The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XVI – Z for Zombie

As always, I rank the films on no concrete scale or rubric. Just what I thought of them. The further down the list, the more I liked it. It’s not science.

Terrible:

This never happens in the movie.

I actually had to stop watching Mesa of Lost Women (1953) before the third act. It is a slog to get through. As much as I enjoy some of the hammy acting and weird kinkiness (the tarantula woman’s sexy dance was funny watching with grandma), the poor quality of the picture and sound and slow nothingness of the pace made it difficult to follow. I like actor Harmon Stevens’ placid and infantile hypnotized grin after one of the spider women stabs him (with something??), but then it was depressing seeing a sad looking Jackie Coogan (Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, The Addams Family‘s Uncle Fester) as the mad scientist who operates out of some weird Mexican cave. No idea how it ended. Did I mention the terrible two measures of tensionless score that’s stuck on repeat?

But it seems better in stills.

Ever think about how Casablanca would be improved by being set in a post apocalyptic future and giving Bogart massive gazongas? Well Barb Wire (1996) starring Pamela Anderson Lee may be just the thing for you. Pam is an ex-freedom fighter and a club owner and a stripper who moonlights as an agent/assassin and a hooker. It’s as ridiculous as you can imagine, and I guarantee you that whatever you’re picturing in your head is better, sexier, and more coherent than what they filmed. Despite trying so hard to be sexy and action packed, it just comes off as cold and stilted for the most part. I did like Big Fatso (Andre Rosey Brown) and a lot of the line deliveries were so bad they were hilarious. Udo Kier, Clint Howard, and Boba Fett’s dad co-star.

This guy reminded me of Hedonism Bot from Futurama.

I didn’t expect much from the David Carradine sword-and-sorcery vehicle literally called The Warrior and the Sorceress (1984) and boy was I overestimating it. It’s basically a ripoff of Yojimbo (or Fistful of Dollars) but set in a poorly defined fantasy world. Where Mesa of Lost Women was hard to watch, this one is at least entertainingly bad (for the most part). At least there’s tons of needless and degrading nudity (so much so that there’s even a dancer who has four breasts—like they couldn’t find a way to get enough tits into this movie already) and at least two cheesy puppet monsters.

I Didn’t Entirely Get It:

It’s a lot of this.

The premise for Kon Ichikawa’s Being Two Isn’t Easy (1962) is cute enough: daily life as seen alternately from a 2 year old’s perspective and that of his parents. It’s not a bad little film, I just found it somewhat tedious. At best it’s an interesting look into Japanese life in the 60s, but the baby narration was too eloquent and all-knowing to be taken seriously and the family drama felt bland (but maybe that was the point??).

Don’t get too excited. It’s not nearly this trippy.

Sorry, 1960s Japan. Kazui Nihonmatsu’s Genocide (1968) wasn’t wacky enough. Oh, it’s wacky alright, and I would recommend it, but it never lives up to it’s gorgeously surreal title sequence. A disaster movie about bugs staging a revolt against humanity could stand more bug photography (a la Phase IV) and less loony pantomiming…although that does add to its silly charm. In fairness, any plot that features a female holocaust survivor turned evil mad scientist who wants to poison humanity with bug juice to make them go insane and die has to at least be seen. It’s silly. It’s zany. It’s that kinda fun B-movie, not-everything-makes-sense sort of thing. But a movie about killer bugs needs more bugs. One point of interest is the starkly anti-American position it takes. In that regard it reminded me a little bit of the Korean film The Host. Charlie is great. If you see it, you’ll learn who Charlie is.

Getting Better:

Lots of pretty scenery.

John Maclean’s Slow West (2015) is a spectacularly photographed arthouse western about a young Scottish man (Kodi Smit-McPhee) searching the untamed American frontier for the woman he loves with the help of a cynical outlaw (Michael Fassbender). It’s a slow-going movie more akin to Dead Man than Silverado, and it is littered with strange western tableaus. I liked it just fine until in a scene that figuratively pours salt in our hero’s wounds he literally has a jar marked “salt” get broken over his head and poured into his wounds. It was such a laughable, on-the-nose moment that it took me out of the drama faster than Japan’s Maglev train. Not a literal train. That would be silly. Recommended for fans of artsy neo-westerns and great cinematography.

See? No Brad Pitt.

Call me a Philistine. I don’t care. I get why Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) is such an influential science fiction film, but I regrettably confess that having already seen Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (which pilfered the plot of La Jetée) I was a little let down. La Jetée is a French short film told entirely with still black and white photographs and voice-over narration. It chronicles a man who is haunted by childhood memories and is made to travel through time. It’s good. It’s told in an innovative way. But ultimately (don’t hate me, film people) I liked the Bruce Willis movie better and found it more detailed and dramatically satisfying.

Pay attention to that plant in the top left.

Who’s more affable and likable and all-American than Henry Fonda? [Well, Jimmy Stewart, but that’s the subject of another day.] Honestly, I never got the appeal of Henry Fonda. He was always so slow and serious to be a believable person (although I do enjoy a lot of his movies—Young Mr. Lincoln being one of them). Mister Roberts (1955) is one of those gung-ho American navy movies your grandfather watches because he was in the navy (at least it is with my grandfather). Henry Fonda (12 Angry Men), James Cagney (White Heat), William Powell (The Thin Man), and Jack Lemmon (Glengarry Glen Ross) star in the movie about a real swell officer (Fonda) on a ship too far from battle to see action, the crew who loved him, and the commanding officer who was a bit of dick to everybody (Cagney). It’s got a few really great scenes, a few really hokey scenes, and it does feel a bit too long. It’s more Operation Petticoat than M*A*S*H. Soapy, but it’s worth a look just for some of the psychological showdowns between Fonda and Cagney.

More Worth It:

Every time she talks all I hear is, “I’m the boss, applesauce!”

John Patrick Shanley adapts his own stage play to the screen with Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams. Doubt (2008) is an austere little movie about a no-nonsense nun (Streep in her best Judge Judy voice) who suspects a priest (Hoffman) of molesting a young boy, but she has no proof and we—the audience—are not entirely sure who to believe. It’s a simple and effective drama with good acting and cinematography. Fans of the play will like it and fans of movies that do not give easy answers will too.

Shut up. I liked it.

[Full disclosure: I moved to Spain last week. I saw this movie in Spanish and I don’t really speak Spanish, but I think I got the gist. So maybe this is a testament to visual storytelling?] I didn’t like Despicable Me enough to bother with the sequel, but I was consistently entertained by the adorable gibberish, cutesy antics, and energetic animation of Minions (2015). It was creative and funny and I liked watching the weird characters get in and out of trouble. I also enjoyed some of the sixties tunes. It’s a different premise for sure: a species that evolved a psychological need to be subservient to a powerful master (preferably evil) searches for the perfect leader to ally with.

Grimly Good:

It’s how would have wanted to go.

Shôhei Imamura is a legendary Japanese filmmaker whose work I have not really explored yet. Boo, me. I know. Vengeance is Mine (1979) is a bleak portrait of a thief and murderer named Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata), based on real life criminal, Akira Nishiguchi. It explores his relationship with his family and a few women he cons. It’s not a sentimental film. It doesn’t glamorize crime. There are really no positive characters in the film (I did like the old lady who had been a jailbird herself). It’s gritty and gloriously shot. Fans of Japanese cinema or crime drama should not miss this one.

Kinda wish there were more zombies like the melty guy and bisected dog and headless guy.

I don’t know why I never really got into zombie movies. Especially when I really do enjoy a lot of them (White Zombie, Night of the Living Dead, Shaun of the Dead, 28 Days Later, etc.). Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon made his directing feature debut with The Return of the Living Dead (1985). It’s a fantastic bit of horror comedy, fully embracing its zaniness but still giving us some decent writing and fun characters. Two employees accidentally release a canister-o-zombie and things only escalate at an alarming rate from there. The zombies can’t really be killed so that makes it a little trickier. Classic fun.

Not exactly “The Thing” or “The Fly”, but it’s a slimy time to be had.

H.P. Lovecraft gets adapted a lot. I have no idea what the original story looked like, but Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator) directs one crazy, slimy, prosthetic-filled science fiction horror yarn with From Beyond (1986). An unexplained “science machine” reveals another dimension filled with phosphorescent flying eels that are surrounding us at all times. When sexual deviant, Dr. Pretorius (Ted Sorel), gets his head bitten off by an unseen monster, his assistant (Jeffrey Combs) gets institutionalized unless he can prove his sanity to a kind doctor (Barbara Crampton) and a cop named Bubba Brownlee (Ken Foree). Returning to the attic in the mysterious house, they get multiple scary encounters with Pretorius’s new, monstrous form. The movie is absolutely nuts and I loved it…probably loved it more because so little of it makes any sense. The special effects are great and gross.

Rising Above:

The face British people make when they see a spider crawling on your shoulder.

Sherlock Holmes has appeared in more forms than almost any other fictional character. Hammer Studios’ The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) was not the first nor the last adaptation of this specific Arthur Conan Doyle mystery, but it might be the best known and liked. Directed by Terence Fisher (he did a lot of Hammer horror movies) and starring Hammer icons Peter Cushing (Star Wars) as Holmes and Christopher Lee (The Lord of the Rings) as Sir Henry, it has all the Victorian style and spooky atmosphere Hammer was famous for. A great outing for lovers of the legendary sleuth.

It really could have been one hell of a movie.

I had reviewed Island of Souls and Island of Dr. Moreau in past lists. Souls (1932) being fantastically good and Moreau (1996) being a baffling, disjointed disaster of a movie. Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (2014) is a documentary that seeks to elucidate us all as to what happened and how everything went so so very wrong on the set of the infamous adaptation of H.G. Wells starring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer. David Gregory’s doc features extensive interviews with cast and crew, giving incredible insights into what it was like working on this nightmare project and how everything fell apart at an exponential rate. If you loved Lost in La Mancha or ever saw the 1996 film you owe it to yourself to watch this. It’s absolutely bonkers what went on.

Gagin’s casual disregard for literally everyone but himself make him an interesting hero.

Ride the Pink Horse (1947) is an interesting film noir. Our hero, Gagin (director Robert Montgomery), is an unlikable small time crook and army vet on the hunt for Frank Hugo (Fred Clark) and the money he feels Hugo owes him. What makes the film memorable is the dusty New Mexican town setting and some of the colorful side characters like Pancho (Thomas Gomez), Pila (Wanda Hendrix), and an old FBI agent (Art Smith)…not to mention the giant marionette from your nightmares, Zozobra (god of bad luck), paraded through town at night only to be immolated by the villagers as part of their local festival. If you enjoy noir, this one comes highly recommended.

My Favorites This Time Around:

This scene is actually a really clever sight gag if you end up watching the film.

Another zombie movie. Why do I keep thinking I hate zombies? Before Ip Man, Wilson Yip directed a low-budget teenage horror comedy set in a Hong Kong shopping mall called Bio-Zombie (1998). It’s great fun. When there’s no onscreen action, there’s plenty of wonderful character business propelling the plot. Our main characters, Woody Invincible (Jordan Chan) and Crazy Bee (Sam Lee), are lowlifes, thieves, bullies, and obnoxious dressers. They pal up with two sexy ladies, Jelly (Suk Yin Lai) and Rolls (Angela Ying-Ying Tong) to battle the hordes of advancing zombies. There’s also a lovable sushi chef nerd (Wayne Lee) who brings a lot of comic tragedy to the already zany project. I highly recommend this Hong Kong zombie flick.

A lot of awkwardness in their hotel room.

I have loved every one of Satyajit Ray’s films that I’ve seen. (Check out The Apu Trilogy if you are unfamiliar with him.) Joi Baba Felunath: The Elephant God (1979) is an Indian detective film featuring sleuth Feluda (Soumitra Chatterjee, Apur Sansar) and his two friends—his young cousin (Siddhartha Chatterjee) and the pulp novelist (Santosh Dutta)—trying to locate a missing statuette. The mystery is full of great locations, rich scenes, spooky meetings, and some levity. The characters are fun and, coming from America, it’s sort of exciting to see an original Indian genre film with no songs. One memorably suspenseful scene features the comic relief novelist facing an old knife thrower who may be losing his sight and is definitely suffering from a severe cough. This is actually a sequel to an earlier detective movie featuring Feluda, but I haven’t seen it.

Just like “Homeward Bound,” kids!

Hungarian filmmaker, Kornél Mundruczó, takes you on a gritty and uncomfortable journey through the eyes of a canine named Hagan in White God (2014). A young girl, Lilli (Zsófia Psotta), and her furry best friend have to live with her grouchy divorced father (Sándor Zsótér). Not wanting the dog—and the city not wanting mixed breeds—he gets rid of Hagan. While Lilli goes through a lot of growing up and looking for her dog, Hagan goes on a brutal journey through serious abuse on the streets and the world of dog fighting before finally leading a Spartacus-esque revolution of death-row mongrels, exacting revenge on their tormentors as they storm through the city. It’s about growing up, remembering how to be a family, and about how we treat outsiders. The cinematography and performances are great (both human and dog) and the tension keeps on building. Read any metaphor you want into it or just take it as is. It’s brilliant filmmaking.

Baxter: French “Cujo” or Dog “Taxi Driver”?

A long time ago—some might even venture to add ‘in a galaxy far away’ but they would be fools—I had a great deal of fun hosting and writing a radio for me old alma mater. The show was arbitrarily called “Don’t Fly Continental” (the airline had lost my luggage a week before I had to name the show) and every week we would review three obscure/bizarre/lost films. I remember when I first pitched the concept to a group of fellow students at the time and they said things like, “Why don’t you want to review good movies?” and “You’re going to run out of movies after week three.” I was cut to the very quick by their vehement and ignoble simpleness. Well, I’m pleased to say we never did run out and to this day, years later, I am unearthing dozens of wild films every week, hence this blog in lieu of the demise of the radio show. Beyond being far from running out of weird movies, I am pleased to say that a good many of the obscure films we discovered were not only good but many were masterpieces, staggering achievements, godsends.

One of my favorite finds from the first year we ever did “Don’t Fly Continental” was a surprising little psychological horror about a sociopathic bull terrier, Baxter (1989). I have watched it and shared it several times since. I’ll admit it might be a difficult film for some, but it is one of those great movies that sadly remains obscure for many folks. It was within some of the first few months of “Don’t Fly Continental” when we watched Baxter and we realized immediately that our show was truly important. We found many great unknown films, but this was one of the early ones that we merely stumbled upon quite by accident.

I read something of it somewhere online. It looked like your standard killer dog slasher movie. The cover looked something like this:

It seems to have been sorely misrepresented. Even the tagline is really misleading. As my title implies this is not merely a French version of Cujo. This is far more dark and psychological and far more chilling than viscerally shocking. In fact, there is very little onscreen violence. Most of it is shocking enough just being anticipated. It’s not very gory, but it is downright chilling. Director Jérôme Boivin takes us down a very unnerving rabbit hole as we descend into the twisted and confused mind of man’s best friend. This is more a canine Travis Bickle.

The story begins with dim, jarring closeups of snarling dog muzzles behind kennel bars and mesh. Eventually our main character’s voice is heard above the desperate howling. The voice is that of a dog named Baxter (Maxime Leroux). As he is slowly illumined and the camera pushes in and the blood red void behind him brightens his grim monologue comes to an end and the movie’s title pops in. There is an immediate tone of brooding animosity, impending danger, and the potential for horrific carnage held in suspended animation. This ominous tone remains near constant for the entire duration.

Baxter is broken up into segments after the prologue. We get a look into the troubled and interconnected lives of several human characters before Baxter returns. There is jealousy, infidelity, voyeurism, unrequited love, thoughts on aging, and the seedlings of a Hitler obsession in the human world. The movie lingers on the sad existences of these human characters, delicately setting the stage for the title character. The elderly and surly Madame Deville (Lise Delamare) is given the insulting gift of a dog for her birthday. This dog is, of course, Baxter.

Baxter does not like Madame Deville. Her fear of him makes him uneasy and that she gives him no structure or orders makes him angry and confused. Without focus and understandable tasks Baxter’s mind returns to “unnatural thoughts” from his early life. We never know what happened to him before the pound, but it seems to have left him slightly deranged. Although half of the time we are observing the lives of the emotionally disconnected human characters, the other half we are submerged in the suffocatingly grim and psychopathic inner-monologues of Baxter. As he tries to make sense of his changing world, even his pleasant thoughts seem marred by malicious intent. “I have always been fascinated by birds. Maybe one day I’ll kill one.”

As Baxter’s secret feelings regarding his aging master become more and more enamored with the idea of her death—which Baxter sees as entirely justifiable and necessary—Madame Deville is also slowly succombing to dementia. Her behavior becomes more erratic and their lives together more cloistered. Baxter fantasizes about the young couple across the street whom he observes with interest and imagines their noises and smells when they make love.

This film also has some bizarre left turns such as a ghost beckoning an old man into death. Yeah. Completely unprecedented, yet somehow appropriate and functional.

Eventually (through malevolent means) Baxter does end up with the young couple and all is bliss and routine until the young woman gets pregnant. I won’t say much but if you watch this movie you will think twice about letting a dog near a baby. The dog is disgusted by the feeble, mindless new creature and utterly baffled as to why the tall people dote over it so. Soon a new plot hatches in the cur’s wicked brain. Baxter is the anti-Lady and the Tramp.

Baxter switches owners many times, but when a strange Hitler-obsessed little boy sociopath adopts him things somehow become more serious than ever. The film was always brooding and dark, but now there is a vessel of encouragement and focus for Baxter. The extra scary thing is that this boy is the only character that Baxter actually fears and respects (for the most part). By the way, there is nothing sexier than telling your woman she looks like Eva Braun. I cannot reveal more of the plot for fear of spoiling the chilling final act. There is violence and terror, but it manages to be completely chilling on a psychological level and only rises into an unnervingly easy crescendo. I rate Baxter as one of the greatest horror films ever made. It may be a reflection of my personal tastes, but it surprised me so with the chances and twists it takes. It is just a great movie and a must-see for any serious horror fan.

The first time I saw this odd little French film, the ending left me chilled to my very marrow.

Perhaps what truly makes this film work is its personality. It is not merely a cold, blood-lusting torture-porn. It is meticulous, calculating, and it has a rather dark sense of humor. Although it is in many ways a black comedy the laughs may not always come easy to you. It is a vicious humor with grim implications on the nature of man and dog alike. It is a complex film that will probably not be what you expect. Baxter is one of those obscure masterpieces. I loved it and therefore you should watch it.

Jim Henson is the Story Teller

Great TV seems to be a rarity these days. Especially in the realm of high-end fantasy. In times like these (dominated by “reality,” shockers, and wanton crassness) I find it refreshing to revisit older television shows. Jim Henson’s The Storyteller (1988) is a welcome oddity from the past. Only nine episodes were made, but they are fresh and fun. Four more episodes were made for Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Greek Myths (1990).


Jim Henson gets a lot of credit as the creator of the Muppets and Sesame Street (1969-present), but few seem to realize that he was much more than a simple puppeteer. In addition to performing as Kermit the frog, Rowlf the dog, and Dr. Teeth, Jim Henson was a pioneering innovator in the field of modern puppetry, animatronics, and special effects. The Jim Henson’s Creature Shop (which was developed for films like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth) was responsible for some of the most memorable movie monsters of the past few decades (including The Witches, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Babe, The Flintstones, Dr. Doolittle, MirrorMask, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, etc.).

John Hurt (A Man for All Seasons, The Elephant Man, Watership Down, Alien, Hellboy) stars as The Storyteller, a wizened old man who sits in a tatterdemalion chair at the best place by the fire. Brian Henson (Return to Oz, Labyrinth, Monster Maker) performs the voice and puppeteers the role of the Storyteller’s dog. Together in an old and mysterious castle they huddle by the fireside and tell stories from ancient European folklore. The hallmarks of the show are that the tales told by the Storyteller are very obscure and each episode is assured to feature some new makeup, monster, or prosthetic from the Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Some familiar faces do make appearances in the stories themselves. Sean Bean (Ronin, Fellowship of the Ring), Bob Peck (Jurassic Park), Jonathan Pryce (Brazil, Evita), Miranda Richardson (Blackadder, Sleepy Hollow), Joely Richardson (Event Horizon, 101 Dalmations), Alison Doody (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), Bryan Pringle (the butler in Haunted Honeymoon), Robert Eddison (the knight at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), Philip Jackson and Pauline Moran (Inspector Japp and Miss Lemon from Agatha Christie’s Poirot), and a few others all play roles in these bizarre fables, but the real stars are the innovative special effects.

A high fantasy children’s show about obscure foreign tales with grandiose production qualities featuring spooky and distorted monsters and hideous makeup was doomed to be short-lived from the beginning it would seem. When one of your episodes features a hedgehog monster-man who rides a giant rooster, marries a princess who fears him, and removes his skin every night to hang out with barnyard animals naked you know you don’t have a typical mainstream smash hit on your hands. The stories are dark and unforgivingly strange and cryptic at times. The puppets, animatronics, and makeup and indeed even the tone is sometimes enough to make one uneasy, but after almost a decade of dark 80s films for kids (The Black Cauldron, Watcher in the Woods, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Gremlins, Black Hole, Return to Oz, Time Bandits, etc.) I don’t see it as anything the young ‘uns couldn’t have handled.

The two episodes Jim Henson himself directed “The Soldier and Death” and “The Heartless Giant” were probably the best. “The Soldier and Death” I found to be particularly good and actually surprisingly complex..not to mention the great creepy devil puppets and death too. John Hurt must been having the time of his life as the Storyteller. He plays the role with such grizzled vigor and in the episode “A Story Short” he actually becomes the central character in his own narration. The filming is fun and imaginative, featuring many expressionistic touches and collage and silhouette techniques. The puppets are great (perhaps a bit odd at times, but it’s all good). Sea monsters, devils, griffins, giants, wolves, trolls, magical lions, and other creatures speckle the landscape here. Major props to the clever writing as well. The Storyteller does not Disney-fy tragedy or strangeness and keeps the morals relatively ambiguous, favoring just being thought-provoking and entertaining over being clear about morality. It is admirable that a children’s show would respect its audience to the degree The Storyteller does. It does not offer easy answers to anything.

Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Greek Myths (1990) features a new narrator. Brian Henson returns as the dog and Michael Gambon (The Cook the Thief His Wife and Her Lover, Toys, Gosford Park, Harry Potter, Fantastic Mr. Fox) is the new storyteller. This time the tales are not so much more dark as they are more sad and hopeless. This short series does not water down Greek tragedy for a younger audience. At times narrator, Gambon, seems to be delighting in horrifying his dog sidekick with unhappy twists. The monsters are still cool and scary. Medusas and minotaurs galore! Classic Greek myths come to life as you see stories of Perseus, Icarus, Theseus, and Orpheus all rise and fall. Derek Jacobi (Brother Cadfael, Hamlet, Gosford Park) plays Daedalus in the first episode.

Both series are quite unique and unforgettable. The original Storyteller intro might be one of the best TV intros ever (it’s almost reminiscent of Tales from the Crypt). What I really liked about the stories they selected are not only that many were new to me, but that it says something of culture and history. Ancient Greek myths are a completely different beast from early European folklore. The rules and flow are different. We don’t really tell stories the way they did back then. As a master storyteller and master in special effects, Jim Henson was just the man to tackle this idea. Henson really did think outside of the box. Yes, his wonderful, iconic Muppet characters will undoubtedly be loved and cherished for years to come, but he was much more than a puppeteer. Revisit the Storyteller series and while you’re at it, the old Muppet Show too (still arguably one of the finest and cleverest variety shows ever put together). Fraggle Rock? The Muppet Babies? Have at it. And fans of all that Henson did might also be interested in revisiting another short-lived favorite from my childhood: The Jim Henson Hour (1989).

picture references:

ign.com

muppet wiki

Of Dogs and Bunny Rabbits

Warning: These are not children’s movies.

I read Richard Adams’ Watership Down in 4th grade. It was a book that examined different types of society but all the characters were rabbits. Many people may be familiar with this popular book and I’m sure some people are familiar with Martin Rosen’s animated adaptation, which came out in 1978. If you saw the movie Watership Down when you were a kid you might remember most notably the abundance of blood (for a cartoon about talking bunnies, it is a smidge on the gory side). All things considered, Martin Rosen (who had never directed a movie before) makes a pretty darn good job of translating Watership Down to the big screen.

Frith speaks!

Frith speaks!

I read Richard Adams’ Plague Dogs in high school. My biggest surprise came well into my college career when it was brought to my attention that there was a film adaptation of it as well. Lo and behold Martin Rosen also made Plague Dogs into a movie in 1982, this time with even greater command of his animated medium.

Definitely read Richard Adams’ books, but I would encourage you to also investigate their film companions directed by Martin Rosen. It is obvious that Rosen has a deep respect and affection for Adams’ writing and does not compromise the integrity of either story, nor does he insult the audience by dumbing things down or belittling the characters. Rosen respects his audience and trusts them to be savvy enough to track along with him. Both films are great adaptations from great literature.

Fiver's ominous vision.

Fiver’s ominous vision.

 

Watership Down, for those who are unfamiliar, is the story of some renegade rabbits. When the runty prophet rabbit, Fiver (voiced by Richard Briers in the film), predicts bunny genocide, Hazel (the amazing John Hurt) leads a group of fellow rabbits far away (against the wishes of their chief, voiced by Sir Ralph Richardson). The rabbits journey across the English countryside in search of a new warren, but the way is paved with trouble and bloodshed. There are other societies of rabbits with varying ideological positions on the nature of things and many battles will need to be fought before the end. Yes, they are bloody and it’s not exactly a kid’s movie.

There are some wonderful moments of suspense, peril, and surreal horror The rabbits’ relationship to their god, Frith (Michael Hordern), is a fascinating and touching representation of faith. Watership Down is not a sunny, happy Disney flick. It feels more like an historical account complete with myths and some original language (think Tolkien writing for a rabbit world). The movie also features the voices of Denholm Elliott and Zero Mostel (the role of the bumbling seagull, Kehaar, would be Mostel’s final film performance) and there’s even a very  beautiful song by Art Garfunkel. Both the book and film are a pleasure.

scary bunny

The filling in of the warren.

Plague Dogs might be the darker story. Two battered dogs (voiced by John Hurt and Christopher Benjamin) escape a research laboratory in England and start their uncertain quest for happiness. They spend their time killing sheep to survive, but soon their attacks catch the attention of the humans and they realize they must become wild animals in order to stay alive. They get some pointers from a cunning fox who becomes a valuable—if not always trusted—ally.

Farmers report dog attacks on their livestock and the media investigates. Before long, some miscommunication leads everyone to believe that the dogs are infected with Bubonic Plague (hence the title). Starving and struggling in the wilderness the two dogs fight to survive and soon they must decide whether or not there ever was anything to hope for. This philosophical story asks the question: what if everything that drives us is just an illusion or a dim memory of a lost moment in time? Once again, Rosen adapts Adams’ tale very well. Technically it’s not as bloody as Watership Down but the violence is a little more disturbing and some of the dialects will be near incomprehensible to American audiences.

In context, this might be one of the most soul-crushing moments in any movie. Ever.

In context, this might be one of the most soul-crushing moments in any movie. Ever.

The British cut of the film is longer than the American cut, but it is paced much better and it keeps little character moments that really serve to develop the story and engage the audience a little more. If you can find the British cut I would recommend you see that version.

 

I showed Plague Dogs to a few friends and many of them really enjoyed it, but several people found it terribly depressing…which it is. I would say it all depends on how you look at it. Just as some people might find hope or doom in the finale of Brazil, I would say the film leaves the ending open to interpretation. I find endings like that make the experience more personal to the viewer. It is bittersweet to say the least.

drowning

Depressed yet? This is like the first scene.

Watership Down and Plague Dogs make for unusual books, but turning them into films might have been even more daring. Both films are adult dramas featuring talking animated animals. Difficult projects to market, but ultimately rewarding for the lucky few who still seek them out today. Both books come highly recommended and I would suggest that after finishing them you look into watching the movies too.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” August 3, 2009