Tag Archives: British

CAPSULE: THE PLAGUE DOGS (1982)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of , Christopher Benjamin, James Bolam

PLOT: A pair of dogs escape from a medical experimentation facility in Scotland and are hunted down as possible carriers of the bubonic plague.

Still from The Plague Dogs (1982)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Yes, the idea of a depressing animated film about the horrors of animal experimentation is a strange one; but, accepting the oddness of the subject matter, Plague Dogs‘ execution is straightforward.

COMMENTS: “Why do they do it? I’m not a bad dog.”

Movie openings don’t come much bleaker than this: a black Labrador is swimming in a tank of water, exhausted and struggling to keep his head above water. “I think he’s starting to pack it in,” says the white-coated lab scientist observing him. The lab’s legs stop paddling, his eyes glaze over, and he sinks to the bottom. A hook appears and grabs him by the collar. “I think he went a little longer that Wednesday’s test,” the scientist observes as the dripping canine is hauled from the pool. He’s resuscitated, he’s vitals are measured, and he’s thrown back into a stone-floored cage with dozens of other dogs in varying states of wretchedness and despondency. The scientists schedule his next trip into the tank for Monday.

If this opening gives you the animal lover in you pause, then realize that it does get better for Rowf the Labrador—but only because it can’t get worse than being drowned multiple times a week. With the help of Snitter, a terrier with an ugly bandage duct-taped to his head to cover up the opening in his skull through which the white coats have been digging into his brain, he does escape the hellish laboratory; but life on the outside (rural Scotland) is not so easy, either. Snitter once had a human master, and believes they can find one again; but people treat them as mangy strays and shoo them away. On the edge of starvation, Rowf figures out how to kill a sheep, which of course angers the neighboring shepherds. Meanwhile, the scientists are afraid the escaped dogs will bring them bad press, and so spread the rumor that they are carrying the bubonic plague, which causes the locals to shun the dogs more. They eek out an existence on the edge of starvation with the help of the Tod, a scheming fox who teaches them how to live in the wild in exchange for sheep scraps. But their days are numbered, as a posse inevitably closes in.

As if that’s all not bad enough, Snitter has a tragic backstory of how he lost his beloved master. He has flashbacks to his happier days, sitting by the fireplace with his master scratching his head. His heartbreak is squared, when you realize what he’s lost. He’s also suffering canine madness brought about by all that brain probing—and sometimes, you wish he would stay lost in his delusions. There is no joy and very little humor in The Plague Dogs: the tone alternates between despondent and harrowing. The only spark of hope is Rowf and Snitter’s refusal to abandon each other. At times, each decides to lie down and wait for death, only to have the other pick him up to face another miserable day. And yet, you have to give the movie credit; it’s uncompromising in its viciousness, and sadly beautiful. Have a hanky nearby; this one goes in the pile with emotionally devastating adult cartoons like Grave of the Fireflies (1988) and When the Wind Blows (1986).

The animation is good, not great, but the artists have carefully studied canine movements to give these two anthropomorphic pooches realistic mannerisms. Snitter helplessly scratches at his bandage with his paw; Rowf, wary, slinks out of his cage. Snitter’s two dream sequences are mildly inventive, mixing color with black and white to create doggy dreams.

Snitter and Rowf are a classic outlaw team, outsiders whom we root for against the “legitimate” authorities. On the surface, the movie is a vicious attack on animal experimentation, but our heroes could easily stand for oppressed minorities, or the poor and homeless—anyone who’s undeserving of the hardships, scorn and fear society saddles them with. Or, it could be a pure existential allegory about the callous indifference of fortune, which doesn’t care if we’re good or bad dogs when it randomly doles out its head-scratches or its drownings.

For years, The Plague Dogs was only available in the 82-minute American theatrical version. In 2019 Shout! Factory dug up the extended 105 minute version and restored the film by splicing in two prints. They offer both versions of the film on Blu-ray (although I’m not sure who’s interested in seeing the shorter cut), and include a 15-minute interview with Rosen as a bonus feature.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“By dealing mostly with talking, thinking animals as traditional cartoons do, but putting them into strange and harsh circumstances, the film also hammers home its differences from Disney-style animations and their refusal to face real-world problems except in disguised and symbolic form.”–David Sterritt, The Christian Science Monitor (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Jamie,” who recommended it “not so much for its content but the fact that this film was actually made (who greenlit a film about a pair of dogs going through hell, and then tried to sell it as an adventure film), as well as its exceedingly nihilistic and morbid tone (all for a story about talking dogs!)” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: THE MIGHTY BOOSH (2003-2007)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Paul King, Steve Bendelack

FEATURING: Julian Barratt, Noel Fielding, Rich Fulcher, Michael Fielding, Dave Brown

PLOT: Throughout its three seasons, we watch the adventures of Howard Moon and Vince Noir who start as zookeepers with musical ambitions, become musicians with musical ambitions, and finish off as shopkeepers with musical ambitions.

WHY WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Exceptions for a movie list, once made, have a danger of proliferating; so it is with heavy heart that I can’t recommend adding this series to the Apocrypha list. That said, its got weirdo merits aplenty: no narrative diversion is too outlandish, and at any moment a song or “crimp” can break out. Skating forever between idiotic and genius, it is unfailingly creative, absurd, and oddly charming.

COMMENTS: On the heels of my northern outing, I decided it was time to hunker down and crash through every episode of the famed cult comedy, “The Mighty Boosh.” I couldn’t resist its invitation at the start of each episode to join the troupe “on a journey through time and space,” and found myself neck-deep in a sitcom that veered recklessly all over the comedy spectrum. I’ll admit that the first few episodes left me both speechless and with a fixed raised eyebrow. Once I got onto the Boosh‘s twitchy wavelength, however, I just couldn’t stop watching, and discovered how quickly ten solid hours of weirdo comedy can whiz by.

Whatever the surrounding nonsense, the focus is always squarely on Howard Moon (Julian Barratt) and Vince Noir (Noel Fielding). The former is a middle aged, mustachioed neurotic whose character exudes constant worry about himself and his surroundings coupled with a paradoxical belief in his own merit and strength (imagine, perhaps, a more charismatic version of Arnold Rimmer from “Red Dwarf”). Vince Noir, whose bubbly mask of idiocy covers a friendly vapidity, is his only friend. Vince is obsessed with fashion to the same degree that Howard is obsessed with his self-image. The second tier characters of Bob Fossil (Rich Fulcher, utterly uninhibited as a bombastic zoo manager), Naboo (Michael Fielding, mysterious—and often stoned—as Howard and Vince’s shaman buddy/landlord), and Bollo (Dave Brown, Naboo’s not-altogether magical “familiar”) are joined from episode to episode by countless oddball guests ( among them).

While the first season is incredibly strange, “The Mighty Boosh” hits peak weirdness in the second season thanks to two episodes: “The Priest & the Beast” and “The Legend of Old Gregg.” In the former, Howard and Vince are in the background, as Naboo relates the story of Rudi and Spider (also played by Barratt and Fielding, respectively), two famed musicians in the Boosh universe. They are a “bongo brother” duo traveling the desert “in search of the new sound.” Rudi is contemplative and mystical, as symbolized by a door in his afro that, upon deep thought, can open up to dispense a relevant item of some sort. Spider is a sex-crazed drummer (like all drummers, apparently), so named because he has “eight of something.” They search for the new sound, sing about their quest for the new sound, and ultimately save a nearby village from the “Betamax Bandit,” a heartless desperado made up entirely of Betamax tape.

In “The Legend of Old Gregg,” the best known episode in the series, Howard and Vince escape an angry mob infuriated by the horrendousness of their latest gig to find themselves in a seaside tavern peopled exclusively by exaggerated fishermen (the house band are all clad in a three-person corded sweater). Howard stays out fishing and captures a merman, who after brief conversation exposes himself and his “mangina” to an unreceptive Howard before dragging him down to his lair for further seduction. Bailey’s Irish Cream, watercolor paintings (including one of Bailey’s “as close as you can get to it without getting your eyes wet”), and a snappy Motown/Funk dance duet ensue as Howard awaits rescue.

This is not typical sitcom fare—and those are only brief descriptions of one-tenth of the series. Each episode necessarily has a musical number in it, and many of them have a bizarre chanting referred to late in the series as “crimping” (described by Julian Barratt as something like “folk rap”). And beginning in the second season, there is the ever present danger of “The Moon” appearing out of the blue for a brief non-sequitur speech that will simultaneously infuriate and delight. Yessir, it’s all here, and all crazy. Whatever it is that Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding have created, it is singular and stupid, distinct and delightful, and mighty, “Mighty Boosh.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…after a few minutes of half-hearted setup, Barratt and Fielding are off, having surreal adventures that involve ancient legends, talking animals, elaborate costumes, and a few snappy musical numbers. Even when a Mighty Boosh episode isn’t fall-down funny, there’s always something happening.” –Noel Murray, The Onion A.V. Club

362. THE DEVILS (1971)

“There was no better director to learn from. He would always take the adventurous path even at the expense of coherence.”–Derek Jarman on Ken Russell

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Gemma Jones, Dudley Sutton, Michael Gothard, Murray Melvin

PLOT: Father Urbain Grandier is the charismatic spiritual and political leader of the independent city of Loudun; Cardinal Richelieu wants him replaced because he refuses to allow the city’s walls to be torn down. Sister Jeanne, Mother Superior of the town’s convent, is tormented by sexual dreams about Grandier. When Sister Jeanne confesses her fantasies to a priest, Richelieu’s men hatch a plot to frame Grandier as a warlock, and the entire convent is whipped into mass hysteria, becoming convinced they are possessed by devils.

Still from The Devils (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • Father Grandier and Sister Jeanne, among many other characters in the film, were real people. Grandier was burnt at the stake in 1634 on accusations of practicing witchcraft.
  • The Devils was based on John Whiting’s play “The Devils of Loudun,” which itself was based on Aldous Huxley’s novel of the same title.
  • Ken Russell’s original theatrical cut ran 117 minutes, after the British censors removed an infamous 4-minute sequence known as “the rape of Christ.” The U.S. distributor cut an additional three to six minutes of sex and blasphemy out so that the film could be released with an “R” rating in the States, and that release became the standard version and the only one released on VHS. The longer director’s cut was not seen until 2004, thanks to a restoration effort led by . Russell’s director’s cut has never been issued on home video; the X-rated theatrical cut is the most complete version currently available. Portions of the “rape of Christ” scene are preserved in a BBC documentary called “Hell on Earth” (included on the BFI DVD).
  • A young designed the sets. This was his first feature credit.
  • The Devils is included in Steven Schneider’s “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.”
  • The contemporary arguments over the film became so heated that Russell himself attacked critic Alexander Walker on live television, hitting him on the head with a copy of his negative review.
  • Warner Brothers has steadfastly refused to release the movie on DVD, but they did eventually sublicense it to the British Film Institute for overseas release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Even with the “rape of Christ” scene excised, what sticks out in The Devils are the scenes of possessed nuns, some with shaved heads, whipping off their habits and cavorting in the nude, writhing, self-flagellating, jerking off votive candles, and waggling their tongues in an obscene performance. For a single, and singular, image that encapsulates the themes and shock level of The Devils, however, try the vision of Vanessa Redgrave seductively licking at the wound in Oliver Reed’s side when she imagines him as Christ descended from the cross to ravage her.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Crocodile parry; Christ licking; John Lennon, exorcist

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Nobody, but nobody, shoots a nun orgy like Ken Russell. Aside from a dream sequence or two, The Devils is a historically accurate account of a real-life medieval witch hunt—but Russell emphasizes only the oddest and most perverse details, so that the movie itself becomes as hysterical and overwrought as the frenzy it condemns. Truth, in this case, is at least as strange as fiction.


Original U.S. release trailer for The Devils

COMMENTS: Viewed from a great distance, The Devils is a classical Continue reading 362. THE DEVILS (1971)