Monday, August 12, 2013

The Plague Dogs

Plague Dogs Directed By Martin Rosen. Starring John Hurt (1982)
    Review By Goat Scrote
    If Franz Kafka had ever had children, this is the kind of bedtime story he would tell them. Yes, this is a cartoon with lovable talking animals in it, but no, you absolutely should not show this film to young children unless you're doing illicit psychological experimentation involving childhood trauma [ ]. There's animal torture, some human gore, dark social commentary, and a whole lot of heavy existential seeking, and no happy endings for anybody. The movie is way too honest to give easy answers to the questions it raises. Even adults might have a little trouble digesting such a heavy mental meal.
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    These dogs only wish they could be as lucky as Bambi's mother and die quickly. If you thought the animated violence in "Watership Down" was traumatic for the tots, you should know that "Plague Dogs" ups the ante considerably. Both films are based on books by Richard Adams, and are written, directed, and produced by Martin Rosen. It's not surprising that there are similarities, but where "Watership Down" tells an essentially hopeful story about loss and renewal, Plague Dogs tells a relentlessly hopeless story about senseless cruelty and pointless tragedy. It's a good movie, and using cute animals to say something serious is one of the oldest storytelling traditions there is, but Plague Dogs is so bleak and sad in places that I find it genuinely painful to watch!
    For the trivia buffs, dialogue from this movie is sampled by Skinny Puppy in their anti-vivisection song "Testure", and a clip from the movie can be seen in the background of the music video. [].
    The story opens in an animal testing facility where we witness a little slice of animated Hell on Earth. It's a dismal picture of institutional cruelty with little discernible purpose. Some of the lab dogs like Rowf (Christopher Benjamin) are locked inside a water-filled tank and forced to swim until they become exhausted and drown, only to be resuscitated, put back in their tiny cages, and made to do it all over again the next day. Other dogs like Snitter (John Hurt) subjected to experimental brain surgery. "Why do they do it?" he wonders in bewildered pain, "I'm not a bad dog."

Inside Snitter's mind

    When a cage door isn't latched properly, Snitter and Rowf take the opportunity to escape.  Snitter has odd hallucinations and seizures from his surgery, and he is ridden with guilt for his role in the accidental death of his former master, but he still has a basic trust of human beings. Rowf is less certain about the goodness of mankind, but together the two seek a new master. Their innocent attempts to connect with humans go wrong every time. They go to town but get spooked when they see a butcher in his bloody white apron, so similar to the doctors at the lab. They see a shepherd and his sheepdogs and try to fit in by chasing the sheep, which fails to win them any affection.
    In a world that seems endlessly hostile, they finally find something of a friend out in the wild. The Tod (James Bolam) is a wily fox who makes a deal with the dogs. He will teach them to survive as "wild animals" and they will help him get bigger prey, like sheep. Unfortunately, their success at sheep-killing just gets them hunted by the locals.
    Things finally seem about to take a turn for the better when Snitter encounters a kind man in the woods - a new master! As Snitter finally realizes his dream and scampers into the man's arms, however, fate betrays him. His paw snags the trigger of the man's shotgun and the man's face is suddenly gone with a boom and a big red splash. This is the most brutal scene in the movie and it kicks me right in the nuts every time.
raspberry jam is pouring out of my face!

    Snitter's spirit is broken. "I'm bad," he despairs. Things don't get any cheerier for the strange little pack, either. Winter comes and their ribs are showing. A hunter stalking them falls to his death and the starving dogs eat him. When the hunter is found ripped to shreds it doesn't help the fugitive dogs' public image. Reporters have started stirring up sentiment against the dogs and the lab. The lab directors kept the escape quiet to avoid embarrassment  but this seems downright sinister when rumors start that the dogs might be infected with the bubonic plague. The absurdity of the situation reaches its peak when escalating public outcry leads politicians to call in the military to deal with the two tormented, weak, confused stray dogs.
Where are those Snausages we ordered?

    The Tod proves to be a true friend when he sacrifices himself to help Rowf and Snitter escape onto a train car. The dogs reach the sea as soldiers close in, and flee together into the water in sort of a canine "Thelma and Louise" moment. At first Snitter hallucinates that the sun shining through the ocean fog is an island, a place where they can finally find peace. As they swim on and on into the fog Snitter realizes that the island was just another illusion from his damaged brain and he despairs. Rowf, the veteran of the water-tank, urges Snitter to keep swimming. The two dogs vanish together into the fog, never to be seen again. So did Snitter give up? Does Rowf drown in the end, after all? Is the whole world just a big version of the torture tank, where every living thing is drowned and resuscitated over and over for reasons we can never comprehend, bereft of any hope of escape except one final plunge into cold and darkness? I ain't sayin', and neither does the movie. As the credits roll, though, the fog slowly parts, and there is a smudge in the distance that might be the hoped-for island. It seems impossibly far off, too far for a couple of exhausted dogs to reach, but the island is there... a tiny sliver of possibility.
Highly Recommended!
Do they make it out OK?

Paramilitary Dog termination squad

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