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.
A Boy and His Dog comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Shout! Factory, and is presented in a 2.35:1 1080p transfer that stands as a huge improvement over the previous DVD releases, but, given the obviously rough condition of the source, isn’t likely to “wow” videophiles. The image is somewhat grainy, which affects clarity overall, and signs of dirt and wear are evident throughout. That said, this is the best the film’s looked on any home media thus far, and it’s likely this is the best it’ll look for the foreseeable future. The 2.0 DTS HD Mono track fares slightly better, as it’s a crisp, clean, and well-balanced mix.
Bonus features include a previously released commentary track (culled from the 1999 DVD release) that features director, Jones, cinematographer, John Arthur Morrill, and film critic Charles Champlin. Also included is a new, lengthy interview/discussion segment (presented in HD) with Jones and the always-irascible Ellison. It’s a funny, oftentimes volatile exchange, and, for Ellison fans, this alone could be worth the price of the Blu-ray. Other extras include the film’s trailer (HD) and a collection of vintage radio commercials.
Despite the flaws and the obvious low-budget, A Boy and His Dog is one that’s worth a rental, at least, 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 Blu-ray presentation from Shout! Factory is a huge upgrade from the DVD in terms of quality, and the collection of extras - especially the Ellison/Jones discussion - make this set a must-see for the cranky sci-fi legend’s legion of fans.