It is being acclaimed as the best British horror movie in years. It has Kevin McKidd following in the footsteps of Ewen Bremner and Ewan McGregor as the latest Trainspotting star to swap a syringe for Army fatigues. And it is set in the Scottish Highlands... even if it did shoot almost entirely in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.
Dog Soldiers is wowing critics with its assured style and simple premise of pitting a troop of soldiers against a pack of werewolves in a remote Highland wilderness - 50 miles from the nearest phone and a four-hour drive from the nearest town. It is like a cross between An American Werewolf In London and Deliverance, with a dash of Aliens thrown in.
McKidd was dubious about a script that arrived unsolicited at the stage door of the theatre where he was appearing, a script for a low-budget horror movie that was without a star two weeks before it was due to start shooting... in Luxembourg.
Now he is hailing Geordie writer-director Neil Marshall as a genius. "I think Neil Marshall honestly is the British answer to Spielberg," McKidd enthuses, comparing Dog Soldiers with Jaws. "He's got scripts coming out of his ears. When you read them you go, 'Wow, this is a bit overblown,' but he knows how to put it on the screen."
Birth of a horror
It all began years ago on a farm in Arisaig in the West Highlands of Scotland. "I was taken on holiday there by my parents for the first 14 years of my life," recalls Tyneside's newest auteur film-maker, a bearded, balding, jolly-looking 32-year-old.
"From living in Newcastle, I mean it was as wilderness as you could get. It was just a fabulous escape to another world and it really inspired me - the ruggedness, the people, and also the strangeness... You'll find boats on top of mountains, and a farm that's just full of cars that have been driven into a field and left to rot, or a caravan stuck up a tree."
Marshall distanced himself from the artier students at Newcastle Film School by making a zombie movie. Since graduating ten years ago, he has directed shorts and worked as a storyboard artist, editor and writer. When it came to Dog Soldiers it seemed a small step from a caravan up a tree to soldiers exercising under a full moon... and something howling in the distance. Scotland was "an obvious, natural setting".
He wrote it six years ago and tried every possible UK source of finance. But he raised only £5,000 from a local Newcastle agency, leaving him £2.5 million short. In the end Dog Soldiers was financed through advances on foreign sales, and American and Luxembourgeois backers.
When a film is set in the vastness of the Scottish Highlands, shooting in the smallest of the European Low Countries is not normally the obvious option, but it was a condition that came with the money. In the end Marshall hired a helicopter for aerial shots of Glen Affric and stitched them together with the rest of the film.
Looking for a star
He had his money, but no star. Marshall seems a little cagey about why he chose McKidd. The Elgin-born actor suggests it was because he was close. "I spoke to Neil afterwards and he says, 'Well, we were all sitting in our office in Soho and we were about to start shooting in two weeks time and we still hadn't found the guy we wanted.' And he said, 'I had always thought of you for it and somebody mentioned that you were in the theatre, so we thought, well, let's be cheeky and just send it there and see what happens.'"
Marshall may have always seen McKidd as Cooper, the level-headed private who pulls the troop together when things go bump in the night and body parts detach from bodies; McKidd was less certain.
"I thought, oh no, I don't really want to do this because I'm trying to concentrate on more serious stuff," says McKidd, who played drugs victim Tommy in Trainspotting, and has since appeared in Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy and, as Vronsky, in Channel 4's Anna Karenina.
"But by the end of the script I was kind of hooked... Within 15 minutes of speaking to Neil, I just realised that the guy is on a mission - he knows what he's doing, he's got a very clear idea of what film he wants to make, and he wants me to play the lead... I finished the play on the Saturday night and then Sunday morning flew out to Luxembourg."
Faking and taking
Marshall knows his craft. He was meant to have a pack of werewolves, but could afford only two mechanical heads and three body suits. Wisely he does not linger on the beasts and cranks up tension and excitement with a howl on the soundtrack, misty breath over a shoulder, a sudden camera-jump, a spurt of blood across the screen.
He knows his movies too. One of the joys of Dog Soldiers is spotting the borrowings from other films: men hunted in a hostile environment - Deliverance; soldiers hunted in a hostile environment - Southern Comfort; soldiers hunted in a hostile environment by a nasty big beastie no one sees - Predator.
The second half, with the soldiers holed up in a remote cottage, suggests a remake of Straw Dogs, with Scottish werewolves instead of horny Cornish yokels. "It was an opportunity to pay homage to all the films that I love," says Marshall, swearing that the classic westerns My Darling Clementine and The Searchers are in there too.
You're in the army now
McKidd has no military background - he was not even in the Scouts, though he did have some experience of camping in Scotland. "You get that whole waking-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night, and weird noises going on. And you're like, 'What the hell is that outside the tent?' And usually it's just the farmer coming to tell you to get off his land."
Military experts put McKidd and his co-stars, through a few days of preparatory exercises in Luxembourg. "That was really physical and really bonded everybody," says McKidd. And did they sleep under canvas? "This isn't Band of Brothers mate, this is a werewolf film. I put my method in my back pocket and we went for a few beers in the bar afterwards."
There is dark humour in the script - such as a scene in which McKidd cannot get the innards of another soldier to "fit" back in, but the actors play it straight. "Neil basically wanted me just to be myself and be the hero," says McKidd unironically, before adding: "I think what he wanted was that character to be the kind of reluctant hero."
Despite initial scepticism, McKidd found himself enjoying the experience. "It was the happiest shoot I've ever been on... You go, 'What are we doing today Neil?' And he'd say, 'You've got to jump through this wall of flame, and then fire off about 20 rounds of your machine-gun, do a somersault and then chop a werewolf's arm off.'
"I managed to severely bruise my rib on the first day. I got a bit over-excited during one of the manoeuvres. You run and then dive with your gun and all that stuff and I dived and landed on this piece of rock and buggered my rib, so basically for the rest of the stunts and whole of the shoot I was in agony."
McKidd spotted the odd geographical glitch, but resisted the temptation of acting as expert on Scotland. "There's nowhere you could be in Scotland that's four hours from anywhere... I was like, should I mention it? I thought, well that's not the point of this film."
If you are going to get hung up on detail, there are no werewolves in Scotland either.
This is just the beginning...
Half-way through filming, in the best horror tradition, Marshall revealed all was not quite as it seemed. He revealed that Dog Soldiers was the first instalment in a trilogy, with Cooper as the John McClane of horror - an allusion to Bruce Willis's Die Hard character, forever turning up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"He very roughly sketched out the plotlines for the other two movies," says McKidd. Next up would be zombies and then a modern re-jig of the Frankenstein story, with human clones. "And I was just sitting there aghast by the end going, 'You're either mad or a genius, or both.'" McKidd is not ruling out a reunion.
He is currently shooting a new film of Nicholas Nickleby and has another Scottish project lined up this summer, Richard Jobson's 16 Years of Alcohol. "That will actually be in Scotland, thank Christ." Meanwhile, Marshall is developing a "post-Arthurian, medieval heist movie" with some of the characters left over from the story of King Arthur.
It was perhaps just a matter of time before Marshall outgrew Newcastle. Sure enough, he has moved on... he now lives in Carlisle. But, then, this is the man who made a Scottish werewolf movie in Luxembourg.