Defining the genre of a film can often get tricky, and many films are overlooked for their genre-bending attributes—especially when those films bend into horror. Labeled a post-apocalyptic sci-fi, A Boy and His Dog is a dark comedy that certainly stumbles into horror territory. This isn’t surprising, considering the original novella the film is based on was penned by Harlan Ellison, a sci-fi author known for tipping comfortably into horror. Yet, many horror fans are still unaware of this gleefully irreverent cinematic gem.
For those who are unfamiliar with the 1975 cult classic, the story begins in the aftermath of World War IV. The earth ravaged, survivors struggle to find food, shelter, and companionship in the post-atomic wasteland. This celebrated sci-fi tale follows a young man, Vic (Don Johnson), and his sardonic and telepathic dog, Blood, as they wander in search of food and women. They find the suspiciously eager Quilla June (Susanne Benton), who lures Vic into a surreal city deep beneath the earth’s surface. What’s waiting for him there is certainly not what he wanted.
The movie begins in a desolate and sun-bleached desert landscape as Vic and Blood communicate telepathically, though technically Vic speaks out loud and we hear a voiceover of Blood responding to him. Their conversations are often volatile and laced with petty fights, as they constantly annoy each other. Immediately there is both silliness and a profound discomfort at what we are seeing; a dog and a young man amid a ravaged world, talking. Blood is shown to be intelligent and a walking encyclopedia of the lost world, making Vic recite facts about history and science, while Vic is played by a very young Don Johnson giving off his best “aww shucks” energy and almost singularly focused on finding girls. It could almost be cute if it weren’t for the reality of Vic’s intentions when he finds girls.
It’s hard not to fall for Vic’s simple charm (it’s Don Johnson for god’s sake!), but the contrast between this charm and the base morals of a man trying to survive an apocalyptic world may make some viewers uncomfortable. This could be said for the whole film; so much charm and so much filth. Though A Boy and His Dog has certainly been influential, horror fans deserve more of this treatment. The film never tips into outright silliness, but instead stays perfectly balanced on the razor’s edge of a disturbing story with a dark sense of humor. The tone is perfectly maintained through its runtime, until the very end… which anyone who sees the film will never forget.
What makes A Boy and His Dog such a uniquely unsettling experience is that the world the characters inhabit is profoundly disturbing, but barely touched upon. There are bunkers buried beneath the barren waste, traveling groups of oddly carnivalesque marauders, secret societies just out of sight, and—perhaps the most disturbing of all—a murderous post-apocalyptic race of mutated humans, all of which we barely or never properly see. We get a taste, just enough to flesh out the setting, but not enough to understand it or how it came to be this way. The macabre is further compounded by the hokey 70s treatment of the world, leaving the world feeling more like a classic Swiss Family Robinson episode twisted into a fever nightmare. The classic boy and dog scenario of shows like Lassie is turned inside out and placed in a setting more akin to Mad Max. It’s worth noting too that this film predates the original Mad Max by 4 years.
Despite this campy 70s tv show vibes, this film is unbelievably dark. Violence and r*pe permeate this world, and Vic’s hunt for women is not as wholesome as his on-screen appeal. When an already raided underground bunker is discovered with a living but mutilated woman, Vic laments the “waste” of a good woman. The underground society Vic finds himself in is a nightmare that would make Orwell proud, and life on the surface is cheap and hard-won through murder and mutilation. The bright colors and jaunty dialog between Vic and Blood make it even more surreal.
The cinematography is serviceable, but nothing to write home about, and the effects and setting are low budget, but somehow this adds to the appeal of the film. It doesn’t get so caught up in its own artistry that it becomes distracting (I’m looking at you The Bad Batch). What director Justus E. McQueen created is a fun and utterly unforgettable dark tale that modern horror directors should take notes from and modern horror fans will find thoroughly enjoyable.
101 Films has just released a Blu-ray edition with the following features:
• Newly Restored High-Definition Transfer
• In Conversation: Harlan Ellison & L.Q. Jones
• Commentary by Director L.Q. Jones, John Arthur Morrill, and Charles Champlin
• English subtitles
And just look at this amazing new cover (drool):
If you haven’t seen this film, be sure to check it out! If you haven’t seen it in a while… well then maybe it’s time for a rewatch!
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