Sunday, June 8, 2008

George A. Romero Month, Film 6

Now at first this seemed like a stretch but then I thought about it harder and realized that it makes perfect sense really. I first caught Neil Marshall's Dog Soldiers in a heavily edited version on the sci-fi channel, but even without swearing or gore I really enjoyed it. Not only are there sly nods to Hammer Studios and Sam Raimi, but there's more Romero influence in here than the Day of the Dead remake. The reason this belongs under the banner of George A. Romero Month is because, not unlike 28 Days Later, it is an homage of sorts to both Night of the Living Dead (in that it's plot structure is nearly identical) and Day of the Dead (in that militarism plays a crucial role) and, not unlike 28 Days Later, I liked it better than the latter film.

Dog Soldiers
by Neil Marshall

The film has two prologues, one typical of a slasher movie, the other typical of a Steven Seagal movie. First we see two vacationing lovers celebrating their anniversary in a tent in the woods. The man, all foreshadowy like, gives his partner a silver letter opener. 8 seconds later their tent is torn open by some giant creature and both man and woman are devoured. Prologue part 2 shows us a soldier being put through some kind of bad-ass initiation test. The soldier, Cooper (maybe a nod to the villain of Night of the Living Dead), is being chased by men in uniforms who catch up to him almost immediately. His commanding officer, Captain Ryan, does the usual questioning of his capabilities at being a hard-ass and forces him to shoot a dog. When he refuses Ryan shoots the dog himself and dismisses the grunt.

The next time we see Cooper, he and a squad of five other men are dropped in the middle of a really pretty section of the scottish highland on some military exercise. As is always the case with these operations, it is supposed to be harmless (they're guns aren't even loaded with real bullets). Private Cooper and the other five (Sergeant Wells and Privates Joe, Terry, Bruce, and Witherspoon) rove about, and are secretly watched by another squad (though something about their sneakiness makes their involvement seem less than harmless). The men, unaware of any foul play make camp that night and start trading war stories. After Wells tells a most gruesome tale about a soldier and a landmine, someone or something makes a mutilated cow fall from the ridge overhead and scares the bejesus out of them.

The next day, soldiering resumed once again, they run into the unit who've been spying on them only to discover that whatever murdered that cow also worked over these guys pretty nicely too. Aside from a good deal of viscera, the only thing they find is a stockpile of unused weapons and Captain Ryan who is much the worse for surviving the attack; he can barely hold his guts in. They trade their empty Enfield rifles for live sub-machine guns, grab the injured Ryan and make a run for it. This is when we first get a glimpse of the beasties doing all the menacing. Bruce agrees to watch the rear as the others escape and gets so scared after his gun jams that he runs right into a jagged tree limb. When Wells goes back for him, a most big and bad wolf on two legs tears his stomach open and runs away. Cooper is barely able to tuck the man's insides inside and drag him back with the rest of the unit. The men seem just about out of places to run when a woman in yellow land-rover pulls up and tells them to get in. She takes them to a nearby farm house owned by a family she knows and they set about securing the place. From here on out it's very much Night of the Living Dead territory with the attacks on the secluded farmhouse becoming more frequent and an attempt to make use of a fuel-less car going awry and ending in an explosion. The difference (other than the fact that there are werewolves in place of zombies) is that there is also a few Hammer style mysteries to unravel. What became of the family who owns the house? Why do Ryan and Megan keep looking at each other that way? How does Megan know all that she does without having fallen victim to the family of wolves? And what's the significance of that first attack? This isn't exactly Indiana Jones stuff, and you'll guess the answers before Neil Marshall hands them to you but it's enough to keep Dog Soldiers from being stricty a Night remake with wolves.
Dog Soldiers is above all else, incredibly fun. There are plot holes aplenty and juvenile spots, but, it's still worth the hour and a half. Who doesn't like a story of one highly trained bunch of soldiers against another, especially when one troupe is has machine guns and a sword and the other composed of big, scary werewolves. The cutting, dialogue, and a few of the performances, like Sean Pertwee as Ryan, are pretty silly. Marshall as a first time director had a lot to learn about subtlety. The second prologue feels put-upon and the plot is nothing special, but it's a blast. The gore is up to code and is enough to satisfy any fan of the zombie genre. The coolest thing about the film is the wolf design, which is the best I've seen since the Howling. The wolves walk around on two legs, have heads that make use excellent use of sharp angles (nose, ears, shape of the head) in that they look very far from humanoid which takes your mind off of their human form, keeping their identities far from the viewer's mind. They are scary in design and their movements are also far enough from human to be frightening. They have a lot of menace in just their physical presence and so when they show up in the house for the climax it's remarkably spooky. The characters, though slightly boyish at times, are reasonable given my expectations with regard to english twenty somethings. Occasionally they hit a few false notes, but for a debut feature this is one strong film. I particularly love the photography and the locations (one of the best decisions any director can make is to set their movie someplace with personality. Terrence Malick, Jorge Grau and Eric Rohmer all understood this and made up for many other shortcomings they may have encountered [I'm thinking mostly budgetary]). The footage of the scottish highlands is gorgeous and could be a nod at Grau's Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (which let us not forget was designed to be the color version of Night of the Living Dead).
The Hammer elements are pleasing, to say the least (spooky house, torches, wolves, Christopher Lee character). The Sam Raimi elements are the most madcap (combinations of horror and humour work very well most of the time, Private Bruce's unspoken last name is Campbell). The Romero elements are put on the back burner because of the nature of the beast, but it doesn't take a magnifying glass to pick them out. First, and most obvious is the Night-style barricading second and third acts. The conflict between the men and Ryan is similar to that of Ben and Cooper in Night. It's also identical to the one between Rhodes and Sarah in Day of the Dead. Inner conflict in small spaces is Romero's forte and it's something Marshall has used a lot, as in this film and The Descent. Romero's jump-off point, that when you're stuck in the confines of the space, what your running from isn't your biggest worry, isn't as fully realized here as it could be and isn't Marshall's biggest concern; once he's set it up, it's more about the story of the seven people trapped in the house and their surviving, rather than their relationships with one another (the villain is also far too diabolical to be taken seriously). For example, the foundation for a relationship between Megan and Cooper, but it doesn't get very far, and disappears when the film plays it's final hand. Romero and Marshall were trying to make two different films, Marshall's a comic book style action film, Romero, an intelligent horror film. Both are frightening, both are brilliant despite budget restraints, and both are remarkably entertaining. 

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