HCF may be one of the newest voices on the web for all things Horror and Cult, and while our aim is to bring you our best opinion of all the new and strange that hits the market, we still can not forget about our old loves, the films that made us want to create the website to spread the word. So, now and again our official critics at the HCF headquarters have an urge to throw aside their new required copies of the week and dust down their old collection and bring them to the fore….our aim, to make sure that you may have not missed the films that should be stood proud in your collection. This week Dr Lenera brings you one of the darkest animated movies featuring lovable animale you are ever likely to see!
HCF REWIND NO.19.THE PLAGUE DOGS 
AVAILABLE ON DVD:Now
RUNNING TIME:99 mins/82 mins
REVIEWED BY:Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Two dogs called Rowf [a Labrabor] and Snitter [a fox terrier] are two of many animals being used for experimental purposes at an animal research facility in the Lake District in North Western England. Snitter has had his brain experimented on while Rowf has been drowned and resuscitated repeatedly. One evening they escape from the facility to the outside world, but soon discover that their new freedom is not the paradise they expected. As well as being hunted by their former captors, they need to eat to survive, but this involves killing farm animals, which sets the local humans against them………
As someone getting really into animation for the last couple of years, I’d been wanting to see the controversial The Plague Dogs for quite a while and upon viewing it I was not let down at all. This is one of the darkest, bravest and saddest animated films that has ever been made, at least in the West, but it’s also one of the best, a stark and compelling portrayal of a cruel world that is brilliantly made from beginning to end. It’s easy to see why this has never been a popular movie, but if you appreciate [I was about to say enjoy, but that’s not necessarily the fight word!] films like Grave Of The Fireflies and When The Wind Blows, you really ought to give it a go. If you think this is like a Disney film, than you’d be wrong. Whereas films like The Lion King certainly had nasty and sad moments, they were tempered by lots of humour and a happy ending. The Plague Dogs does no such thing; it’s almost humourless, is unrelentingly grim, and you can tell right from the beginning that it’s not going to end well.
Like director Martin Rosen’s Watership Down, it was adapted from a Richard Adams book, and was supposedly toned down, though honestly I dread to think what the book was like! Characters were changed and it is said that the ending was altered from a happy one to a really sad one but that is actually not true. Original copies of the book had the same ending that was used in the film, but Adams then added a happy coda which was featured in most reprints. Using painstaking animation techniques in the manner of Disney, the movie sadly was a commercial failure amidst complaints of its unsuitability for children [which I don’t think is entirely true, but more on that later!]. The cinema release was uncut but soon after a very brief release on video Embassy Pictures ordered 17 minutes worth of cuts, and this version supplanted the original version, which was largely unseen until released on R4 and R2 DVD as an ‘extra’ to the shorter cut. The main objective seems to have been to tighten the pace, with lots of footage of the dogs roaming around being cut, but also removed was the entire horrific opening sequence and a shot of a dead man having been eaten by the dogs. Surprisingly, the short version remains almost as good as the longer cut, and some may say that the quicker pace increases the urgency of the dog’s situation, but the full version was the director’s original vision, and that is what is reviewed here, though to be honest everything I say applies to both versions except from a description of the opening sequence.
O yes, that opening sequence, where we are immediately presented with an animal being tortured – Rowf being held in a tank of water so he drowns, then being resuscitated. I can imagine some kids bawling their eyes out already. Images of animals in cages, some of whom have obviously been tortured, flood past as we explore the laboratory. Rowf befriends Snitter and they escape, which is where the cut version begins. The supposedly free dogs begin to enjoy their freedom, but the sense of happiness is very brief, because these animals need to eat. They start killing farm animals, and this is not shied away from at all – no, we don’t see much in the way of offal and the like, but there’s a huge amount of blood and these killings are shown in such a way that you get the full impact, for example a dead chicken falling to the ground, or a cut from a sheep to blood dripping off a ledge into a river where it is washed away. You also see, in a bit I couldn’t believe, a dog accidently stepping on the trigger of a rifle and shooting a guy in the face, his face covered in blood! All this does go with the grimness of the story and in the end that is what will probably get you more. The image that seems to be strongest in my mind is that of a poor monkey trapped in a cell, an image which is shown several times throughout. The sense of desperation becomes all- encompassing as the pace quickens, and the final scene will probably have any dog lover in tears. It’s also slightly ambiguous, in the way that many endings to great movies are, and make no mistake this is a great movie!
One of the things that impressed me most about The Plague Dogs is the way the dogs are depicted. They may speak English, but otherwise the expected anthropomorphism is played down. These dogs move and act like real dogs do, and attempts have even been made to go into what a dog may think. These creatures don’t really understand what is going on, and just need to survive. The dog’s point of view is often very well conveyed too, especially when they encounter humans. The animation is wonderfully fluid and at times really artistic, like the way rippling water is depicted, while the watercolour backgrounds are sometimes superbly detailed and sometimes quite sparse, depending on each scene’s requirements. This was the last major animated movie not to employ any computer technology , but there is still some tremendous technical stuff going on here, with the camera appearing to move all over the place at times. As for the themes of the film, yes, it’s obviously against animal experiments but this isn’t laboured, and what I took away from the movie far more was a great sense of what it’s like to be an outcast. These dogs are like outlaws at times, but they’re also misunderstood in the manner of, say, the Frankenstein Monster, and their innocence and nobility just cannot survive in our cruel world.
The personalities of the cynical but strong and tough Rowf, and the idealistic but delusional and slightly mad Snitter are superbly balanced, though it’s Snitter, who doesn’t understand that the hunters and any potential ‘master’ are the same thing, that has some of the most heartbreaking scenes. John Hurt adds so much feeling to Snitter, he makes you want to cry, though Christopher Benjamin holds his own as Rowf, his devotion to and care for Snitter is also tremendously moving. Let’s not forget James Bolan as the Tod, a fox who is sometimes with them-he’s quite funny at times but comic relief he certainly isn’t. Patrick Gleeson’s synthesiser based score is sometimes effective but sometimes a bit jarring, overall it being an interesting effort. The Alan Price song Time And Tide, played at the end, is fine at first but halfway through turns into a gospel number which for me didn’t really work and added some out-of-place schmaltz. This brings me to whether children ought to watch this and I think it should be shown to them by parents, even if they find it ‘too much’ the first time. They need to know the world is not always a happy place and better they watch something like this, with themes that can be discussed afterwards, then endless lewd music videos! The Plague Dogs is a stunning movie, raw, vivid and uncompromising, though it may leave you so shaken you won’t want to see it again for a while.
[pt-filmtitle]The Plague Dogs[/pt-filmtitle]