Tuesday, June 23, 2015

DOG SOLDIERS (2002) Blu-ray Review

Dog Soldiers (2002) d. Neil Marshall (UK)

Dispatched to the Scottish Highlands, a half-dozen soldiers find their special training maneuver exercises interrupted by a S.O.S. signal flare. Upon arrival at the distress site, they discover the sole remaining member of a Special Ops team, Captain Ryan (Liam Cunningham), raving and bleeding profusely. Moments later, the team is besieged by mysterious, snarling assailants that decimate one of their number and leave their leader, Sgt. Harry G. Wells (Sean Pertwee), grievously wounded. Their panicked retreat under the command of Pvt. Cooper (Kevin McKidd) leads to a chance encounter with a local woman, Megan (Emma Cleasby), who helps them escape to a secluded cabin in the woods. Low on ammo and facing periodic but increasingly effective attacks, the pinned-down troops must use their every resource to combat the lycanthropic menace until the full moon sets.

Dog Soldiers first rolled onto the direct-to-DVD scene in the U.S. with little fanfare in late 2002, despite having enjoyed a vibrant festival run and theatrical releases in pretty much every other foreign market. I was still a bit internet-shy and not yet a steadfast subscriber to Fangoria, Rue Morgue, and the like; as such, I hadn’t heard much buzz. Indeed, all I had to go on was the murky werewolf-adorned cover art, boasting a “Jaws, Aliens, and Predator, with a werewolf twist” quote from The Face (who?) and promotional verbiage calling it, “A terrifying chiller in the tradition of Predator and An American Werewolf in London.” Now, some might be suckered in by this passel of elevator-pitch blurbs, but not this discriminating horror fan, darn it. When the best a promoter can say is that a flick is derivative of a bunch of other flicks, I’m not their huckleberry.

However, during the summer of 2004, I found myself in Lincoln, NE, doing an understudy gig, which meant I had a LOT of spare time on my hands. Meanwhile, Blockbuster Video was running their all-you-can-watch membership promotion where you paid $20/month and could have three movies out at a time with no additional charges. You can probably guess what happened next: I proceeded to watch three movies a day (and sometimes more) every day and burned through their horror section pretty quickly. Having passed over it the first three dozen visits, I finally, and with no small degree of reluctance, grabbed Dog Soldiers, figuring I might as well get it over with.

Surprise, surprise. I loved this fricking movie. I loved the performances, the wooded Luxembourg locations (standing in for Scotland), the camaraderie, David Bonneywell’s awesome werewolf designs, the coarse British laddiness (lad-ness?) of it all, the frenetic energy, and the dark humor that coursed through its 105-minute running time. As fate would have it, 2004 was also the summer I discovered Ginger Snaps which similarly impressed me. After an endless string of substandard Howling sequels, that goddawful American Werewolf in Paris, and so-so efforts like Silver Bullet and Bad Moon, it seemed folks had finally figured out how to make a decent shapeshifting flick. (Granted, they promptly forgot, but there was a moment and it was glorious.)

It was on the strength of this film that I led the charge to see The Descent the following summer, wanting to see more of what this Neil Marshall character had in store. Happily, his sophomore effort was graced with a worthy theatrical release courtesy of Lionsgate and was well-received by critics and audiences alike. Of course, he then proceeded to blow all said goodwill with his bombastic 28 Days Later-meets-Escape from New York-meets Mad Max mash-up Doomsday, but I digress.

Shout! Factory had originally announced they would be bringing Dog Soldiers to Blu-ray last summer, but due to a rights issue, we’ve had to wait a full year. However, that time was well spent; this Collector’s Edition BR/DVD release is packed to the dripping jaws with extras and the new 2K scan has been personally supervised by writer/director Marshall himself. (More on that in a second.) But even without all the bells and whistles, this would be a worthwhile acquisition simply for the high-def version of the film itself. Those name-dropping promotional quotes aren’t far off – there’s an awful lot of tribute/homage paid by Marshall to the films he grew up loving, including Night of the Living Dead, Evil Dead, Assault on Precinct 13, Rio Bravo, and Aliens... lots and lots of Aliens. (There’s also the now-classic Matrix quote that I won’t spoil for the uninitiated, but you’ll know it when you hear it.) But the good news is that Marshall has created a cracking feature in its own right as opposed to simply pulling a Bruno Mattei rip-off; the references don’t distract so much as enhance the viewing experience.

In addition to Marshall’s expectedly excellent commentary, newly recorded for the Shout! Factory release (I’ve not heard either of the two tracks that graced the UK release over a decade ago, but by all reports, they’re pretty enjoyable, especially the one featuring Cunningham, Pertwee, McKidd, and Marshall), the prime gravy comes in the form of Aine Leicht’s superb and comprehensive retrospective “Werewolves vs. Soldiers: The Making of Dog Soldiers” which clocks in at just under an hour. Leicht’s team tagged four countries in the process of collecting interviews from the cast and crew, with truly magnificent results. On hand are Marshall, production designer Simon Bowles, DP Sam McCurdy, special effects supervisisor and creature designer Bonneywell, FX legend Bob Keen (Hellraiser), producer Christopher Figg (also Hellraiser), and actors McKidd, Cunningham, Pertwee, Cleasby, Leslie Simpson, and the scene-stealing, macho grunt Pvt. Witherspoon himself, Darren Morfitt.

Also included is the “A Cottage in the Woods” featurette, a look at the model of the sets created by Bowles (a lovely bit of production design geekery, two still galleries, a theatrical trailer, and Marshall’s short film Combat, which takes a humorous look at the pub pickup scene and the battle of the sexes.

Now to address the “controversy” over the quality of the transfer. For the record, it looks perfectly fine to me; unless you are a bitmap nerd, you’ll probably never even notice. But there are those out there who have been quite vocal in their discontent, posting less-than-professional hate messages on Shout! Factory’s Facebook page. In response, here is the official statement from Marshall for viewers’ edification, also taken verbatim from Shout’s Scream Factory FB page:

“It seems myself and Scream Factory are experiencing some major flack regarding the Dog Soldiers blu-ray release. So I figure I should fill in a bit of background here. First of all, I wholeheartedly support the Scream Factory release. The previous blu-ray (not available in the UK) was made without any involvement from me, and I remember when it came out the general consensus was that the picture quality was not great. All credit to Scream Factory for wanting to involve the film-maker in this process as much as possible.

“When they first announced this blu-ray release last year, the original plan was to work with me to create a whole bunch of original extras based on new interviews with all the key cast and crew, but that the movie itself would essentially be the same version as last time. I asked them to delay the release because I felt that we could do better for the fans and try and track down some original film elements to make a fresh HD transfer. Since the movie never received a theatrical release in the US (although I believe it screened at The Egyptian for a week) I knew we’d have to turn to the UK to find the best possible elements available.

“What I didn’t know was that after an exhaustive search I’d discover the original negative was nowhere to be found. Neither the UK producer, distributor or film processing lab has any idea where the negative is. Without it we simply could not achieve the kind of high quality HD transfer I would have wished to deliver. Instead we managed to get hold of 2 original cinema prints, and despite being 13 years old and having a few scratches here and there, they represent the most accurate version of the original theatrical release that we could find.

“However, as close as they are, they are just cinema prints, and in terms of colour timing for the new blu-ray we were limited to the parameters of the print itself. Which means, in basic terms, if the contrast is high on the print and the blacks are crushed (as indeed they are) then there is no more visual information to be gained from them. You can’t brighten up the image and see what’s hidden in the darkness like you can when you’re working from the negative or from digital. All that will happen is that the black will turn to grey and just give the movie a washed out flat look.

“Another issue seems to be that one scene in particular now seems to be a daytime scene when it used to be a nighttime scene. Well, this is wrong on both counts. It’s meant to be a dusk scene, and since it features shots of the sunset then it’s graded accordingly - with a warm sunset glow that then gets cooler and darker as it fades into night. Again, this is all taken directly from the print. It was never intended to have such an extreme dark blue tint over it. We had major continuity issues filming this sequence because the weather kept changing from dull grey and rainy to bright sunlight. This is far from ideal for pulling off convincing day-for-night photography.

“Like it or not, when the movie was originally released in the UK in 2002, the blacks were crushed, the contrast was high, the colours were rich and the image was grainy as fuck, because let’s not forget, this movie was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm. So under no circumstances was a blu-ray of this movie ever going to look as smooth and pristine as a movie shot on 35mm or any of the hi-res digital formats we use today. In fact, transferring it to HD actually highlights the grain just as it does any other detail, so this version inherently looks more grainy than before. It’s unavoidable unless you have the money to do a full restoration and clean-up, but again, you need the negative for that.

“So, is this version of Dog Soldiers the best it could ever be? No. Of course not. If we had the negative and a shit-load of cash we could have done a lot better. Is it the best it could be under the circumstances? Yes. Will it appeal to everybody? No. But that's movies for you!

“At the end of the day everybody involved, myself included, put in a lot of work to give the fans a blu-ray worth forking out their hard-earned cash for. And nobody involved, myself included, got paid anything for doing it. There are no royalties, ancillaries or anything else. This is not an attempt to exploit the fans. It was, on my part, an attempt to give the fans something new and unique, and not simply a repackaged version of what’s already out there.”


So, there you go.

Dog Soldiers is available now from Shout! Factory (with new cover art by Nathan Thomas Milliner) and can be ordered HERE:


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