The Plague Dogs (1982): “Can’t You See It? Our Island!”

Animation is a medium that has fascinated us to no end. Whether the artist wields paints, pencils, clay, or even a computer, animation affords us near-limitless possibilities for telling stories and crafting images. Animation of maturity is not a rarity as some would assume, granted that the bulk of Western animation is dominated by large studios producing safe, but effective family-oriented films. One need only to look around the world and find animators of tremendous poetry like Yuri Norstein, or of maddening surrealism like Jan Švankmajer. 

Martin Rosen is a unique specimen in this regard as he only has two films to his name in the medium, and yet they are some of the most often cited when it comes to animation of a darker nature. His second film, The Plague Dogs, tells the tale of two laboratory dogs used for testing who escape and find a world as harsh as the one they’ve endured. It’s the dichotomy of a delusional optimist in John Hurt’s grand turn as Snitter and the depressed, tormented soul of Christopher Benjamin’s Rowf that are at the heart of a film that shows the cruelties of animal testing in a completely unique way.

The first film Rosen directed was the 1978 landmark Watership Down. These two films share much in common. Rosen was at the helm when it came to directing, screenwriting, and producing. Both were based off of the work of the fantastic late author Richard Adams. And both feature the legendary late actor, Sir John Hurt. And with that, the acting is fantastic.

Benjamin provides the perfect voice for Rowf. He’s hardened by the grueling, water-based endurance tests he is subjected to, and yet, still showcases a certain, subtle sensitivity. Hurt is absolutely fabulous as the even more troubled Snitter. He provides the tragic madness that comes with the brain experiments Snitter suffers through with just the right amount of genial cheer that comes with the hope he has for finding a good home. Of mention as well is the voice of James Bolam, who provides the Geordie tones for a peculiar fox who occasionally aids our escapees. He is known only as The Tod. 

As far as the script is concerned, Rosen, as per usual, is damn fine. His approach to structuring the narrative, often having the human drama play out verbally over grim pastoral passages of the dogs in the wilderness, is a stroke of brilliant lyricism and structuring. More fascinating is the dichotomy between man and the animals. The people of the film are average people. Real human beings that aren’t mindlessly going about brutalizing animal life for the sake of it. The scientists simply do their jobs, the rural folk go about their lives; it never becomes an outlandish, patronizing depiction of cartoonishly cruel individuals. 

Naturally, when coming from the dog’s perspective as the film often chooses, the agonies inflicted upon the dogs are amplified to expressionistic heights. The haunting visions Snitter endures and the trauma Rowf deals with create this feverish energy that plays off of the bleak scenery is what much of the film thrives on. Their relationship is one so impeccable to watch. Rowf grows more disgruntled with the prospect of a civil life away from the “whitecoats” while Snitter grows more hopeful of finding the right master, and soon the prospect of an island on which they can live. They are characters that are engaging beyond the base-level of sympathy, say, a dog lover would have.

The animation, handled by the same team from Watership Down, led by animation director Tony Guy, is spot on. It keeps the style of the previous production; darkly pastoral. It is frighteningly realistic for having not been rotoscoped, showcasing exceptional character design and movement. The backgrounds are moody and overcast, which helps craft an eerie setting. The violence in the picture is handled both respectfully and realistically. Such moments as Snitter’s visions, done with a sort of negative black-and-white scheme, and the fiery transfiguration of the rocks as Rowf resolves to revert back to a primitive state all punctuate the rustic scenery in such a potent way.

The cherry on top of the whole lot has to be the score. The music for The Plague Dogs was composed and conducted by Patrick Gleeson and performed in part by the Kronos Quartet. What begins as an Avant Garde affair with the Quartet and piano evolves into some of the finest, most meditative electronica committed to celluloid. The wonder found in the music after Rowf and Snitter have just escaped the laboratory and the earth-shaking music for Rowf’s decision to regress into a primitive state are a testament to Gleeson’s handle on dramatic scoring. He pens music that never suffocates the scene, only amplifies the emotions at play. The song written by Alan Price of the band “The Animals,” “Time and Tide,” is a little out of place when it leaps into a gospel fervor over the end credits. However, it still proves a fine little tune that caps off the film quite nicely. 

If there is one way to describe The Plague Dogs, it is this; it is as grueling as it is rewarding. An animated film as composed, as daring, and as melancholy is this is something to be celebrated and watched at least once. It is the kind of film that envelops the viewer in such a phenomenal way that it will stay with them forever. There isn’t really anything else I can say other than I encourage everyone to see it at least once in their lifetime.

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