One would think that a film — boasting source material from a writer with an especially rabid following — that established the visual template for the now ubiquitous post-apocalyptic wasteland and stars Don Johnson would have caught on at some point over the past 38 years. Yet, not even when there was such a shortage of white-hot Don Johnson in the world did someone say, “Hey, here’s a really cool movie that looks kinda like Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, but with Don Johnson.” Nope. Not even that one-in-a-million moment could give the film the boost it needed.
Instead, A Boy and His Dog has just hung around on the margins; a cult item for the curious. Like Halloween III: Season of the Witch, it’s virtually impossible to describe the plot as anything other than utterly ridiculous. Most people can’t get past the opening description: “Don Johnson and his telepathic dog wander the wasteland ... Hey, where are you going?”
Of course, all of this amounts to a genuine shame, because A Boy and His Dog is one of the great, small treasures of 70s’ cinema. The story is pretty simple: Vic (Johnson) and his dog Blood (voiced by Tim McIntire and played by Tiger, who also played his namesake on The Brady Bunch) wander the post-World War IV wasteland of 2024 scrounging for food and sex (which, unlike the Mad Max movies, seems more sensible than driving around and looking for gas so you can drive some more and look for gas).
Blood sniffs out the girls for Vic while Vic uses his physicality to steal food from marauders and feed Blood. However, Vic’s cunning catches the eye of Lou Craddock (a magnificently game Jason Robards), who needs Vic’s “youthful vigor” in Topeka — an underground society built on the iconography of wholesome Middle America, but wherein all of the males have become sterile.
All of this sounds dreadful, but shockingly, it is poignant and extraordinarily well-done. Writer/director Jones — veteran actor of a million Westerns, many of which were Sam Peckinpah’s — knows how to get to the fundamentals of the story. He knows that under all the political satire and sexual politics at play in the second half of the film, this is ultimately a Western with a hero, his sidekick and the dame who comes between them.
Of course, this setup only works as well as its performances, and there’s something to be said for Johnson’s energetic turn here. Sure, he looks like he just finished riding waves at Huntington Beach then fought it out for food and survival, but his youthful impetuousness helps sell the performance. And, at the risk of sounding like someone about to gouge out your eyes if you don’t get off of his lawn, it’s nice to look into the Wayback Machine and see an animal played by an actual animal and not augmented (or just flat-out created) by CGI. A combination of McIntire’s brilliant voice-acting, clever editing and good training gives the quiet scenes between Vic and Blood more life than Pi’s and help give the film its hilariously satisfying (if a bit politically incorrect) ending.
A Boy and His Dog has always had a life on home video, albeit an anemic one. First on the genre-heavy Media label on VHS, it went from bad transfer to bad transfer all the way to DVD, where it at least had a commentary track but was stricken from a terrible print that was dark and non-anamorphic.
So it was welcome news that the good folks at Shout! Factory added this to their slate of incredible Blu-ray releases this year. As usual, the transfer is a stunner. Brimming with details in the frame that allow the viewer to pick out the ephemera in some of the junkyardesque set pieces, the HD transfer also gives new depth to the numerous dark sequences in the first half of the movie, allowing them an actual sense of space and location.
With previous releases, you basically had to follow the dialogue and hope the action spilled out into a pool of light. The second half of the film is also boosted on the Blu-ray, as the textures of the particle board-panel and cinderblock world of Topeka are sharp. The inhabitants’ garish clown makeup also looks more grotesque and surreal than ever, giving everything a queasy, fun-house atmosphere. Added to the beautiful transfer is a lively, full-length commentary track by Jones, cameraman John Morrill and critic Charles Champlin, plus an almost hour-long conversation between Jones and Ellison, which makes the set well worth the dough.
In the annals of genre-films that were curiously overlooked for much longer than they had any right to be, A Boy and His Dog ranks pretty high. Thankfully, outfits like Shout! Factory are there to keep titles like this in the public consciousness, and they have given the world the best reason to disallow the film’s sojourn in obscurity. —Patrick Crain