Cult Cinema: The Plague Dogs

Dana introduces herself to The Movie Sleuth with a review of the animated film, The Plague Dogs.

"Yo. You're my dog, dog."
Fans of animation often make a grave mistake in dividing the traditions of Eastern and Western animation down what calls the “animation age ghetto” – most people are happy to consider anime as mature, serious cinematic offering while relegating Western European and American animated features as children’s or family fodder. This view, however, throws a lot of truly beautiful artistry into a category to which it doesn’t belong – and, beyond “cult cinema”, I would argue that Western Animation as a whole, especially feature animation throughout the 1970s and 1980s, ought to be revisited in the American cultural collective. Often grittier, with heavy subject matter and animated by hand, such films form a baseline from which many people in my generation grew up – enchanting and traumatizing us by turns, yet somehow remaining in the dusty attic of said animation age ghetto, VHS boxes in our memories which deserve to be brought back into focus.

The studied brutality of Martin Rosen’s 1982 animated adaptation of The Plague Dogs is, much like his earlier feature, Watership Down (1978), an unflinchingly honest look at the effect man has on his fellow animals. Both films were based upon novels by British author Richard Adams, and while there are parallels between the visual storytelling in the almost watercolor-like strokes and stark, shadowed worlds created by their animators, this latter film is undoubtedly far more austere, and carries a heavier message for its human audience than did the social metaphors of its predecessor. Rosen has been careful to point out that it is not really meant to be an “anti-vivisection film”; still, industrial group Skinny Puppy may have given impetus to many familiar with “Testure” in sampling both pieces of dialog from the film and its end-credits theme, Alan Price’s “Time and Tide”, to believe this message was deliberate.

But this is not a film about animal testing. Lushly animated, The Plague Dogs follows the survival instinct of a pair of research animals as they escape the questionable ethics of a laboratory in which both have been subjected to grotesque experimentation and into the wilds of the Lake District in England. As the two dogs attempt to find a place in which they can thrive, they are forced deeper into the roles of their canine ancestors as the public have been told to shoot on sight, believing the pair to be carrying a strain of bubonic plague. Each human being they meet as they attempt to drive themselves further away from the research facility force them closer and closer to viciousness – not because they are inherently ferocious animals, but because they must unearth their own canine intuitions to stay alive.

The greatest strength of the film, as in the novel upon which it is based, are its characters – focusing on the animals, rather than the humans, Adams and Rosen tell an uncompromisingly bleak tale of two creatures simply trying to survive in a world hell-bent upon their obliteration. Realist Rowf (voiced by Christopher Benjamin), whose point of view the film seems keener to follow, understands the danger he is in and doesn’t see much reason to continue trying to survive – particularly after he realizes that he and his friend are, essentially, wanted fugitives. Snitter (voiced by John Hurt), who had once been a beloved house pet and still believes in the inherent goodness of mankind, staunchly believes they can find a Master and have a chance at a good life – despite the madness encroaching upon him from the experimental brain surgery he suffered in the laboratory. As both dogs face the possibility of starvation, they are grudgingly befriended by a fox, known only as “the tod” (voiced by James Bolam, in broad Geordie dialect) who shows them how to find food like wild dogs and helps them to escape their pursuers.

"Didn't yo momma ever
 teach you how to swim?!"
The film’s ending differs strongly from that of the book, so the reaction of the viewer by the adventure’s end may depend upon whether or not they have read and enjoyed the novel – many things are left uncertain as the credits roll, and if one approaches Rosen’s animated versions of Adams’s fiction with an eye for symbolism, they may find that they actually appreciate this ambiguity. As with Watership Down, the handprint of Man is acutely present, even as the most sympathetic of human characters are barely identified as individuals. Whether intentionally “anti-vivisection” or not, Rosen’s adaptation of The Plague Dogs will, if nothing else, remind us that such cruelties had only just begun to surface in the public eye at the time of its original release, serving as a powerful example to the effects of a blind eye.

The Plague Dogs is not as well known as Watership Down – it did not receive its own television serial and it tends not to be a film festival or midnight movie favorite.  Its themes are dark, and it does not contain the mystical, “fairytale”-like quality of its predecessor. But where it lacks in hope and optimism, it bares the ugly truths of the cruel, feral side of Nature with distinction and with stark beauty, a reminder to those who pay attention that to live sometimes means to kill – and a harsh truth is a truth nonetheless.

-Dana Culling

Like this review? Please share.
StumbleUpon Reddit Pinterest Facebook Twitter Addthis