The Pack (1977) The Pack/The Long, Dark Night (1977) **½

     I never consciously wondered about this until now, but where the hell are all the pretty-okay 1970’s animal attack movies? There are plenty of films in the subgenre that I haven’t yet seen, of course, but my explorations so far have revealed a strange bunching effect at two distinct and widely separated levels of quality. First there’s a small but conspicuous cluster in the range of “really quite good to indisputably great,” then just a few movies scattered across the “I suppose you’ll do” zone, and finally the expected vast legion of absolute turkeys. That gap in the middle of the quality spectrum simply isn’t normal, even if the cone-shaped distribution otherwise is unremarkable for a subgenre that arose primarily from the frenzied copying of a single successful picture. What brings that mystery to mind at the moment is that I’ve finally found at least one specimen with which to begin filling the empty space. The Pack isn’t quite clever enough to stand with the likes of Alligator or Piranha, but it’s a solidly competent offering that comes in comfortably ahead of Jaws 2 and leagues out in front of stinkers like Nightwing and Claws.

     Seal Island is a little patch of glacier-carved land which should probably not be confused with the one of the same name off the southwestern tip of Nova Scotia, even though the main difference between the two is that this Seal Island is implicitly in the United States, perhaps in the Pacific Northwest. Like a lot of cold-water maritime communities, its residents are divisible into affluent part-timers who swell the island’s population during the summer months, and less well-off year-round inhabitants who make their livings largely from catering to the former group. Marine biologist Jerry Preston (Joe Don Baker, from Wacko and Cape Fear) has a foot in each of those camps, however. He’s certainly a highly educated, well paid professional, and he’s an outsider to Seal Island, too, having come from the mainland on a two-year mission from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to study the local shrimp population. Preston comes from a working-class background, though, and the nature of his work requires him to monitor his decapod research subjects throughout all four seasons. He’s also a widower raising a ten-year-old boy all by himself. His values and life-rhythms therefore give him more in common with guys like grizzled old fisherman Carl Cobb (R.G. Armstrong, of Predator and Mean Johnny Barrows) and Clyde Hardiman (Richard B. Shull, from Sssssss and Splash), the proprietor of Seal Island’s general store, than he has with the summer people. Well, most of the summer people, anyway. There’s one summer person in particular— a 30-ish single mother by the name of Millie (Trauma’s Hope Alexander-Willis)— with whom Jerry gets on very well indeed. In fact, the two of them have decided to marry and settle permanently on the island just as soon as Preston finishes building (as in personally, with his own hands) a house for them overlooking the ocean. It doesn’t hurt, either, that Jerry’s and Millie’s respective sons, Guy (Eric Knight) and Paul (Steve Lytle), are almost as fond of each other as their parents.

     Now one thing you’ll quickly notice about the culture on Seal Island is that every motherfucker in the place keeps a dog. Jerry has his German shepherd, Riley. Old Man McMinnimee (Delos V. Smith, from Night Screams and The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver) has his seeing-eye dog, Zsa Zsa. Nary a waterman would be seen on the docks without some pooch trotting along after him. Even the summer people bring dogs with them more often than not, or acquire one during their stay from some local who lately found himself with a litter of inconvenient puppies on his hands. The trouble is, those rich fuckos from the mainland tend to regard their pets more as extra appurtenances to their rented houses, lodges, and cabins than as living beings to which they’ve made an emotional or moral commitment, and every year, one or two of them can be counted on to leave a dog behind to fend for itself when they depart come Labor Day. Indeed, we get to see one such drama play out as some bitch (Peggy Price) and her husband (Rob Narke) force their son (Steve Butts) to abandon his beloved more-or-less-a-collie in the woods as they pack up for home. There are currently at least fifteen such castoff strays on the island, all living together as a pack under the leadership of a clever and aggressive brute of no discernable breed. Some indication of this mutt’s talent for survival may be read in the fact that several of his followers are much bigger than him, and belong to formidable breeds like German shepherds and Doberman Pinschers. He must be doing something right if animals like that are content to let him be the boss. Even so, the pack’s numbers have finally swelled beyond what the limited wilderness of Seal Island can support, and as the cooling weather heralds the onset of a leaner-than-usual winter, the pack-leader adopts a new strategy. The woods may be hunted out of rabbits, squirrels, and the like, but there’s plenty of meat to be had in and around the village if the dogs are prepared to take their chances with larger and potentially more dangerous prey. Clyde Hardiman’s horse, for example. Or Old Man McMinnimee, for that matter, since poor Zsa Zsa is obviously no match for the whole pack by herself.

     Meanwhile, back among the humans, a more benign disruption to the usual way of doing things on Seal Island is occurring: a party of fall renters is pulling up to the wharf aboard the last ferry of the season. In addition to his store, Hardiman owns at least one of the island’s rental properties, and this autumn he’s hosting Jim Dodge (Richard O’Brien, from Chamber of Horrors and The Andromeda Strain), the president of the bank where he keeps all his money, together with a total of four hangers-on. The latter include Dodge’s prissy right-hand man, Harry Walker (Ned Wertimer, of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians and Chiller), whose presence on this fishing trip with the boss is plainly an act of unmitigated ass-kissing; his secretary, Marge (Bibi Besch, from Tremors and The Beast Within), with whom Jim definitely isn’t having an affair— nope, not at all; and his exceedingly disappointing son, Tommy (Paul Wilson, of 976-EVIL and The Devonsville Terror). Perhaps most importantly for the banker’s purposes, the Dodge party also includes a youngish and reasonably attractive woman by the name of Lois (Sherry Miles, from The Velvet Vampire and The Todd Killings). Officially, she’s come along to cook all those salmon that Dodge plans to catch over the next week, but her true mission is to make a man out of that goddamned pansy egghead the banker’s (ex-?) wife somehow managed to raise him. Of course you realize that if Hardiman’s horse served as the proof-of-concept for the feral dogs’ turn to big-game hunting, then that means Hardiman’s land is probably closest to the pack’s home territory. Those ill-prepared city slickers, in other words, are about to find themselves more directly in harm’s way than anyone else on the island.

     The Pack was written and directed by Robert Clouse, of all people, very loosely adapting David Fisher’s novel, The Long, Dark Night. I suppose I must have known that Clouse directed more than just martial arts movies, but this is the first non-chopsocky film of his that I’ve seen. As I implied already at the beginning of the review, the only reason why it’s anything to write home about is because it’s merely nothing to write home about, in a subgenre where that’s perversely unusual. Although The Pack is nothing more than workmanlike on the whole, there are some decently suspenseful bits here and there, plus some fair enough action sequences, and even one really effective shock-cut scare. Clouse manages a few pieces of well-observed character writing, too, especially in the scenes showing how Jim Dodge’s overbearing efforts to get Tommy laid yield a form of success completely beyond the old man’s comprehension, even as they fail at their immediate purpose. Joe Don Baker surprisingly puts in a performance a notch or two up from his usual “human pork butt” setting, which was probably the best that could imaginably be asked of him. A schmaltzy, cheesy epilogue goes off like a tire blowing out right at the finish line, but at least offers the genuine justification of giving a complete character arc to the dog whose abandonment stands in for the whole pack’s origin story. Taking the good with the bad, The Pack could just about pass for a slightly-above-average ABC Movie of the Week.

     But there is one real star in this show, and that’s lead animal trainer Karl L. Miller. None of the dogs in The Pack are master thespians on the order of that half-wolf malamute in The Thing, but they’re all a far cry from the laughably unimpressive mutt-monsters in other 1970’s horror-hound pictures like Dracula’s Dog and Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell. To be sure, Miller cheats a little. Sometimes he stuffs a dog’s upper lips with who-knows-what in order induce a snarling expression, or ties down a tail to prevent inappropriate wagging, and the pack leader invariably appears not merely with his fur artfully mussed and dirtied, but also with his flanks pocked by prosthetic scars and scabs evoking a hard and violent life. Still, it’s the dogs’ behavior that makes them atypically convincing as a bunch of starving, desperate strays, and the fights between members of the pack and other dogs who still retain their domestication look as real to the untrained eye as the attacks on humans. And even more exceptionally, Miller succeeds in balancing the menace of the feral beasts with the pathos of their abandonment by their carelessly cruel former owners. Again I point you toward Dracula’s Dog for an example of the kind of ludicrous pitfalls that Miller sidesteps here. I may be in danger overselling The Pack a bit at this point, but there’s really very little to be said against it with regard to its four-footed castmembers.



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