Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

A Boy and His Dog (1975) * * ¾

Set in the year 2024 in post-apocalyptic Phoenix, Arizona, 18 year old Vic (Don Johnson) and his telepathic "rover" dog Blood (voiced by Tim McIntyre) are happy scavengers in the desolate wilderness ravaged by World War Four, where survivors must battle for food, shelter, and sexual companionship in the desert-like wasteland. Canned goods are used as currency and entertainment usually consists of old porn reels. Vic fights and steals for food, and in return Blood uses his special sense of smell to help the gun-toting Vic locate females to rape. The disdainful and mocking Blood is more intelligent than Vic, often impatient with his immature behavior and lack of interest in his attempts to educate the boy, but he nonetheless loves Vic and sticks with him to help him survive.

Blood refers to Vic as "Albert" as a "term of endearment", but constantly makes criticisms about his stupidity, lack of perspective, and the search for "female companionship" by his oversexed master. The dog knows history, and reminds Vic that there were two nuclear wars, and there was once a "normal" world. Blood wants to go "over the hill" to see if there's a less hostile place to live, but Vic says their situation is as good as it gets, and there is no "over the hill." Then Vic is distracted by the beautiful Quilla June Holmes (Suzanne Benton). She wants him to join her in an underground utopia of survivors, a new Topeka. The main problem is no dogs are allowed.

Vic: We coulda used her three more times!
Blood: Ah, war is hell.

Blood: A cautious young fellow named Lodge
Had seatbelts installed in his Dodge.
When his date was strapped in
He committed a sin
Without even leaving the garage. That's clever, isn't it?

Civilization has gone into the "downunder", a bizarre subsurface setting with artificial sunlight, hydroponic bays, biospheres, living forests, country fairs, ice cream, and prizes for the best canned goods. One such underground city, referred to as Topeka after the ruins of the city it lies beneath, is a mixture of 1950s rural innocence and Brave New World dystopia. Doctor Moore (Alvy Moore), Mez Smith (Helene Winston), and Lou Craddock (Jason Robards) maintain a strictly-enforced Topeka where everyone must dress and behave as if living in a pre-industrial middle America. Girls wear schoolmarm clothing and curtsey. Underground living has resulted in a pallor necessitating heavy makeup. Many wear whiteface clown-like paint.

Topeka solves its need for reproduction by forcibly extracting fluids from sperm donors with machines and artificial insemination, yet the subterranean city with its limited population is still running low on viable donors. Anybody who refuses to comply, or shows any disregard to the ruling "committee" whatsoever, is sent off to "the farm", and is never seen again. Even when someone becomes no longer useful to the society, they are sent there. "Heart attacks" and "farming accidents" are given as reasons for the unexplained disappearances. However, the inhabitants of the underground city are so brainwashed that they do not realize or protest.

Quilla June Holmes, the scheming and seductive daughter of one of Topeka's committee leaders, Lou Craddock, is sent by her father to the surface to bait Vic into much needed "service", but Vic thinks he will be impregnating the women of Topeka the conventional way. Blood takes an immediate disliking to Quilla, sensing something is wrong and warns Vic, who will not listen. After saving Quilla's life from a band of raiders and then some mutants referred to as "screamers", Vic then spends an amorous night with her. In the morning she knocks Vic unconscious and flees. However, she had told Vic about where she lives, and also deliberately left an access card to the vault door so that he could follow her down there.

Vic is completely taken by the idea of women and sex and leaves his dog, despite Blood's pleading, and pursues the young lady into the downunder. He soon learns the harsh reality of the authoritarian committee and of its need for his semen, and he is strapped to a table and a machine used for this purpose. Vic is immobilized and his genitals attached to the equivalent of an electronic milking machine. In short succession the lucky brides are wed to him, presented with a bottle of special sauce, and sent on their way. Vic is told that, when his sperm has impregnated 35 women, he will be sent to "the farm", as they will no longer have any use for him. He is policed by a robotic keeper named Michael (Hal Baylor) seemingly borrowed from WESTWORLD (1973).

Lou Craddock: Lack of respect, wrong attitude, failure to obey authority.

Quilla June, along with a few other rebellious teenagers, have other plans for Vic. They free him from captivity and beg him to kill the committee members and their android enforcer Michael, leaving Quilla June in power. Vic, however, has interest in neither politics nor in remaining underground. Nevertheless, before Vic can shoot Lou Craddock, the other rebellious teenagers are captured by Micheal and have their skulls crushed by his bare hands. Vic manages to disable Michael with a barrage of bullets. Still, knowing that her plan is foiled, and her co-conspirators dead, and also after overhearing her own father ordering her execution, Quilla decides Vic is her only chance and decides to escape to the surface with him. She tells Vic that she loves him, although this is clearly a lie to save her own skin.

Vic: (to sentry) If my gun picks up one rust spot you're gonna wake up with a crowd around 'ya.

Vic and Quilla discover when emerging to the surface that Blood is starving as he was not able to find food without Vic. Blood is elderly and near death, with a broken leg from an earlier fight with a raider's dog. Vic faces a difficult situation, and in a twist ending, it is implied he kills his new love and cooks her to save Blood, as a bonfire is shown barbecuing food. This is not explicitly stated, though. Quilla simply disappears from the short remainder of the story. If you listen carefully it's obvious, and this dialogue suggests her fate: Blood says, "Well, I'd certainly say she had marvelous judgment, Albert, if not particularly good taste." They both laugh at this remark and the film ends with credits and the song "A Boy and his Dog" sung by Tim McIntire. Vic has learned that nothing is more important to a boy than his dog.

In 1982 a one minute prologue was added to this 87 minute offbeat science fiction satire.

Faithfully adapted from the 1969 novella by Harlan Ellison, this post-apocalyptic black comedy and cult favorite has a great reputation as a low-budget classic. It's a boy-dog relationship unlike any other. In one scene Vic makes love while Blood waits, passing the time by ruminating about the Latin derivation of the word "copulate". The first half of the picture is a series of savage skirmishes between Vic and various competitors in the wasteland. They avoid the "screamers", unseen ominous blue-glowing monsters that are presumably some kind of post-nuclear mutation. The main conflict comes into play when a girl enters the picture and causes Vic to risk his partnership with Blood to chase her into a legendary underground world of luxury. The underworld turns out to be a trap, with an authoritarian troika called "the committee" ruling a waning paradise with draconian laws.

The picture appeals to audiences and critics who are excited to find an imaginative film with actual ideas at its center. Production is slight but effective. The Mojave Desert locations are dressed mostly with random junk and a few props. The underground society is achieved with night exteriors in ordinary, sterile-looking modern buildings. After Vic's initial entrance through some industrial settings, it's interesting how quickly we accept, without mattes or other effects, a perpetually dark underworld with green grass and trees. The costuming underground gets a little severe, but the dozen farm girls all dressed in wedding gowns, make for a strangely disturbing image. The no-nonsense casting includes Charles McGraw as the preacher in the underground world. A BOY AND HIS DOG is a good example of a quality picture from actors with ambition, and is regarded as a science-fiction classic. Its popularity is due to its likable characters who, despite their constant bickering and individual quirks, are redeemed by their friendship and sarcastically humorous approach to survival. The film was also distributed after the initial run under the names PSYCHO BOY AND HIS KILLER DOG, MAD DON, and APOCALYPSE: 2004, among other titles.

The performances in A BOY AND HIS DOG are top-notch. Don Johnson convincingly portrays Vic as a filthy scavenger who, in spite of his dire situation, still manages to remain a decent human being at the core. Tim McIntire's vocal characterization of Blood embodies Ellison's original concept of a mutant pooch with a caustic ego that is balanced with just the right amount of humanity, and this portrayal is enhanced further by the outstanding on-screen performance of Tiger, the dog that played the family pet on TV's THE BRADY BUNCH. In his supporting role as the governor of a subterranean dystopia, Jason Robards is delightfully smarmy. And when beautiful Susanne Benton bares her ample "talents" on the screen, it's a lot of fun to watch.

The cast also includes: Tiger the dog (Blood), Charles McGraw (Preacher), Ron Feinberg (Fellini), Michael Rupert (Gery), Don Carter (Ken), Michael Hershman (Richard), and L.Q. Jones (actor in porno film). Tim McIntire composed the original music. L.Q. Jones and Wayne Cruseturner wrote the screenplay from Harlan Ellison's novella. L.Q. Jones directed.

Several DVD editions of A BOY AND HIS DOG have been available over the years, and all have delivered good letterbox widescreen digital transfers. The current offering from First Run Features is an anamorphic widescreen version, and it also contains an interesting feature commentary and the old extras, which include a pair of trailers. It's the same unspectacular presentation, a clean print letterboxed to 2:35 but given an encoding that today could easily be improved upon. The menus have been changed, but it's basically the same package. The original Techniscope images are easy to read in dark scenes, but show a lot of grain and digital texturing overall. Color could be greatly improved as well. With technology, 35 mm prints can look better than the originals. L.Q. Jones, cameraman John Morrill, and critic Charles Champlin provide a lively commentary that has to be listened to carefully. The talkative Jones fills in the kind of details that will make the movie interesting for those who have seen it too many times. He tends to exaggerate. The menu graphics are the same from the older disc, but First Run has remade nice covers, using the original poster art on the back and the more familiar "happy face" nuclear mushroom cloud on the cover.

"A Boy and His Dog" won the Nebula Award for Best Novella when released in 1969. Both the novella and the film adaptation have the same alternate timeline setting. President John F. Kennedy survived the assassination attempt on his life in 1963, and under his continued terms of office and that of the other Kennedys, the advancement of technology was concentrated on, and billions of dollars were poured into it instead of the space race. Technology flourished in the 1960s far faster than it did in our timeline, and within a few years even surpassed the point at which we are at now. But there are some differences between the book and the film:

* In the novella, nuclear fallout had created horrific genetic mutations. One such group is referred to as "burnpit screamers" because of the noise they make. The screamers are widely feared by the survivors of the nuclear holocaust, and references are occasionally made to them in the novella. Screamers feature in the film, although only in one scene, and are not actually seen, but only their screams are heard, and their green bio-luminescence seen through a wall.

* In the novella, Blood is a mixed-breed dog, half German Shepherd and half Puli, genetically altered with enhanced dolphin spinal fluid injected in him. In the film, this was not mentioned, except for a brief bit of dialogue explaining that Blood was the "result of an experiment". In the film, Blood was portrayed by Tiger from TV's THE BRADY BUNCH, also a mongrel who was a cross between a Bearded Collie and West Highland White Terrier.

* In the novella, the survivors of the nuclear holocaust are predominantly male, and women are rare. The women who do remain are treated like chattel and often abused and raped. However, Ellison did not go into detail regarding this, as he has stated he hates sexism and misogyny. The film expanded on these themes and actually showed it, and allegedly Ellison wasn't happy with this.

Rumors have circulated over the years regarding a movie sequel, but it has never materialized. On the film's DVD audio commentary, L.Q. Jones states that he had started to write a script sequel to the film that would have picked up right where the first film ended and featured a female warrior named Spike, and we would have seen this world through the eyes of a female instead of a male. According to "Cult Movies 2", Jones had a sequel planned called "A Girl And Her Dog", but the plan was scrapped when Tiger died. In a December 2003 interview, Jones claimed that he is approached by a different group wanting to make a sequel approximately every 30 days, but funding is always an issue.

A BOY AND HIS DOG regularly shows up on most lists of the Top 10 Science Fiction Films Of All Time. This film won the 1975 Hugo Award for best dramatic presentation, and is often cited as an inspiration for George Miller's MAD MAX (1979), which influenced a whole genre of movies. The two movies have a very similar style, although Miller said he had not seen Jones' film until after he had completed his own. That is very unlikely, especially considering that his sequel THE ROAD RUNNER (1981) has a prominent dog in it named "Dog". The British comic "Tank Girl" and the 1995 film adaptation may have taken inspiration from the film. It is virtually the same post-apocalyptic plot with a female punk protagonist instead of a male.

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