On 1st September 2001, England beat Germany 5-1 in the qualifying stages of the 2002 World Cup. But according to the cult classic Dog Soldiers – the 2002 action-horror feature debut of director Neil Marshall – that footy match wasn’t the only epic clash that took place on that date…
Now celebrating its 18th anniversary, Dog Soldiers tells the story of a squad of British troopers on manoeuvres in the Scottish Highlands. Disgruntled at the prospect of missing a legendary football match, their situation worsens (to put it mildly) when they discover their opponents in a war game – a special forces unit – brutally slaughtered. This is no longer just a training exercise – and their real opposition isn’t exactly human.
Just in time for Halloween, a new 4K restoration of Dog Soldiers is being made available on digital platforms, alongside a theatrical re-release in select cinemas. “They’ve re-released it a couple of times – I think Neil was furious because the last time they released it was on a Blu-ray but it wasn’t bumped up [in quality],” Sean Pertwee, who played the gruff Sgt. Harry G Wells, tells RadioTimes.com.
“Now It’s getting a cinema release and it’s on 4K, UHD, all that kind of stuff… I can’t believe it. I’m amazed. I’m very proud, because very rarely do things like this have this sort of continuation that they’re still relevant, they still speak to younger generations. The fact that it is still a liked film… I think it’s great, because we had such a great experience doing it.”
Almost two decades on from its debut, Dog Soldiers still has a global fan following, with its popularity in the United States – where it premiered not on the big-screen, but on the Sci-Fi Channel – providing especially surprising to Pertwee. “It’s as popular in America as it is in Europe – now, I’m sorry, but half the cast in it are Geordies, and I don’t f**king understand anything they say! But it’s as beloved over there as it is here.”
Even if you’ve not seen the film, the elevator pitch – soldiers vs. werewolves – is bound to provoke a strong reaction one way or the other, but this wasn’t actually how the movie was sold to Pertwee, who originally read Marshall’s script in the late 1990s without knowing the premise.
“I wasn’t quite sure what the hell was going on initially… I couldn’t work out whether they were aliens, or whatever, ’cause of course you get [the reveal] later on in the film. No one said to me, ‘It’s a werewolf film’ – I thought it was Nazi aliens at first, to be honest with you.”
Despite his uncertainties, his first meeting with Marshall – who’d previously only directed short films – was enough to convince Pertwee to buy into the project. “Something as an actor you always look for is a writer or creative team that is 100 per cent convinced of their own world, so I was very impressed with him because I couldn’t fault him, he knew everything about every element of it.”
Indeed, it’s the “attention to detail on Neil’s part” that Pertwee credits with elevating Dog Soldiers above the standard monster movie fare. “He’d thought about every element of it – and his belief and his vision was something that was for me sadly lacking in some of the bigger productions that I’d been doing at the time. The helmsman knew what he was doing, knew the world that he was in, even if we didn’t. So there was a real sense of confidence.”
It took a number of years but Marshall was eventually able to get Dog Soldiers off the ground, with the majority of filming taking place in Western Europe and Luxembourg sitting in for Scotland. “They rang me up and said, ‘We start in two weeks’ – I hadn’t heard from them in ages so I couldn’t believe it,” Pertwee recalls.
Kevin McKidd – cast as the film’s chief protagonist Private Cooper after Jason Statham dropped out – joined the Dog Soldiers cast and crew a day before filming was set to begin, with the first day’s filming for Pertwee involving a leap from a helicopter and 12 pages of dialogue alongside his “squad” including McKidd, Darren Morfitt (Private ‘Spoon’ Witherspoon), Chris Robson (Private Joe Kirkley), Leslie Simpson (Private Terry Milburn) and Thomas Lockyer (Corporal Bruce Campbell – named after the Evil Dead actor in a nod to one of Marshall’s favourite horror franchises).
“You get to know people very quickly when you’ve got 12 pages of dialogue to do in a day, and the characters were locked in stone from that day,” Pertwee says. “We went and drunk some beers and that was it – we were the squad and I was the Sarge.
“The speed that we were shooting was insane but we were all on it, everyone was on the same page… half the time we hardly knew we were shooting or where the camera was, which is great… no time for vanity!”
As a filming location, Luxembourg offered great tax incentives but was lacking in Scottish cottage locations – a problem when a large portion of the film sees the squad pinned down in just such a lodge by their werewolf foes. Production designer Simon Bowles and his team ended up erecting a structure built from scaffolding and clad with timber, plaster and fake slate tiles on the roof.
“They actually built basically a cottage in a warehouse in Luxembourg, so when Kevin and I go through the ceiling, we [really] go through the ceiling and end up in the kitchen,” says Pertwee. “The only thing that was faked was the trap door going into the cellar for the final big battle with the werewolf and Kev, that was in a separate set, but the rest of the house was for real.
“It really was an extraordinary experience like that – we were crammed in there, it was like Zulu.”
The film was also, unusually, shot in chronological order – a production decision that lent the filming process an unexpected poignancy, since it meant that when a member of the squad was picked off by the werewolves, the actor in question would depart the set for real. “They were taken with their bags straight onto a plane and flown back to Blighty, because it was a relatively low budget movie – we didn’t have the money to keep people on, or wait to make sure there was no scratches on the film or anything like that. They were sent off packing, so there was a real sense of loss.”
Eighteen years later and much of what impressed critics and fans about Dog Soldiers at the time – its wit, the strength of the central performances, and in particular the depiction of the werewolves – still holds up. Rather than use VFX to create the lycanthropes, Marshall instead spent “a big proportion of the budget” on building costumes for performers to wear, hiring dancers rather than stuntmen to emphasise the werewolves’ grace and agility.
“The guys that were in the suits, they were all walking on sort of ballet wooden clog blocks, and they were crammed into these incredible heads they couldn’t see properly out of, so they were about nine foot, they were staggering around… I remember the first time Kevin and I saw them, we just got the giggles,” Pertwee admits.
“It was only when I sort of come to, after having my guts stuck back together again [after Sergeant Wells is attacked by one of the creatures] and one or two of them are looming over me… it was truly terrifying, it’s what nightmares are made of.”
The commitment to balancing out the film’s fantasy elements with a sense of realism didn’t just extend to nailing the squad’s military lingo, building a Scottish cottage in Luxembourg and having the werewolves appear ‘in camera’ though – an on-set anecdote that will be familiar to Dog Soldiers fans involves Pertwee drinking real booze to prepare for a scene in which his injured soldier is swilling alcohol to numb the pain, and subsequently taking a real blow to the face after McKidd misjudged a stage punch in the same scene.
“I just remember my head snapping back and then looking at all the stand-by props and FX guys standing there going, ‘Jeez!’ – they called cut and everyone went ‘You alright?’ and I was laughing thinking it was just all the fake muck and blood that was around, but it was my own claret!” Pertwee laughs.
“It was interesting seeing that scene at the premiere, because I didn’t quite remember it!” Of his commitment to the craft, he says he “wouldn’t recommend” the approach of drinking for real on-set. “But we were in a very safe space!” he adds with a grin.
Upon release in May 2002, Dog Soldiers earned raves on both sides of the Atlantic, with the BBC calling it a “rip-roaring comedy action fest” that was “full of boisterous energy”, while the Seattle Times labelled it “one of the most glorious unsubtle and adrenalized extreme shockers” since Marshall’s favourite The Evil Dead.
Though there were talks in the years following about a sequel – without Marshall at the helm and allegedly titled Dog Soldiers: Fresh Meat – no follow-up ever emerged. “It was written originally as a trilogy, ” Pertwee confirms. “I’m broken-hearted that it never came to pass. The second was going to be about the science of creating these dog soldiers – these lycanthropes – and the third one was going to be us as dog soldiers, which I would personally have loved to have seen and loved to have done.”
The prospect of a remake doesn’t appeal, though, to the film’s star. “I think [the original] was lightning in a bottle. There was talk there was going to be an American remake, but it would be a shame. It is what it is – I don’t think you could recreate it. I don’t see really the point.
“I’m always… when people remake things, like Jacob’s Ladder, I’m like, ‘Why? Leave it alone!’ – it’s like remaking The Red Shoes… why? I’m shooting above here, but you know what I’m saying! I think it was of that time and of that moment.”
Even without any direct sequels, though, the film’s legacy is considerable, Pertwee says. “We’ve got a great history of making horror movies in our country. Hammer Horror… they had almost a theatre-like company of actors… Ingrid Pitt and Christopher Lee and whatever, and they’d shoot these things in two-three weeks.
“It felt at the time like that Dog Soldiers had the same sort of energy and it sort of re-birthed that genre. Many films came after that, which I think we can be very proud of.”
Dog Soldiers is available as a new 4K restoration to download now, and will be screening in select cinemas from 23rd October
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