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

Believe me, Mr Bond, I could shoot you from Stuttgart und still create ze proper effect.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
(SPOILERS) Some of the reactions to Spectre would have you believe it undoes all the “good” work cementing Daniel Craig’s incarnation of Bond in Skyfall. If you didn’t see that picture as the second coming of the franchise (I didn’t) your response to the latest may not be so harsh, despite its less successful choices (Blofeld among them). And it isn’t as if one step, forward two steps back are anything new in perceptions of the series (or indeed hugely divisive views on what even constitutes a decent Bond movie). After the raves greeting Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan suffered a decidedly tepid response to his second outing, Tomorrow Never Dies, albeit it was less eviscerated than Craig’s sophomore Quantum of Solace. Tomorrow’s reputation disguises many strong points, although it has to be admitted that a Moore-era style finale and a floundering attempt to package in a halcyon villain aren’t among them.

The Bond series’ flirtations with contemporary relevance have a…

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

Remember, you're fighting for this woman's honour – which is probably more than she ever did.

Duck Soup (1933)
(SPOILERS) Not for nothing is Duck Soup acclaimed as one of the greatest comedies ever, and while you’d never hold it against Marx Brothers movies for having little in the way of coherent plotting in – indeed, it’s pretty much essential to their approach – the presence of actual thematic content this time helps sharpen the edges of both their slapstick and their satire.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

On account of you, I nearly heard the opera.

A Night at the Opera (1935)
(SPOILERS) The Marx Brothers head over to MGM, minus one Zeppo, and despite their variably citing A Night at the Opera as their best film, you can see – well, perhaps not instantly, but by about the half-hour mark – that something was undoubtedly lost along the way. It isn’t that there’s an absence of very funny material – there’s a strong contender for their best scene in the mix – but that there’s a lot else too. Added to which, the best of the very funny material can be found during the first half of the picture.

I still think it’s a terrible play, but it makes a wonderful rehearsal.

Room Service (1938)
(SPOILERS) The Marx Brothers step away from MGM for a solitary RKO outing, and a scarcely disguised adaption of a play to boot. Room Service lacks the requisite sense of anarchy and inventiveness of their better (earlier) pictures – even Groucho’s name, Gordon Miller, is disappointingly everyday – but it’s nevertheless an inoffensive time passer.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

This better not be some 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea shit, man.

Underwater (2020)
(SPOILERS) There’s no shame in a quality B-movie, or in an Alien rip-off done well. But it’s nevertheless going to need that something extra to make it truly memorable in its own right. Underwater, despite being scuppered at the box office, is an entirely respectable entry in both those arenas from director William Eubank, but like the recent Life (which, in fairness, had an ending that very nearly elevated it to the truly memorable), it can’t quite go that extra mile, or summon that much needed sliver of inspiration to set it apart.

Goodbye, Mr Chimps.

At the Circus (1939)
(SPOILERS) This is where the brothers sink into their stretch of middling MGM movies, now absent the presence of their major supporter Irving Thalberg; it’s probably for the best this wasn’t called A Day at the Circus, as it would instantly have drawn unflattering comparisons with the earlier MGM pair that gave them their biggest hits. Nevertheless, there’s enough decent material to keep At the Circus fairly sprightly (rather than “fairly ponderous”, as Pauline Kael put it).