There are a lot of ways that this review could start off. It could begin by stating just how impressive a career Neil Marshall has had; beginning with this explosive debut and followed it up with one of the more entertaining mainstream horror films in recent memory (The Descent). We could talk about the history of werewolf cinema, starting with the classic monsters to the, now, classic American Werewolf in London to recent indie revisions like Ginger Snaps, and place Dog Soldiers in context within that trajectory. There is no end in sight. However, it seems most appropriate, given the hubbub that has surrounded this release, to discuss the current climate of fandom in relation to distribution.
Since the advent of Blu-Ray technology, the model for film releases has drastically altered. This has, for the most part, been a great thing for fans. Lazy transfers utilizing heavy DNR are now ousted and openly criticized via blogs, forums, and magazines. In turn, this has put pressure on distributors to really offer better products. This is a great example of supply and demand in perfect symbiosis.
Yet, somewhere along the line, as they do (especially in genre niches), the scales of proverbial justice have skewed somewhat too much. This can and has led to an extreme pressure for distributors to perform impossible tasks. In fact, distributors will often no longer touch films that they know will not have readily available decent masters for fear of the backlash. Here’s the thing, we at Diabolique fully believe that distributors owe it to fans to put out the best quality they can. The work needs to be done and if it is not, distributors have failed their fans. But what happens when a quality master cannot be found? Should a film perish, never to be released? Surely as film fans this is not something we want, after all the films come first right?..well maybe not.Granted, we at Diabolique could, arguably, be considered part of the problem. We do participate in the trajectory of magazines proud to offer Video/Audio review sections. Yet, we understand films can not be judged in vacuums, there are other factors that have to be considered. So before you judge this film on its PQ merits, it helps to hear from the director himself:
It seems myself and Scream Factory have been experiencing some major flack regarding the Dog Soldiers blu-ray release. So I figure I should fill in a bit of background here. First of all, I wholeheartedly support the Scream Factory release. The previous blu-ray (not available in the UK) was made without any involvement from me, and I remember when it came out the general consensus was that the picture quality was not great. All credit to Scream Factory for wanting to involve the film-maker in this process as much as possible.
When they first announced this blu-ray release last year, the original plan was to work with me to create a whole bunch of original extras based on new interviews with all the key cast and crew, but that the movie itself would essentially be the same version as last time. I asked them to delay the release because I felt that we could do better for the fans and try and track down some original film elements to make a fresh HD transfer. Since the movie never received a theatrical release in the US (although I believe it screened at The Egyptian for a week) I knew we’d have to turn to the UK to find the best possible elements available. What I didn’t know was that after an exhaustive search I’d discover the original : was nowhere to be found. Neither the UK producer, distributor or film processing lab has any idea where the negative is. Without it we simply could not achieve the kind of high quality HD transfer I would have wished to deliver. Instead we managed to get hold of 2 original cinema prints, and despite being 13 years old and having a few scratches here and there, they represent the most accurate version of the original theatrical release that we could find.
However, as close as they are, they are just cinema prints, and in terms of colour timing for the new blu-ray we were limited to the parameters of the print itself. Which means, in basic terms, if the contrast is high on the print and the blacks are crushed (as indeed they are) then there is no more visual information to be gained from them. You can’t brighten up the image and see what’s hidden in the darkness like you can when you’re working from the negative or from digital. All that will happen is that the black will turn to grey and just give the movie a washed out flat look.
Another issue seems to be that one scene in particular now seems to be a daytime scene when it used to be a nighttime scene. Well, this is wrong on both counts. It’s meant to be a dusk scene, and since it features shots of the sunset then it’s graded accordingly – with a warm sunset glow that then gets cooler and darker as it fades into night. Again, this is all taken directly from the print. It was never intended to have such an extreme dark blue tint over it. We had major continuity issues filming this sequence because the weather kept changing from dull grey and rainy to bright sunlight. This is far from ideal for pulling off convincing day-for-night photography.
Like it or not, when the movie was originally released in the UK in 2002, the blacks were crushed, the contrast was high, the colours were rich and the image was grainy as fuck, because let’s not forget, this movie was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm. So under no circumstances was a blu-ray of this movie ever going to look as smooth and pristine as a movie shot on 35mm or any of the hi-res digital formats we use today. In fact, transferring it to HD actually highlights the grain just as it does any other detail, so this version inherently looks more grainy than before. It’s unavoidable unless you have the money to do a full restoration and clean-up, but again, you need the negative for that.
If you choose to believe Marshall — and why shouldn’t you? — it seems that Scream Factory did everything in their power to present the best version of Dog Soldiers that they possibly could. I think as fans, we owe it to Scream Factory to look past the PQ and accept this as a flawed, but perfectly acceptable and needed improvement from the former Blu-Ray release. In all honesty, the print isn’t close to what anyone should consider unwatchable. The blacks are definitely crushed, the highlights overblown, and the grain extremely high. Yet, one could easily imagine a whole lot of digital tinkering being performed to give the film a smoother, lifeless look. If you are the type of person that needs a 4.5/5 video rating or higher, well continue not owning this fantastic film, but the rest of us will allow the film to do what it does best: scare and entertain the hell out of us.
So, is this version of Dog Soldiers the best it could ever be? No. Of course not. If we had the negative and a shit-load of cash we could have done a lot better. Is it the best it could be under the circumstances? Yes. Will it appeal to everybody? No. But that’s movies for you!
At the end of the day everybody involved, myself included, put in a lot of work to give the fans a blu-ray worth forking out their hard-earned cash for. And nobody involved, myself included, got paid anything for doing it. There are no royalties, ancillaries or anything else. This is not an attempt to exploit the fans. It was, on my part, an attempt to give the fans something new and unique, and not simply a repackaged version of what’s already out there.
By this point in time, Dog Soldiers is a modern classic. If you aren’t aware of it or if you haven’t seen it, you owe it to yourself to stop everything you are doing and see it now. The creature effects are among the best ever put to film. Marshall’s ingenious direction allows for his small budget to look massive. Instead of under-lighting every scene to mask the effects, Marshall combines quick cutting and creative angles to keep the imperfections from lingering. It’s a bloody (pun intended) good time. Fit with a massive, cinematic score from Mark Thomas, and a cast of strong performers, Dog Soldiers is not only one of the best modern werewolf films, its one of the best modern horror films.Where Scream Factory really makes up for the print is in the supplementary features department. With the exception of the trailers, stills galleries, and short film by Marshall, everything offered on this disc is newly commissioned. A great commentary track, hour-long featurette tracking the making of the film, and a featurette with the set designer really give fans an intimate and behind-the-scenes look at how this film came together. Filmmakers in the making will find leagues of need-to-know information, all the while entertaining run of the mill film fans. If there is one complaint with the features it would be with the encoding/title treatment on the featurette. Its poorly compressed and the titles are cut-off. A minor gripe, yes, but it is a bit distracting.
Dog Soldiers is just about the purest example of a breakout debut. It’s a shame that Marshall has only directed a few titles in the film’s wake, because he has proven from the start that he is one of the most resourceful, creative minds in the business. We can complain all we like about the possibilities of a better release, but until a negative is found, we should be happy with what we have…it could be a whole lot worse.
Dog Soldiers is available on Blu-Ray via Scream Factory…you owe it to yourself to grab a copy!