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Dogs
(a.k.a. Slaughter)
(1976)
 

Director: Burt Brinckerhoff              
Cast:
David McCallum, George Wyner, Eric Server


It's a morbidly fascinating idea when you think of it - the idea that all of man's best friends suddenly turn on their masters. Especially since it really isn't a stretch to think of that actually happening. After all, we all know that the common domesticated dog is descended from the wolf, an animal we can agree would be somewhat unnerving to come across in real Who let the dogs out?life (despite the fact that wolves have an unfairly branded reputation when it comes to encounters with humans.) When you look into Fido's eyes, you can't help but wonder if any of the wildness of his ancestors still lingers in his blood. Maybe there still is - there are countless documented cases of dogs viciously attacking humans, sometimes even killing them. It's the teetering between domesticity and wildness that I think is the most effective part of this premise, and why I think the movie Dogs had an idea that was not only scary, but more believable than a lot of other ideas found in horror movie. And I think that's why I found the end results much more disappointing than many botched executions of less intriguing horror premises.

The movie takes place at "Southwestern University" in California, though since the movie's dialogue suggests that it is located near Sacramento, I don't think it quite deserves the "South" part of its name. Anyway, it's one of those movie campuses that's literally in the middle of nowhere, so that it is convenient for anything horrifying to arise and run rampant with little to nothing to stop its progress. Before I get into that, let me just mention that this isolated (and seemingly not very big) campus somehow has a high-energy linear accelerator (which we never get to see), and some government bigwigs are currently  conducting some top-secret particle experiments on it. The questions as to why such a campus has an accelerator, and why the government would choose to do highly classified experiments in a not-so-secret location are never answered. Nor is it answered as to just exactly how these experiments are resulting in nearby pet dogs gathering in packs and then attacking cattle, later setting their sights on humans. There is some nonsense scientific talk about pheromones and how the unknown phenomenon is causing the dogs to have a collective intelligence like what is seen in colonies of insects, but in the end the movie is still woefully lacking a coherent explanation as to why all the dogs in the area soon gather together and declare war on their masters.

I have a theory that one reason why there is a proper lack of explanation is that the director was going for something like Night Of The Living Dead did - besides the isolated location and an unnatural kind of menace from something previously peaceful, there was only the vaguest of explanations. It didn't really matter Shaggy dog stories need shaggy actorsin that movie why the dead had risen, it was more important just to stay alive. Whether or not the director was trying to recreate that mood here (as well, some scenes have more than a passing resemblance to scenes in The Birds), the movie in the end fails to have any sense of society in chaos, or just plain horror. One big reason why it fails is that it doesn't properly have a foothold in establishing the setting. I've already mentioned a few point in how unusual this campus is, but the peculiarity of it goes further. It's really in the middle of nowhere, with seemingly no outside buildings or any sign of civilization visible outside of the campus. We don't even get a real sense of what the campus itself is like, because the movie frustratingly keeps holding back from showing us any real establishing shots of the entire campus or specific buildings. The few campus interiors we get to see certainly (at least to me) don't seem like rooms at a university. And then the few times we travel off of campus, it is during the dead of night, so we can't get a feel for this area as well. If we can't relate or comprehend the setting of a movie, it's mighty difficult to appreciate what actually happens in the setting.

That is, if anything of interest is actually happening. This is one slow, rambling horror movie that takes forever to get going. Once the characters are introduced, the movie seems to know it has to conduct a large portion of the picture to build up the horror before it finally bursts out completely, but hardly a thing is done. More time is spent on boring and irrelevant chat than dealing with the horror directly or indirectly. Just before everything hits the fan, there is actually a sizable chunk where the movie either simply doesn't know what to do, or more likely, is just trying to increase the running time of the movie. (Such as the build-up to the shower sequence - yes, this movie tries to recreate the shower scene in Psycho with dogs.) Things do improve somewhat after this point in the movie, but only in the sense that something is actually happening, not in a way that something of interest and/or competently done is happening. This movie here and elsewhere almost flaunts to us its incompetence; dialogue is poorly recorded, the boom mike is seen constantly, and you frequently can't tell what exactly is going on during the night time outdoor sequences.

Now can you guess when all of the dog attacks take place? You guessed it - in the dead of night. Naturally, they are all quite hard to make out, though from what you can see, you start to have an inkling that they were all made to look murky on purpose. Despite the darkness, I could still see that when the dogs had their human victims on the ground screaming and rolling about, the dogs just had their teeth around the actors' clothing and pulling on it. Just before that, when the dogs leap into the air to pounce on their victims, This is about as well lit as the night sequences getthe actors don't fall down with the dogs biting them, but with the dogs hugging them (which wouldn't be so evident if these shots weren't shown in slow motion.) The darkness doesn't just seem to be intentional to hide the inept attacks, but to hide the dogs themselves; though there is a large pack of dogs, in most shots we actually just see one or two of them, suggesting that maybe the filmmakers were somewhat limited in their canine resources. Though it could also be that some of the dogs in the pack - like one Yorkshire Terrier - don't exactly come across as big brutes in normal circumstances, and that something was needed to make them scary. (The Pack, a so-so movie with a similar theme to Dogs, was, at the very least, careful enough when it came to casting its animal stars.)

To be fair, there are a few entertaining moments with the dog attacks. One early scene has an old woman attacked just out of camera range, though we get to hear her scream "Ah! Ooh! Oh my God!" - though the way she screams those words comes across in a comic way, as if Homer Simpson was screaming those words. A later attack on a group of college students is actually genuinely satisfying to watch - though that's because the college students are utter jerks, who are neither appealing or apparently able to hold a shred of common sense in their brains. At least there's not that much time devoted to them, which would have been preferable with lead actor David McCallum (The Man From Uncle), who plays the college professor who figures out something is up long before anybody else does. Looking curiously hippie-like with a shaggy hairstyle and beard, he's not very compelling as the central figure. He comes across as aloof, a loner in a world of his own who doesn't come across as extroverted, even in the inevitable scenes where he pleads (in his thick accent) with the authorities to investigate the situation. (And inevitably, they don't.) Significantly better is George Wyner (Matt Houston) as a faculty member who gives McCallum a hand. Though his character is somewhat wimpish, he comes across as very likable, cautious and a bit klutzy, but genuinely concerned and understanding.

Dogs isn't a total washout; besides the previously mentioned amusement, there is occasionally a good scene. One of the best is a He's really unlucky - if you stain your uniform, the cost of replacing it is docked from your salarywordless sequence with McCallum and Wyner at the police station, and you can tell just by looking at the expressions on their faces the exact thoughts that are going in their heads at the  moment. And to be honest, even though the majority of the movie was poorly done, the premise of the movie - more believable than many other movies - I found really compelling, and the movie became more palatable to me than probably most viewers. But even then, I could see all of the movie's incompetence and wasted potential, and though it was palatable, it definitely wasn't satisfying. Still, I can give it some kind of praise; considering that The Pack is the only other killer dog pack movie I can think of, I can call Dogs the second best movie of its kind ever made.


UPDATE: I got this letter from "Allister":

"I just wanted to say that you do a wonderful job with your reviews. I saw your site HIGHLY recommended on many other b-sites I use for information, and now I can say I now know why.

"Anyway, I have a bit of pointless trivia about the movie Dogs, on your site. It takes place at Southwestern College (University?) because Southwestern is a REAL college here in my home town of San Diego. (It was apparently) a project by some of the students for their film class. One of my college professors did the sound on it!

"Well, I hope I didn't take up to much of your time. Keep up the great work."


UPDATE 2: "Laurel" sent this in:

"Just wanted to offer another bit of trivia about the movie, Dogs. One of the college student extras happens to be the late Wiccan author and magician Scott Cunningham. A first-person account of the two days Scott spent on the set of Dogs can be found in chapter 9 of his biography, Whispers of the Moon, by David Harrington.
 
"Your review points out the "isolated" feel of the college campus set. Scott Cunningham remembered that the film was very low-budget and was shot while school was in session, and at night - which explains the lack of establishing exterior shots you mention. The interior shots were of the campus commons, which might be why it doesn't look like "rooms at a university."
 
"It's also interesting that you note how aloof David MacCallum's character is, because it sounds like the actor was also coming across that way in person. Scott said that MacCallum "finally came to the set, looked around, and went to his honeywagon... [and] stayed there."
 
"And regarding your observation that the dogs are noticably "hugging" the actors, instead of attacking, Scott's account verifies that, too. He called them "innocent pups" who were "quite sweet off-camera."
 
"Thanks for the great reviews!"

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See also: Crocodile, Elves, Ticks

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