Release Date(s)2002 (August 22, 2022)
Studio(s)Pathe (Second Sight)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A
- Overall Grade: A+
[Editor’s Note: While the UHD in this release is Region-Free, the Blu-ray is Region-B locked.]
The modern werewolf genre has been a durable but malleable one, with the basic tropes proving surprisingly adaptable into a variety of different situations and narratives. That’s especially interesting given the fact that most of those tropes have little to do with traditional werewolf folklore, but were instead largely created out of whole cloth by writer Curt Siodmak for the 1941 classic The Wolf Man (although he was building on ideas that were first explored in the 1935 film Werewolf of London). Yet as Carleton Young said in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend, and so it’s variations of Siodmak’s werewolf lore that have become indelible in popular culture. That’s a big reason why the genre has proven so versatile: audiences are already familiar with the basic conceit, and that fact frees filmmakers to spend more time working it into different contexts. Diverse productions like The Company of Wolves, Ginger Snaps, Bad Moon, and Teen Wolf have all proven how resilient that werewolves can be, and in 2002, writer/director Neil Marshall added his own unique spin to the genre with Dog Soldiers.
It’s an irresistible concept: a group of low-ranking soldiers on training maneuvers in the wilds of Scotland end up encountering a pack of werewolves, and are forced to fight for their survival. The title Dog Soldiers couldn’t be more perfect, as it applies equally well to both sides of the conflict. Yet Marshall had a bit more up his sleeve than that simple description might imply. The basic situation is an obvious homage to Walter Hill’s classic Southern Comfort, where National Guard soldiers on maneuvers found themselves fighting off some angry Cajuns with nothing more than blanks in their weaponry. In Dog Soldiers, however, the lack of ammunition is quickly solved, and the film morphs instead into a rural siege story similar to Straw Dogs—although in this case, the real twist is that the home that the soldiers are defending isn’t their own, so it’s actually an inversion of the dynamic from Peckinpah’s film. Werewolves can be potent metaphors, as films like The Company of Wolves have demonstrated, and Dog Soldiers isn’t shy about its parallels to the Vietnam War. The real invaders here are the soldiers themselves, and they’re clearly outmatched by their less sophisticated enemy.
Marshall assembled a stellar cast for Dog Soldiers, headlined by Kevin McKidd, Sean Pertwee, Liam Cunningham, and Emma Cleasby. McKidd won his role when Jason Statham left to work with John Carpenter on Ghosts of Mars instead of waiting for the production to get off the ground, and while Statham would have been memorable, McKidd has always had a unique charm of his own that’s perfect for the film. Marshall also put together a great effects crew, and thanks to his insistence on using practical makeup rather than CGI, the film hasn’t dated as badly as some other werewolf films of the era. He solved the problem of how to create convincing transformations by not bothering to show them at all, and Dog Soldiers is none the worse for lacking any—in fact, it’s arguably better, because that helps to maintain the mystique surrounding these particular werewolves. Marshall served as his own editor, and he wisely chose not to linger on the monsters, cutting around them quickly instead. He showed them just enough to be satisfying, but not so much that it risks the illusion being shattered.
If there’s one flaw with Dog Soldiers, it’s that Marshall’s editing is a bit too busy overall. The action scenes are sometimes excessively chaotic, with a confusing sense of screen direction. It’s still miles away from the completely incoherent visual anarchy of a Michael Bay film, but Marshall’s confidence in handling action scenes has improved considerably since he made his feature debut with this film. That’s a minor quibble, however, as Dog Soldiers is still a werewolf movie for the ages. It’s a fine example of how a talented director can take a clever concept and overcome the limitations of a minuscule budget, and it proves just how versatile that the werewolf genre really can be.
Cinematographer Sam McCurdy shot Dog Soldiers on 16 mm film (in the Super-16 format) using Arriflex cameras with spherical lenses. The film was blown up to 35 mm for its theatrical release, which was framed at 1.85:1. Dog Soldiers has had a lengthy and very troubled journey on home video prior to this point. The first Blu-ray release in 2009 utilized an aging master that was originally created for the DVD, and it simply couldn’t hold up to high-definition scrutiny. The source was a 35 mm print, and it had been massaged digitally with a very heavy hand in order to try to overcome any deficiencies from the blowup process. It was plagued with noise reduction, ringing, and other artifacts. Shout! Factory attempted to rectify those problems for their 2015 Collector’s Edition Blu-ray, but the results were controversial, to say the least. The original negatives still couldn’t be located, so they used two different 35 mm prints as their source. While the new 2K scan did offer some improvements, the grain was extremely heavy, and the contrast range was severely blown out. At least the noise reduction was gone, but the excessive contrast obscured almost as much detail in its own way. Thankfully, Second Sight films was able to track down the original elements to produce this new digital restoration. The 16 mm camera negative was scanned at 4K resolution by Silver Salt Restoration in the UK, with an interpositive being used for several effects shots. Everything was then painstakingly cleaned up and graded for high dynamic range (both HDR10 and Dolby Vision are included on the disc). All of their work was approved by both Neil Marshall and Sam McCurdy.
The results are a dramatic improvement, to say the least, though there are still some limitations due to the source. Is there 4K worth of information in a 16 mm frame, even Super-16? Not really, but the levels of fine detail here are significantly better than in any of the previous versions. The IP-derived shots with optical effects like on-screen titles are naturally softer, but they still integrate reasonably well with the surrounding material. The grain is finer and more refined, though of course it’s still just a bit heavier than it would have been with a 35 mm negative. The contrast range has been greatly improved, not by expanding either of the extreme ends of the spectrum, but instead by increasing all of the gradations in between. Details that were once lost in the shadows are now visible again—in other words, it’s better contrast, not greater contrast. If anything, the black level in some of the nighttime footage is elevated compared to the 2015 Shout! transfer, but that’s more accurate to the original cinematography, and it means that detail is no longer washed out in a muddy sea of black. The colors are muted throughout the film, with drab earth tones predominating, but once again that’s an accurate representation of how the film was produced. While the differences between this version and all of the previous releases are unquestionably dramatic, the 1080p Blu-ray included in this set uses the new master, so those differences are far more subtle. The biggest advantage is in terms of grain management thanks to the lower levels of compression on the UHD, but even those differences would barely be noticeable on anything but the largest of displays. Everything may also appear to be ever so slightly crisper on the UHD, though that’s still going to be hard to judge on a smaller display. It’s a great transfer regardless of whether it’s viewed in 1080p or 2160p.
Audio is offered in English 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English SDH subtitles. The 2.0 track is encoded for surround sound, but since the 5.1 mix fully utilizes the split surround channels, it’s the best choice between the two. Either way, these are the exact same soundtracks as in previous versions, with identical strengths and weaknesses (including the same loud popping sounds at a couple of points). There’s a slightly harsh edge to everything, and the music by Mark Thomas sounds a bit thin. There’s not much deep bass, though there’s a bit of rumble in the score at 34:00, as well as a handful of other places. The surrounds consist primarily of muted environmental effects, though they do spring to frenzied life during the attack scenes, when bullets, shell casings, and werewolves all whiz around the viewer. It’s not a spectacular track, but it serves the film well enough.
Second Sight’s 4K Ultra HD release of Dog Soldiers is a two-disc set that includes a Region B-locked Blu-ray with a 1080p copy of the film. It also includes a 108-page booklet and 6 art cards. The booklet features essays by Alison Peirse, Anya Stanley, Zoe Rose Smith, and Craig Ian Mann, as well as a collection of production stills, and interviews with Marshall and producer David E. Allen. Everything is housed in a rigid slipcase with new artwork by Chris Malbon. The following new and archival extras are included on both the UHD and the Blu-ray:
- Audio Commentary by Neil Marshall
- Audio Commentary by David E. Allen and Bryan O’Toole
- Audio Commentary by Alison Peirse
- Werewolves, Crawlers, Cannibals, and More (HD – 38:18)
- A History of Lycanthropy (HD – 33:22)
- Werewolves, Folklore, and Cinema (HD – 23:23)
- Werewolves vs. Soldiers: The Making of Dog Soldiers (HD – 61:50)
- A Cottage in the Woods (HD – 13:26)
- Combat (HD – 7:54)
- Trailers (Upscaled SD – 4 in all – 4:25)
- Photo Gallery (HD – 4:30)
- Gag Reel and Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary by Neil Marshall (Upscaled SD – 8:58)
The commentary with Marshall was recorded for the 2015 Scream Factory Blu-ray release of the film, so ignore his comments regarding the transfer, since they only apply to the one that was used for that disc. He discusses the origins and conception of the project, correcting some errors from the Wikipedia page for the film in the process—and someone seems to have been listening, because those errors are now fixed. He admits that he got carried away with the references in the film, though he does helpfully identify some of them. Interestingly the character of Spoon wasn’t originally named that way as a setup for the reference to The Matrix; that was a brainstorm that Marshall had later on during the production. He also provides plenty of details regarding the production, including the fact that the film was shot on Super-16 in order to save as much money as possible for the practical makeup effects. It’s still a solid commentary track, even if some of the information contained in it is now a bit dated.
The commentary with producers David E. Allen and Bryan O’Toole is the oldest one on this set, as it was originally included on the 2002 Artisan DVD release of the film. Like Marshall, they spend some time identifying references in the film, and they point out a few continuity errors and other bloopers, too. They’re candid about identifying a key story element that they insisted that Marshall add, over his objections, and they also note the link with Southern Comfort. They do spend some time talking about another commentary track that isn’t included with this edition (more on that later), so like Marshall’s commentary, there’s some dated or inaccurate information here. While there’s a bit of inevitable overlap with his track, it’s still interesting to hear the same things from a different perspective—rather than soldiers vs. werewolves, these two commentaries are the Americans vs. the English.
The newly-recorded commentary track features Allison Peirse, who is an associate professor at the University of Leeds, as well as the author of four books including Women Make Horror: Filmmaking, Feminism, Genre. She takes a different approach to analyzing Dog Soldiers, demonstrating how it’s as much influenced by the slasher genre as it is by previous werewolf films. Sex still equals death in Dog Soldiers, but it takes a different approach since it’s more interested in the male body than the female. She sees Kevin McKidd’s character Cooper as the final boy, rather than the final girl. If it wasn’t already clear from that description, she identifies one of her main sources for that line of reasoning: Carol Clover’s seminal 1992 classic Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. (Any film library that doesn’t include a copy of Clover’s book is a film library in name only. It’s that good.) Peirse also traces the growth of werewolf fiction in the nineteenth century, as well as the development of the cinematic genre during the twentieth century—she refers to Craig Ian Mann’s book Phases of the Moon: A Cultural History of the Werewolf Film for the latter. Her primary touchstone is still Clover, however, as she spends much of her time evaluating the ways that male bodies are traumatized in the film. She pauses a few times, and she also describes the action on the screen occasionally, but this is still a fantastic commentary track, since it examines the film in a different light. I’ve been a fan of Clover’s work since 1992, but I’ve never though of Dog Soldiers in these terms before, so I’m grateful for what Peirse has accomplished here.
Aside from Pierse’s commentary, there are three other new extras on the disc. Werewolves, Crawlers, Cannibals, and More is an interview with Neil Marshall. As the title indicates, it covers his entire career to date, not just Dog Soldiers. He explains how his father influenced his love of horror, and then talks about the production of Dog Soldiers, The Descent, Doomsday, and Centurion. (He’s still baffled that Hollywood gave him the money to make Doomsday.) He closes by talking about working in television in massive projects like Game of Thrones, and then returning to his roots by making The Reckoning on a limited budget. A History of Lycanthropy is an interview with author Gavin Baddeley, who collaborated on the FrightFest Guide to Werewolf Movies with Marshall. He examines the different types of cinematic werewolves, where Dog Soldiers fits into the genre, and the ways that it impacted British horror films. Werewolves, Folklore, and Cinema is a video essay by Mikel J. Koven, author of Film, Folklore, & Urban Legends. He separates actual werewolf lore from what he calls “Hollywood hokum,” and spends some time looking at the different kinds of metaphors werewolf films have provided.
The first two of the archival extras were created for the 2015 Shout! Factory Collector’s Edition. Werewolves vs. Soldiers: The Making of Dog Soldiers is an hour-long documentary about the production, produced and edited by Aine Leicht. It includes interviews with members of the cast and crew like Marshall, Sam McCurdy, production designer Simon Bowles, Kevin McKidd, Sean Pertwee, and Emma Cleasby, as well as several other actors, producers, and makeup artists. It combines the interviews with film clips, behind-the-scenes footage, and various production materials to provide a nicely comprehensive look at the making of the film. There are some amusing moments, especially when Pertwee and McKidd both give their own versions of what happened when McKidd accidentally broke Pertwee’s nose. A Cottage in the Woods is an extended interview with Bowles, who gives a more detailed explanation about the design and construction of the sets for Dog Soldiers.
With the exception of the Photo Gallery, the rest of the extras date back to the 2003 DVD from Pathe that was released in the UK. Combat is a short film directed by Marshall and photographed by McCurdy that literalizes the war between the sexes at a British pub. The Gag Reel and Deleted Scenes can be played with or without an optional commentary by Marshall. The deleted scenes are interesting, if nonessential, but it’s nice to see Liam Cunningham actually lightening up a bit during the gag reel.
While that’s a pretty impressive collection of extras, it’s still not all-inclusive. That’s not too surprising, considering that how many different releases that Dog Soldiers has had in a variety of territories. The biggest omission is the commentary track from the 2003 UK DVD that featured Marshall, McCurdy, McKidd, Pertwee, Cunningham, and producer Keith Bell. For whatever reason, that hasn’t seen the light of day since then, aside from a 2019 UHD released in Germany by Koch Media. The 2002 short featurette The Making of Dog Soldiers is also missing, as is the collection of B-roll footage, and the EPK interviews with members of the cast and crew. Frankly, most of those aren’t too big of a loss, especially since Werewolves vs. Soldiers supersedes the older making-of documentary. The missing commentary would be nice, but there are probably legal reasons for its omission, and Peirse’s commentary more than compensates for it.
Shout! Factory has released Second Sight’s restoration of Dog Soldiers on UHD in North America, also as a two-disc set that includes a Region A-locked Blu-ray copy of the film. It has nearly identical extras, though it omits the Gag Reel and Deleted Scenes, and adds a second stills gallery. That’s not a major difference, but the superior packaging for the Second Sight release gives it a clear edge. It’s worth noting that the Shout! version offers only the commentary tracks on the UHD, and it confines the rest of the extras to the Blu-ray. That’s not the case with Second Sight, so while their Blu-ray is Region B-locked, you can still safely order this set even if you don’t have a Region-Free player, as the UHD isn’t locked. (Thanks to the usual stellar work from Fidelity in Motion, the bit rate hasn’t suffered from including all of the extras on the disc, either.) Whichever version that you choose, it’s going to be a night-and-day improvement over previous releases, with an extensive collection of extras that will keep you busy for days on end. The Second Sight version will just keep you a little bit busier thanks to the deleted scenes and the booklet, and it will also look far prettier on your shelf. It’s highly recommended.
- Stephen Bjork