural howls reaches the squad's position.

All the real weapons are salvaged and the squad fall back in the direction of a road by pairs. Bruce takes the rear, but when a target appears his gun jams and in the process of fleeing he impales himself on a tree limb. Whatever was chasing him finishes the job. Wells finds Bruce's body, but then Bruce's killer finds him and Wells gets his gut slashed open. Cooper drives off Wells' attacker, shoves his commanding officer's guts back into his belly, and drags him away. Spoon manages to nearly get himself run over flagging down the only vehicle in the area, which is driven by Megan (Emma Cleasby). She's been looking for the squad because she heard gunfire the previous night.

They all pile into her car, but one of their attackers--by now clearly a werewolf--lands on the car and smashes an arm through the ceiling. One knife through the forearm later, it breaks off its attack and the group escape. Megan explains that she's a zoologist and fairly new to the area but she knows a safe place--a farm just up the road. She knows the family well. Except, when they get to the farmhouse it's deserted: save for the surprisingly non-creepy border collie that Cooper finds.

(Yes, I think border collies are creepy. It's that stare)

After helping themselves to the food--including something that looks like pork--the group pauses to count ammunition and Megan explains what they're dealing with. She had come to investigate the stories that Cooper related earlier, when people would go missing during full moons. A full moon like they're experiencing now. Yes, she does believe that their attackers are werewolves. No one really believes her, but that's of little consequence. They need to get Wells and Ryan medical attention and soon.

Cooper and Spoon go back out to check the car. Well, the car's engine has been torn to shreds. Worse, their attackers have followed them. Cooper and Spoon blow up the car to cover their retreat back into the house. Their attackers attempt to gain entrance, but the group manages to drive them off. Of course, it's quickly becoming apparent that their bullets are only driving their attackers away--so maybe Megan's story isn't so crazy.

The squad begins to barricade the windows and search for weapons, while Megan and Cooper tend to Wells. They may not have the means to stitch Wells up, but they do have whiskey and superglue--so Wells drinks himself into a stupor and then goads Cooper into punching him unconscious so that Cooper and Megan can stuff his organs back inside and glue him back together. Downstairs, Joe finds a wood axe and Spoon finds a broadsword, which ought to come in handy in close quarters.

As Wells sleeps off his wounds, the others prepare for another werewolf onslaught. They don't have to wait long. They manage to keep the werewolves out for the most part, but then one gets into the upstairs bedroom--where Wells is fast asleep. Cooper barely manages to come to his aid and wakes him up in  time for them both to pump one werewolf full of bullets until it falls out the window. Unfortunately, just when they all think they've driven the werewolves off again, one grabs Terry through an open window and carries him off.

Cooper decides it's time that Ryan, who is definitely seeming to have made an improvement, owes them some answers. Especially once the group subdue him and rips off his bandage, to find that his wounds have healed impossibly fast. They tie him up, intending to torture answers out of him, when another werewolf attack sidetracks their plans. It's then that Cooper realizes something--the family isn't gone because they were killed by the werewolves. They are the werewolves. They aren't going to leave because the soldiers are in their home.

Megan suggests that there is a Land Rover in the barn if someone can hotwire it. Joe can, but they need a distraction. "Something fast and loud," Cooper says. One by one all eyes turn to Spoon, who wasn't listening.

Spoon runs out of the house on one side with a flare and Joe runs out the other. Spoon is a perfect distraction, but once Joe hotwires the car he discovers one werewolf is still in the barn--chewing poor Terry's head from his shoulders. Joe quickly drives out of the barn to the front door, but as the others are gathering to join him he realizes that he is not alone in the car. He goes out fighting, but the others find a car full of blood and entrails and a pissed off werewolf waiting for them.

Back inside the survivors press Ryan for answers. He reveals that the whole point of this "training exercise" was to use Wells and his men as bait so they could capture a werewolf for special weapons division. The goal being to use werewolves the same way dolphins are used to plant bombs on ships. Wells, who is also beginning to feel better, angrily attacks Ryan--only for Ryan to turn into a werewolf. Luckily, Spoon still has that sword and rams it through Ryan. Shame the sword's not silver, though, and Ryan bashes through a window into the night.

So now Cooper, Spoon, Megan, and Wells are outnumbered and fast running out of ammunition. Dawn is a long way off and the werewolves aren't gonna give them a moment's peace. And Wells sure has recovered quickly for a man whose guts were in his hands a few hours ago. What if the threat isn't only from outside?

I was already pretty well predisposed to like Dog Soldiers the first time I saw it. Werewolves are, after all, my favorite monster and the DVD promised me the kind of upright werewolves that far too few movies outside of The Howling have ever delivered. Even better, as I would soon find out, the werewolves were actual practical effects. Puppets and men in suits wearing stilts will almost always be preferable to CGI on the sort of budget this film had going for it--aside from just also being awesome.

You get a decent look at the werewolves, too, and they still hold up really well. Mostly they're kept in shadow and mist, of course, as any good monster should be, but the film doesn't deny you the delight of such scenes as Spoon's climactic one-on-one fight with a werewolf.

The film is rather unique as werewolf films go. Usually werewolf films deal with someone struggling with their lycanthropy or in some way try to humanize their werewolves as people afflicted with a curse they never asked for--Dog Soldiers uses werewolves as the monsters in its Night of the Living Dead meets Aliens set-up. There are token attempts to humanize its werewolves--like Megan arguing that the werewolf family are "good people" or Cooper and Wells having an amusing argument about whether the ability to hold back turning into a werewolf is like needing to take a piss or needing to take a shit--but really they're just faceless monsters to be warded off.

And it's awesome.

Part of why the film works so well is that its characters are exactly as likable as they need to be. Of course we loathe Ryan from the start--having the guy introduced by needlessly shooting a dog isn't exactly subtle--but the rest, even as thinly sketched as they may be, are hugely enjoyable. A particular standout being Spoon. The comic relief character is an easy character to turn into an odious chore to experience, but through the script and Darren Morfitt's performance, he becomes one of the standout characters in the film.

Neil Marshall had never directed a feature before this film, and it was one hell of a debut. Indeed, I have yet to see a film from the man that wasn't enjoyable--even Doomsday, which I feel was his weakest film--and he hit the ground running with one of my absolute favorite werewolf movies. It moves at a great clip, particularly once the werewolves show up, and is filled with great set pieces and action. And its jokes actually mostly translate to a non-UK audience.

You could always say it was a howling good time.

"Don't shoot! I'm sorry I made a howling pun!"

So endeth day 4 of HubrisWeen. Check out what the other maniacs reviewed by clicking the banner above.

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