There is no shortage of werewolf movies scattered across the century of horror cinema. Whether it’s the original lycanthropic classic The Wolf Man, which spawned the very first shared cinematic universe, or the genre’s still unmatched final form with 1981’s An American Werewolf in London, lycanthropes of all shapes and sizes have loped and howled their way into our hearts through the decades.
But even among those highlights, there’s a certain sameness to far too many werewolf movies: The tragic individual, the creeping dread as the full moon draws near, perhaps a prophecy detailing how the poor soul is doomed to kill even those they love the most when in the grip of the curse, the final fate involving something silver. You know how it goes.
But 2002’s Dog Soldiers dispenses with most of that, allowing the audience’s general pop culture knowledge of the genre to do the heavy lifting in service of something wilder, louder, and even stranger than what we’re usually accustomed to when werewolves are around. Instead of a movie about an individual laboring under the shadow of a curse, we get a whole pack of werewolves. And instead of that pack feasting on unsuspecting villagers or their loved ones, they’re up against heavily armed soldiers on a training exercise gone horribly wrong.
The result is one of the loudest, goriest, and unexpectedly funniest werewolf movies ever made.
The origin of Dog Soldiers can be traced back to 1995, when director Neil Marshall and producer Keith Bell were involved in a small film production together.
“It was fairly chaotic and people weren’t getting paid and it was the classic ultra low budget deferment based kind of production,” Marshall recalls. “It was great as a learning experience and a first feature to be involved with, but it was clearly not a way forward as a going concern of making features for a living.’”
It was there that the pair “made a pact” to work together on a feature of their own, with Marshall directing and Bell producing, and that ended up being Marshall’s “soldiers versus werewolves” concept. Marshall had a first draft script by 1996.
“I’d always wanted to do a siege movie, war movie, or a military movie, and combine that with my love of horror,” Marshall says. He did exactly that. If you were to walk in late on Dog Soldiers and miss its opening scene, you might be forgiven for thinking you were watching a war movie, as a group of young soldiers engages in a training exercise with their hard-bitten sergeant. But as their training progresses, and their unit gets picked off one by one, the true nature of their foes begins to reveal itself, before finally devolving into full “siege movie” territory, with the last survivors locked in a cottage, trying to keep a circling pack of werewolves at bay.
Despite the fact that so many of its characters are dispatched (in increasingly gruesome fashion) in its first act, Dog Soldiers is a rare breed of horror movie in which there are no easy victims, and virtually every one of the ill-fated squaddies is distinct and fun right from the outset.
“I think that’s ultimately what made the story so lasting,” Marshall says. “It wasn’t just some two dimensional characters being killed by werewolves. I wanted to make those soldiers completely believable.”
But to achieve that, they needed the right cast.
Rounding up the Troops
Because of its remote wooded setting, Dog Soldiers has no need for extras, and there are no unnecessary characters. But the keys to the film are Sgt. Harry G. Wells (Sean Pertwee), Pvt. Lawrence Cooper (Kevin McKidd), Capt. Richard Ryan (Davos Seaworth himself, Liam Cunningham), and the mysterious Megan (Emma Cleasby). These are the film’s final four standing (for a while at least), and the rising tension between them once they’re looked in the cottage in the woods is a highlight of the film.
But the course of Dog Soldiers history could have been very different if some of the original casting had stayed in place. For one thing, the production had initially targeted Jason Statham for the role of Cooper.
“I’d seen him in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and I thought this guy’s got real charisma, he’s going to be a star, he’d be great for Cooper,” Marshall says. “He stuck with us for a little while, but then he got offered Ghosts of Mars. My advice to him was ‘We don’t know when we’re going to get to make this. You’ve got a chance to go and work with John Carpenter. Go and work with John Carpenter.’ He went off to the States and the rest is history.”
While casting what-ifs are always fun, it’s difficult to imagine Statham’s taciturn brooding having the same effect as the earnest forthrightness McKidd brought to the role of Cooper. But Statham wasn’t the only soon-to-be big name who almost made it into the film, as Marshall had offered the role of Spoon to Simon Pegg, long before the actor had his big screen breakout in Shaun of the Dead. And while Marshall describes his meeting with Pegg about the role as “charming and lovely,” the actor had already promised Edgar Wright that Shaun of the Dead would be his first film role. (Darren Morfitt, in his first film role, ended up a perfect fit for Spoon).
Despite losing two stars of this caliber, Marshall believes “the movie gods were on our side” throughout the casting process. Particularly with the arrival of Sean Pertwee as Sgt. Harry G. Wells. Pertwee had become aware of the project when a draft of the script was passed to him by none other than Jason Isaacs.
“I didn’t quite get it initially because it was dense, the dialogue,” Pertwee recalls in a Zoom chat with Den of Geek. “The syntax was dense and I didn’t understand a lot of it. There was a stream of these characters’ consciousness which I then later realized, of course, was how the British army speak to each other, constantly jibing each other.”
A meeting between Pertwee and Marshall went well, and the actor offered his assistance with the project.
“I said, ‘Please use my name if that helps in any shape, way, or form,’ because I was working a lot at the time.”
Three years later, he got the call that filming would begin in two weeks.
“Now you look back and you just cannot imagine anybody else in those roles,” Marshall says. “What we got was this ensemble group of more experienced actors, like Liam Cunningham and Sean Pertwee and Kevin McKidd and then less experienced actors like Chris Robson and Les Simpson and threw them all in the mix together and they became very nurturing to each other. They were looking at Sean as the boss of the squad, and he looked after the other guys. I swear by the end of the shoot, these guys would have fought and died for each other. They were so tight.”
Despite the challenges of filming in cold, rainy conditions in the woods, Pertwee looks back on the experience fondly.
“On our first day we did the very first scene where you see us all piling out of this helicopter. It was a 12-page scene and we did it virtually in one take,” Pertwee recalls. “You get to know each other very, very well on a first day when you’re nervous anyway, and you don’t know the people around you necessarily and you’re supposed to be emulating a crew, a unit of people that have been together for many years, and we did by the end of that. We went to the pub and drank lots of beer and the rest is history. We became a family from that day, and that was all down to Neil and his impeccable casting.”
With its tightly-knit strike force of heavily armed soldiers as its central characters, like Predator or Aliens before it, Dog Soldiers is as much of an action movie as it is a horror film, and that was always key to Marshall’s approach.
“I think the movie that made me want to make movies in the first place wasn’t a horror movie, it was Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is my all-time favorite movie,” Marshall says. “I think the thing that links together the films that I love and the films that I make and the films I want to make, is action more than horror. I try to find ways for playing action into whatever I’m doing, because I just love doing action stuff. So I knew I wanted to do an action horror film.”
To help keep that action as authentic as possible, there was a consultant on set who was a former French Foreign Legion servicemember, who “told us what we needed to know” as Pertwee put it.
Dog Soldiers was filmed somewhat chronologically, with the first half’s scenes in the woods shot before they moved to the werewolf house. Those outdoor shooting conditions may have helped the actors cement their onscreen chemistry.
“It was wet and muddy and at one of our locations you just couldn’t stand up in it,” Marshall says. “Everybody was falling over left, right, and center. It was Luxembourg in the winter. It was a bit grim, but I think it lends itself to the way the film looks, the quality of the film.”
Pertwee is more direct.
“We were in the shit, we were in the mire,” Pertwee says with a smile. “From the moment we jumped out of that helicopter we had 70-pound packs and SA80s and we were literally jumping around shooting…You never really were aware that the camera was there, so it was a lot of no acting required because it was just a question of being there.”
The Nature of the Beast
While the idea of “soldiers vs. werewolves” is a compelling enough pitch on its own, Marshall wanted to make sure he didn’t get pigeonholed as strictly a horror director, nor did he want to get caught up in too many of the traditional werewolf movie tropes.
“I didn’t want to make a ‘curse of the werewolf’ movie, which is pretty much what every werewolf movie prior to this has been…except potentially The Howling which doesn’t really kind of deal with that so much,” Marshall says. “So I wanted the werewolves just to be essentially like the enemy…like the equivalent of aliens in Alien or Predator or whatever.”
Of course, the movie isn’t completely devoid of traditional werewolf elements, such as the full moon (of course) or the vulnerability to silver, but even these inclusions were carefully thought out.
“There’re certain tropes that you want to put in there, but that I wanted to play around with,” Marshall says. “If it’s the night of a full moon, when does that actually happen? Does it work as soon as the full moon appears in the sky or when it comes out from behind a cloud? Because it’s still there even if it’s hiding behind a cloud. That’s when I came up with the idea that they’re compelled to change on the night of the full moon, but there’s not a specific time that happens and they can try to hold it back.”
This of course plays out in a funny exchange between Kevin McKidd’s Pvt. Lawrence Cooper and Sean Pertwee’s Sgt. Harry Wells, describing it as “needing a piss…when you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go.”
Dancing in the Moonlight
Even the werewolves themselves are unique among the genre. The werewolves of Dog Soldiers are disturbing, unnaturally tall, gangly figures with oversized lupine heads, rarely seen fully in frame for more than a few seconds at a time. It was all inspired by a sketch that a friend of Marshall’s brought to him.
“It was just this beautiful, almost elegant creature, rather than a big muscular lump…and it looked all very feminine,” Marshall says. “I took that idea and ran with it. When we were designing it even further it evolved a little bit along the way, but it stayed to that basic concept.”
To add to the otherworldly, disturbing feel of the werewolves, Marshall hired dancers rather than stuntmen to fill the costumes. Of course, that led to its own unique challenges, especially since they had to wear stilts to account for their lupine leg extensions, which made them a little less graceful than that original sketch had promised.
“You come up with all these kinds of crazy ideas about putting dancers in costumes and things,” Marshall says. “They were on these foot tall stilts, which were really difficult to walk on. Then you’ve got to factor in the fact that when they’ve got the head on, they can’t see very well. All they can see is from a tiny little hole in the mouth of the werewolf. So they’re blind and staggering around on stilts. A lot of that grace kind of went out the window quite quickly as they tried to literally find their feet and learn how to move in the costumes.”
Mercifully, they also filmed some shots of the werewolves from just the waist up, so the dancers weren’t required to perform on stilts the entire time. But the offbeat werewolf appearance had some unintended results on set, as well.
“I remember there was a scene with Kevin McKidd and I watching the lycanthropes coming out of the woods, and we just got the giggles because the poor guys in these suits were standing en pointe, almost like a ballerina stands on their toes,” Pertwee says. “They had these weird wooden-heeled leg things, but they were around their feet to give them the dog’s bow back leg, so it was incredibly uncomfortable. They couldn’t go to the bathroom because they were sealed in this neoprene style rubber with these huge heads on and they were staggering around. We got the giggles because it was not remotely terrifying.”
Pertwee had a different reaction during one of the movie’s most harrowing moments, shortly after his character had been disemboweled by one of them.
“I take nothing away from the skill of these young men that were doing this because it was so insanely uncomfortable and they never complained,” Pertwee says. “They were in these costumes literally 12 hours a day, really horrendous suffering from heat exhaustion and everything. They were in cramped spaces, they couldn’t see where they were going. But when I saw one looming over me, coming to get me when I was in the bed, it was like what nightmares are made of. It was terrifying. They were extraordinary performers, so my hat goes off to them.”
If there’s a record for most gruesome and frequent depiction of entrails on film, Dog Soldiers would certainly be in the running for it. And to hear Pertwee tell it, the process of creating a convincing disemboweling seems only slightly less unpleasant than an actual disembowelment.
“I think they used some kind of intestinal skin, which they rammed full of sausage or something, which probably went off,” Pertwee says. “It smelled to high heaven, and we’d break for lunch or whatever so they had to devise a way of holding my guts together. They built this cup kind of thing out of gaffer tape, which they strapped around me that I could put my guts in and then I’d sit down and have lunch with everyone.”
And then there’s all the blood to consider.
“I was covered in so much blood,” Pertwee says. “It was very cold where we were shooting, it was freezing in fact. We used sugar blood, which is this really visceral kind of thick thing, but whenever it gets cold it sticks. It got to the point that it was very uncomfortable both because of the smell of my sausages that had gone off, and I would take off my trousers and stand them in my trailer and overnight they’d still be standing, literally standing, because the blood had frozen. The worst thing was putting the trousers on every morning, I have to say. It was deeply unpleasant.”
Pertwee’s “sausages” lead to what might be the most memorable (and gruesome) scene in the film is when McKidd’s Pvt. Cooper and Cleasby’s Megan have to perform field surgery on Pertwee’s Sgt. Wells, after he has been disemboweled by a werewolf. With nothing but a small cottage bed, some field supplies, a little morphine, and a bottle of scotch, they have the unenviable task of putting Wells’ “sausages” back in their correct place.
Pertwee’s performance seems like a study in spontaneity, blending the sheer horrific agony of the situation with the unexpected humor that comes from a man deeply in shock while also intoxicated by a vast quantity of painkillers. It was Pertwee who suggested a little method acting to move things along.
“I was supposed to be whacked off my head on huge amounts of doses of morphine and drank a bottle of scotch,” Pertwee says. “I said to Neil, ‘Can we experiment with some alcohol,’ which of course is a big no-no on set. Of course, absolutely we would be able to do it sans alcohol, but we just thought it would add a different energy to it, so we gave it a go. We tried it and sorry, but I think it really worked.”
Or as the director recalls…
“Yeah, he’d taken the edge off, definitely,” Marshall says with a laugh. “And I think that allowed him to just get settled into it way more.”
The scene culminates in Cooper getting frustrated with Wells’ ranting and thrashing, and knocking him cold with a punch. But it turns out there’s a little more to even this fun moment.
“I’d love to say I remember but I don’t,” Pertwee says. “[Kevin] went to knock me out so he could glue my guts back in. But I turned the first time and I went, ‘No, not like that you pussy! Really knock me out!’ He was so exasperated he caught me on the end of my nose, and all I remember was just going down hitting the pillow and all the props guys were standing next to me…He had actually broken the end of my nose.”
The director knew right away that something had gone a little wrong.
“I just saw this blood splash across the wall. And I was thinking, ‘Hang on, that wasn’t in the script,’ but it was Sean’s blood.”
It’s one of many scenes in the film where the dialogue and interactions between the characters feels so completely natural, despite the fact that they’re in increasingly absurd and horrific situations.
“Certainly the operation scene was the most significantly improvised,” Marshall says. “The big learning experience for me with this movie was just working with a really solid cast of experienced actors for the first time in this kind of context. I’d spent six years planning this movie in my head, [and] I discovered on day one of working with these guys that all my plans went out the window because of course they’re amazing collaborators and they want to bring something to the table, and that doesn’t necessarily always fit with what you had in mind. So a lot of the scenes that were in my head, kind of static, suddenly became much more lively and interesting, especially within the house.”
In a movie that’s already full of characters who fire off quips and wisecracks in the face of death, there are also unexpected moments of humor that make their way in. But remarkably, none of it feels out of place. “I wanted all the humor to come out of the characters themselves, but also just some of the absurdity of the situation,” Marshall says.
Notably, the moment when Pvt. Cooper is helping to nail the door of the house shut and suddenly a werewolf’s hand bursts through the mail slot, prompting frantic, Looney Tunes-esque hammering at the werewolf’s fingers.
“If you’re hammering a nail and a werewolf pokes its fingers through the door, you’re going to hit them with the hammer,” the director says matter-of-factly. “It seems logical, but it’s also funny. I wanted them to use whatever they had available. They attack them with frying pans, knives, axes, swords, and all sorts of stuff. I just wanted to use everything available.”
Despite that, or perhaps because of it, when characters die, audiences feel the impact. The unfortunate soldiers of this film aren’t mere cannon fodder…or werewolf chow.
“I wanted there to be realistic stakes,” Marshall says. “Making the characters so sympathetic and empathetic and lovable, we’d feel their deaths more, so that the threat of the werewolves is much higher. There’s always that sense of menace and it’s meant to be a horror film and a suspense thriller, whatever you want to call it. But the humor never undermines that, it just enhances it.”
There’s only a handful of truly classic werewolf movies, and Dog Soldiers is perhaps the only candidate for that title in the 21st century. There may be fewer werewolves roaming the cinematic hills than before, but Marshall doesn’t think the genre itself is cursed.
“I think the reason that werewolves aren’t so prevalent in horror movies is an expense issue more than anything,” Marshall says. “Vampires and zombies are a hell of a lot cheaper to do than to do werewolves well. They’re either going to do fairly expensive practical werewolves or you’re going to do fairly expensive CG werewolves. But either way there’s no cheap version of werewolves.”
And as for the time-honored debate between practical effects and CGI, especially when related to lycanthropes…
“My gut experience from movies I’ve seen, I think the practical ones always look best and stand the test of time,” Marshall says. “Even on the bigger budget stuff, like the Underworld movies and things like that and where they kind of mix and match, but the practical ones really look good. The moment it becomes CG, it kind of looks CG and it’s just not so good. Given that werewolves are meant to be kind of half human anyway to me it makes sense to do it with a human in a costume. It’s just going to be better that way.”
Dog Soldiers quickly gained a cult following upon its release, and it’s the kind of film that would appear to be positively howling for a sequel. Originally envisioned as a trilogy, the sequels never materialized. “We would have loved to have done it,” Pertwee says. “Not as much as the millions of fans that incessantly ask me the same question, but I wish we had done it because a lot of people love the movie.”
As for whether it could ever happen, well, Marshall did tell us a little bit about that. “There’s more of a chance now than ever before,” the director teases. “There’s things in the works. We’re seeing what we can do.” Perhaps everyone’s favorite Dog Soldiers will get to howl once again after all. We have more details on that possibility right here.