Monday, April 23, 2012

Cult Classics Revisited: LAST OF THE DOGMEN (1995)


Written and directed by Tab Murphy.  Cast: Tom Berenger, Barbara Hershey, Kurtwood Smith, Steve Reevis, Andrew Miller, Eugene Blackbear, Parley Baer, Mark Boone Junior, Molly Parker.  (PG, 118 mins)

Released with little fanfare in the fall of 1995, LAST OF THE DOGMEN didn't generate much business in theaters, opening wide but topping out around $7 million and exiting multiplexes fairly quickly.  But it was one of those films that became a word-of-mouth hit once it was released on video and found an even bigger audience once it started airing on cable.  I was working at Blockbuster at the time this came out on video and we had just two copies and they were never in stock.  It was eventually released on DVD, but that edition has gone out of print.  Currently, at the time of this writing, sealed DVD copies of LAST OF THE DOGMEN are starting at $72 on Amazon.  Originally released by the short-lived Savoy Pictures, the film's rights are now held by Universal, who have no plans to re-release the film on DVD or on Blu-ray.  As my friend Marty McKee of Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot often says, "Some studios must not like making money."

When three escaped convicts head into a 4000-mile stretch of rough terrain in Montana's Oxbow Mountains, Sheriff Deegan (Kurtwood Smith) knows there's only one man who can find them.

Sheriff, to deputy: "Go find Lewis Gates."
Deputy: "You mean..."
Sheriff: "Just find him!"

Cut to the exterior of Doc's Bar, as the person we assume to be Lewis Gates is--where else?--passed out on the pool table.  Gates (Tom Berenger) is a loner and the town drunk, and there's a lot of bad blood between him and Deegan:  Gates was married to Deegan's daughter, and she drowned while crossing a river and Gates couldn't save her.  Deegan has no use for Gates, and of course sums it up in the most cliched way possible: "Drunk or sober...you're still the best tracker in the state!"

This is all in the first eight minutes, and admittedly, the film doesn't get off to a great start.  Gates reluctantly heads into the mountains with his trusty canine companion Zip, and they soon find some prison clothing, an arrow, and "enough blood to paint (the sheriff's) office!"  Gates seeks the assistance of Lillian Sloan (Barbara Hershey), an expert in Native American anthropology, and despite her misgivings, Gates is convinced that the convicts were killed by Cherokee "dog soldiers," warriors thought to be wiped out at least a century earlier.  Soon, Gates, Lillian, and Zip head deep into the Oxbows to investigate the possibility of a secret tribe, one made of descendants of the "Dogmen," still existing in the mountains, untouched by man and modern society.

Clearly inspired by DANCES WITH WOLVES, LAST OF THE DOGMEN certainly appeals to that uniquely annoying "midlife crisis white guys who find out they're 1/32 Native American and just run with it" demographic, but its true appeal lies elsewhere.  This is a charmingly, almost defiantly old-fashioned picture, the kind of which were hard to come by even in 1995, let alone today.  It's easy to see why it resonated with video store customers and TV viewers.  In a way, Berenger is the perfect leading man for such a film.  Almost a decade removed from his Oscar-nominated performance in 1986's PLATOON, Berenger enjoyed several years as an above-the-title Hollywood A-lister able to shine in commercial hits (1989's MAJOR LEAGUE) and ambitious, challenging arthouse fare (1991's AT PLAY IN THE FIELDS OF THE LORD).  But by 1995, after several flops in a row (SLIVER, MAJOR LEAGUE II, CHASERS), Berenger's star was dimming and after LAST OF THE DOGMEN, he would only headline one more big theatrical release (1996's THE SUBSTITUTE) before launching his second career as a straight-to-video mainstay, with occasional supporting roles in major films like 2001's TRAINING DAY and 2010's INCEPTION).  Berenger is one of those actors who didn't draw huge crowds to theaters on his own, but was a sturdy, reliable actor for an evening's video rental, and that's where LAST OF THE DOGMEN really took off (the same could be said for THE SUBSTITUTE, but that did a little better theatrically). 

LAST OF THE DOGMEN is cliched and predictable and the soaring, manipulative score by David Arnold tells you exactly what to feel in the most John Williams-y way possible, but it's marvelously acted by Berenger and Zip (easily one of cinema's great dog sidekicks), beautifully shot by Karl Walter Lindenlaub (this must've looked stunning on a big screen), and writer/director Tab Murphy manages to make it look like a much bigger-budgeted film than it is.  Murphy was nominated for an Oscar for co-writing 1988's GORILLAS IN THE MIST and logged some time later on writing for Disney (1996's THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, 1999's TARZAN, 2001's ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE, and 2003's BROTHER BEAR), but LAST OF THE DOGMAN is, thus far, his only credit as a director.

It's worth noting that at least two versions of LAST OF THE DOGMEN exist.  The theatrical version (also on VHS) includes much-maligned narration by an uncredited Wilford Brimley that was added by the producers against Murphy's wishes and probably did more harm than good. The eventual DVD release apparently included options for the version with narration and without.  The version streaming on Netflix has some very sporadic narration in maybe three scenes, but it's definitely not Brimley, nor is it Berenger, even though it's supposed to be him talking.  I don't know if this is actually a third variant of the film, but the Netflix print (HD, 2.40:1) also runs two minutes shorter than the 120-minute theatrical version, so perhaps Murphy has tweaked it since the DVD release.


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  2. I think that one of the parts that made the film was the background of Wilford Brimley. He is a reassuring anchor to the real world; and adds depth to the story. Though not a household name, his voice; on the other hand is. It commands the security of a father, or grandfather. Say what you want - Removing his voice from the film was as blasphemous as "Colorizing" B&W classics. This is, and still will remain one of my all-time favorites; and has been ridiculed form the first test-screening. Once again - The audience will decide.

  3. I miss Wilford Brimleys voice. It made the movie complete for me.