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Dog Soldiers: Collector's Edition

Shout Factory // R // June 23, 2015
List Price: $29.93 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Randy Miller III | posted June 19, 2015 | E-mail the Author

Produced during the better half of 2001 in Luxembourg due to tax breaks, director Neil Marshall's debut film Dog Soldiers (2002) has enjoyed a growing level of success on both sides of the pond during the last decade and a half. Like football and The Manic Street Preachers, it's been a big deal in England from the start...but around here, Dog Soldiers barely made a blip on the radar until DVD and word-of-mouth took over. Not for lack of trying, of course: first-time viewers and seasoned fans alike should be able to spot any one of the film's homages to classic American horror/action fare like The Evil Dead, Predator, Aliens, Night of the Living Dead and countless others, even with their eyes closed. But despite the liberal swipes of well-known source material---not to mention its limited budget and lack of well-known faces--- this visceral tale of soldiers in peril and the werewolves that hunt them still packs a wallop.

The plot itself is nothing special: six soldiers, dropped square in the middle of the Scottish Highlands for what appears to be a routine training exercise, discovers the decimated campground of a Special Air Services unit: blood is everywhere, and all but one body has completely vanished. That one body belongs to survivor Captain Ryan (Liam Cunningham), who warns the soldiers about what did all the damage: it's not clear at first, but word-of-mouth stories about missing persons and mysterious deaths in the same area don't exactly paint a rosy picture for the remaining men. Nightfall approaches, and things get bad in a hurry: they're attacked by humongous beasts and run for cover, eventually rescued by a zoologist (Emma Cleasby) before finding cover in a nearby abandoned cottage. With more than one horrific injury in their group already---including that of Sergeant Wells (Sean Pertwee, Event Horizon), who's literally falling apart at the seams---the soldiers and their good Samaritan have to wait out the full moon overhead. Not everyone believes in werewolves at first, but it doesn't take long to convince them otherwise.

Director Neil Marshall cut his teeth in the industry as an editor and a writer during the 1990s; with Dog Soldiers, he's pulling triple duty. The film's relatively lean structure and no-nonsense approach suits the material well...because in the wrong hands, a movie about nine-foot werewolves might have audiences howling with unintentional laughter. Luckily, there is room for terrific gallows humor as the kill count rises on both sides, which gives Dog Soldiers a more entertaining and accessible atmosphere than if it had taken itself too seriously. It's obvious that Marshall and company---which reportedly included no less than five producers, including Christopher Figg of Hellraiser fame---are long-time fans of the genre; for the most part, their enthusiasm is infectious as Dog Soldiers toes the line between over-the-top mayhem and outright absurdity. It's not the most original horror film out there, but it's still loads of fun.

Since Dog Soldiers didn't get anything close to a wide theatrical release in the US, most audiences were introduced to the film via Artisan Entertainment's 2002 DVD, with a barebones Blu-ray by First Look arriving seven years later. Speaking of long delays, Scream Factory's much-anticipated new Collector's Edition Blu-ray was first planned for release last August...but due to rights issues (and a later change to the film's source material, detailed below), it's taken much longer to surface than originally anticipated. This new edition of Dog Soldiers is certainly different than past releases in almost every conceivable way, but at least the bonus features are objectively great.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

First, a little background information: not only does the original 16mm negative of Dog Soldiers reportedly no longer exist, but surviving prints of the film are scarce as well. I'm not entirely sure what source material was used for the domestic and international DVD releases more than a decade ago (or First Look's 2009 Blu-ray, for that matter)...but word has it that two 35mm blow-up prints were located by Marshall for Shout Factory's new 2K, 1.78:1 transfer, which was supervised by the director. He was apparently pleased with the results, but I'll imagine that anyone who's seen the movie more then once---either theatrically or on home video---won't be as easily impressed.

Dog Soldiers, plain and simple, has always looked awful; now, it's just a completely different kind of awful. Even casual fans of the film will notice an immediate and jarring difference this time around: not only has most of the blue filtering and color saturation been completely stripped away (or altered), but contrast is cranked up extremely high and amplifies the film's craggy appearance. Black levels are crushed within an inch of their life; overcast blue-gray skies now resemble the blown-out whites of a radiation blast. Coarse film grain usually associated with Super 16 now looks like a mosquito swarm. It's tough to cry foul on a director-approved transfer for a movie I didn't see theatrically, but I still can't imagine that a lot of fans are going to like how the film looks now...and, at the very most, they'll probably treat it more like a curiosity than a definitive effort. In short, Dog Soldiers always resembled a low-budget relic from the early 1980s; now, it could pass for a trailer from Grindhouse without all the added dirt and debris.

But yeah, Dog Soldiers is still watchable, even if the relative ugliness of this transfer (and its source material) goes against the main reason why most people bought a Blu-ray player in the first place. Some die-hard fans may be happier sticking with the original DVD, others will enjoy the curiosity factor of this new transfer. Either way, Neil Marshall himself posted his own thoughts about Shout's new Blu-ray recently, so I'll give him the final word.

DISCLAIMER: This review's compressed screen captures are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-ray's native 1080p resolution.

Luckily, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio mix (also available in a 2.0 option, like past releases) is much less controversial. That's not to say it's a wall-shaker or anything: like all previous editions of Dog Soldiers (DVD and Blu-ray, which honestly didn't sound all that different), this is a relatively subdued audio presentation that, like some of its visual flaws, can likely be traced back to the original source material. Surround activity is definitely limited but really heats up during almost every action sequence, while Mark Thomas' score gets a few moments to shine without overpowering everything else. Optional English subtitles are included, but only during the main feature.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

The interface is presented in Shout's typical "sidebar" style and features smooth, simple navigation and the bare minimum of pre-menu distractions. Separate options are provided for chapter selection, subtitle/commentary setup, and additional bonus features. This one-disc release is housed in a standard keepcase with attractive reversible cover designs featuring new and vintage artwork promoting the film, plus a matching slipcover to boot.

Bonus Features

One of the main attractions is a new Audio Commentary with Neil Marshall; this track was obviously recorded early in the process, as he (disappointingly) doesn't discuss the last-minute visual changes. He does, however, recount a number of memories including his earlier experience as a film editor, the film's six-year planning stages that led to its production in 2001, dropping a cow exactly right, Luxembourg tax breaks, gallows humor, referencing other films, the history of Super Glue, sound design, the film's military fan base, deleted scenes, football, and more. There are a few long pauses and plenty of bits repeated during other extras, but this is very much worth a listen.

"Werewolves vs. Soldiers: The Making Of Dog Soldiers" (61:50) is a broader look at the film's 2001 production and loaded with a variety of first-hand accounts. Interview subjects include director Neil Marshall, producers Christopher Figg and Keith Bell, actors Kevin McKidd, Sean Pertwee, Darren Morfitt, Leslie Simpson, and Emma Cleasby, special effects artist Bob Keen (below left), and several others. It covers a fairly wide variety of topics including Marshall's earlier film experiences, making "their version of The Evil Dead", writing a contract on a napkin, developing the script, designing the werewolves, the casting process, shooting in Luxembourg, learning to work as a team, special effects and werewolf transformations, "drunk acting", an accidental broken nose, and much more. Also due to its earlier completion, the clips used during this documentary (and a few other extras) use different source material and don't feature the blown-out contrast and other visual differences present on Shout's new transfer.

The shorter but equally interesting featurette "A Cottage in the Woods: Designing the Set of Dog Soldiers" (13:26) sits down with production designer Simon Bowles, who briefly speaks about constructing the cottage (which, until this point, I thought was an actual location) and also gives us a quick tour of his original homemade model (above right). On a related note, we also get two Still Galleries (with photos by Bowles and special effects Artist Dave Bonneywell) that offer more perspectives of the on-set experience. Wrapping things up is Marshall's 1999 short film Combat (7:34), which pairs a singles' night out with wartime audio, and the Dog Soldiers Theatrical Trailer.

While the extras from the 2002 Artisan DVD haven't been carried over (not to mention a more in-depth commentary on the Region 2 DVD release), this is still a terrific batch of bonus features that fans will enjoy digging through. Say what you will about the video...but extras-wise, this is obviously the most definitive effort to date.

Final Thoughts

Neil Marshall's lean and visceral Dog Soldiers is a strong debut from a director who would go on to do even bigger and better things. It serves up terrific atmosphere, loads of suspense, and the good sense not to take itself too seriously every step of the way. The winking nods to at least half a dozen (mostly American) horror films that came before are a little excessive, though: even accounting for everything it does right, long stretches of Dog Soldiers are a bit too familiar and predictable for their own good. Still, it's a fun little diversion and seasoned horror fans will appreciate its practical effects and relative lack of bone-headed protagonists. Shout Factory's new Collector's Edition Blu-ray is the third home video release of Dog Soldiers, mostly improving on the 2002 Artisan DVD and the 2009 First Look Blu-ray, but the visuals are vastly...well, different this time around. The real draw is new bonus content, largely exclusive to this release, that provides a wealth of terrific first-hand information. Recommended.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.
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