Review: “White Dog” (1982)

whitedogsnarl“Do I look like I’m joking?

If I were to give you the topics “Kristy McNichol“, “racist dogs” and “the sassy magic mirror from The Charmings” and asked what they had in common, you’d probably answer, “Things that I would not want to run into in a dark alley”.

But in the case of today’s review, they have something else in common: director Samuel Fuller‘s underseen and oft misunderstood 1982 horror film White Dog.

whitedogposter

Don’t be fooled by the whole “socially relevant” buzzkill or the fact that the movie was never released theatrically in the U.S. (rumors are that there were concerns that it was racist, which it is anything but) – this is a straight-up horror movie, and a very good one, at that.

This dog is a lean, mean attack machine, and so is the script, which wastes no time getting into the story: in the opening scene a young actress named Julie Sawyer (McNichol, fresh off her Family run and just kicking into her short-lived post-Little Darlings film boom) hits a gorgeous white dog in the Hollywood Hills with her car, and reluctantly takes the injured animal to the vet and nurses it back to health.

Soon enough her motives evolve from guilt to respect to genuine affection after the dog saves her from a home invader and generally makes an adorable nuisance of itself. All the while her boyfriend, a hot early-Simon and Simon Jameson Parker (who plays Romain Gary, the real-life author of the based-on-true-events novel upon which the film is based), isn’t terribly thrilled with the fuzzy new couch-hogger and is concerned that the dog might be dangerous.

Lo and behold, it is.

After the dog returns from a night out covered in blood (the blood of an unfortunate black truck driver), Julie starts to wonder herself if her new protector might be more bite than bark, and her fears become terribly real in a horrifying scene where her pooch violently attacks Julie’s actress friend – who also happens to be black – during a commercial shoot about European tourism.

whitedogkristyUn chien blanc! Quell horreur!

Even the fact that the ladies are wearing awesomely retro stewardess outfits and that the commercial is being directed by PAUL FUCKING BARTEL wasn’t enough to diminish the staggering emotional impact of the scene – and for me, that’s saying a LOT.

When Julie accepts that her dog is a trained killer, she turns to a Hollywood animal trainer (Burl Ives … seriously!) and his star dog-whisperer, Keys, played by gay actor Paul Winfield (Mars Attacks, The Serpent and the Rainbow, The Terminator, Mike’s Murder, and of course The Charmings).

From this point on Julie fades into the background, and it’s Keys’ show. Determined to rehabilitate this “White Dog” (a dog trained by racists to attack anyone with black skin – a horrifying but actual phenomenon) despite being told that it simply can’t be done, Keys begins the long, slow, measured process of training the animal – who wants only to murder Keys on sight – to trust him.

whitedogrunSomeone uses Pearl Drops!

It’s a fascinating and extremely well-directed story, with more tense killer-dog moments than a dozen Cujos and a performance that is notable for its blend of compassion and masculine strength by Winfield, to boot.

As the dog begins to show real progress, Julie is visited by the Nazi pooch’s owner, who brings his little racist-in-training grandchildren with him to attempt to retrieve the animal and return it to its proper place in a good old-fashioned cross-burning, NASCAR-loving home (on blocks). Julie has her moment here, throwing the old man’s Whitman’s Sampler peace offering in his face (HAWWWWT) and telling him to back the fuck off.

In the film’s climactic final scene, Keys gives the dog a final test: will he attack a black man when not restrained or on a leash, and with the man unprotected? I don’t want to give away the ending, but if you get to the end thinking that you’re going to be disturbed, you don’t know the half of it.

whitedogattack

Not only does Fuller not take the easy way out with this ending, he turns the nailbiter of a final scene into a stunning commentary on how hatred, once taught, perpetuates itself. And while White Dog is clearly about racism, its commentary is in a broader sense about all kinds of learned hatred, including homophobia.

When White Dog was pulled from release by Paramount – presumably due to pressure from panicky groups who thought that the movie was itself racist – the world was robbed of not just a poignant movie about racism, but also a stellar example of how genre film can be effectively used to address a society’s ills.

Hoity-toity types might argue that White Dog isn’t really a horror movie (which is a claim I’m sick of hearing snooty cineastes make whenever they actually find themselves appreciating a horror film, God forbid), but this is stock-in-trade horror stuff: the stalk-and-attack scenes are straight out of the nature-run-amok subgenre, and the camera doesn’t flinch from the unpleasantries on screen. It’s shocking and it’s brutal, but it’s also unnervingly moving, and at its heart features several remarkable performances by underappreciated actors … one of whom is a dog.

whitedogdvd

Now the movie is finally available on DVD (and thanks to Criterion it has some great extras, including an interview with screenwriter Curtis Hanson, who explains how the movie deviates from its source material), and it is an absolute must-see.

The movie was Samuel Fuller’s last Hollywood venture (he left the country shortly after the backlash) and it is a testament to his uncanny ability as a director to transform genre material into wonderfully robust and keenly human films (see also: Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss). It’s a misunderstood masterpiece, and is not to be missed.

RATING (OUT OF 5):

ReviewFiveSkully

White Dog is rated “R” for gratuitous headbands, aggressive doggie slo-mo, and a camp-free performance from the sassy mirror from The Charmings.


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Buzz created CampBlood.org in 2003 to meet a need for a safe place for weirdos of all stripes to discuss horror movies from a queer perspective. Now that the campers have overtaken the Camp staff and locked them in the Arts & Crafts cabin he is questioning that decision.