92. A BOY AND HIS DOG (1975)

“I’ve been offered 25 films since then. I haven’t directed another picture. Once you’ve done A Boy and His Dog, everything else kinda pales.”–Director L.Q. Jones

Also released as Psycho Boy and His Killer Dog, and on video as Mad Don (to cash in on the unexpected celebrity of Don Johnson and the success of Mad Max)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: L.Q. Jones

FEATURING: Don Johnson, Tim McIntire (voice), Susanne Benton,

PLOT: Vic roams the post-apocalyptic desert wasteland with his telepathic dog Blood, who has the ability to sense the presence of human females.  Blood finds a woman for Vic in an underground bunker; as Vic is about to rape her, a band of marauders come upon them, and Vic and Blood fight them off.  The woman gives herself to Vic willingly but later sneaks away; Vic follows her to her strange underground world, leaving the badly wounded Blood behind on the surface.

Still from A Boy and His Dog (1975)

BACKGROUND:

  • A Boy and His Dog was adapted from Harlan Ellison’s novella of the same name.  Ellison began the screenplay but ran into writer’s block, and director Jones and producer Alvy Moore completed the script.
  • Jones wrote the film’s infamous last line.  Ellison has gone on record as “despising” the final dialogue.
  • Director L.Q. Jones was better known as a character actor (usually a heavy) in westerns, appearing in small roles in five films by Sam Peckinpah among his 150+ acting credits.  This is one of only two feature films he directed.  He appears as a cowboy in the film-inside-the-film.
  • Blood, the dog in the film, was played by Tiger, who also portrayed (in one episode) the family pet in the “Brady Bunch” television show.
  • Ellison continued the adventures of the post-apocalyptic pair in the (now out-of-print) graphic novel Vic and Blood: The Continuing Adventures of a Boy and His Dog .

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The setting and ideas of A Boy and His Dog are more memorable than the imagery, but the clown-faced residents of underground Topeka worm themselves into the memory.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A Boy and His Dog gives us two weird worlds for the price of one: a


Original trailer for A Boy and His Dog

scorched earth surface roamed by sarcastic, hyper-intelligent telepathic dogs, and an underground society of impotent totalitarian mimes.  Either vision on its own might have been weird enough to get this movie onto the List, but put them together and you’ve got something radically unique.

COMMENTS: A Boy and His Dog may be the weirdest “buddy” movie ever made, thanks to the fact that one of the pals is a telepathic mutt who uses his psychic abilities to find rape victims for Don Johnson.  The relationship between the dog, Blood, and the boy, Vic, is the heart of the movie: they often bicker like an old married couple, but the loyalty they show each other is the only worthwhile thing that survived the Bomb.  Reversing expectations, it’s Blood the beast who’s the brains of the partnership, and the human who’s all animal instinct.  It’s Blood tries to teach the reluctant Vic post-apocalyptic history (incidentally letting the audience in on the film’s backstory), and it’s Blood who dreams of finding a better life (a paradise where people have rediscovered agriculture, located “over the hill.”)  Vic, who seems to be about 18 years old, is girl-crazy and is only interested meeting women in a world where females are scarcer than at a World of Warcraft convention in Juneau, Alaska.   Vic is a habitual rapist, and Blood his psychic pimp who finds him victims in exchange for food; and yet, somehow, their relationship is sweet, in a blackly comic way.  A young Don Johnson is surprisingly good as the rash redneck who fearlessly charges into a band of roving thugs to steal a few cans of food, and his performance is especially noteworthy considering he acts opposite an animal, often reacting to lines of dialogue that will be dubbed in later.  But Tim McIntire is perfect as Blood; he creates the character so completely that it’s impossible to imagine another actor in the role.  Blood has an acerbic sense of humor—when Vic gets sexually frustrated, he spontaneously invents a dirty limerick to taunt the boy—and McIntire’s delivers his putdowns (many of which go over Vic’s head) with perfect irony.  When he suddenly switches gears and turns sincere and vulnerable, though, the effect can be heartbreaking.  The beautifully written repartee and constant needling between the two compadres suggests a lifetime of shared experiences.  Blood and Vic are brains and brawn, complementary to the point of being almost co-dependent, and should be inseparable chums on their scavenging journeys.  Throw a beautiful woman—the traditional solvent that dissolves the bond between two men—into this balanced equation, though, and things get dramatic.

It’s a good thing that the chemistry between Johnson and McIntire is so good, because it immediately sells the outlandish premise.  The emotionally complex interactions between Vic and Blood are so realistic that we soon forget we’re starting to sympathize with a talking dog.  We hardly even wonder how man’s best friend came to be his master’s intellectually superior psychic wingman and mentor.  The script never bothers to explain it to us, but asks us to take this crazy universe as it is (Ellison’s novella adds more details, but I like the way the movie simply ignores the suspension of disbelief problem and asks us to accept its world on faith).

The post-apocalyptic mise en scène—punk gangs scurrying about a desert wasteland fighting over scarce resources, whether they be water or women—is familiar to us now, but A Boy and His Dog is the godfather of the genre.  George Miller would adapt this same basic setting (including the amoral tone) four years later in his hit Mad Max, then sanitize the setting in his mega-hit The Road Warrior.  Hordes of imitators would follow throughout the 1980s before the cycle largely burnt itself out, but, in 1975, this anarchic post-nuke scavenger society was a strange scene indeed, even minus the chatty canine.

Jones and Ellison imbue their world with mildly surreal touches that their imitators never got hip to (or wisely abandoned).  There’s an outpost of civilization in the wilderness, but it’s an odd one; essentially, it’s a truck stop built around a drive-in movie.  Sure, you can get a shower there, and a date with what must be the world’s busiest prostitute, but cinema alfresco is the main attraction.  (It’s an appropriate touch considering A Boy and His Dog probably played at a lot of drive-ins in the  mid-Seventies).  Of course, the proprietors can’t just screen any old movies to the horny desert rats who trade their hard-earned cans of peaches and tins of sardines for tickets to the show.  The star attractions are a series a scratchy old worn-out black and white smokers and burlesque reels that appear to date back to the 1950s and 1960s (the film is set in 2024).  As Vic and Blood go about their business, advancing the plot, we get occasional peeks at the action onscreen.  The seamy, scrambled feature we can recreate from our glimpses of the action is a strange one: we see a woman stripping, couples making love, cowboys, lynch mobs, a man on fire, coitus interruptus at gunpoint.  The print has faded to a golden sepia, vertical streaks obscure the action, and sometimes a frame of film is upside down.   When our focus returns to Vic and Blood arguing over a popcorn purchase and stumbling onto a major plot point, diegetic screams of pain or moans of pleasure fill the air.  These jumbled antique porno snippets create a weird background hum of social decay, and make what could have been a throwaway scene into something unforgettable.

If a land of psychic dogs hunting women across an irradiated landscape seems strange to you, brace yourself for when Vic abandons Blood to chase a pretty little derriere down a rabbit hole and into the far more bizarre Wonderland of Topeka.  Civilization, of a satirical sort, has survived the holocaust underground, where what appear to be a band of Lutheran farmers have recreated Norman Rockwell’s America in an eternal twilight.  The men dress in bow ties or overalls, the women in prairie dresses, and both sexes smother their faces in white greasepaint and highlight their cheekbones with obscene amounts of blush.  Topeka seems to be throwing a perpetual pot luck picnic at a park planted with fake shrubbery, complete with clown marching bands and barbershop quartets.  In between meals you can step inside the church, sit in the pews, and watch the governing Council do its business: handing out blue ribbons for the best canned goods, and sentencing wrongdoers to “the farm” for the generic crime of “lack of respect, wrong attitude, and failure to obey authority,” all with a strict adherence to Robert’s Rules of Order.  A loudspeaker constantly blares through the streets of Topeka, giving the citizens news, “sound tours” into the past (the growls and trumpets of lions and elephants), history lessons, prayers, “helpful hints for living,” and instructions for making the perfect country breakfast.  The propagandistic PA echoes the seedy drive-in sound system that, earlier in the film, piped in the sounds of sex and fighting; this time the background noise is a barrage of ironically incongruent, wholesome nonsense.

After being forcibly bathed, Vic decides he wants out of the two-bit town, until the Council makes him an offer that sounds (and is) too good to be true.  Thankfully, morally upright Topeka has a teenage rebellion problem of its own, and Vic is able to escape their dastardly plans and make it back topside, with his female prize in tow.  Once there, he meets up with Blood again, and realizes he never should have deserted his dear friend to chase some skirt.  Vic has to find a way to make up to his best friend for his betrayal.  The solution he comes up with leads to the film’s infamous, ironically perfect ending and its killer final line.

Many people find the film’s ending to be in bad taste.  Many find the entire movie to be in bad taste, in fact, and they have a point.  A Boy and His Dog has frequently been accused of going beyond just being a “guy movie” and transgressing into the realm of outright misogyny.  And while I’m not sure that the movie goes that far—I think the film is more pro-womanizer than it is anti-woman—I confess that the sub-misogynistic subtext, while not ruining the film, does detract from my enjoyment of it, and makes A Boy and His Dog  difficult to unconditionally endorse.

Viewed one way, A Boy and His Dog is about the hero recognizing and affirming a real, enduring friendship above a passing erotic fancy.  That’s a fine message, but the overall context of the film begs a different reading.  What we actually see in A Boy and His Dog is 1) a guy who’s enjoying life hanging out with his male buddy, occasionally using women to satisfy his sexual urges, who 2) falls emotionally for a woman and abandons his friend and 3) is tricked into a hellish version of wholesome family life; 4) the woman turns out to be a conniving deceiver who was just using him, so he 5) viciously kicks her to the curb to reunite with his true friend.  The women in A Boy and His Dog are commodities (the movie’s most disturbing quote is not the final punchline, but Vic’s spontaneous reaction when he finds a bloody, still-breathing rape victim: “Hell, they didn’t have to cut her!  She could have been used two or three more times”).  The only meaningful relationship in the film is between guys; the only woman we meet pretends to be a victim, but is really a trickster and deceiver out to trap the hero.  The horrifying world she comes from is civilized and family oriented, but it’s also feminized—even the men wear makeup.  The horrifying event Vic must escape from is, significantly, matrimony: a nightmarishly twisted wedding ceremony.  And how can Vic redeem himself for succumbing to his need for love?  Only by rejecting the civilized world and returning to his former lifestyle of treating women as disposable chattel.

By the time Ellison wrote the original novella, he had already been married three times, with the longest lasting four years and the shortest seven weeks.  He characterized his first marriage as “four years of hell” and had written an anthology of cynical “romance” stories entitled “Love Ain’t Nothing But Sex Misspelled.”  Given his troubled relationships with women, it may not be shocking that he would pen a scenario that portrays the world of rootless, feral males as more desirable than the prison of civilization with its castrating institution of forced monogamy.  It’s true that A Boy and His Dog is “just a story,” that Vic’s attitudes towards women are absolutely in tune with the setting and true to the way men would think and act if faced with a catastrophic shortage of women.  It’s arguable that Quinella June is a unique character and shouldn’t be viewed as the representative for her sex.  You could defend the position that the movie’s misanthropic rather than specifically misogynist: the men aren’t exactly portrayed as good people, either.  You could view the intellectual, asexual Blood, who proclaims that “breeding is an ugly thing” and whose main interest in copulation is in tracing the word’s Latin roots, as a symbol of the mind in opposition to Vic’s libido, which puts a much different and more favorable spin on the symbolism. Still, there’s something extremely disquieting about the film’s resolution, which manipulates us into cheering when Vic finds redemption by rejecting erotic love (shown to be a cruel illusion) and resuming his career as a rapist.  It’s a surrealistic version of the male gangsta ethos that’s summed up in the phrase “bros before hos”; call it “pooches before cooches.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a weird, offbeat sci-fi movie… It’s got a unique . . . well, I was about to say charm, but the movie’s last scene doesn’t quite let me get away with that. “–Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

“The good ideas are marred by awkwardness; the terrible ideas are redeemed somewhat by being, at least, unpredictable… The underworld part, brilliantly grotesque as it partly is, breaks the realistic vision of the beginning. The two parts don’t really work together…”–Richard Eder, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“Some scenes towards the end are simply bizarre. However, if you’re a serious SF buff, then you’ll probably look past the film’s weaknesses and ‘get’ what made the movie the definite cult classic it is.”–James O’Ehley, The Sci-Fi Movie Page (DVD)

IMDB LINK: A Boy and His Dog (1975)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Apocalypse Wow! – The Montreal Mirror‘s Matthew Hays interviews L.Q. Jones 28 years after A Boy and His Dog‘s release

“A Boy and His Dog” in “Harlan Ellison: the edge of forever” – Via GoogleBooks comes this chapter about the original novella, discussing the differences between the story and film versions and the misogyny controversy, from a critical work on Ellison by Ellen Weil and Gary K. Wolfe

A Boy and His Dog: The Final Solution – In a contemporaneous essay, feminist Joanna Russ claims “sending a woman to see A BOY AND HIS DOG is like sending a Jew to a movie that glorifies Dachau”

A Boy and His Dog at TV Tropes – Listing for the film at the sometimes perceptive, sometimes hilarious cliché-cataloging site

DVD INFO: A Boy and His Dog has yet to receive the DVD treatment it deserves.  The 2003 First Run Features “Special Edition” release (buy) presents the feature in widescreen, but the print is grainy and un-restored.  There is a lively commentary by L.Q. Jones, cinematographer John Morrill and film critic Charles Champlin, and two trailers for the film.  The box cover advertises liner notes from science fiction author Robert Heinlein, but all reports indicate that these notes were never actually included with the package.

UPDATE 8/8/2013: Shout! Factory has released a remastered print of A Boy and His Dog in a DVD/Blu-ray combo pack (buy). The DVD is not sold separately. The set includes a new interview with Jones and Ellison, and the commentary track from the First Run edition has been ported over.

(This movie was nominated for review by “Kathryn,” who characterized it as “not great, but definitely some weird ideas floating around there.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

7 thoughts on “92. A BOY AND HIS DOG (1975)”

  1. No quibbles with your review, which is fine, but I would like to say that I grew up in Juneau, Alaska. If they managed to put together a WoW convention, it would actually be a very good way to meet girls. Who doesn’t love nerdy girls?

    I didn’t particularly care for this movie. It’s weird in spades, but nothing really grabbed me. Maybe I should have seen it when it first came out. Maybe I should think higher of Harlan Ellison. I don’t know. It’s hard to go back to the original when things have been done to death. I had the same problem with Casablanca.

    1. No offense intended either to Juneau, AK or to nerdy girls. I was playing off the idea that there are many more males than females in Alaska, and many more males playing WoW than females, so if you filtered the two sexes by those criteria, you’d end up with about as many women as you see in A Boy and His Dog. I probably should have used Nome instead of Juneau to avoid outraging the Juneau contingent.

  2. But… but then you’d have the Nome contingent after you. In all actuality, I have heard a surprising amount of comedy pieces using Juneau as a comedy punchline. Juneau, Alaska just has a great comedic rhythm.

    I only brought it up because it made me laugh. (Also, any WoW Juneau ladies, I’ve got lots of free time and I’m willing to listen to you talk about your dumb WoW character.)

  3. Actually, all the accounts on WoW are actually female gamers taking masculine nicks so they don’t get harassed. There are no boys in World of Warcraft.

    On the film: Yes, it’s misogynist as hell and misanthropist to boot, but what do you want? This is Harlan Ellison we’re talking about. I’m surprised he didn’t end with Blood killing the girl and pissing on the carcass. Also see Ellison’s many autobiographical meanderings on his own little buddy dog, I believe he named it Abhu. I think at least one instance pops up in “Deathbird Stories.” Definitely perceive the influence of his real-life dog on Blood, and doubtless his loyal doggy friend would have stuck around through several women.

    Anyway, Ellison is a law unto himself. He’s brilliant, but simultaneously one of the most psychologically fucked-up people ever born. He doesn’t like computers, so he wrote “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream” which got turned into an equally disturbing video game which *also* gets reviewed on sites just like this one, but for video games. And he worked misogyny into that one, too!

  4. The film was so weird it made me watch it till the end and then after that bizarre strange ending , i thought to myself , what a waste of 90 minutes!

  5. I’m late to the party, so I’ll do my best to write up my thoughts about the movie, and reactions to some of the comments here, in as focused a way as possible.

    I just finished watching the movie about an hour ago, having bought it recently after reading about it on this site (perhaps 366 should start trying to get some royalties). I found it very funny, and at times very moving.

    What took me somewhat aback was not the misogyny, though, but the allegations thereof. In a movie titled “A Boy and his Dog”, there’s little hope for any other character to have a happy ending (or even be fleshed out, for that matter). Certainly Vic and Blood make for a rather misgynystic duo (though Blood doesn’t seem to have much respect for any type of human), but I feel that that doesn’t make the movie itself anti-women.

    Drawing from the perspective laid out in the title, the movie makes a great deal of sense, and plays by the rules it sets out over the hour-long introduction. The final third seems to be where most of the actual narrative takes place, which is by no means problematic – just uncommon. Until his descent into the land that time forgot, Vic is presented with no dilemmas. That is, at least in regards to his moral frame of reference (itself by no means an admirable construct).

    The one female character worth mentioning is also the only Other character worth mentioning, which puts the viewer in the situation that the “antagonist” of the film happens to be a woman. Is the female gender given a fair shake? Certainly not – but that’s what the movie’s frame of reference dictates, and without the betrayal by Quilla, there is no story.

    Ms Russ did herself no favours when she opined “sending a woman to see A BOY AND HIS DOG is like sending a Jew to a movie that glorifies Dachau”. Reducing a catastrophic human tragedy to use as a comparison with cheeky speculative fiction not only mars any arguments she may provide to support her underlying point, but also is an insult to the millions who were destroyed by Hitler’s death machine. (Like most “that’s what Hitler would do” arguments, it’s self-defeating.)

    Upon reflection, I was reminded of a line from “A Field in England”, said by the soldier character about half way through: “What this party lacks in the civilising influence of women.” I don’t feel it can be argued that L. Q. Jones has made a misogynistic picture – in this land populated almost entirely by men, most everything has gone to Hell.

    Addendum: Ms Russ’ article does bring up a number of fair points, many of which I respect and some of which I disagree with. However, the whole “Triump of the Will” reaction she has seriously compromises her creditibility in my view.

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