This 1982 film was Michael Rosen’s follow-up to the popular but controversially visceral Watership Down, and in another world possibly could have established him as one of the world’s foremost animators, pushing animation about animals far, far away from cutesy American fairy stories. But no, The Plague Dogs was too bleak, much too bleak, and this was his last work as the director of an animation, with only a vague, name-for-credibility’s-sake connection with the Watership Down series.
And this is definitely not Disney. You might say forcing audiences to face death in Bambi or The Lion King reflects a certain darkness and maturity. Well, The Plague Dogs opens in a vivisection lab, where the poor dog Rowf is forced to swim in a tank until he drowns, getting revived to do it again another day, and again and again for the test results. In the next scene we see the dogs kept in their pens – and the dead ones picked up by a shovel to be dumped. I wrote of the colourful adventure story with chickens and ducks that gained some critical acclaim from
Leafie: A Hen Into the Wild, that the bleak beginning on the battery
farm showed that the film wasn’t going to pull punches, but after that it’s a
colourful and enjoyable – if mature – adventure story and family drama. Well, The
Plague Dogs starts bleaker than that – two dogs manage to escape their pen
and get outside only through the incinerator, moments before the dead dog dropped
in there with them is destroyed – and despite moments of hope and
brightness, gets bleaker. Rowf is one of the dogs, the other being Snitter from
the pen next door, who has had his brain experimented on and suffers seizures,
but is convinced that there are good, benevolent ‘masters’ who will help them
and give them a good life. They do not get a good life. Out on the Yorkshire
Fells with no idea how to live, they first try to find a new master – not understanding
how things work – and then try to go wild, which leads to their meeting a canny fox who calls
himself The Tod, who teaches them better ways to kill sheep to survive...so that
he can take his piece. His thick Korea Lancashire accent is
another reason the film hasn’t travelled well – although he sounds perfectly
intelligible to me, speaking in a way not a million miles from my grandpa, a nice
contrast with John Hurt’s neat enunciation. (Patrick Stewart also cameos!)
Arguably the film is less bloody and violent than Watership Down, but it’s so, so much bleaker. The Plague Dogs is mostly characterized by its unending, affecting bleakness. It’s probably more punishing and miserable than even Grave of the Fireflies, and while there is beauty in that – and great beauty in this film – it is not exactly the beauty one is desperate to revisit. Rewatching it today was my first repeat viewing in a good decade (the VHS, with various cuts). The film is so good at setting up and then dashing false hopes – in a few seconds, we see Snitter finally getting some affection and seconds later a gun has gone off and a man is clutching his face with blood running down from between his fingers.
The Plague Dogs has a unique aesthetic – or at least, shared with Watership Down alone – and some beautiful imagery and direction, with lots of close cutting. There are some impressive and haunting images, even if so simple as the rubber gloves for reaching inside the rat cages being left inside-out. Snitter’s hallucinations are probably more believable and unsettling than Fiver’s, though the transformed stones are a very misleading image to publicize the film with (as they did).
But I don’t mind the film being obscure. I don’t mind it not having the legacy it might have. I have enjoyed it, and I have to say that for all it’s punishing and even upsetting, it’s also quite beautiful, and haunting, and certainly unique.