R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: Rob's Fearfest '09 Finale: A Dog Eat Man World

Alas, October is coming to a close, but not before I get one last column in. While I’m pretty sure the next two months will be pretty awesome, as I look forward to making November “Ninjas and Assassins” month in honor of Ninja Assassin, and then my annual end of the year festivities, I do love and then miss my annual October movie haunts. Expanding my usual field from just Slasher movies to monster flicks added a lot more fun this year, and I really can’t get enough.

There are a lot of things I love in my horror flicks. I love mood and stylish direction, such as you get with the best examples of Giallo. I love nearly every cheesy ‘80s Slasher cliché. I love the spectacle and tension of ‘70s studio Horror like The Exorcist or Alien. Perhaps more than any of other Horror trope, though, I love monsters; the bigger and scarier the better.

While pound for pound, I’d say moodier Horror entries like Suspiria and Halloween get my vote for the best the genre has to offer, I can’t deny my love for monster flicks. There are few things I love more than watching a group of survivors stuck in a house trying desperately to keep out some big ugly creature. It’s such a simple premise for a movie, yet so often it can be incredibly effective, from Night of the Living Dead to Aliens to The Mist.

Well monsters are what I got for you this week.

Dog Soldiers Starring Sean Pertwee, Kevin McKidd, Liam Cunningham. Directed by Neil Marshall.

If I was going to pick a single Horror movie as my favorite from this decade, hands down I’d pick Neil Marshall’s The Descent. I’m slightly claustrophobic, so the story of a bunch of women spelunkers already had me pinned to my seat as they survived cave-ins and near deaths, and then terrified me as they had to fight against the cave creatures that came after them. The movie is a masterpiece of horror in my opinion, and while Marshall may have stumbled a bit with the underrated Doomsday, I think he’s a voice that’s going to be around for a while. Thing is though, before I even saw The Descent, I was pretty confident with Marshall as a director, and the sole reason for this confidence was Marshall’s debut, Dog Soldiers, a movie I grabbed on a whim one night in a video store, but afterwards couldn’t stop talking about it.

Let’s face it, werewolf movies are either awesome (An American Werewolf in London, The Howling) or they’re crap (An American Werewolf in Paris, Blood and Chocolate) and there’s not a lot in between (as was covered recently by my new colleague Robert Saucedo!). To be honest, even with its roots in Universal’s classic pantheon, it’s not a giant subgenre to begin with. Werewolves aren’t sexy like Vampires, and I suppose there are only so many variations you can make on the original themes handed down from The Wolf Man before the formula gets stale. Thing is though, if you can manage to make a standout one, it’s bound to get noticed because there isn’t a ton of competition.

That’s exactly what happened to Marshall here, as he did something that I don’t know if I’ve ever seen from a werewolf movie before; turn it into a siege film. Just like George Romero and Sam Raimi before him, Marshall went out and made a movie about people trapped in a house surrounded by evil, but gave it his own little twist by adding the old lycanthropes to the mix (and I guess setting the whole thing in Scotland) . The result is a gritty, CGI-free awesomefest that showed a ton of promise that was absolutely delivered on when Marshall went on to helm The Descent.

First off, one of the real strengths of the movie is that Marshall fills it with characters you really like. This goes double for Private Cooper (Rome’s Kevin McKidd), whose just the sort of scrappy hero you want for this type of movie. From one of the film’s opening moments you can see he’s got the bad ass goods because he’s on some sort of Special Forces tryout that is going incredibly well for him until he gets tossed out for insubordination when he won’t cross a line his commanding officer wants him to. Months later he’s been busted down and runs with a group of grunts that are meant to be the unwitting victims in a training exercise with the same Special Forces group, but the exercise seems to be scrapped when a pack of werewolves join the mix.

I really love the vibe that is going on with these soldiers in the movie. It’s too often that you see a movie like Doom or Resident Evil that tries so hard to emulate what worked in flicks like Aliens and Predator that they just end up making their characters cartoons instead. The characters in Dog Soldiers work because you really buy they’re just normal guys, even if some of them have seen some major crap in their day. They like to sit around and compare war stories and talk about soccer all day, and it never feels fake or some sort of put-on like you often get in these types of movies.

Case in point, two of the most memorable of the movie are Sean Pertwee’s Sgt. Harry G. Wells and Darren Morfitt’s character, who they just call Spoon. Pertwee’s take on the gruff veteran is a really likeable one, as he manages to temper his world weariness with a little humor. You can see why his troops love him so much, the direct opposite of the stone killers that Cooper rebukes earlier in the movie.

It’s Spoon, though, who manages to give the movie a boost whenever it needs it, energetically driving a lot of the film’s action scenes and never failing to deliver on a good joke. A scene in which he has to act as bait for the team as they try to hotwire a car is particularly funny, the character asking the monsters to chase him if they’re “hard enough”. When his gun fails him at a certain point in the movie, the moment looks to be his end, but then Spoon decides to go hand to hand with the creatures, and the sequence ends up being one of the movie’s big highlights.

As for the creatures themselves, they’re blissfully all done with animatronics, makeup and body suits. Right now, there are few things I hate more than bad looking CGI monsters, and it’s wonderfully refreshing to watch a movie that avoids that pitfall.These things don’t beat Rick Baker’s immortal work on An American Werewolf in London, but they do beat the crap out of anything found in some Hollywood pictures, most notably Van Helsing. Even though I think it looks terrific overall, I worry about the CGI transformations found in the upcoming remake of The Wolfman, and I wish that more big budget pictures would take note of how effective the werewolves in a movie like this are, as opposed to the awful looking monsters in a movie like I Am Legend, which absolutely flounders once you get a look at that picture’s computer generated vampires.

Even if the monsters aren’t up to Rick Baker’s standards, Marshall does the smart thing and only shows them in glimpses. Taking a page from Spielberg’s Jaws or even the original Predator, we only get glimpses of these monsters, even during many of the film’s action sequences. A “money shot” would probably only hurt how effective looking these creatures are, so Marshall instead lets your imagination do the work, often shooting the werewolves in shadow or only letting us get an arm in frame with giant claws. Still, your mind thinks it’s gotten enough of the monster and that’s really what counts. Just like he did with The Descent, Marshall ratchets up the intensity with the film’s action, creating a great sense of claustrophobia that helps to sell that these men are surrounded.

The violence is also visceral, but never cartoon-like, with the gore shown effectively, but kind of sparsely. Much like a good war movie, the blood and guts aren’t dwelled upon, but you know that they’re there, and I think that adds to the realism of the film, helping to sell the fact that 12-foot werewolves are eating all the good guys. Marshall knows what he can do effectively, and never manages to push that envelope too far as to hurt this movie.

While it never tries to eclipse the movies it is usually compared to like Night of the Living Dead and The Evil Dead, Dog Soldiers very much manages to borrow from both of those effectively and to create an awesome horror experience. The director is somehow able to keep the seams from showing for the most part, and makes another case for just how effective low budget horror can be. If you love monster movies, you hate what they’ve done to werewolves in crap like Van Helsing and Underworld, and you’ve worn out your copies of An American Werewolf in London and The Howling, then definitely give Dog Soldiers a try, and I’m pretty sure you won’t be disappointed.

Well, this brings my Fearfest to a close, but there’s plenty of fun to come in the next few weeks, and next Halloween will be here before you know it.

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