Loved ''The Descent''? Try ''Dog Soldiers'': Director Neil Marshall's last film went straight to video in the States but is as good as his new one, says Chris Nashawaty. Plus: other great werewolf flicks

By Chris Nashawaty
August 08, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
Dog Soldiers: Kobal Collection

Dog Soldiers

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Loved ”The Descent”? Try ”Dog Soldiers”

Lately, horror movies like Hostel, Saw, and The Hills Have Eyes seem more interested in sadism and gore than in actually being scary. Their whole M.O. is getting the audience to blow chunks rather than experience anything as artful as terror. That’s why The Descent is such a delicious late-summer surprise. It mixes the claustrophobia of Alien with the backwoods dread of Deliverence. And, as an added bonus, there’s a bunch of fit women in really tight spelunking gear.

In most of the reviews so far, The Descent‘s British writer-director, Neil Marshall, has been anointed as an out-of-nowhere rookie sensation. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, his last film — 2002’s Dog Soldiers — was amazing. Surprising, since it somehow fell through the cracks and went straight-to-video in the States.

Now, in most cases I’ll admit ”straight-to-video” is synonymous with caveat emptor. Unless you’re a fan of softcore erotic thrillers starring past-their-prime Playmates, the low-rent martial-arts mayhem of Don ”The Dragon” Wilson, or the creaky vehicles of lesser Baldwins, straight-to-video is a barren wasteland of crap. But Dog Soldiers is worth hunting down. Especially if you dig a good werewolf movie. And let’s be honest, who the hell doesn’t?

Soldiers starts off with a bang (literally… nudge, nudge) as a young Scottish couple on a romantic camping trip are disemboweled while getting freaky in their tent. Next, we’re introduced to a unit of laddish grunts on an exercise mission in the eerie Scottish highlands. Their leader tells an unsettling story around a campfire about a buddy of his who got blown to smithereens in Kuwait during the Gulf War. Then, just as his men are creeped out, the shredded carcass of a dead animal lands with a thud right next to them. They freak.

Next, the unit’s doing their rounds in the woods and they discover the guts-and-entrails remains of another unit. The only survivor is a shady commander who’s mumbling some terrified gibberish about how ”there was only supposed to be one!”

One what?

Cue the werewolves.

Soon, the ghost story-telling leader’s stomach is ripped open by a werewolf, and command is passed over to take-charge Pvt. Cooper (the excellent Kevin McKidd, from HBO’s Rome). Then, a local woman (Emma Cleasby) in a Land Rover shows up out of nowhere and takes the men to an abandoned farmhouse, where they board up the joint and wait for the lycanthrope siege. They don’t wait long.

Here’s the thing: The first half of Soldiers, where you don’t really see the werewolves, just the carnage they inflict, works better than the second half, when you see them full-on. They’re kinda cheesy. Like Teen Wolf cheesy. But they more than make up for it with their will to kill. There’s also an element of utter freakiness to them, because they walk on their hind legs.

From then on, Soldiers pretty much turns into a classic siege film, like The Alamo or Assault on Precinct 13 or Night of the Living Dead. I’m not going to say who lives and who dies and who may or may not have been a werewolf all along. Let’s just leave it at this: Before sunrise, a lot of blood is spilled.

Which brings me to my Top 6 Werewolf Movies:

1. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
David Naughton’s transformation still looks cool. All hail Rick Baker!
2. The Howling (1981)
Good stuff from the director who brought you Gremlins, and the mom from E.T.
3. The Wolf Man (1942)
Granted, Lon Chaney Jr. looks like a palooka and he’s not much of an actor either, but this is a gem. And the grandfather of them all.
4. Silver Bullet (1985)
Corey Haim as a wheelchair-bound werewolf hunter! Added bonus: a wacko Gary Busey performance… as if there’s any other kind.
5. The Company of Wolves (1984)
In which werewolves get classy, thanks to director Neil Jordan and a kickass Angela Lansbury (you heard me).
6. Ginger Snaps (2000)
Two teenage girls discover the hard way about the connection between puberty and werewolfism.

Feel free to disagree.

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