Werewolf films are often quite stagnant. Steeped in folklore, with tropes we all know far to well, the opportunity for growth within the genre is often very rare. Then along come Neil Marshall’s directorial debut and while even borrowing heavily from other films, manages to give us a breath of fresh air. How did he do it? He didn’t make a Werewolf film that has Soldiers in it…he made a Soldier film with Werewolves in it.
Our story finds a squad of Soldiers dropped into the Highlands for a training exercise against a Special Forces group. Unbeknownst to them, they are intended to be used as bait for a pack of Werewolves in the area, in hopes of capturing one of them. As one can expect, plans go pear-shaped and the plucky squad must retreat to a local cabin and try to fend off the furry brutes. The squad is led by Capt. Harry Wells(Sean Pertwee), the second in command is Pvt Cooper, and is rounded out by Spoon, Joe, Terry, and Bruce. The bond between this group runs very deep and despite their good natured bickering back and forth, you can tell that these are men who will be prepared to lay down their lives for each other. One criticism I’ve heard is that the squad seems too calm and cool when faced with a Werewolf assault. I’m not the least bit surprised, these are Soldiers, trained to kill, trained for combat in hellish conditions, and more than that, they have each other to keep their mood light. If any of these men were to face the same situation alone, I would expect far more terror.
The beasts look very unique, and leave nothing to the imagination as to their nature. You look at these creatures and you know without a shadow of a doubt that you are seeing a fucking werewolf. Not some escaped Looney (although Cooper does reference this possibility…), not some giant wolf, no. These walk tall on two legs and have shaggy Lupine heads. With a small budget, the practical effects aren’t the best around, but still serve the purpose quite well. Cinematography, setting, score, and performances create a great atmosphere of both mirth and genuine dread. I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is about this film, but whenever we get a brief glimpse of one of the creatures, be it a blood-soaked snout fogging up the window, or an out of focus reveal in the background, there is something so unnerving about these wolves. Somehow, “the little monster film that could” has tapped into something primal. I almost wish the direction had been tweaked slightly and the film had played this up more… Almost.
Just as the creatures hunt with a relentless pack mentality, the Squad has no quit in them either. Sarge is a hard as nails man of experience who sadly spends most of the action portion of the film on the sidelines after having his guts literally slashed out and then stuffed back in. He’s not afraid to die, and in fact takes several opportunities to order that he be left behind to give the rest a better chance of escape. Cooper is calm and cunning, he leads well in the absence of the Sarge but doesn’t seem comfortable in the role. During the siege on the cabin, Cooper mostly goes back and forth helping his lads in their skirmishes rather than standing and fighting by himself. And then there is Spoon. Fuckin Spoon! This is a scrappy little bastard with a penchant for smart quips. Between using a kitchen pit to bash snouts, hammers to dash fingers and genuine fisticuffs to combat the wolves, Spoon has not an ounce of quit in him, even down to his last words before being eaten.
There have been rumours of a sequel for years, and in recent times, even a few false starts…whether we ever see anything else from this property or not, this film stands as true original…that somehow borrows heavily from An American Werewolf In London, The Evil Dead, and The Howling. Werewolves in film can be so hit and miss, the bad is really bad, but the good is really good. This is a perfect example of a Werewolf film done right!