The Pack (1977)

FEBRUARY 17, 2020


You never know what you might be in for with a post-Jaws killer animal movie. They might lean too heavily into aping Spielberg's classic, leaving you to spend the entire viewing wishing you were just watching Roy, Robert, and Richard do their thing instead. Or they might try too hard to make it stand out, resulting in an unsatisfying mess that serves no master. But some of them hit that sweet spot, where you're able to get into it enough to forget that it was probably greenlit by someone saying "What if Jaws but with a (different animal)?", and I was happy to discover that The Pack falls into that category.

The movie has been on my radar for years, but has never been given a decent DVD release (only a full frame one from Warner Archive) so never got around to it, settling for... er, The Pack (2015), which is not a remake but has a similar plot. I also bought a paperback book called The Pack a while back, thinking it was the one that inspired this movie, only to discover that it was a different one which had an even more similar plot (the one I got was written by William Essex; the one this movie was based on is by David Fisher). So I was happy to finally get a chance to see the one I wanted, on 35mm at the New Beverly, via slightly faded but otherwise solid print and with a bunch of good folks next to and around me. All that was left was to see if it was worth the wait.

And it was! It was thankfully not very Jaws-like, focusing on about ten people instead of just a few, isolating the action to a single weekend, and (best of all) staying away from any kind of "close the beaches" type subplot, opting for something closer to survival horror as they get trapped on the island and a storm knocks out their radio tower. Even better, there were no evil humans to distract away from the true threat of the feral dogs, so even when it briefly becomes a Night of the Living Dead/Assault on Precinct 13 kind of thing where our heroes have holed up in a house as the dogs try to get in on all sides, it's all about them working together and protecting one another instead of in-fighting.

Which is a good thing, because the dogs themselves are well trained but rarely get the opportunity to display much on-screen carnage. The body count isn't particularly high, and of that group, only two people are shown being attacked - the others die off-screen or basically get themselves killed as the dogs chase them without ever really interacting. If director Robert Clouse opted to make up for it with some asshole humans, it would weaken the overall threat that the dogs still posed, I think. Thanks to the relatively big cast of characters, it's always pretty tense because pretty much all of them could be a goner. There's hero Joe Don Baker, his girlfriend, their kids (one each from previous relationships), three local guys, and a group of city folk in "town" for a fishing excursion - and this being the '70s, you can't exactly be assured even the kids would be safe (I already mentioned Precinct 13, if you recall). There's an attack on the girlfriend at around the halfway point that really had me going (visions of The Car danced through my head), and that uncertainty lasted throughout the film's tight 95 minute runtime.

Even more surprising: Baker was pretty good! I'm more familiar with him as a heavy (Fletch, Living Daylights) or kind of a sidekick/comic relief type (Goldeneye/Tomorrow Never Dies, Mars Attacks), and I've never seen Walking Tall so when he's the hero I'm used to a guy and two robots making fun of him the whole time ("Mitchell."), but I found him to be a solid everyman type here. His character's job as a marine biologist never really comes into play (despite the island setting, he never even steps into the water), but he's a good dad to the two kids, loving to the girlfriend, and capable when it comes to fighting the dogs - it doesn't require an action hero type to play, just someone who can pull off those things when necessary, without looking silly.

The rest of the cast is good too, particularly Richard B. Shull as Baker's right hand man, who has the best possible role in one of these things: the guy you are absolutely sure will die and keeps getting in the thick of it, making you worry about him more than anyone else. I wish I could say the same for RG Armstrong, who is always great but has kind of a nothing role as the other island guy, who gets in a few good lines at the expense of the city people but otherwise serves no function and doesn't even get an actual final scene - his character rows away for help, has a heart attack or stroke, and gets rescued - but since Baker and the others take care of the dogs themselves and the movie ends there, it's not even clear if he ever woke up and told the guys who rescued him to send help to the island. I don't think he ever even encounters a dog! Also, if you're an Office Space or Cheers fan, you will enjoy a young Paul Willson (one of the Bobs in the former, Paul on the latter) as Tommy, the son of the city guy who just wants to read and look at birds even though his dad's secretary is throwing herself at him (at the dad's request, creepily enough).

As for the mutts, they are a mixed group, not all pit bulls or dobermans or whatever. The main one is a mutt, there's a Collie (Lassie, no!), a labrador, etc - in fact of all the common "big dog" types the only one I *didn't* notice was a St. Bernard, which is kind of funny considering how they would get a lock on evil movie dog breeds just a few years later. But there are also two good dogs to care about so you know the movie isn't just total anti-pooch. One is Baker's dog, who gets hurt early on but recovers and protects his people whenever the need arises. The other belongs to a vacationing family who returns to the city, a minor subplot that clarifies where all the dogs come from: people get dogs for their summer vacations there, and then leave them behind when it's time to return home, figuring they'll be found by someone else. Alas, they're not, and they turn feral and try to eat Joe Don Baker and his friends. Anyway, this dog wanders around a bit, joins the evil dogs for a while but never does anything bad as far as we know, and (spoiler for 45 year old movie ahead) is spared by Baker, who gives it some crackers in the film's closing scene, producing the greatest freeze frame to credits I've seen in ages.

Besides being full-frame, I assume the Warner Archive DVD is of decent quality if you want to see it for yourself, but hopefully Scream Factory or one of their peers can get their hands on it and do it right. It's not a masterpiece, but it's a really solid suspenser with a likable cast that milks its premise for all it's worth. Apparently it has very little to do with the book, which is fitting considering the aforementioned "no, different The Pack" confusion, but what they come up with worked really well for what it was, and was worth the drive to the New Bev (and presumably better than Fantasy Island, which is what I was originally going to see until seeing the Bev tweet that the movie was playing), as I usually only go when I can head over directly from work (15 min drive) instead of home (45-50 min drive). And I had a delicious ginger beer while I watched! A victory all around!

What say you?

P.S. The theater showed a truly strange instructional film about eating beforehand, which was quite fitting as it reminded me of the ones they would show on MST3k ("Mitchell.") when the movie was too short to fill the two hour block. It had nothing to do with dogs, but it starred Robert Benchley - grandfather of Peter, which I assume was the reason it was chosen. I was unable to find it online, but rest assured if it ever appeared on MST3k there wouldn't be much need for them to quip, as it was plenty funny on its own.


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