'White Dog' (1982): Movie Review

White Dog
by Colleen Wanglund, MoreHorror.com

Sam Fuller’s WHITE DOG (1982) is an odd movie, and one that I wouldn’t necessarily classify as horror—it’s more of a melodrama. Based loosely on the 1970 novel of the same name by Romain Gary, WHITE DOG was initially banned from theatrical release by the studio due to negative press and rumors that it was racist. With a screenplay by Curtis Hanson (THE DUNWICH HORROR {1970}, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL {1997}) the movie tells the story of Julie (Kristy McNichol) a young, struggling actress who hits a dog (a white German Shepherd) on the highway one night. Julie takes the dog home with her while she tries to find its owners. The dog protects her from a rapist who breaks into Julie’s house and she develops quite an attachment to the dog. The dog—which is never given a name—gets out one day initially chasing a rabbit. While on the loose the dog attacks the black driver of a street sweeper and sends it careening through a clothing store.

Julie goes to the pound to try and find the dog where she sees first-hand how the “unwanted” dogs are put down. The dog makes it way back to Julie’s house covered in dirt and blood but Julie is thrilled to see him. Julie’s boyfriend Roland (Jameson Parker—Simon and Simon) determines that the dog is a dangerous attack dog and she should have it put down. Julie tries desperately to find someone who can untrain the dog and find Keys, an expert animal trainer played by Paul Winfield (THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW {1988}, MARS ATTACKS! {1996}). Keys determines that the dog is a “white dog”, a dog trained to attack and kill black people. Julie is horrified and Keys is determined to undo the damage done by his racist previous owner. Carruthers (Burl Ives), co-owner of the training center isn’t as confident in Keys’ ability to transform the dog but as the experiment progresses and the dog’s behavior improves Carruthers changes his mind. Eventually it’s time for the final test of the dog and Keys’ training.

While not what I had been expecting, WHITE DOG was a pretty good story although not Sam Fuller’s best. After all that I’d read about this movie I was expecting something with a bit more carnage but I was also very surprised by the actual theme of the film. I don’t know what the critics at the time were thinking, but WHITE DOG is far from racist—it’s anything but. Keys is determined to prove his belief that racism is a learned behavior and can be changed, which is quite admirable and is almost realized—but not quite. The movie’s ending is bleak and to me, unnerving. The dog itself is the embodiment of racism, as opposed to the people although at one point the owner of the dog shows up at Julie’s house with his two little grandchildren. When Julie confronts him, he is proud of what he has done to the dog. With a PG rating WHITE DOG feels more like a TV movie of the week and Kristy McNichol’s flat acting and some of the cheesy dialogue only enhances that feel. I did appreciate Winfield’s portrayal of Keys with passion and determination. WHITE DOG is definitely one to see, if for the controversy surrounding it, alone.

What’s interesting to note is that upon WHITE DOG’S American DVD release by Criterion in 2008, critics have praised Fuller’s movie for its unflinching but heartbreaking view that racism is learned but can’t be “cured”. Reviewers now question the movie’s lack of wide theatrical release in 1982. Maybe if the critics of the time had actually watched the film they wouldn’t have been so quick to judge it so harshly.

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