Mixing chills and spills with plenty of grim laughs, “Dog Soldiers” is an unashamedly cheesy, high-octane werewolf movie that remains true to its B-movie inspiration. Kind of “The Howling” meets “Rio Bravo” in the Scottish Highlands, this first pic by writer-director Neil Marshall piles on the action during a long night of lycanthropic assault on a remote cottage, with spirited playing by a small cast and a refreshing lack of CGI that keeps the drama grounded. On the back of enthusiastic reviews, this entertaining slice of British horror (entirely shot in Luxembourg) should take a big, quick bite of the popular market on wide release May 10 prior to the arrival of “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones” a week later. Ancillary and foreign territories also look appetizing down the line.
Film’s blend of the larky and loathsome is signaled from the beginning as a couple start to make out in a tent, and the sound of the zipper on the girl’s pants segues into that of the tent being unzipped by an unseen, very hungry Thing.
Cut to “Two Hours Earlier, North Wales,” and, in a particularly intense sequence, the audience is intro’d to Cooper (Kevin McKidd), a tough Scot in commando training who’s failed by his C.O., Ryan (Liam Cunningham), after he refuses to shoot a dog in cold blood.
Main story unspools four weeks later in the Scottish Highlands, where Cooper, back with his regular army buddies, is on a training exercise led by Sgt. Wells (Sean Pertwee). Morale between Cooper and his four squaddies is low: They’d all rather be back at base watching a crucial England vs. Germany soccer match.
That night, as Wells tries to sharpen their mettle with an inspirational story, a dead cow with large teeth marks suddenly lands in their midst. And next morning, the Special Forces group they were meant to be tracking is found half-eaten in the undergrowth, with only its leader, the aforementioned Ryan, barely surviving. “There was only meant to be one,” he mutters between gritted teeth.
Before Wells & Co. can digest the meaning of why the Special Forces unit was equipped with nets and darts more suitable for a hunting expedition, one of their own number (Thomas Lockyer) is promptly digested by another ravenous Thing. Seriously — and graphically — wounded, Wells makes a run for it with the rest of the squad. In the nick of time, they’re given a lift in a jeep by a passing zoologist, Megan (Emma Cleasby), who drives them to a deserted cottage.
There is, natch, no phone or radio and, once the Things have had some fun, no jeep either. Worse, night falls, the moon comes out, and Megan tells the soldiers the Things are, in fact, giant werewolves who hunt in packs when the moon is full. Double worse, as soon as they’ve managed to put Wells back together, Ryan starts turning into a werewolf downstairs. And there’s still six hours to go till dawn.
Between regular assaults by the wolfmen, Marshall maintains the strand of black humor right through the film, initially getting several laughs out of Wells’ awful state — the scene in which he displays intestinal fortitude while being sewn up is outrageously funny — and later out of the creatures themselves.
Rarely glimpsed in full until near the end, the werewolves benefit hugely from being old-fashioned animatronic rather than new-fangled digital creations, underlining the movie’s roots in traditional ’40s/’50s horror movies.
The tension comes from the claustrophobia of the setting, the ever-diminishing number of the participants and the way in which the script comes up with ingenious ways to keep the beasts at bay.
None of this bears too close inspection — the creatures are remarkably impervious to bullets but can’t even push a simple wooden door open — but Marshall keeps the viewer onside by making it clear he only wants to serve up some good-natured, low-budget entertainment, not “Alien 5.” To cap everything, there’s an extremely funny, double-headed joke in the end titles that neatly rounds off the whole enterprise.
Though he’s unconscious for quite a chunk of the action, Pertwee brings a mature heft to the movie — plus a capacity for grim humor — that the rest of the cast, including the super-intense McKidd as Cooper, can’t quite manage. Cunningham is well cast as the mysterious Ryan, and bigscreen newcomer Cleasby, as the lone femme, gradually comes into her own with a quiet authority.
Lensing by Sam McCurdy is suitably dank and grubby, with muted colors. Marshall’s own editing could have been fractionally slicker in some of the action sequences.