Thursday, June 8, 2017

Film Appreciation - Predator with Werewolves

Howls of Film Appreciation for one of Cody Hamman's favorite werewolf movies, Dog Soldiers.

For decades, theatrical horror marathons have been an annual October tradition in Columbus, Ohio. I discovered these marathons, which have gone back and forth between twelve and twenty-four hours in length over the years, in 2001, and they immediately became one of things I would most look forward to every year. I wrote about a few them of them here on Life Between Frames, and unfortunately have been missing them the last few years. But when I was going, they provided some amazing cinematic experiences. It was always great to watch the type of movies I love the most, horror, with a crowd that appreciated the madness on the big screen just as much as I did. The audiences were always incredible, cheering and laughing at all the right places, making the films even more enjoyable to watch.

The film line-ups for these marathons would feature their share of classics, but there would be some brand new movies booked for them as well. Premieres of new releases that might not make it to the multiplex. For example, Let the Right One In made its Midwest theatrical premiere at the 2008 marathon - and as of that viewing, it became one of my favorite films of all time.

Another fantastic film that made its Midwest theatrical premiere at one of the marathons was writer/director Neil Marshall's Dog Soldiers. You really have to specify "theatrical" on this one, though, because the movie's screening at the marathon came a few months after it had already aired on the Sci-Fi Channel. I had actually caught glimpses of the film while it was on Sci-Fi, but didn't really get into it.

Seeing it on the big screen with a marathon crowd, I got into it.

The film is, as I have always described it, basically Predator with werewolves. That description is how I got my father to watch the movie on DVD a few months later - he was never one to watch horror and wouldn't have watched a werewolf movie otherwise, but he was a fan of Predator, so I was able to convince him to watch Dog Soldiers by drawing the comparison. I knew once he was watching it, once the film got past the straightforward horror movie opening sequence in which a young couple on a camping trip is attacked by an unseen monster, that it would have enough action to keep his attention and win him over. And I was right, he enjoyed it.

The characters are a group of British soldiers on a training exercise in the Scottish Highlands, going up against a Special Forces team. Among the soldiers is Private Cooper (Kevin McKidd), who had previously tried to join the Special Forces team but failed out when Captain Ryan (Liam Cunningham) ordered him to kill a dog for no reason. Cooper refused to kill the dog - establishing himself as a likeable hero. Ryan killed the dog anyway - here we have our detestable human villain.

The training mission goes to hell when the soldiers find that all of the Special Forces guys - except Ryan, of course - have been butchered by monstrous beasts. The things responsible for the attack on the campers at the beginning, and the disappearances of other people in the forest recently. Werewolves. Given that Ryan says "There was only supposed to be one!" when the soldiers find him, it appears that he knew what was going on out here all along.

The werewolves attack, causing the death of one soldier and slashing open the stomach of Sergeant Wells (Sean Pertwee). Even though Wells' guts are hanging out, he doesn't die from this injury. It's something he and his men will have to deal with as the film goes on, stuffing those guts back inside him and sealing the wound with super glue.

The soldiers are rescued from this initial attack by a local woman named Megan (Emma Cleasby), who picks them up in her truck and drives them to a nearby cabin. That cabin is where the majority of the film plays out, which makes it a perfect movie to watch in a marathon alongside the Evil Dead movies. The original The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II were in that marathon line-up with Dog Soldiers. Not only that, but Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell was in attendance to introduce The Evil Dead, do a Q&A, and sign his book If Chins Could Kill. It was a great night.

Dog Soldiers is well aware of its classic horror predecessor; it pays tribute to what came before by featuring a character, an ill-fated soldier, named Bruce Campbell. The movie is really packed with movie references and nods, but not distractingly so.

This movie could also be compared to Night of the Living Dead, given the fact that it becomes a siege film at the cabin the woods, with werewolves in place of zombies. It even has a character named Cooper. Still, Predator is the comparison that comes to mind most prominently. Unable to call for help and unable to escape the forest, the soldiers put up a desperate fight for survival that stretches through the entire night, trying to keep the cabin secure as the werewolves relentlessly try to get inside to tear them to pieces.

The action that ensues during this standoff is truly awesome, and that marathon crowd I watched it with gleefully took it all in, cheering throughout, which just got the adrenaline pumping even more. A couple of the films producers, David E. Allen and Brian Patrick O'Toole, were at the theatre that night, filming the crowd reaction, and Allen said we were the best, most reactive and positive crowd he had ever shown the movie to. He wished he could include the crowd reaction on the DVD, but the discs had already been finalized at that point.

Dog Soldiers is a really kick ass, exciting movie that deserved to have a wider theatrical release in the United States instead of going the Sci-Fi and DVD route. It's a hell of a lot of fun, and that theatrical viewing ranks right up there with the best cinematic experiences I've ever had. I'll always remember that viewing and think of it every time I rewatch the movie.

At the time, there was talk of a sequel, but unfortunately that never happened. I know there were a couple different directions considered - the sequel could have featured more werewolves, or it could have been about the survivor going on to encounter different classic monsters - but neither take got off the ground. That's slightly disappointing, but a sequel wasn't really necessary. Dog Soldiers is a perfect standalone film. And one of the best werewolf movies ever made.

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