Dog Soldiers: Collector's Edition (Blu-ray Review)
Release Date(s)2002 (June 23, 2015)
Studio(s)Millennium Entertainment (Shout!/Scream Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: C+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B
Director Neil Marshall hit the scene in 2002 with the darkly comic but ferocious werewolf movie Dog Soldiers, following it up with another indie horror hit The Descent. Since then, he has gone on to director other cult films, as well as award-winning episodes of Game of Thrones. With the latter being what is currently the most popular TV show in the world aside from The Walking Dead, it seems appropriate that Dog Soldiers should get a bit of a resurgence, especially in the U.S. where it never really got a proper theatrical release; premiering instead on the Sci-Fi channel.
The story follows a group of soldiers from the British Army as they’re dropped into a wooded area of the Scottish Highlands for a weekend training exercise. After discovering that the enemy unit has been decimated, they soon hole themselves up in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, fighting off a vicious pack of werewolves.
Despite the film taking place in Scotland, it was actually shot on location in Luxembourg, down and dirty with very few CGI additions later during post production. And while it contains many direct references to all things horror and sci-fi related, the movie manages to forge its own place in the annals of horror history as a return to the brutal and edgy movies of the past with practical effects and more interesting characters. The film does indeed spend much of its time setting up said characters prior to throwing them to the wolves, so to speak. The action-oriented moments are often quite frenetic and perhaps just a little over-the-top at times, while the gore is unapologetically up front and in full form. It’s clear that this was a horror movie that never had a pair of scissors taken to it in order to achieve a certain rating.
The cast is also very good, including Kevin McKidd from Trainspotting, Sean Pertwee from Gotham, as well as Liam Cunningham, who is known for many of his minor supporting roles in films like Hunger, Breakfast on Pluto, and War Horse. It’s a movie that uses interesting actors performing in more interesting roles than most horror films tend to have a lot of the time. And while it’s mostly a dark horror comedy, it plays it completely straight for most of its running time. There are plenty of great visual moments and some terrific action scenes, as well as some gut-punching carnage. It may be a bit on the predictable side, but the overall product is quite entertaining.
Now let’s get to the nitty gritty, which is the Blu-ray transfer found on this disc, but first let’s look at some background details before delving in and addressing this disc’s perceived problems. Prior to actual street date, Shout! Factory sometimes sends out early copies to reviewers, as well as customers who purchase their products through their web store. To say the least, the reaction to this release has been a somewhat controversial one. The title was originally announced for release in August of 2014, later being pushed back to March of 2015, and pushed back yet again to June of 2015. The reason for this is that the original 16 mm negative of the film (that was later blown up to 35 mm for theatrical distribution) had disappeared, much to the chagrin of its director and fans who were excited about the film’s new release stateside. It had been released once before on Blu-ray with a transfer that simply did not do the film any justice at all, being plagued with an overall softness, edge enhancement, loss of detail, and other digitally altered no-no’s. Without the original negative, Neil Marshall, the aforementioned director of the film, took it upon himself to find a satisfactory alternative, coming upon two 35 mm UK theatrical prints that were utilized for a new 2K HD scan of the film under Marshall’s personal supervision and approval. He later took to social media to comment upon how pleased he was with the results, admitting that it wasn’t the most ideal of conditions to release the film under, but what had been carried out was great regardless. None of this has really sat well with reviewers and customers alike, so let’s set the record as straight as we can, shall we?
For obvious reasons, I’m going to compare the previous Blu-ray transfer to this new one as they are vastly different in appearance in almost every conceivable aspect: color palettes, sharpness, fine detail, film grain, film damage, and contrast. But most importantly, the original Blu-ray was sourced from the original print of the film. To be a bit more clear, neither that release nor this new release are definitive, so we’re going to take a look at which is actually better (at least from my viewpoint). For visual evidence, let’s take a look at a few side-by-side comparisons, which I’ve pulled from both releases. The 2009 Blu-ray is on the left and the 2015 Blu-ray is on the right:
As you can see, there’s a remarkable visual difference that has caused an uproar in the Blu-ray community. For the new transfer, there’s heavy grain present, however it is quite organic in appearance—almost coming off as a 1970s grindhouse print of a movie. However, being that it’s sourced from a 35 mm blown-up print from a 16 mm print, heavy grain is unavoidable. The on-screen action also moves quite differently, perhaps in a more modern, action-film type way (examples of which include films like Traffic or The Hurt Locker). It’s certainly not a negative aspect, but upon comparison between the two transfers, it stood out. The film has also been aggressively color-graded, with strong greens, reds, and blues, but with otherwise washed-out looking colors. Fine detail is sometimes quite good, especially in close-ups, but background and shadow details are hampered by incredibly crushed blacks, which can be quite dark depending upon the way you’re viewing the film. This also tends to hide a lot of the minor CGI elements that stood out like a sore thumb in the previous transfer, which can be a positive aspect, depending on how you look at it. There’s also incredibly high contrast on display, more apparent than in most high definition transfers. It’s always been a somewhat dark movie, of course, but the contrast level in this transfer is cranked up to eleven. As far as print damage goes, there’s a thin black line that runs down the middle of the frame for much of the film, as well as some minor flecks and changeover cues. I didn’t notice any signs of digital tinkery at all, and if indeed there is, it’s difficult to spot due to how dark it is.
Having studied the evidence, it’s more than clear that Shout! Factory and Neil Marshall, unfortunately, just did not have the best elements to work with to create as pristine a picture as they had originally wanted to. All of the controversial flaws found within this transfer, including the color palette, crushed blacks, heavy grain, and high contrast, are all inherent to the print itself and cannot be altered without ruining what’s already present. Until the original negative is found, this is probably going to be the definitive presentation of the film, which I know is a bit of a controversial statement. Personally, I will take a theatrical print-sourced presentation free from softness and digital enhancement than the direct opposite. As evidenced by all of the early outcries from both fans and enthusiasts on social media prior to its release, my opinion isn’t going to be a universal one. Some will just flat out hate the way that this film looks now. Despite how dark it is, I had no problems following the on-screen action while watching it, even though all of it wasn’t completely crystal-clear. It’s certainly not unwatchable, but it is problematical, and your own personal preference will be the deciding factor on how you choose to take in this material.
The film’s audio selection, however, is something that hasn’t caused and probably won’t cause any controversy. There are two options to choose from: English 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD. The 5.1 track doesn’t do much in terms of surround activity, but presents the presentation cleanly enough. Dialogue is always clean and clear, while the sound effects have a lot more heft to them than I would have expected. The score is probably the most hampered aspect of the mix, but it’s presented the same way in both mixes. It’s an orchestral score that doesn’t really have much of an impact and feels almost tacked on most of the time, as opposed to being integral to the overall soundtrack. Dynamics are decent enough, particularly in action scenes, but speaker-to-speaker activity isn’t all that impressive. So it’s a clean and clear presentation on both tracks, but without much need for a multiple speaker setup. Subtitles have also been included in English for those who might need them.
For the supplemental section, there’s a very nice assortment to choose from. Most of the material presented is new, including an audio commentary with director Neil Marshall, the Werewolves VS. Soldiers: The Making of Dog Soldiers documentary, and the A Cottage in the Woods: Building the Set of Dog Soldiers with Simon Bowles featurette. Carried over from previous releases is the home video release trailer, as well as four online release trailers, two separate still galleries, and Combat, a short film from Marshall. Also included is a DVD copy of the movie. The previous Blu-ray release had no extras at all, but the previous DVD release from Artisan (now Lionsgate), as well as the UK DVD release, featured many more extras that are sorely missing from this edition. All told, they included two audio commentaries: one with Marshall, producer Keith Bell, director of photography Sam McCurdy, and actors Kevin McKidd, Liam Cunningham, and Sean Pertwee, as well as another with producers David Allen and Brian O’Toole; The Making of Dog Soldiers EPK featurette; a set of deleted scenes and a gag reel with optional audio commentary by Marshall; and two storyboard comparison segments.
By and large, Scream Factory’s Dog Soldiers: Collector’s Edition is not the final word on the film’s release here in the US, but it’s certainly the best of the bunch. Despite the controversial film transfer and missing extras, it’s still an edition worth owning. And despite all of the debate surrounding it, it’s also still a damn fine werewolf movie that horror fans should indeed be checking out if they haven’t already.
- Tim Salmons
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