After re-watching Dog Soldiers it took me five days to venture back into the woods to walk the dog, and I made sure Film Club Liz came with me.
I’ll not be hiking through the Scottish Highlands any time soon though, which joins the Yorkshire Moors and deserted late-night London Underground stations on my werewolf avoidance list.
Despite that, werewolves are my favourite cryptozoological beasts, even though it turns out I’ve been pronouncing them wrong my whole life. (Though I’m still eyeing my Twitter poll results with suspicion. Where-wolf? Really?)
It was with trepidation that Liz and I approached our film club re-watch of Neil Marshall’s 2002 classic. Would it hold up as well as the superglue stopping Sarge’s guts falling out? I’m always telling everyone it’s my favourite werewolf film but in truth I’d only seen it once, in the middle of the night, when I lived deep in the countryside, and it scared me so much I took it straight back to Blockbusters* before I could risk going to bed.
I loved it then, despite being terrified, though at that point I was left baffled by the “comedy” in its comedy-horror description. I can’t think why, as Sergeant Wells (Sean Pertwee) pumping out horrified wisecracks at the same rate his sausage-like intestines pump out of his torso after a werewolf attack is the stuff of legend.
And legends he and his team are, as they hole up in a remote cottage and try to stay alive until daybreak – not realising that the werewolves won’t go home because they are home, and the soldiers are the Three Little Pigs, Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks rolled into one.
Nearly two decades on I was terrified once again, though I finally got the jokes; and loved the performances so much I was genuinely sad when another of our brave boys got eaten.
There’s been talk of a sequel for ages (it was meant to be a trilogy) and apparently there’s now a good chance of it happening. I’d prefer a prequel though, to find out how the werewolf family came to that isolated glen, and whether they’ve been werewolves down the generations (there’s a huge sword in the house so maybe their ancestors have been eating soldiers for centuries).
Harry G. Wells (HG Wells, geddit?) and his mostly Scottish-Geordie troop, Asimov, Le Guin, Clarke, Huxley and Orwell (I’m kidding, it’s Cooper, Terry, Bruce, Spoon and Joe) are in Scotland on an exercise, pitted against a Special Forces squad led by Captain Ryan (Liam Cunningham). Ryan and Private Cooper have history, as a month earlier Cooper failed the Special Forces selection process for refusing to kill a dog.
The exercise is a set-up; Ryan is actually there to capture a werewolf so it can be weaponised, and Wells and his men are the bait. Ryan and the MoD have massively underestimated the threat though: “there was only supposed to be one!” he mutters in agony when he’s found injured by Wells, his own men reduced to steak and sausages.
Soon it’s getting dark and the wolves appear (initially, in the only am-dram touch in the movie, as black silhouettes). Wells is injured and Bruce dies after getting himself impaled on a tree branch. It’s Mysterious Megan (Emma Cleasby) who saves them, appearing in her Landrover just in time, and taking them back to an empty house owned by the absent Ùath family that she claims to know (úath is a Celtic word meaning horror or terrible creature).
“Like Withnail and I only neater,” said Liz of the cottage, which I suppose makes the Head Werewolf Uncle Monty.
There is stew bubbling on the stove but as the only meat for miles around was two wild campers killed in the film’s opening minutes, I’d not be tucking in myself. The solders are not so reticent: “it’s the training mate! Never waste an opportunity to eat,” says one when Megan advises culinary caution, and it’s another sign that this is two troops pitted against one another, dog soldiers vs dogged soldiers. (That rank and file squaddies are used as fodder, sent by top brass to die in war, is highlighted in the decision to use them as bait for the werewolves.)
The idea that the werewolves act like a trained military unit – thinking, learning, working together – makes this a more evenly-matched fight, though Wells’s men do have an inexplicable love of standing near open windows with their backs to them, a literal rookie error.
Just as the squaddies and lycanthropes balance each other out, so do Megan and the house’s collie dog, Sam. Both are ambiguous in their actions: Sam is descended from wolves, and early on tries to eat the bloody bandages holding Wells’s intestines in place; Megan swaps sides at her convenience.
The soldiers are constantly resourceful, fighting back with pots and pans and boiling water, and near the end the brilliant Spoon (Darren Morfitt) almost wins a straight-up fist fight with one werewolf, until a second appears and he knows the game is up. “I hope I give you the shits,” he spits, before being killed.
The werewolves surround the house, and the men inside try to stay alive until sunrise. Megan, once she realises they’re not a rescue mission to save her, alternately drip feeds them information on their opponents and their habits – the eyebrows meeting in the middle thing is apparently “Dark Ages paranoia”, though I’ve always assumed it was propaganda put about by Noel Gallagher’s ’90s nemesis Damon Albarn – and misdirects them into getting themselves eaten.
Meanwhile both the disembowelled Wells and Captain Ryan start to miraculously recover, the first evidence that they’re changing.
The werewolves are massive, walking on two legs, towering over the soldiers and looking frankly quite icky: giant naked mountain men who haven’t shaved or been to a dentist in years. Marshall has said he presented the werewolves already transformed (except for Megan) because the transformations on American Werewolf In London were so good they couldn’t really be topped. (Dog Soldiers only had a budget of $2 million.)
Megan seemed far less clear-cut than on our (separate) first watches. It turns out Liz and I both originally assumed when Megan talked of being part of the Ùath family she meant literally, a daughter maybe, but certainly a blood relation at all times of the month, not just during a full moon.
That doesn’t entirely make sense: she speaks with an English accent for a start, when the family have lived here for generations. If you read “family” as being turned by them and forced to be part of the pack, it fits with her tendency to keep herself separate to them, holding off transforming and staying in the house while they prowl around outside. (Liz pointed out that when Ryan turns, he also keeps away from the main pack, eventually finding Cooper in the basement.)
On the other hand, after telling the soldiers she’s a zoologist and has a house in the next glen, she later admits the house doesn’t exist so she could easily be lying about how she became a werewolf. She knows Ryan after helping him on a previous visit, though I’m not sure how much he really knows about her.
On balance I think she is what she says she is, an English zoologist who was bitten or scratched after she arrived, and now wants out, though she changes tack when she realises the soldiers aren’t here to help her, and her animal instinct is always pulling her back to the werewolves anyway.
She misleads them about the garage, claiming that the werewolves are hiding there, then while the soldiers are risking their lives blowing up the empty building lets the werewolves into the house by the back door.
Eventually, with the troop reduced to just two – Cooper (Kevin McKidd) and a transforming Wells – Sarge sends Cooper down to the basement with Sam the dog, while he causes an explosion in the kitchen, killing himself and the werewolves and reducing the house to rubble.
Down in the basement Cooper has one more battle when Were-Ryan appears, and it looks like it’s the end, until he finds the silver paper knife owned by one of the stewed backpackers. He kills the werewolf, and in the morning walks out into the sunlight with Sam.
Despite his ordeal Britain is much more interested in the football score, and in the only tabloid to report on it, the headline WEREWOLVES ATE MY PLATOON! is tucked away below ENGLAND 5: GERMANY 1. I think Sarge and the rest of the troop would probably have approved.
*Ask your great granny.
This week’s post-watch google: Cooper tells Megan that superglue was invented by the Americans to close wounds during the Vietnam War, which is partially true. Though if one of my children is attacked by a werewolf we’ll just have to hope Pritt Stick does the same thing.
The Good-Bad Film Club rating
HOWLLLLLLLL good was this? We wolfed this down. Good-good, as one might say after eating backpacker stew.
Dog Soldiers is available on digital and physical media: