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Fantasia Obscura: ‘A Boy and His Dog’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, it’s a good idea to forget the book when you adapt it for film…

A Boy and His Dog (1975)
Distributed by: LQ/JAF
Directed by: L. Q. Jones

My work is foursquare for chaos. I spend my life personally, and my work professionally, keeping the soup boiling. Gadfly is what they call you when you are no longer dangerous; I much prefer troublemaker, malcontent, desperado. I see myself as a combination of Zorro and Jiminy Cricket. My stories go out from here and raise hell. From time to time some denigrator or critic with umbrage will say of my work, “He only wrote that to shock.” I smile and nod. Precisely.

Harlan Ellison, as quoted by Stephen King in Danse Macabre, 1981

If any film based on Ellison’s work embodied the writer’s description of himself, it was this one:

We open cold with a sequence of quick-cuts to atomic bomb test footage, many filtered through neon-colored gels, before the screen goes black and a crawl in white letters appears:

We then get a chyron that tells is this film takes place in the far off year of 2024. We come upon a scene of complete devastation, the world reduced to a rocky desert with occasional detritus popping up, an old sign here, a distressed school chair with arm desk there.

We hear a conversation overdubbed on the scene between Vic (Don Johnson) and Blood (Tiger, with voice by Tim McIntire). Blood is trying to teach Vic world history, which gets relayed to us over the beginning of the film: The Third World War was a hot and cold affair, running from 1950 to 1983 before an armistice was negotiated by the Vatican, and the Fourth World War took place over five days in 2007, a year after Vic was born.

This takes a while to be shared, however, as we catch Vic and Blood in the middle of a scavenging action among the ruins. Blood, a highly trained dog that can communicate telepathically with Vic, has detected a woman nearby, and Vic is anxious for action.

Yes, our hero has put sex on the list ahead of food, clothing, and shelter…

Vic is too late, however; another group of scavengers of the wastes like Vic and Blood, have gotten there first and mutilated her as she died. This annoys Vic, who’s upset by how selfish his competition was to not leave any for others. Soon, Blood and Vic change the topic to an ongoing argument: Blood wants to go “Over the Hill” and leave behind the flat rocky surface that used to be the city of Phoenix, but Vic is too sexually frustrated and needs release before he’d consider the request-

Boy, did this not age well…

Ultimately, Vic and Blood come upon Fellini (Ron Feinberg), a scavenger with a gang of underlings and slaves who pull his chariot over the wastes and dig for left over canned food while he supervises them. Vic takes a chance when the circus is distracted and runs off with some of Fellini’s “treasure.”

Watching from the distance are three figures we only see from their shins down. They tell each other as they watch Vic operate that he’s a good candidate, and they then decide in their words to “put out the cheese…”

After their meal, Vic and Blood use some of their leftover canned food as barter to attend the movies, a pop-up structure that runs old porno films. While they watch the film, Blood picks up the scent of a woman, someone who is infiltrating the “theater” disguised as a young man.

Blood and Vic track her down to the remains of an old YMCA, where they interrupt her as she’s changing her clothes. Vic tries to force himself on her, but she buys herself some time by trying to talk to him and ask his name.

She shares her name, Quilla June Holmes (Susanne Benton), just before the YMCA is under assault by a scavenging gang, 23 strong. After repelling the assault, Quilla and Vic have consensual sex a few times before Quilla knocks him out.

She flees, but leaves behind an access card. The card allows Vic to follow her to the “down under,” where communities that tried to ride out the war buried themselves miles underground, a dark place that Blood assumes Vic will not come back from as he goes after Quilla, anxious to get her to stay by his side.

And it is indeed dark, in more ways than one. There’s no warm light in this artificial environment, just cold arc lamps that light everything in a garish color. It doesn’t help much that everyone in town, the State of Topeka, all wear clothing that suggests the early 1900s Midwest and face paint that suggests mimes.

Yes, everyone in town follows this dress code, including the members of the Committee, who we discover were the ones who put out the “cheese” earlier. The plan concocted by Dr. Moore (Alvy Moore), “Mez” Smith (Helene Winston), and Lou Craddock (Jason Robards), involved sending Quilla up top to encourage Vic to come down, because the town needed some new blood, or more specifically, new semen…

None of this should have shocked anyone who knew that the original story came from the writer behind the Dangerous Visions collection. Ellison’s early take on what he’d first envisaged as a novel was a short story that appeared in the April 1969 issue of New Worlds, that was later expanded into a novella for Ellison’s collection, The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World.

Amazingly, the adaption written by L. Q. Jones is both quite faithful while also taking some liberties. Whole passages of dialog as written by Ellison appear word-for-word in the script, with the cast chosen to speak Ellison’s passages doing these each piece justice. It’s not quite a straight word-for-word rendering; the times when Blood would tease Vic by calling him “Albert” is not explained in the film but is in the novella, noting that Blood uses the name to tie Vic to Albert Payson Terhune, who wrote over 30 books about dogs.

While the characters stay true to the source material, the setting is radically different. There are no buildings still standing in the rubble as there were in Ellison’s work, and we never see Topeka as written, just artificial turf under an unlit dark “sky.”

Which in many ways is an improvement; not only was it a lot cheaper to go minimalist (the film was shot on a budget of $400,000, around $2.3 million in today’s dollars), Jones’ directorial choices have a greater visual impact than what Ellison described. This includes replacing the boxy robot in Topeka that pushes Vic around when he gets there with the android Michael (Hal Baylor), who could be considered a prototype for the monsters in slasher films to come.

Where the film was a clearly an inspiration was cited by others who acknowledged its influence. Director George Miller would note how A Dog and His Boy would influence the look and feel of his film Mad Max II (aka The Road Warrior), and game developer Jessie Heining would cite the aspects of the movie that showed up later in his game Fallout.

The film would find plenty of love from film critics of the time during its brief theatrical run before it turned into a cult movie, noting its inventive direction and strong cast, and go on to win a Hugo in 1976 at Worldcon 34. Despite some of the harsher misogyny that was called out even back then, the movie still strikes a chord as the audience watches all these years later, and can still find something to shock amidst the chaos, delivered through a refreshingly minimalist sensibility.

Even today, in a year that we’re still here, there are still plenty of dangerous visions to be found in the film…

 

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