A squad of British Army Commandos head to a remote forest in the Scottish highlands on a routine training mission pitting them against an elite Special Forces unit. Upon finding all but one of the unit slaughtered they quickly realise there is something far more deadly out there, and as the full moon rises it becomes clear that what they’re up against has claws!
Since its release in 2002, Neil Marshall’s debut feature still earns a loyal cult following around the globe. Its a rare type of horror film that seems to get better on repeated viewing and never fails to pack a 7ft werewolf sized punch. Its main strengths lie in its brilliant mix of scares, screams, black humour, gallons of gore and sheer entertainment value. Difficult to pull of successfully which is all the more impressive considering its micro budget and the relative inexperience of its director. Marshall handles the material with confidence and ease and isn’t shy about his homages and references, indeed this film is loaded with them. From Zulu to Aliens via The Evil Dead and Predator it wears its colours on its sleeve never letting you forget that this is by and large a B-Movie and bloody proud of it.
Its best moments rely on the rapport between the six man squad, led by Sgt Harry G. Wells (a brilliant Sean Pertwee) and focusing on our main hero Private Cooper played here by Kevin McKidd and a stellar ensemble of young British talent. We spend the first 20 mins or so getting to know the lads as they trundle miserably through the woods, gutted they’re missing an England v Germany match. The amusing banter between them takes a dramatic turn as the films first (and arguably best) big scare happens. Its one of the best scenes in the film and showcases Sean Pertwee’s ability to hold your attention. As the squad shelter by a campfire under a ledge, Sgt Wells recounts a horrific tale from his days in the Gulf War. Its a bone chilling story that really sets the tone for the rest of the film and will have the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. And the fact that it is immediately followed by one of the biggest jump-scares you’ll ever witness is testament to the films raw power. Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger) is reportedly a huge fan of this scene.
Later as the squad is attacked, one of them being viciously impaled on a tree branch and Sgt Wells himself literally gutted, its up to Cooper to lead the team to safety, running into the films only female who leads them to an isolated farmhouse in the woods where they must hold up for the night. Its here the film moves up a level from chase film to seige/survival horror. Here is where the meat of the story is played out and most of the films expositioning is gotten out of the way. We slowly learn about the lycanthropes, where they come from and that, like the best horrors, things aren’t quite what they seem and some people are not to be trusted.
We find out the squad have been set up by the deliciously sinister Captain Ryan hammed to the max by Liam Cunningham, desperate to get hold of one of the creatures for purposes of potential bio-weaponry. This is in the spirit of all the great monster film villains, most obviously referencing Paul Reiser’s ‘Burke’ from Aliens, a double crossing corporate wanker who views the soldiers as expendable. Like all great monster films its ultimately the people who are truly evil. The film really picks up pace in the last 40 mins when the wolves begin to attack the house and our squaddies are quickly running out of ammo and options. Its here the best and goriest deaths occur including a brilliant piece as Private Joe is eaten by a werewolf in the back of a Land Rover as he makes an escape attempt. This happens off camera but as Cooper opens the back door of the car we see the messy result as Joe’s internal organs spill gloriously out the back like a river. Its at this point where most people reach for the sick bag.
As the film reaches its climax the squad even more desperate try to hold on until morning but as the creatures begin to break through the barricades you know the body count will be high come the morning. This film has some of the most quotable lines in horror cinema. “I hope I give you the shits you fucking wimp!” Spoons brilliantly defiant last line. And it effortlessly manages to blend horror and humour, such as the hilarious scene where Cooper try to patch up Wells’ open stomach with super-glue or earlier when the pet dog tries to eat his intestines like a string of sausage meat. And the film contains one of the best finishing lines in cinema.
However I think ultimately the film will be remembered for its sheer visceral thrills and spills and being nigh on the most entertaining Brit-horror of the 00’s. Yes most critics will say the The Descent is Marshall’s best work and they’re probably right. Its darker, scarier and more disturbing than Dog Soldiers, however comparing the two isn’t fair as they’re very different and unique in they’re own way. The Descent is the kind of film you watch whilst cowering in the corner, Dog Soldiers is the kind of film you can watch with you’re mates round with pizza and beers. It’s pure B-Movie entertainment from start to finish with a brilliantly funny end-credits sequence to boot and that’s why it’s my favourite Brit-horror of the last 10 years. Now where did I put my sick bag?