DIRECTED BY: Martin Rosen
FEATURING: Voices of John Hurt, 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.
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.)