I saved the best for last, my friends. And by “best” I mean “most traumatic.” Of course I’m talking about The Plague Dogs. I can’t do one of my overwrought intros for this movie because there is no available hyperbole to adequately prepare you for what is about to come. We started with animal experimentation, and we’ll end with animal experimentation, only this is a million times more hardcore than The Secret of NIMH. Dog lovers, go look at your puppy porn. Cat lovers, it’s up to us to soldier through.
It starts with sloshing water in a metal tank; we are in an evil amniotic sack of doom. A large dog bursts to the surface of the tank, barking. Other dogs in cages take notice. “I think he’s starting to pack it in,” says an uber-polite British voice. There is nowhere for the dog to get purchase to pull himself out of the water, so he does the only reasonable thing to do: he goes limp, stops paddling, and drifts to the bottom of the tank. Shadowy men with clipboards are the last thing he sees. As they fish him out, they use brainy science talk to speculate that he’ll die pretty soon during one of these tests, as early as next week maybe. (Fingers crossed.) This will solve the age-old academic question of whether a dog is capable of drowning. Britain’s brightest, we salute you! They put a tube down the dog’s throat as he lies soggily on a steel table.
An outside shot of the lab is accompanied by ominous and demented piano music. It sounds like the masterwork of Buffalo Bill, maybe something he composed in between making his skin clothes. Actually, I shouldn’t say that, because we have no evidence that Buffalo Bill played the piano, and “Goodbye Horses” is a goddamn masterpiece. But you get the idea. Naturally, it’s storming, letting us know that this is the place that civilization forgot, except that amoral scientific work like this is civilization at its finest.
Back inside, we see many, many cute dogs including a Papillion (fancy!) One of the dogs, a terrier-type is dead. We know because he’s motionless and missing patches of hair. He’s scooped up and disposed of with a shovel. It is little comfort now to know that “God Loves a Terrier.“ I’m sorry to go there, but the dead dog looks just like Winky.
The man in charge of disposing of dog corpses is also in charge of feeding, and he carelessly doesn’t latch the swimming dog’s door. Swimming dog’s cage mate says, “the door isn’t a wall anymore.” This is our introduction to Snitter, also a terrier. He’s “special” or “touched” or whatever you prefer to call it—maybe just “brain damaged due to the capricious and amoral work of man” will do. He keeps shaking his head and scratching at his taped-on skull-cap, which was obviously put there after extensive and pointless brain surgery. I suspect the same people who devised the “can dogs drown?” experiment used Snitter for a “do dogs have vulnerable brains?” experiment.
Our swimming/drowning Labrador’s name is Rowf, and he’s unmoved by Snitter’s excitement about he open door. He mumbles in a low and gruff voice, “I shut my eyes… The water comes again.” Jesus Christ. There is much barking and moaning. Snitter persists in sneaking under the wire separating his cage from Rowf’s, and coaxes Rowf into movement with the promise of escape from “the whitecoats.” They pass through various rooms of the lab, containing the following:
• Bunches of scary black latex gloves that are revealed with a horrible, soul-abrading musical cue.
• Immobilized monkeys with tons of wires running from them
• Immobilized rabbits with their heads in stocks. (Punishment for public drunkenness?)
• Monkeys in fully sealed metal canisters. (Experiment: “Can we seal a monkey entirely in a metal canister?”)
It’s basically the perfect spot to throw a kid’s birthday party. Suck it Chuck E. Cheese. This place has everything!
Eventually our pups come to an incinerator, which smells like death so they know exactly what it’s for. (“They must burn creatures in there.”) Convinced that it will somehow lead to the outside, they tumble one after another through the chute and onto a grate littered with the bones of other animals. They lie down and sleep among the skeletons because they’re exhausted after their three-minute walk through the building.
Aaaaand, here come some ominous noise, the tinkly, demented music box kind. Snitter is having a memory (or is he?) of jumping a fence to greet his master who is walking home from work. In his enthusiasm, he runs into traffic as a truck approaches. “Snitter, no!” shouts the man, pushing him out of the way. Yup, Snitter’s guy just got the Keanu Reeves in The Lake House treatment except there are no do-overs here. Snitter lays down next to his man’s corpse—blood is leaking out of the skull—as a woman yells “that terrier killed him!” The beautiful reverie is broken when Rowf is hit with the dead Norwich terrier, who’s been tossed down the chute. An extremely learning challenged person ponderously operates the incinerator, dithering over the buttons long enough to allow our dogs to escape out a hatch the pushes open from the inside and leads directly the outside. It’s basic health code that animal incinerators have to have easy egress from the burning chamber to the outdoors. Duh.
Our dogs are now wandering in the wild, and we hear a low trumpet riff as if to signify something good has happened. Haha, as if! Nothing good is going to happen in this movie or any children’s movie. We know better than that. Fool me once, Movie-makers, shame on you. Fool me twice… Won’t get fooled again. The animators are having the time of their lives as they draw the dogs peeing on everything. At least they can pee—small mercy. (Experiment: “What happens when you cauterize a dog’s urethra?”)
There are some cute scenes here where Snitter tries to act as a civilizing force on Rowf, who doesn’t get mankind’s whole deal and so acts like a typical animal would, operating on instinct rather than manners. Snitter gets to deliver the great line: “You must’nt rootle about in dustbins, no matter how nice they smell,” as well as the repeated wisdom that one must “do the man before the food. Not after.” Preach! I never get why dates start with dinner then sex. Why not vice versa? Number one, you will work up a better appetite that way and number two, you will avoid having to pretend you feel sexy when you’re naked 30 minutes after inhaling a huge plate of Indian food.
Snitter’s point is that man can be manipulated by a dog’s behavior into giving away food, which is easier and less stressful than stealing it. But his fairly sound theory isn’t panning out at the moment. They wander into the door of a shop where they see a butcher who terrifies them and makes them speculate that the whole town might be whitecoats. (Since he was holding a knife and wearing white.) They’re constantly afraid, or at least Rowf is. He lunges at two people trying to help Snitter when Snitter has a seizure by the road. Snitter admonishes Rowf: “They were trying to help me. They were masters!” but Rowf insists, “they were whitecoats. They were gonna take you back.” Raise your hand if you too are uncomfortable with Snitter going on and on about finding a “master.” It’s just a creepy word choice. Is he trying to find a home, or is he trolling Alt.com for something to occupy himself with on the weekends?
They continue on in this vein of frustrating near misses while attempting positive interactions with humans. (For instance, chasing a man’s sheep in the wrong direction after seeing him pleased with his sheepdogs for doing the right thing.) It’s tough to watch, because Snitter’s right, or almost right—people respond to dogs chasing things, catching things, acting solicitous, being of service. But then again, Rowf is right too: people are the trash of the world. Snitter laments, “Everything I do turns out wrong” and asks Rowf to kill him if it ever looks like he might be taken back to the lab. What a fantastic yarn this is.
Rowf says they should become animals who hunt rather than relying on men to feed them, which they do. Their first prey is a sheep from the herd they interfered with. We see the sheep’s mangled corpse after the kill, and when the sheep owner finds it he pointlessly pokes it a bunch. I don’t get why he’s jabbing it, has he never seen a half-eaten sheep before? And he lives in the English countryside? Tell me another one.
It’s around this time that they meet Tod the fox, who agrees to help coach them in their hunting in exchange for some of the food. Tod has a strange and mean looking face. He’s a good guy, for crying out loud, would it have killed the animators to draw him as slightly less menacing? During one of their sheep hunts, Snitter tears off his bloody bandage, exposing the scar over his brain. Rowf notice and ask what’s wrong with this head. Snitter nonchalantly replies, “It’s just a hole. Not all that strange, really.” I’ve got to hand it to him: Snitter can be a real badass sometimes.
In the subsequent scenes, Rowf licks Snitter’s scar occasionally to comfort him. I remember that really grossed me out when I was little. My mom didn’t even like me drinking from the same glass as my friends. Literally licking each other’s wounds would have been out of the question.
I’d forgotten how long and boring this portion in the countryside is. (Boring but punctuated by moments of abject terror.) All I remembered from my childhood viewings was the lab, their escape from it, THE SCENE, and them dying at the end. Constructed from memory, the movie would probably last about 15 minutes and I would be screaming for my mom the whole time. Are you curious about “THE SCENE”? It’s about to happen, and you’ll wish it hadn’t. Also, yes, the dogs die. I would have said spoiler alert, but was there ever any doubt?
Snitter wanders away one night, as is his severely confused wont. He travels through a thin forest abutted by a road, and a man is there outside his truck, a hunting rifle by his side. He coaxes Snitter to him, though Snitter shies away several times. The man keeps his gun close at hand. Finally, Snitter is convinced that this person means him no harm, and he leaps up at the legs of the man in his joyful bid for affection. His hind leg catches the trigger, and a blast goes off. We see the man covering his face as blood streams out from behind his hands. Blood splatters on the truck. Tons more blood leaks between his fingers as he falls forward. To make sure we’re on the same page: in this movie shown to children, a dog shot a man in the face and killed him. I’m so confused. I thought the British didn’t have guns?
This accident, in addition to being yet another anecdote in the debate about gun control, sets off a serious dog hunt involving many, many incompetent human beings. Townspeople are terrified of the murderous dogs, and they’ve caught on to the fact that the lab up yonder is no good. We overhear various conversations amongst the scientist as they concur that having to kill the dogs is “a terrible waste; all that work down the drain. Now we’ll never know if it worked. ” I can’t even imagine how frustrating it would be to not know if your repeated drownings of a dog “worked.” That’s something that really haunts you on your deathbed: “I came so close to find out…. So close…”
One guy comments that they’re particularly sad that Snitter got away, since he was the locus of their work on “confusing the subjective with the objective in the animal’s brain.” Oh RIGHT that sounds totally legit and quantifiable. I’m pretty sure these scientists were also liberally experimenting on each other’s brains.
It’s chaos from here on out. Military dogs are loosed, people are hysterical, hired killers are stalking Snitter and Rowf. In one scene, a man perches on the edge of a cliff, action movie assassin style, and is about to shoot Rowf when Tod attacks him, knocking him off the edge and killing him. (We see his body spasm a few times in the snow below before it goes still.) “We’ve never been very good at being wild,” Snitter says, in what might be the most poignant moment of the whole film. “We just started too late,” Rowf replies. Oh, sweethearts. Humans also relentlessly abused your bodies and soul, and infested every corner of the world with their destructive civilizations, so don’t be too hard on yourself. You’ve tried your best.
I haven’t said much about cheeky Tod, so far but he’s an excellent friend to the dogs and helps them escape many times. He is such an excellent friend to them, in fact, that he distracts the tracking military dogs as Rowf and Snitter jump on a train. Tod is bitten but manages to escape—only to be set upon by the entire pack a moment later. Snitter hears Tod’s death scream but Rowf says definitively, “They’ll never catch him. He’s too quick.” Back in the killing fields, a man holds up Todd’s corpse by the tail. It’s getting very hard to make any of this even remotely funny.
Snitter and Rowf reach a beach, but the helicopter spots them and it’s not long before a huge line of soldiers appears. The marching men with the guns take forever, advancing on the dogs at the pace of a tranquilized turtle. The helicopter apparently has no firepower; it just hovers above uselessly. This type of warfare is why England lost all of their colonies. Snitter resolves that they must go into the water and swim; he swears he sees an island on the horizon. This is a dubious claim, especially coming from someone with such extensive brain damage. Naturally, Rowf doesn’t want to get in but he follows his best friend. They swim until it’s too foggy for the helicopter to follow, and the only sound is the same sound we started with: lapping water.
It doesn’t take long for them to start feeling exhaustion. They were already gaunt and underfed—the animators made sure we saw their ribcages with increasingly clarity as their food shortage became ever more dire. Snitter valiantly encourages Rowf onward, but it’s clear they won’t last long. The fog occludes the screen. They’re gone.
The film closes with a goofy song with lines like “the future lies within your heart” and “I don’t feel no pain no more. I’ve left this cruel world behind” with a really awkward gospel ending. We see an island in the mist, but even if it’s a literal island, and not a figurative island “within your heart,” I can promise you the dogs didn’t reach it while alive. The gauzy sketch of a mountainous landmass behind the film’s credits is one of the most half-assed consolations I’ve ever seen. There is no real ambiguity here. They died, alright? They’re dead. And that’s the best place for them. Dog heaven admits no humans.