Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Pack (1977) dir. Robert Clouse

Logline: After being abandoned on Seal Island by heartless summer vacationers, a pack of domesticated dogs turn feral, terrorizing the island's inhabitants and a group of city-dwelling bankers on a fishing trip. With communications down and a ferry not scheduled to arrive for several days, this rag tag group-- under the leadership of the inimitable Joe Don Baker--  must gather together, board up the windows, and pray that they find some Milk-Bones in the pantry.

Animal of Choice: A pack of mangy mutts and mongrels, a dalmatian, a collie, a Labrador retriever, a Doberman, and an Irish setter.

Thinking Ecologically: The film shows us the typical group of clueless city folks inserting themselves into "the wild" and acting like fools. They fall off cliffs, attempt to get into automobiles while holding 7-foot-long fishing poles, and leave the front door open with feral dogs baying for blood right outside. They mostly die. The rural locals of the island community certainly fair better in their environment, and at least don't appear quite so thick. And, of course, it's the negligent, unthinking actions of city folk that produce the canine menace: numerous families vacationing on the island over the summer purchase dogs for those few months and then abandon them on the island when they leave, because dogs "won't be happy in the city." This perplexing and cruel logic carries the very large and faulty assumption that domesticated animals are equally adept at thriving-- perfectly happy-- in the wild. Yes, of course, set your gerbil free into the woods. It will live a long and pleasant life with all of its gerbil friends.

Thinking About Animals: The vacationers' action of abandoning their pet dogs on Seal Island transforms the location into an isolated realm in which the domestic pets becomes feral and lash out against humankind, who betrayed their trust and loyalty. Though these feral pets are often frightening, they also carry a strong sense of pathos when we see them, cold and downtrodden, taking shelter from the rain. In this same scene, they induct a recently abandoned dog into their ranks, and the prevailing sense derived from the assembled pack is one of loneliness: these are pets banding together out of necessity, not choice. A spark of jealousy appears to rear up in them whenever they encounter and attack other domestic dogs still loved by their owners. The pack is too far gone (and perhaps too wise) to be lured back into domestication by the warmth of human kindness, so their relentless pursuit of the people on the island is tinged with bitterness.

Strangely, the film complicates this acceptable explanation by having Joe Don Baker insinuate that the dogs may be in the early aggressive stages of rabies. There's never any definitive proof of this hypothesis (the dogs aren't foaming at the mouth or dropping dead), so it might be more fruitful to read this as Baker and the other humans attempting to fathom how cuddly pets could turn so violent and dangerous while shirking their own responsibility. Labeling the dogs' violent tendencies as the result of disease is easier to process than to realize that human neglect and cruelty produced the same. Consequently, this designation of being diseased allows the human characters to feel perfectly justified when they decide to "kill those bastards," which leads-- ultimately-- to them burning the dogs alive in a boarded up house set aflame.

The most unintentionally chilling moment of animal/human relations comes to us as the film's coda. After the rest of the dogs have been made all crispy, Joe Don Baker's character notices that one of the dogs (the pack's newest recruit) has snagged his dangling leash on a log and so has survived the blaze by being unable to enter the house. Noticing that the dog is frightened rather than viscous and so probably not fully feral, Baker approaches the dog and offers it crackers. The dog is extremely reluctant, terrified of the man who he has just seen burn his puppy pals alive. Out of hunger and (again) necessity, the dog eats some of the crackers, still casting mistrusting glances at Baker. But then Baker extends his hand and the film freeze frames and allows the credits to roll over the image of the skittish dog licking the top of the human's hand (like a mafia underling kissing the don's ring), resubmitting himself to the whims of humankind, who may or may not betray and abandon him once again. It seems clear by the loving way in which the image is framed and the triumphant music that accompanies it that the film wants us to view this as a victory, as a reunion of canine and human. But in consideration of what we've already seen, it doesn't sit so easily. Dog and human are reunited only through domestication and subjugation.

Evaluation in Brief: The Pack is director Robert Clouse's first Animal Terror film, a genre he would revisit half a decade later with my much beloved killer mutant rat film Deadly Eyes (1982). Unquestionably, The Pack is the tighter and more skillfully made of the two. (At the very least, its killer dogs aren't played by rats in dog costumes). The story is simple and not particularly deep but also lean and effective as a thriller. The isolated island setting lends an intimacy and inevitability to the horror often missing in this sort of film (while usually the killer creatures could be lurking anywhere, here we're assured they're always just outside). Joe Don Baker plays a more likeable lead than I've ever seen him capable of. The canine actors are well-trained and indeed menacing with their snarls and patchy matted fur, which help the film create a fair amount of suspense in its final act as the pack lays siege to the humans' cabin fortress. I can't foresee returning to The Pack anytime soon, but it's a good boy and it deserves a treat.

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