THE PLAGUE DOGS, 1982
Stars: John Hurt, Christopher Benjamin, James Bolam, Nigel Hawthorne, Warren Mitchell, Bernard Hepton
Two dogs escape from a laboratory and are hunted as possible carriers of the bubonic plague.
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It’s difficult to recommend “The Plague Dogs,” but not because it’s a bad movie. It’s well-made in every respect. The problem is that you’d have a hard time finding a more depressing film, animated or otherwise. Based on the novel by Richard Adams, 1982’s “The Plague Dogs” was issued by Nepenthe Productions, the people responsible for “Watership Down.” So, the filmmakers are no strangers to showing the vicious side of animals, or the brutality inflicted upon them. Directed by Martin Rosen, this film shows the horrors of animal testing and how speculation can lead to hysteria.
“The Plague Dogs” begins at an animal testing facility (now there’s a cheerful way to start a review), where an old Labrador retriever is being subjected to a completely pointless experiment. The objective is apparently to see how long he can keep his head above water before he begins to drown, and from the researchers’ conversation, we gather that this dog has been at it a long time. The dog, Rowf, has one friend at the facility: Snitter, a Jack Russell terrier who seems to have undergone some kind of brain surgery and is consequently prone to hallucinations. While Rowf hates humans, Snitter clings to the memory of his beloved former master, whose death left the little terrier homeless. After the night watchman accidently leaves Rowf’s cage door unlocked, the dogs escape the facility and head out into the wilderness. Completely unaccustomed to life in the wild, they seem doomed to starvation until they meet The Tod, a shady fox who promises to help them survive. However, when the researchers discover that the two dogs are missing, fears arise that they may have contracted bubonic plague from samples kept in the laboratories. The dogs must try to elude those who want to exterminate them, but they know they can’t hide forever.
“The Plague Dogs” isn’t drawn in quite the same style as “Watership Down.” Although both films take a realistic approach to their animal characters, this movie has a darker tone. The craggy landscape is harsh and unwelcoming, and the overall darkness of the artwork emphasizes the depressing subject matter. This film definitely isn’t kiddie stuff, and although most of the violence happens off-camera, there is one gory, horrific scene that just comes out of nowhere. You’ll know it when you see it, though at first, you might not be able to believe it.
The cast of characters is relatively small; for most of the movie, it’s just the two dogs and the fox, with additional dogs or humans popping up when they’re needed. Christopher Benjamin does an excellent job as Rowf, sounding hardened by years of torture, while as Snitter, John Hurt sounds appropriately frail and delirious. James Bolam is charming as The Tod, and brings a little bit of welcome humour to the film. Nigel Hawthorne and Patrick Stewart have small roles as a doctor and soldier, respectively.
Patrick Gleeson’s score is suitably moody, while Alan Parsons provides the song “Time and Tide.” Although it sounds melancholy at the beginning, its gospel chorus is surprisingly upbeat, suggesting that there may be a little light at the end of the tunnel after all.
“The Plague Dogs” isn’t a fun movie to sit through, but with its excellent animation and voice acting, it is a rewarding one. If you don’t own a dog, you’ll still appreciate this film’s views on animal testing. If you do own a dog, you’ll probably hug him or her a little tighter after seeing this movie.