The Plague Dogs (1982)
By: Trist Jones on September 9, 2006  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Big Sky Video (Australia). Region 4, PAL. 4:3. English DD 2.0. 97 minutes
The Movie
Director: Martin Rosen
Starring: (Voices) John Hurt, Christopher Benjamin, James Bolam
Screenplay: Martin Rosen
Music: Patrick Gleeson
Country: USA
File this one under that 'Animated Films Your Children Shouldn't Be Exposed To' along with the other unassumingly adult cult hits of the late Seventies and early Eighties, as The Plague Dogs is easily one of the most cerebrally intense and shocking animated features I've laid eyes on. Forget the flight of fantasy anime carnage - everyone knows what that's like - The Plague Dogs is working on an entirely different level. One that I never saw coming, and not necessarily one that everyone will enjoy.

The Plague Dogs, based on the book of the same name by Richard Adams (who also wrote the classic Watership Down), is both a gut wrenching and heart wrenching tale of two dogs; Snitter (a fox terrier) and Rowf (a black Labrador), who escape from an animal testing facility to find the outside world is a much harsher place than they remember. Rowf, who seems to have partially lost his mind from countless and disturbing endurance tests, accepts that they have no place to go now and it's either kill or be killed, and Snitter's (voiced perfectly by John Hurt) degenerating mental state of being (due to unknown surgery done to the animal's head) slowly skews his more positive perception of things, as the two are hunted down by the research centre from which they escaped. As they journey farther from the lab, the necessity of food arises, and Rowf and Snitter start taking down sheep in the countryside in order to survive, which attracts the attentions of "The Todd" – a morally ambiguous fox, and the townsfolk of a nearby village (which in turn, grabs the attention of the researchers they escaped from) who have been informed that they may be infected with the Bubonic Plague.

I'm going to say, straight out, that I am a dog person. I hate cats (and they seem to hate me back equally) and have always had dogs around for as long as I can remember, so I think it's safe to say that I was a bit more susceptible to the underlying themes and often disturbing intimations scattered throughout this film. Hell, the opening sequence left me a tiny bit off balance! Still, regardless of how you feel about dogs, The Plague Dogs is still a surprisingly heavy film, and not exactly palatable for everyone. Aside from the obvious; the animal cruelty, the testings, there's a surprising amount of graphic violence for an animated feature and I sincerely doubt that anyone – perhaps with the exception of those who have read the book – would be prepared for how minimalist the story actually is. The best way I can describe it is like The Fox and the Hound with a terminal disease. It's a wonderful film, but when you think about it, and even when you're watching it, you can't help but get caught up in the melancholy of it all and the sadness of an ending that can't be avoided.

Not much happens in film in terms of action. To whittle it down, it's essentially two possibly diseased dogs being chased across English moors and countryside by 'whitecoats'. There're a few patches here and there of something different, but if you don't like English countryside's, you're going to be very uncomfortable throughout this. As I said, it's a very internal film, and the focus is constantly on the dogs, with everything happening from their point of view. The human point of view is interestingly given through conversations between farmers, townsfolk and researchers, which, along with some media reports, are all presented as voice overs as we watch the dogs do whatever they're doing. For the most part, humans are kept as faceless, omnipresent entities, and this works really well. It's kind of like 'The Company' from the Alien films; the presence is always there and its intentions are ambiguous, but you know they're not friendly. There are a couple of shocking but fantastic moments nonetheless that revolve around Snitter and his belief that he inadvertently brings death with him wherever he goes, one in particular involving a shotgun blast to a man's face, which puts the viewer in an interesting mindset about the situation because of the presentation of humankind.

While watching The Plague Dogs, one gets the feeling that it really would be better read than seen. The whole time I was watching the film I kept finding myself thinking how much it felt like a book, and that it probably would be a great – if not substantially better – read (something I now plan on doing). Much of what I was saying about how internal the film is and how much the film implies through what it portrays would probably be far more effective on paper. All this said, it should already be enough to make you see that it's not a kid's film by any stretch. A large number of the situations present in the films will either have the kids in tears, bore them to death or simply go straight over their heads – particularly the most interesting. There's a scene where the dogs find themselves trapped in the incinerator with the corpse of another dog that is both deeply disturbing and incredibly intense to watch, but because of the way the scene plays out, its effectiveness is going to be completely wasted on the young ones. A large chunk of the film was actually removed from the original UK edit in an attempt to make it more palatable for American audiences, and typically, those higher up figured "It's a cartoon, therefore; it's for kids!"

Both edits are present on the DVD, with the American cut running roughly seventeen minutes shorter, having removed snippets here and there of slow moving sequences and violence (nothing that really impacts the film all that much) however one noticeable edit removes a scene where a the humans discover the remains of a man who died trying to shoot the dogs. Doesn't sound like much, but when the big reveal is the fact that the dogs have partially devoured the man and you get a full blown close-up of the mangled corpse you can sort of understand why it was chopped.

In spite of trying to soften the film for the American kids, the animation alone is probably enough to repel most children, but it's also likely to put off a number of closed-minded viewers. It's drastically different to pretty much everything else in terms of its artistic style, and it's not exactly easy on the eyes, but it does certainly suit the film. It's also markedly different from the animation found in Watership Down, in spite of superficial similarities (though those familiar with Watership Down will probably have an easier time stomaching the art direction). It's interesting too, in that some of the sequences came before both computer assisted animation and rotoscoping, and you'd swear some shots were assisted by either technique.

The performances, much like Watership Down, are a bit all over the place. John Hurt, who also starred in Watership Down, turns in a terrific, if somewhat familiar performance as Snitter, and BBC TV regular Christopher Benjamin does a good job with Rowf. It's James Bolam, as "The Tod" who carries this one. He manages to make the fox completely ambiguous; one of those characters you want to trust as much as everything inside tells you you shouldn't, but you love him for it anyway, and he manages to steal the screen every time he's there. Everyone else seems to become this amorphous cacophony of thick, highland accents, to the point where you could probably convince yourself that one person is doing every other voice in the film ( Patrick Stewart is hidden in there somewhere… damned if I know where). This was a problem I had with Watership Down and remains a problem with The Plague Dogs: aside from one or two characters, everyone else – including mains (this time being Rowf) – don't seem enthused at all, making the characters seem bland and sometimes inaudible.

The score doesn't exactly stand out either, nor do the songs used to bookend the film. Watership Down had that creepy Art Garfunkle folk music that seared itself into your brain along with that ghostly floating rabbit head, The Plague Dogs has some bland and largely downbeat synth tracks and a gospel track at the end that screams irony, and while the score works for the film, it just feels as though more could have been done to make it better.

The rest of the disc, much like the film itself, leaves room for improvement…
This Big Sky DVD is the only full length edition of the film available anywhere in the world, which is both good and bad. It's bad in that the video quality is atrocious. There's damage all over the place, grain, discolouration and it's fullscreen. It's enough to make DVD purists sick to their stomachs and write it off as unwatchable. But hey, if you can tolerate VHS still then you'll be fine with the image quality. Thankfully the video master it was sourced from didn't suffer from any tracking issues…
The audio, much like the video, is severely flawed as well. It's audible, but far, far, far from perfect. It comes in a Dolby 2.0 stereo mix, but if any remastering was done to these tracks I would hate to have to have heard the original mix. The audio quality (particularly the voice work) goes in and out constantly, some character vocals are bizarrely louder than others in parts and there's a tinny sound to pretty much the entire film. The sound effects do seem to have been sourced specifically for this film, and not simply harvested from stock sound archives, so in spite of not being of great quality, everything at least sounds genuine.
Extra Features
Unfortunately, nothing substantial. You get a theatrical trailer and a 'selected works' "textra", which is a real shame. A film like this, one that has a cult status and a one of a kind DVD release (regardless of overall quality), really deserves more. Some sort of commentary or interview with the director, or the writers, or cast members, anything like that would have been welcomed (and I doubt hard to obtain, given that the director hasn't really made anything since The Plague Dogs and that most writers will do anything to promote their works).
The Verdict
After months of eyeing this film off in the stores, reading up about the relative cult status this obscurity had and being a big fan of Watership Down, I was pretty disappointed by this. I didn't exactly have high expectations for the DVD itself, so that's not what did this one in for me, it was my expectations for the film. For the most part, it was similar to what I had in mind, but it simply wasn't a memorable, or 'pleasant' viewing experience. It was incredibly thought provoking and certainly one of those films that will leave you discussing it for a long time after, but once you've seen it, that's really enough. There's no real want or desire to rewatch. There are moments scattered throughout the UK edit that may redeem it in the eyes of those who lean towards the more bloodthirsty sides of things, and, as I said; thematically the film is incredibly rich and intense. But while this may please some in the short term, and may garner it its cult status, it certainly doesn't propel it into the stratosphere of cult greatness. Certainly worth a weekly rental somewhere down the track, but I can't recommend buying it in this form.
Movie Score
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