Skip to main content

I’m in my head now, and it’s where I should be.

The Plague Dogs
(1982)

(SPOILERS) While I’ve seen Watership Down many times over the years, this is my first visit to Martin Rosen’s follow-up to Richard Adams’ follow-up. I can see why it passed me by, since it misses out on almost everything that makes its predecessor a confirmed classic. Where Watership Down casually observes the destructiveness of man through the prism of the rabbits’ infrequent encounters, The Plague Dogs wears his essential cruelty on its sleeve. This might have worked if there was a story to tell, or a glimmer of hope, but the circular, doom-laden narrative, set amid a grimly unwelcoming Lake District, offers no respite, making for an over-extended, laborious picture.


As such, The Plague Dogs is part of the tide of despair informing British cinema during the 1980s, faced by the intertwining spectres of Thatcherism and Armageddon. It’s noticeably there in the decade’s animations (not that there were many UK animated features, but the ones that were, the same year’s Pink Floyd – The Wall, the wailing misery and gnashing of teeth (in a very restrained, conservative manner) of Raymond Briggs’ When the Wind Blows, were fortified with unremitting bleakness.


The Plague Dogs carries that brooding dread throughout, most starkly in its permanently overcast Lake District setting. The premise may suggest the kind of escape to freedom from laboratory testing seen in Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (The Plague Dogs came out the same year as the considerably lighter and more magically orientated adaptation The Secret of NIMH) but what it leads to is closer to the futility of Edge of Darkness. If parents wonder how Watership Down escaped with a U certificate, there can be no doubt why The Plague Dogs received a PG; with its swearing, bloody carnage (a man gets shot in the face at one point) and unalleviated despondency, it might even have warranted a 15.


The chief problem is not this gloom, but the complete lack of narrative propulsion once Snitter (a fox terrier voiced by John Hurt) and Rowf (a Labrador voiced by Christopher Benjamin, perhaps best known as Henry Gordon Jago in the 1977 Doctor Who story The Talons of Weng-Chiang) have fled to the wilds. They embark on an endurance exercise of sheep-killing, being chased, and chatting to a particularly unpleasantly-rendered fox (James Bolam relishing his Geordie Reynard). Mostly, though, the duo wander listlessly, oblivious to their inevitable demise.


Unlike Watership Down, where the animal perspective and singular understanding of the world created a uniquely cohesive vision, The Plague Dogs is punctuated by voice-overs of the human side of the equation, searching for the two dogs amid fears they may be carrying plague (they aren’t, but that’s to no avail when it comes to the “necessity” of dispatching them). It’s disruptive, a reminder that there’s no fuel in the main plot’s tanks, with the canines unmotivated aside from their next meal. The counter of the days clicking by is a further unwelcome reminder that the picture lacks focus.


Apart from its overriding theme, of course. The animal testing is presented quite clearly as an unnecessary cruelty (Martin Rosen may have said it wasn’t anti-vivisection, but it would be nigh-impossible to come away thinking that). At one point, a scientist comments of the experiment on Snitter that it is based on “confusing subjective with objective in the animal’s mind”, but he sounds unclear himself, other than seeing the loss of the animals, and with them precious results, as a waste. Rowf, meanwhile, is shown being drowned and resuscitated in the opening scenes, evidently a regular sufferance. Then there’s the monkey in the “pit of despair” cut to at various points with see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil poses.


The picture certainly doesn’t make things easy, offering no respite, and its verbalising of the contradictions within a dog's psyche is perhaps less successful than in it was in the land of lapins. A hound acting an idiot one moment (dutifully approaching humans who may wish to harm it), then articulating the dangers of the environment the next, creates something of a schism. There’s also a sense that the unrelieved fatalism of their lot is compounded by every incident; of course Snitter accidentally puts his paw on the kindly gentry’s shotgun trigger. As for their eating the corpse of the gunman, it’s presented as a pure horror punchline, with no attempt on Snitter’s part to admit they know it would be a very bad thing to do (but needs must).


Snitter, his brain augmented, is very much the Fiver-esque visionary of the tale. Fox The Tod ("Just a proposal, bonny lads") is the Keehar and Rowf effectively a Bigwig type; it’s surely no coincidence that a leader and guide to safety, a Moses-Hazel figure, is absent. Imagine if Keehar had been killed off in Watership Down? Imagine if there was no comfort of a hereafter embracing these creatures when they shuffle off?


The Tod may not be as winning, but the casual sight of his corpse retrieved when the hunt is on for the dogs marks out starkly that there can be no happy ending here. Apparently the final scene, in which the two hounds swim through the misty sea towards “an island” (one does actually appear in the credits), suggesting they are fated to drown out there, is closer to the one first envisaged by Adams (in the book the dogs are taken in by Snittter’s original owner). Whether or not that island is an intentional glimmer of hope, the general tone of the picture tends to the negative, and it would be difficult to conclude they make it to shore.


Rosen imbues his picture with moments of tension (escaping the furnace, various pursuits and escapes) but the film as a whole is unfortunately weighed down by its heroes’ inertia. I commented that a two-and-a-half hour Watership Down could easily have been made from the source material. The same could not be said of The Plague Dogs, which is overlong at 100 minutes. The film undoubtedly reverberates in terms of atmosphere and tone, leaving the viewer with a sense of profound hopelessness and despair at the idle machinations of man, but it ought to have been compelling with it.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lieutenant, you run this station like chicken night in Turkey.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) (SPOILERS) You can’t read a review of Assault on Precinct 13 with stumbling over references to its indebtedness – mostly to Howard Hawks – and that was a preface for me when I first caught it on Season Three of BBC2’s Moviedrome (I later picked up the 4Front VHS). In Precinct 13 ’s case, it can feel almost like an attempt to undercut it, to suggest it isn’t quite that original, actually, because: look. On the other hand, John Carpenter was entirely upfront about his influences (not least Hawks), and that he originally envisaged it as an outright siege western (rather than an, you know, urban one). There are times when influences can truly bog a movie down, if it doesn’t have enough going for it in its own right. That’s never the case with Assault on Precinct 13 . Halloween may have sparked Carpenter’s fame and maximised his opportunities, but it’s this picture that really evidences his style, his potential and his masterful facility with music.

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984) If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delights  may well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box ’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisi

White nights getting to you?

Insomnia (2002) (SPOILERS) I’ve never been mad keen on Insomnia . It’s well made, well-acted, the screenplay is solid and it fits in neatly with Christopher Nolan’s abiding thematic interests, but it’s… There’s something entirely adequateabout it. It isn’t pushing any kind of envelope. It’s happy to be the genre-bound crime study it is and nothing more, something emphasised by Pacino’s umpteenth turn as an under-pressure cop.

We got two honkies out there dressed like Hassidic diamond merchants.

The Blues Brothers (1980) (SPOILERS) I had limited awareness of John Belushi’s immense mythos before  The Blues Brothers arrived on retail video in the UK (so 1991?) My familiarity with SNL performers really began with Ghostbusters ’ release, which meant picking up the trail of Jake and Elwood was very much a retrospective deal. I knew Animal House , knew Belushi’s impact there, knew 1941 (the Jaws parody was the best bit), knew Wired was a biopic better avoided. But the minor renaissance he, and they, underwent in the UK in the early ’90s seemed to have been initiated by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, of all things; Everybody Needs Somebody was part of their That Sounds Good to Me medley, the first of their hits not to make No.1, and Everybody ’s subsequent single release then just missed the Top Ten. Perhaps it was this that hastened CIC/Universal to putting the comedy out on video. Had the movie done the rounds on UK TV in the 80s? If so, it managed to pass me by. Even bef

How do you melt somebody’s lug wrench?

Starman (1984) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s unlikely SF romance. Unlikely, because the director has done nothing before or since suggesting an affinity for the romantic fairy tale, and yet he proves surprisingly attuned to Starman ’s general vibes. As do his stars and Jack Nitzsche, furnishing the score in a rare non-showing from the director-composer. Indeed, if there’s a bum note here, it’s the fairly ho-hum screenplay; the lustre of Starman isn’t exactly that of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but it’s very nearly stitching together something special from resolutely average source material.

He must have eaten a whole rhino horn!

Fierce Creatures (1997) (SPOILERS) “ I wouldn’t have married Alyce Faye Eicheberger and I wouldn’t have made Fierce Creatures.” So said John Cleese , when industrial-sized, now-ex gourmand Michael Winner, of Winner’s Dinners , Death Wish II and You Must Be Joking! fame (one of those is a legitimate treasure, but only one) asked him what he would do differently if he could live his life again. One of the regrets identified in the response being Cleese’s one-time wife (one-time of two other one-time wives, with the present one mercifully, for John’s sake, ongoing) and the other being the much-anticipated Death Fish II , the sequel to monster hit A Fish Called Wanda. Wanda was a movie that proved all Cleese’s meticulous, focus-group-tested honing and analysis of comedy was justified. Fierce Creatures proved the reverse.

I dreamed about a guy in a dirty red and green sweater.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) (SPOILERS) I first saw A Nightmare on Elm Street a little under a decade after its release, and I was distinctly underwhelmed five or so sequels and all the hype. Not that it didn’t have its moments, but there was an “It’ll do” quality that reflects most of the Wes Craven movies I’ve seen. Aside from the postmodern tease of A New Nightmare – like Last Action Hero , unfairly maligned – I’d never bothered with the rest of the series, in part because I’m just not that big a horror buff, but also because the rule that the first is usually the best in any series, irrespective of genre, tends to hold out more often than not. So now I’m finally getting round to them, and it seemed only fair to start by giving Freddy’s first another shot. My initial reaction holds true.

Maybe he had one too many peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) (SPOILERS) The kind of movie that makes your average Tarantino knockoff look classy, 3000 Miles to Graceland is both aggressively unpleasant and acutely absent any virtues, either as a script or a stylistic exercise. The most baffling thing about it is how it attracted Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, particularly since both ought to have been extra choosy at this point, having toplined expensive bombs in the previous half decade that made them significantly less bankable names. And if you’re wondering how this managed to cost the $62m reported on Wiki, it didn’t; Franchise Pictures, one of the backers, was in the business of fraudulently inflating budgets .

Ours is the richest banking house in Europe, and we’re still being kicked.

The House of Rothschild (1934) (SPOILERS) Fox’s Rothschild family propaganda pic does a pretty good job presenting the clan as poor, maligned, oppressed Jews who fought back in the only way available to them: making money, lots of lovely money! Indeed, it occurred to me watching The House of Rothschild , that for all its inclusion of a rotter of a Nazi stand-in (played by Boris Karloff), Hitler must have just loved the movie, as it’s essentially paying the family the compliment of being very very good at doing their very best to make money from everyone left, right and centre. It’s thus unsurprising to learn that a scene was used in the anti-Semitic (you might guess as much from the title) The Eternal Jew .

No, I ain’t a good man. I ain’t the worst either.

A Perfect World (1993) (SPOILERS) It’s easy to assume, retrospectively, that Clint’s career renaissance continued uninterrupted from Unforgiven to, pretty much, now, with his workhorse output ensuring he was never more than a movie away from another success. The nineties weren’t such a sure thing, though. Follow-up In the Line of Fire , a (by then) very rare actor-for-hire gig, made him seem like a new-found sexagenarian box office draw, having last mustered a dependably keen audience response as far back as 1986 and Heartbreak Ridge . But at home, at least, only The Bridges of Madison County – which he took over as director at a late stage, having already agreed to star – and the not-inexpensive Space Cowboys really scored before his real feted streak began with Mystic River. However, there was another movie in there that did strong business. Just not in the US: A Perfect World .