White Dog

December 17, 2008

White Dog(1982); Dir. Samuel Fuller. Criterion Collection DVD(2008)

http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi1016791833/   White Dog Movie Trailer

There are films that gather a certain mystique around them because they have attracted so much controversy, were banned for one reason or another, or were so wildly popular that they become representative of the movies as a whole. Then there is Samuel Fuller’s White Dog. This film was tucked away by Paramount Pictures after it was completed because the studio worried that the subject matter would ignite racial tension across the country. It was criticized for being a racist film and for all practical purposes, ignored for many years. This Criterion release is the first home video release of the film and it was not shown in theatres at all.  White Dog, I believe, touched such a raw nerve  because it is the history that many people have lived through and the sense of shame that we have never quite come to terms with. Fuller himself said that the studio were essentially cowards for not backing the picture and those that have spent any time watching Samuel Fuller films, reading his autobiography “A Third Face” or any of the numerous writings on his work, know the difficulty he has encountered throughout his career in finding support for his films. Fuller not only had difficulty getting some of his movies made but also faced obstacles after his films were completed and with the exception of critics such as Manny Farber, his films were not always that well  received in the United States. There are still many of his movies such as Underworld U.S.A., Verboten!, Park Row, The Chrimson Kimono, China Gate, and The Run of The Arrow that are still not available on video; not to mention the dozens of writing credits that he was never given proper due  for.  One of the great American genre directors along with Don Siegal,  Howard Hawks, and William Keighley, Fuller’s films always championed the underdog and never shyed away from topics such as racism, communism, and an unglorified look at war when those were not such popular issues to be discussing in the manner  which Samuel Fuller chose to present them.

White Dog is the story of a dog that was conditioned to hate black people and viciously attacks them until an african american animal trainer steps in to try and recondition the dog. The dominant image in the film is that of the steel cage, referred to in the movie as the “arena,”  in which Paul Winfield’s character Keys fights against the white dog’s engrained racism. The “arena” not only occurs throughout the film as the center of the action but also as an allegory for the combat our society must engage in on a daily basis in order to fight racism in this country. The dog is not simply a symbol of racism in this country but also embodies the sickness and hatred that has been such a part of America’s history and it is in the “arena” that Keys seeks to recondition this white dog to treat blacks the same way he treats whites. While Keys untangles the white dog’s racist instincts, which were born out of learned fear and hatred, Kristy McNichol’s  character Julie Sawyer must come to grips with the reality that this dog has been twisted and contorted by men who hate and that the racism embodied in this dog is very alive in the United States. But Juile’s answer to the problem is to kill it right there. While she might not understand the racism that is in this dog, she wants it stamped out. Keys wants to “cure” racism by retraining the dog. With these two views, Fuller takes us in a direction that is very cynical and unforgiving, yet sadly realistic.

One of the most shocking scenes in the film is when Julie meets the owner of the dog, who has come with his two grandchildren and a box of chocolates to claim the dog. She lashes out at him for making the dog such a horrible monster but the owner is very proud of the dog being a “white dog” and threatens to go to the police if she does not give him back. It is this scene that really captures the themes of the movie best because it is an extension of the “arena” motif that encompasses all of society and how this racism is passed down from generation to generation. This also is important because it illustrates what Burl Ives character Carruthers says earlier in the scene where he is having a meal with Keys and Julie and a police officer stops in to ask for directions. This comes after the dog had murdered a black man in a church. Their guilt is palpable and this is the type of emotional scene that Fuller is best at.  After the officer leaves, Carruthers says that they can never tell anyone what they are doing because no one would understand. Society is guilty of promoting institutional racism and these beliefs are so deeply entrenched that for them to try and undo this would have great consequences.

Samuel Fuller does not flinch away from the difficulty of this subject matter or attempt to force a resolution to the problem. It is a problem that does not have a solution and though Keys and Julie make an effort to defeat the dog’s sickness, in the end it is not enough. If there is any fault in this picture, it is not the subject matter or how Fuller approaches it but in the hurried feeling of the first ten or fifteen minutes. Dialogue is dissapointingly out of synch in a scene where Julie is almost raped by an intruder in her home and collapses on the floor where she manages to call 911 and have the police come out without ever picking up the phone.  This is supposed to be a key scene where Julie’s relationship with the dog that she nursed back to health is firmly set and that makes what she discovers about the dog all that more horrifying. When you watch this movie it is very evident that this was not intended to be viewed as a horror film, even though the attempt was made to market it as such, but instead as a social commentary. It just happens that this particular social commentary comes from a director whose body of work is as rough and tumble as he was, and not the polished, “do you get it yet?” type of commentary one finds in a movie such as “Crash.” It is that rough and tumble feel that makes this film so endearing and tangible because that is often how life comes at us. It is exactly that which makes Samuel Fuller’s body of work so important to American cinema and White Dog such a powerful movie experience.

Charles Jacob; vanheck123@hotmail.com

Poltergeist(1982)-Dir. Tobe Hooper; Warner Brothers 25th Anniversary Edition DVD(2007)

Poltergeistis a perfect blend of Stephen Spielberg and Tobe Hooper. It manages to be both a special effects bonanza that retains a certain amount of nostalgia while at the same time expressing Tobe Hooper’s horror sensibility. I am assuming that it is Hooper’s sensibilities since we have never really seen Spielberg work in that medium again but this is a film in which it is hard to tell where Spielberg the producer stopped and Hooper the director took over. It certainly feels like a Spielberg movie, for the most part, but then again, isn’t a good collaboration about creating a seamless project that doesn’t reveal who worked on what?

 It is also one of the rare horror movies that has achieved blockbuster status. It is a movie that you almost feel obligated to see because it has worked its way so deeply into America’s popular culture psyche. So much so that Heather O’ Rourke’s character Carol Anne sitting in front of the television saying “they’re here” along with Craig T. Nelson have been adopted for the switch to digital television ad campaign.  Particular scenes, the characters, and lines of dialogue from the movie are as iconic as many of the other films Spielberg has worked on.

The film is also unique because of the fact that it is a special effects ghost story done in a way, thanks to Industrial Light and Magic, that hadn’t been seen before. Horror movies usually are not the films to get the budgets and that is usually a blessing in disguise. But in this case there is no way the story that Spielberg wanted to tell could have been brought to the screen without them; being able to combine a few scenes of visceral scares with the impressive effects of a house disappearing into a sinkhole, a closet that open up and sucks everything into it, and beams of light moving through a house are all pretty impressive. What is impressive too is that we don’t lose track of the characters. They manage to remain at the forefront through the whole movie. Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams play perfectly in Spielberg’s suburban fantasy( a theme he has mined on several occasions-most notably in the almost simultaneous 1982 release of E.T.) as the relatively easy going typical suburban parents and their typical suburban kids  whose lives are disrupted when their house becomes the center of not so typical spectral activity. 

Throughout the whole movie, the creepy and alarming things that go on in the house, even Carol Anne’s disappearance, are handled in the same matter of fact way that Steve Freeling argues with his neighbor over the t.v. remote signals crossing during the football game or the children sitting around the table at breakfast. The only indication of something being wrong at first is the way that Craig T. Nelson’s character looks after JoBeth Williams’ character excitedly shows him what the chairs can do in the kitchen. At this point in the movie we are left wondering if Steve Freeling is the only sensible person in the house or just an adult who works too much and has no connection to the childhood fantasy world.  I don’t think that question is every properly answered but it does become clear as events take a supernatural turn for the worst that there are no adults equipped to deal with the evil that is wrecking so much havoc. That is really no comfort for any child being terrorized by a dark force but the film suggests in several not so subtle ways that adults have as much control over events as children do in some cases, and sometimes even less than we like to think.

Whatever your opinion of Stephen Spielberg and his films might be, whether you see him as just an example of a bloated hollywood system that churns out special effects movies, or as someone who just has a natural gift and the “magic touch” when it comes to creating images and movies that resonate with popular culture, Poltergeist seems to exemplify a little of both sides of the argument.  That being said, if you haven’t seen it yet, watch it, for no other reason than to be able to be a little more literate in film and culture.  Besides, how often do you get to see ghosts and giant monsters rampaging around the house?

Up Next the October Horror Movie Series movies from haunted houses to haunted ruins as we pay a visit to the Tombs of The Blind Dead(La Noche Del Terror Ciego); the first film in Amando De Ossorio’s 1970’s blind dead series.

I would also like to extend a warm welcome to my good friend Jennifer Sutphin who has joined me here on the movie series staff. She will be helping design the page, contributing movie titles, and many other things.