I last posted about the film Watership Down, which, while having its share of frightening moments, was still ultimately a grand adventure story, not horror. But The Plague Dogs (1982, Nepenthe Productions), also based on a novel by Richard Adams, is another matter entirely...a dark, downward spiral of a story, with heavy themes and a disturbing plot that is certainly not appropriate for young children.
From the very first scene there is no doubt that we're entering grim territory. The story begins in an animal research facility that is nothing short of a chamber of horrors. A mongrel dog, Rowf, is being subjected to a cruel experiment where he is repeatedly drowned and revived.
Later we meet his friend, a terrier named Snitter, whose bandaged head betrays that he's been the subject of some kind of brain operation. A gate left carelessly unlatched provides the dogs a chance at escape, but first they must pass through the various laboratories.
Once free of the lab, they must survive in a nightmarish wilderness that at times seems almost otherworldly.
Snitter's operation has rendered him schizophrenic (the animals are anthropomorphic), and he sometimes finds himself "inside of his head", confusing his actual surroundings with memories of happier times, as when he perceives this warehouse as being a previous master's home.
Hungry and desperate, the dogs make a conscious decision to become "wild animals", and kill a sheep to survive.
We never really believe the dogs have a chance of escape or survival--they just seem doomed from the outset, merely biding time until their inevitable capture or death.
When we find out that the lab where the dogs escaped from was doing some work with the bubonic plague, and there is fear that Snitter and Rowf may have become contaminated, any hope of escape is lost. The military is unleashed to hunt them down.
Snitter has previously described the post-operation irritation in his head as being like large flies buzzing, and the sight and sound of the helicopter convinces him these flies have finally escaped from inside his brain and are hunting them.
In a cruel irony, they find themselves trapped against the sea. Snitter, convinced there is a nearby island, swims for it, but Rowf's experiences in the lab's drowning pool make this a much less inviting avenue...
Like Watership Down, The Plague Dogs is an adequate, if greatly amended adaptation of the superior, much longer novel on which its based. The book can be bit daunting. Not only is it quite long at 480 pages, but much of the dialogue is written in a dialect that requires a glossary to decipher (for example, "Dinna fash yersel" translates to "don't upset yourself.") But I found it worth the trouble.
Buy the book here. Buy the DVD here.
1 year ago