The other night I decided to kill two birds with one stone – fill in the gaps in my knowledge of 1970s-vintage genre films, and see the adaptation of one of my favorite writer’s best stories.
Of science fiction author Harlan Ellison’s stories, “A Boy and His Dog” is one of the most famous, and rightly so. Set in a postapocalyptic future, the story concerns roving outlaw Vic and telepathic dog Blood. Together they roam the desolate world, working together to survive. Vic helps find food for Blood, and Blood helps Vic avoid and fight both other outlaws and mutated “screamers” that can kill with a touch; Blood also helps find women for Vic to rape.
Despite the grim scenario, the story has surprising humor and warmth portraying the relationship between Vic and Blood. Each depends on the other for survival. And although the two fight and argue constantly – Blood mocks Vic’s lust and ignorance, Vic threatens to leave Blood on his own – it’s clear that their bickering is a cover for a deep affection. (Ellison wrote the story for his own dog, Abhu.) But their relationship is knocked off balance when Vic falls for Quilla June Holmes, a woman from one of the underground cities where civilization carries on as normally as it can.
L. Q. Jones’ adaptation of the story is for the most part quite faithful. Vic (a young Don Johnson – yes, that Don Johnson) and Blood (Tim McIntire provides the voice for Tiger the dog) scrape out a living in the wasteland that’s Phoenix Arizona. One night at a makeshift theater, Blood detects Quilla June Holmes. When Quilla June, after a night of wild sex with Vic, bops Vic on the head with a flashlight and flees back underground, Vic follows, leaving Blood to wait for him.
The first third of the movie is strongest. The desert is suitably empty, and Jones does a good job portraying the barren, cruel existence. There is no vegetation, all food comes out of cans scrounged up from destroyed buildings, and life is cheap. Nowhere is this more clear than in the scene when Vic finds a woman who’s been raped and murdered by a roving gang – his response is not sadness over the woman’s fate but a complaint that “she could have been used a few more times”. Vic and Blood need each other to survive in such a world, and Johnson and Tiger/McIntire have the chemistry needed to make us believe in their relationship. The dialogue is taken almost verbatim from Ellison’s novella, and I could have watched them bicker for hours.
When Jones veers off the path of the novella is also where the movie loses its edge. The movie’s Quilla June is a schemer and something of a bitch, the book’s was a woman doomed to be a victim. This change, while at first appearing to be positive – changing Quilla June from a passive to an active person – in fact lessens the overall effect of the film, turning a serious tale about love and survival into a ghoulish joke.
Also hurting the film is Jones’ portrayal of the underground society. For the most part it mirrors Ellison’s – a small-town paradise reminiscent of a town in a Ray Bradbury story. But for some reason Jones puts all the characters in clownish makeup, white faces, pink cheeks, and bright red lips. It’s a bizarre touch that takes us out of the film’s reality, and the movie never really recovers.
Still, despite the flaws and the obvious low budget, the movie is worth renting, particularly for Vic and Blood. I’ve never been a fan of Johnson’s but here he does a good job, giving the amoral Vic a boyish charm that makes him likable. Tiger is a great animal actor, especially considering this was pre- CGI, and McIntire gives Blood the perfect voice – intelligent, cynical, and world-weary.
The DVD’s transfer isn’t the greatest – there are still lots of scratches and grain. The extras include a commentary by director Jones and film critic Charles Champlin, and both the original and a reissue trailer. The original trailer is entertainingly misleading – it makes the movie look like A Clockwork Orange. The reissue trailer gives a much better idea of the film’s style and strengths.