Martin Rosen’s “The Plague Dogs.”


It’s a real pity Martin Rosen never made more films – his last film was Stacking in the late eighties, and it was a terribly sour note for a director whose two previous works are so concise. Admittedly, Watership Down was a little rough, both technically and in terms of media translation. But, there’s none of that, here. The animation has become far, far more fluid and expressive without losing the naturalistic quality that had defined it, and if you were to ask the author, the story here is a far more honest representation of what he’d had planned for the novel, before compromise.

The first thing that strikes you, upon sitting up after the film has ended, is how – unlike Watership, this film is consistantly, almost insistantly, bleak. It is one long, undulating down-note. There are no triumphs for these characters, large or small – from the first, we meet the character of Rowf, voiced by Christopher Benjamin, struggling to break the surface of the water, and – failing.  As the powers that be tredge him up and rescusitate him, his surroundings make themselves known to us, quietly;  they both of them are test subjects at the Animal Research and Scientific Establishment (the joke is in the acronym).  Wakened from unconsciousness, we meet Snitter for the first time, who informs him that the door to his pen has been left unlocked, that “the door is not a wall anymore,” in one of the best – and possibly the only scene with any little hint of uplift – moments in the film.

As they make their escape, the threats to these characters come from all sides, both external and, in Snitter’s case, internal –  constantly plagued by hallucinations and memories that manifest themselves as hallucinations, these moments are so very well realized and vivid, especially those few times that reality begins to blur, and Snitter becomes trapped in his own waking nightmare –

I mentioned earlier the lack of problems in translation that plagued (I’m going to keep using this word) Watership Down, and this is one of the film’s most interesting aspects. Nearly half of the book is dedicated – not to the dogs – but to the ones chasing them. Rather than cutting any large swath of this out, Rosen decides to have the film ‘double up,’ and instead broadcasts these developments as disembodied voice-overs, opting – rightfully, I think – to keep the focus squarely on the dogs. When we do get a look at the human characters’ faces, it’s very rare, and mostly in the beginning. Still even more jarring is hearing Patrick Stewart as one of the disembodied voices, later on – it reminded me of seeing Harold Perrineau in Smoke, last year. And, he’s not the only famililar face, either. Brad Bird, who went on to do a lot of independent art-house abstract animated films with a small company called Pixar, is one of the primary animators, here.

I’ve been meaning to write a review of Michael Schaack’s “Felidae” for months, now – it’s still sitting in my drafthouse, unfinished, a collection of bits and bobs about this element and that. This film, as well as “Watership Down” and that oft-mentioned penguin film, share with it a place in a small sub-genre of animation – very small, as these and perhaps “Bambi” are the only ones that come to mind – dedicated to pure naturalism in the presentation of their respective fables; for whatever reason, they all seem to share a far starker tone and thematic depth than their more caricatured counterparts, and reach for the utmost to capture that raw feeling of nature, red in tooth and claw. Here, that’s perhaps the most obvious it’s ever been – and, for anyone who shares or has shared a home with a dog, every movement is almost instantly recognizable.

The downward spiral continues, and forces the dogs toward an ending that’s still hotly debated, where you find it – to spoil it would be terrible – but,  having seen the unedited cut, there doesn’t seem to be any ambiguity, here. This is the area where the film most diverges from its source, and both the author and myself agree that it’s far better for it, as I’d mentioned before. The novel’s ending is a very well-done Deus Ex Machina, but it has far more an air of ‘giving the readers what they want’ rather than any sort of emotional catharsis, which is essential for a “happy ending” like that to work.

Here, the film does away with that, and cuts away just moments earlier, on a far grayer note, the book-ending sound of Alan Price fading in. And, depending on your outlook, this could also count as a ‘happy ending.’

The Unedited Cut

The Unedited Cut is a relatively easy find – after all, if you were able to locate the theatrical cut, then you were looking for it, in the first place. And, with a film like this, looking at what was left in makes me ask – ‘how do you decide what to cut out?’

There’s really only one addition to the film that has any real impact (aside from the ending), and that’s the scene where the fate of a shooter who’d been trailing the dogs is revealed, where it was left ambiguous in the theatrical cut. Having fallen from a steep cliff, the dogs give each other a look and wander off screen – which is where it ended, originally. The suggestion was implicit, but obvious. In the Uncut sequence, we’re shown the aftermath, as a roving helicopter locates the shooter’s ravaged remains. It’s very well done, but it doesn’t really add anything, and it’s deletion – as noted before – seems arbitrary, from a film where we’d previously seen – among many, many other things – a man getting his face blown off.

One thought on “Martin Rosen’s “The Plague Dogs.”

  1. “Martin Rosens The Plague Dogs. | The Filmist” was in
    fact a good blog. However, if it included even more photographs this would definitely be quite possibly far better.
    Thanks -Thelma

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