Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Pack (1977)

(R, Warner Bros. Pictures, 99 mins., theatrical release date: November 20, 1977)

In the last official Dirty Harry vehicle from 1988, The Dead Pool, the prime suspect in a series of celebrity killings is a pompous schlock film director named Peter Swan. To get a better idea of his disreputable resume, the SFPD glance at a sizzle reel consisting of lurid clips from three of Swan's movies, including a scene of demon seed childbirth as well as one of a woman in a car being attacked by a bunch of mad dogs. It turns out that these moments were actually lifted from a triptych of past titles distributed by Warner Bros. and newly contextualized as a joke against Swan's Limey pretentiousness.

Even better from an ironic standpoint, the UK censor board removed both of those aforementioned instances of stock footage, the first being from Larry Cohen's It's Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987) and the latter rooted in 1977's The Pack.

As used in The Dead Pool, it could be inferred that Swan had merely ripped off Cujo for a cheap buck, as the scene bears an uncanny resemblance to Lewis Teague's popular Stephen King adaptation from 1983. In reality, The Pack not only preceded King's novel by several years, but also boasted the same veteran animal wrangler from the film version, Karl Lewis Miller, to prod the dogs into action (Miller also directed the furry stars of Stand by Me, Beethoven and Babe). Also, it was not a scene-stealing Liam Neeson who was responsible for helming The Pack, but instead Yankee journeyman filmmaker Robert Clouse, who worked steadily for the Warners, reaching his zenith with the Bruce Lee classic Enter the Dragon (1973) and his nadir with the Kurt Thomas turkey Gymkata (1985).

The Pack is also part of the big boom in "Nature's Revenge" movies which began in earnest at the start of the 1970s but was deathless upon the mid-decade success of Jaws. Adapted from a novel by David Fisher by Clouse himself (Clouse also turned an early James Herbert novel into a feature with Deadly Eyes from 1981, which also involved dogs albeit dressed up as rats, Killer Shrews-style), it was initially titled The Long, Dark Night and was also a reunion of Clouse with star Joe Don Baker, who previously had the lead role in the 1974 Hong Kong caper Golden Needles. Baker was perennially cast as rogues and vigilantes in the wake of his breakout in Walking Tall, but this is one of the rare exceptions in which his character is as affable as he is commanding.

Widowed marine biologist Jerry Preston (Baker) is wrapping up a two-year expedition studying shrimp on Seal Island, a popular tourist destination, with intentions to live there full-time after falling in love with teacher/fellow single parent Millie (Hope Alexander-Willis) over the past couple of summers. With the fall approaching, the ferry arrives to take the last vacationing families away, although without their pet dogs as they are set loose to fend for themselves in the grimy, barren woods. A collective of abandoned canines take shelter in a desolate barn and group together to gather whatever food they can get their paws on. They begin by feasting upon a horse belonging to storekeeper Clyde Hardiman (Richard B. Shull), then by tearing apart the guide dog of blind recluse McMinnimee (Delos V. Smith, Jr.). It isn't too long until they learn the taste of human blood, and with a whole cabin full of kibble arriving via a quintet of weekend visitors, it's up to Jerry to unite the survivors and barricade themselves as they await rescue from the mangy, marauding mongrels.

A popular theme amongst these tales of bad animals (one best detailed in Melbourne cinephile Lee Gambin's comprehensive Massacred by Mother Nature) is man's inhumanity to mammals as well as his indifference to the environment. Lines are drawn between the people who have a pure connection to the critters of the world, namely Jerry, with his loyal bond to his German Shepherd companion Rye, and those who do not, which is generalized to include all city folk. "Most of these dogs were just tourist pets until a couple of weeks ago," Jerry asserts when pressed by his frightened, insolent charges. Indeed, the variety of breeds on display, which include collies (one Lassie look-a-like in particular is spared for thematic purposes), spaniels, Dobermans and even Dalmatians, allow for a wider canvas of once-docile companions gone primal in their need for survival, thus eventually they will target the human race who left them behind with anger in their eyes and froth on their fangs.

The Pack excels in the scenes of brutal violence committed by or against the dogs based on this empathetically visceral realization that these former pets have crossed into feral territory. We're not dealing with wild wolves, but relatable specimens of Man's Best Friend. There is a leader amongst them, a mixed-breed mutt whom Jerry first encounters after he bites Rye on the leg and whom he alerts the rest of the population as a potential danger due to its irreversible madness. This particular dog stands out amongst the others because it is made up to look particularly battered and vicious, his coat seeming to have been skinned in many a scuffle. In dialogue and throughout the final confrontation with Jerry in the attic of Hardiman's shack, the creature is elevated to head vampire status. This headlining horror hound proves a very memorable emblem of fright.

If only Clouse had been a bit more generous towards his supporting cast of two-legged performers, who are a disparately clich├ęd bunch at best. The newest guests on Seal Island are a blowhard banker named Jim Dodge (Richard O'Brien) and his entourage, including craven vice president Walker (Ned Wertimer), secretary Marge (Bibi Besch), supposed cook Lois (Sherry Miles), and Dodge's obese, resentful son Tommy (Paul Wilson). If these characters seem like innocent people caught in the crossfire of a suddenly hostile situation, their behaviors and attitudes negate such an easy route to sympathy. The most foolish drama involves Dodge trying to force blonde bimbo Lois, introduced chiefly by her bun-hugging blue jeans, onto the droopy, diffident Tommy, who resists every potential pass ("He just sat and talked. He didn't even try to grab a tit!").

Lois follows Tommy into the forest after an argument with his dad, and the kid bares his soul for a brief moment. But that's immediately rendered moot since they both end up receiving chase from The Pack, and it's embarrassing for both Miles, whose Lois helplessly fails to catch up with the overweight Tommy and klutzily tumbles into a brook, and Wilson, who is shown running for his life in protracted slow-motion which emphasizes his flop sweat and flapping flab.

Seal Island even has its own designated Quint clone in the form of cantankerous Cobb, played with admitted relish by R.G. Armstrong. After Dodge grievously tries to mow down the dogs in his truck and then gets mauled to near-death for his troubles, Cobb fires off a bitter riposte at Walker and summates his own hostile attitude toward mankind ("Far from me to get upset when a fool dies"). Alas, he volunteers to row the 18-mile path towards civilization, and it turns out as well as you'd hope.

Thankfully, Joe Don Baker offers up a surprising warmth and provides more unfettered charisma than one would expect given his propensity for ignoble anti-heroes. Rarely does one comment on the man who played Mitchell as being "the heart and soul" of a 1970s exploitation effort, but boy does he prove himself such. Hope Alexander-Willis is also solid as his romantic interest, quite beautiful in her relationship to Jerry and convincingly perturbed in the show-stopping car assault scene. Ralph Woolsey provides atmospheric, natural cinematography that turns the remote island locale into a gusty, shadowy death trap, and composer Lee Holdridge offers a tense, terse accompaniment to the action which works hard to smooth over the crudeness in Clouse's direction.

I'm pretty positive that however Peter Swan's "Hotel Satan" had turned out, it wouldn't be worthy of running with The Pack. Warner never officially released the film on DVD, either by itself or in a pack of its own, but the company's manufactured-on-demand Archive vault has this available in a sturdy anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer, though is strictly no bones in the bonuses department. The theatrical trailer for this has been preserved in all its 35mm glory on Synapse Films' 42nd Street Forever, Volume 3 DVD compilation.

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