Monday, September 7, 2009

A Boy and His Dog (1975)

'A Boy and His Dog' (1975)* *
This 1975 adaptation of a Harlan Ellison novella is one of those Soylent Green-type sci-fi pics that appears to have a couple of purposes: (1) to advance some sort of social commentary, and (2) to freak out audiences with a lot of self-consciously bizarre set pieces and “cult” stuff. The latter gets in the way of the former more often than not, I’d say, with the weirdness generally overwhelming the coherence of the film’s more ambitious messages. Still, kind of a curious item that fans of this sort of thing might nevertheless enjoy.

Stars a young Don Johnson who would later become an ’80s TV icon in Miami Vice. Johnson had made his debut a few years earlier in another culty production, the Firesign Theatre-joint Zachariah, a weirdo musical-slash-western-slash-mishmash from 1971. Johnson had popped up in a couple of other films, too, but this marked his first starring role, taking the part of the somewhat dim-witted eighteen-year-old Vic. Johnson was in his mid-20s at the time, but was nevertheless boyish enough to pull off the young, horny hero of this one.

As the film’s opening montage of mushroom clouds suggests, Vic finds himself in a post-apocalyptic world. It is 2024, some time after World War IV (which we’re told lasted just five days). There’s a longer, more detailed “alternate history”-type backstory in Ellison’s novella, but that mostly gets glossed over here in favor of jumping into the action.

Vic’s sole companion is a dog named Blood with whom he somehow has the ability to communicate. We’re never really told why they can communicate (something about Blood being part of “an experiment”?), but that doesn’t bother us too much. Perhaps a bit on the corny side, but the dialogue between the two is fairly engaging, and there’s a kind of sardonic edge to the delivery of Tim McIntire, who provides the voice of Blood. (And the country-flavored theme song, too.)

We’re in low budget territory here, so our “post-apocalyptic” landscape is predictably barren -- mostly California desert, I think. Food is a constant worry, and for the lust-driven Vic, finding a woman -- apparently especially scarce in post-WWIV 2024 -- further adds to his agitation. The friendship of Blood and Vic appears largely secured on an agreement whereby Vic finds food for Blood, and Blood finds women for Vic.

'A Boy and His Dog' (1975)The first two-thirds of the 90-minute film present this relationship and the desolate, post-war scene somewhat effectively, with Vic finally getting together with a woman, improbably named Quilla June Holmes. Then the film takes a majorly-WTF left turn after Vic gets hoodwinked by Quilla into investigating the world “Down Under” -- a strange society that exists underneath the desert where everyone wears clownish make-up and there appears to be some sort of totalitarian regime in control.

One of my faves, Jason Robards, enters the picture here as Lou Craddock, a “committee leader” who enjoys some sort of special authority over what happens down under, including deciding who gets sent “to the farm” (i.e., executed). Vic becomes a prisoner of this crazy coven of clowns, and the remainder of the film focuses on his attempts at escape and, one hopes, enjoy a reunion with his dog, Blood.

There are some pretty facile anti-war and anti-governmental messages interwoven here -- nothing that really makes you think, though. In fact, an overwhelming impression -- particularly during the last third of the film -- is how the director (and co-scripter) L.Q. Jones seems desperate to create a quirky, “midnight movie” kind of vibe with quotable lines and characters/scenes that probably play a lot better with some sort of pharmaceutical enhancement.

Another ideological thread that tangles things up here is a fairly unambiguous gender bias. Charges of misogyny -- sometimes leveled at the novella and film -- are probably a bit hyperbolic, but the message that “women are trouble” is nevertheless pretty clearly conveyed here.

There are a few grins along the way. Dumb Vic becomes somehow sympathetic. And like I say, Blood occasionally provides a funny line now and again. There are those who have strong feelings in favor of this film, but for me A Boy and His Dog doesn’t really satisfy all that much -- either as a “straight” film with something valuable to say about our problems functioning as a society, or as a “cult” product with a high enough oddball quotient to reward repeated viewings.

Sort of like Zachariah actually -- another film I really wanted to like (being a big Firesign Theatre fan and all), but somehow could not. So just two stars from me, although definitely a more interesting flick than yr average two-star affair.

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