How I learned to stop worrying and love the Apocalypse, part 1: A Boy and his Dog (1975)
So, with apologies to Wolf, who’s already done some of these films, it’s time to launch a new open-ended series. This one will be all about the end of the world and the dystopian mess left behind for the poor survivors to deal with. First up, is the Harlan Ellison penned (and later disavowed) 1975 classic A Boy and his Dog. I’m depressed to say this is billed as “a rather kinky tale of survival”, something that is inaccurate, misleading and gives a big hint as to why Ellison had such a downer on the film.
Contains serious weirdness and spoilers below. I’m not joking at all about the spoiler here- it’s enormous, but impossible to talk about the film without addressing.
Goddamnit, I am totally sick and tired of reviewing rapey films. I seem to have been on a bloody run of them at the moment and was completely disappointed to discover that A Boy and his Dog is yet another film with rape as a central plot point. At the very least, this film is wide open to accusations of flagrant misogyny. The problem with the above is that it clouds the opinion on what is a very good film, and a landmark of the entire genre.
Meet Vic (Don Johnson). Vic is (apparently) 15, and a lone nomad in a scorched earth. With only his dog, Blood, for company, Vic searches the charred landscape for the two things that keep him going: women to rape and food. Blood, thankfully, is telepathic and can not only converse with Vic, but can also sense when there are either groups of raiders to hide from/ fight or isolated women to molest. This is a nasty, co-dependent relationship, and probably one best not dwelt on, although Blood does keep it sweet holding out the carrot of a mythical place called Over the Hill that they could, in theory make it to. Into their pretty miserable existence comes Quilla June (Susanne Benton), a refugee from somewhere called “Downunder”.
Initially repelling Vic’s rapey advances, she eventually succumbs to some grubby sex, although Blood remains consistently untrusting of her. Soon enough, the pooch’s judgement is proven sound when she ups and buggers off home again. Blood begs Vic not to follow her, as he’s incapable of foraging food as a by product of his telepathy, and eventually resigns himself to waiting for Vic at the pit opening.
Vic follows Quilla June down beneath the wasteland, and is initially pleased to discover that he’s a hero in a fucked up 50’s version of Topeka existing in a self-contained biosphere. He’s even more pleased to find out that they’ve got fertility problems and he’s the equivalent of Jack Hell with the magic love spuds to reinvigorate their tiring gene pool. He’s less chuffed to find out that Quilla June was a honey trap, and he’s actually to be wired to a table and given electro-stimulation to the junk to force ejaculation for their artificial insemination programme before being sent “away to the farm”, which is blatantly execution. Not to mention that he’s only got a maximum of 35 squirts to go.
So, Quilla June (complete in wedding dress), gives Vic a nasty dose of the facts of life, before busting him out for her ill-fated rebellion. Unsurprisingly, this goes completely tits up at the hands of an unstoppable robot redneck, and the two escape to the surface to find Blood loyally waiting up there for them. Quilla proclaims love for Vic (quite why, I’m not sure, but if I had to guess for some manipulative purposes based on her entire MO of the film), but Blood hasn’t eaten in too long, and if Vic’s going to survive in the wasteland, then, well, he needs the pooch. This is bad news for Quilla June, and the film ends with a happy, full Blood following Vic on their lonely trek and no sign of Quilla June. No need to spell it out, really, although Blood does, but more on this in a moment.
This is a very, very strange film. No, lying poster, it’s not kinky in the slightest, but it is desperate and weird. If we were to try to work out who the villain is, we’d really struggle as at various stages of the film every single character seems to fit this role, bar Vic, and he’s a rapist. Quilla June, the honey trap, is the most obvious, but Blood also takes the mantle at several points. Not to mention the Topeka council and killer farming robot. Basically, this isn’t just the end of the world and humanity nearly extinct, but the end of the world, humanity nearly extinct, and what isn’t extinct consists of total fucking arseholes.
Tonally, it’s incredibly odd. We’re introduced to Vic when Blood sniffs out an isolated woman in a bunker. Vic goes down (against Blood’s wishes) to liberate her, and is miffed to find out that she’s been raped and mutilated. This leads to this charming exchange between our hero and his pooch, which I’m highlighting for when I talk about the end:
Vic: Hell! They didn’t have to cut her! She could have been used two or three more times!
Blood: Ah, war is hell.
Vic misses the sarcasm in Blood’s response, as he’s clearly thinking with his penis, but the loyal pooch consoles him with a smutty limerick to keep his pecker up. Cue alarmingly happy theme music. The bickering between the two for the entirety of the first third of the film is based wholly on Vic’s case of blue balls and his overwhelming desire to find a woman to rape. Yet, Johnson is charming in the role and the dialogue feels “light”- it’s clear that this is simply how you survive in 2024. I’m not justifying it, but after a while what they were actually arguing about stopped registering with me. While I’m sure we’re not meant to condone Vic’s actions (I hope, anyway), this is clearly normality for him and his pooch.
This isn’t where the weirdness stops, though. Once we get to Downunder, the film finds a whole extra gear of crazy to go to. Why they’ve turned their biodome into 50’s small town America is a total mystery to me. maybe they want to hang on to a forgotten past that probably never existed in the first place. Even in this event, quite why they all slap on Geisha makeup is an even bigger mystery. Having said that, though, I do like the symmetry of serial rapist Vic being tied to a table and effectively raped over and over again. There feels like a nice sense of justice to this, and really, you can’t argue that he hasn’t had something nasty coming to him.
Then there’s the character of Quilla June. Benson is exceptional in the role, but this is one odious villain/ victim. She’s sent to the surface by her dad as a honey trap- instantly setting him up as the big bad, but when she entraps Vic to bring him down, she flat-out tells him that she bought him down not for the good of the community, but for her own nefarious purposes. Even when she frees him, it’s so he can help her with the rebellion, and her declaration of love at the end isn’t real- she’s had little more than contempt for him for most of the film. Rather, it’s an attempt to force the walking hormone to pick a side, and offering up the one advantage that she unquestionably has over the dog. She’s a horrifying, manipulative, scheming shrew (insert joke about all women being like this here…) but even though this is obvious, you can’t say that she’s not the way she is for legitimate reasons. She’s trying to survive, and her actions are merely the female equivalent of Vic’s rapey hobby. And yet, it’s her that ends up in the pedigree chum tin.
This is, frankly, a film that everyone deserves to die in, which neatly brings me on to the finale. Yup, 1 out of 1 telepathic dogs prefer to eat Quilla June. To be fair to L.Q. Jones the director, this is straight from Ellison’s pen. What isn’t straight from Ellison’s award-winning novella is the altered final line of the film. The original line goes to Vic when he’s musing on what love is with that he now knows and it’s “between a boy and his dog”. This is incredibly bitter and bleak, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that it wouldn’t have worked in the film- just as the reappropriation of the final line of I am Legend doesn’t work in the Big Willie Style v crap CGI vampires mess. Instead, and in a film as consciously full of symmetry as this one, this does make sense, the final line goes to Blood with:
Well, I’d certainly say she had marvelous judgment, Albert, if not particularly good taste.
Yuck. This is monumentally misogynistic and tasteless, yet it’s completely appropriate to the film and mirrors almost perfectly the exchange between the two at the start. As the end is shot intentionally to look like the beginning with the two of them meandering off into a heat haze, and it’s said in the same sardonic tone by Tim McIntire (voicing Blood) as the smutty limerick, it’s clearly meant to be black humour.
Ellison, for the record, hated this alteration. This change to the dialogue changes the meaning and impact of the end, according to him, and it also allows the accusation of rampant misogyny- because, let’s face it, murdering a woman in a wedding dress who’s just proclaimed undying love to feed your dog isn’t the act of a third wave feminist. However, I can’t help but think that this interpretation actually misses the point. This isn’t, really, a misogynistic film (despite what I’ve said all the way through), it’s deeply, and hugely, misanthropic. We haven’t got a battle of the sexes here, rather what we do have is a cynical look at a future where survival is measured in terms of securing commodities. For Vic and Blood, men are a source of danger and ammunition, while women are useful solely for sexual release. Neither sex has any value beyond being instrumental for survival. It’s worth also pointing out that the situation is wholly reversed in Topeka- men are useful solely for their DNA.
Furthermore, Vic clearly isn’t happy about having had to turn Quilla June into pet food, but he’s had to as, when push comes to shove, the telepathic dog is not only his earliest and longest companion but (crucially) is more useful to his chances of survival. This, here, is the dreadful algebra of necessity (apologies to Terry Pratchett) writ large for our main character, and he’s sacrificed what may be his only shot at emotional satisfaction to keep the organism alive. Moreover, and I feel this is worth emphasising, Quilla June is a truly awful person, intent on exactly the same goal as Vic- survival at all costs.
I’ve mentioned repeatedly that A Boy and his Dog is tonally odd, but I’d quickly like to go into this a bit more (if you’ve made it this far into a long-winded load of guff). The music can only really be described as “jaunty”, and is a key contributor the strangely upbeat weirdness. I’m semi-convinced that it’s a big part (along with Johnson’s charm) to why we can find the reprehensible scumbag Vic remotely likable. Then there’s the strangely childish names to the places: The Farm, Over the Hill, Downunder and so on- this feels very much like a kiddie’s nightmare of a post apocalyptic wasteland.
While A Boy and his Dog is blazingly misanthropic, it’s also incredibly rich with detail. This was my first viewing of it and I noticed so many different odd touches (Dessert recipes read out of the PA in Topeka, for example), that I bet it would reward many a rewatching. Overall, this is a really good, rich, well shot, well acted slice of end of the world mankind hatred, and one that I do recommend. If you can stomach it.
- Date: 2024
- Extinction Event: Nuclear War that lasted a whopping 5 days (helpfully, we’re told this is World War 4)
- Main Hazards: You’d think radiation poisoning, but no, it’s actually other people, including radiation altered mutants called “screamers”. Or a severe case of blue balls. Maybe starvation.
- Chances of Survival of the Species: Pretty fucking grim, if I’m honest. The morlock weirdos stuck in the 1950’s underground may make it, if they can find a cure to the whole fertility problem, but who the fuck wants to live like that? I don’t believe that Over the Hill exists.
- Rating: Despite it all, I rather like this film, and am going in at a whopping 3 smiley faced mushroom clouds out of a possible 4. Just don’t make the sequels, please. Or remake it for that matter.
Not a bad start to a series, this one, and I’m pleased to get it underway. I’ve got no real plans for where to continue here, and would rather stay off Wolf’s stamping ground where possible, so any suggestions Below the Line for films may be taken up- my only rule is I’m not doing repeated films with the same doomsday scenario- so no endless reviews of apocalypse after mankind has been overrun by a zombie horde, for example (although I will do one). I’m already lining up Rover after Droid helpfully pointed it out to me the other day.
Until next time,