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dog days

dog days

Friday, August 18, 2017

Man's Best Friend


Man’s Best Friend
1993
John Lafia

After an opening credit sequence that is strangely evocative of the one from Cheers, we meet Judy (Robin Frates) and Lori (Ally Sheedy), bored employees at a television news show. They are following a lead from a woman who works at a place called EMAX. The lead claims horrifying animal experiments are occurring there. After breaking in, Lori befriends Max, a large canine test subject. She ends up taking Max home after a narrow escape from the lab. Max’s creator Dr. Jarret (Lance Henriksen) hunts for his creation. Max is no ordinary dog, he’s genetically modified and super intelligent. What’s worse, the drug keeping him stable is wearing off and soon he could become an unstoppable killer.

It was a cat in dogsuit all along!
Horror-comedy is a difficult balance to strike, and Man’s Best Friend spends most of its time flailing around looking for a tone. For two-thirds of its length, the movie tries its best to work as a dark comedy by taking commonplace and clichéd dog tropes and pushing them just slightly into horror territory. Max doesn’t just bite the mailman, he shakes off a blast of mace, promptly chases the poor guy down and tears his throat out. A chance encounter with a cat results not in only Max climbing a tree after it, but also swallowing it whole. The problem is that none of this is ever particularly funny or frightening. Strangely, if you removed the more overt horror and sex from this film it would not be out of place in the slurry of direct to video animal based kid’s movies that infest Redbox and Netflix.

"I'M NOT SURE WHAT WE'RE LOOKING AT AHHHHH!"
Although gifted with a great cast, Man’s Best Friend does not offer anyone to root for. Max is played as a sympathetic beast to a point, but he’s also a ruthless predator who is happy to kill innocent people and animals.  Ally Sheedy’s Lori is meant to be the central protagonist, but she is sidelined for large portions of the story. By the end, she has little to do but react to the mayhem around her. Lance Henriksen is always a magnetic presence on screen, and his morally compromised scientist is the most interesting of the lot, but ultimately, he is just a cold-hearted villain chasing a dog around with a gun. Even William Sanders makes a brief appearance as a seemingly sympathetic junkyard proprietor who turns out to be an awful animal abuser.

The appearance of the film is unremarkable; it looks like most mid-budget horror films from the early 1990s. The special effects work well enough, save for one embarrassing green screen stunt involving Max leaping between two cars. This isn’t an excessively violent movie. Despite what the cover would have you believe, Max doesn’t sport a Terminator (1984) style endoskeleton beneath his fur, but he does manage to steal a gimmick from Predator (1987).

Man’s Best Friend is watchable, but only just so. It is never funny, gross, or weird enough to catch your attention or demand much reconsideration after the credits have ended.

Friday, August 11, 2017

C.H.O.M.P.S.


C.H.O.M.P.S.
1979
Don Chaffey

Brian Foster (Wesley Eure) works for a security company. He is also dating Casey (Valerie Bertinelli), who happens to be the daughter of his boss, Ralph Norton (Conrad Bain). Brian’s job is on the line after a recent screw-up, so he decides to unveil his latest invention: Canine HOme Protection System or C.H.O.M.P.S. This creation is a small robot that looks just like a dog, but just happens to have super strength, x-ray vision, and a tape player for reproducing goofy cartoon sound effects.

A movie about robot dog seems rife with possibility. Even if you don't feel like wading into musings on the nature of life and free will, there’s plenty of comedy to mine out of a small dog that happens to be a physical powerhouse and a brilliant computer. C.H.O.M.P.S. ignores all of this, and instead endlessly repeats a loop of bungling robbers, silly robot malfunctions, and endless chase scenes set to upbeat 1970’s action news music. C.H.O.M.P.S. was the first and only collaboration between Hanna-Barbera and American International Pictures, and after viewing it, I can see why.

What it feels like to watch this movie.
Comedy films are tough. A horror or science fiction film can fail and succeed on a number of levels and still be watchable. A comedy film has one overarching goal, it needs to be funny, or it becomes a barely watchable slog. The comedy in C.H.O.M.P.S. consists of terrible slapstick and mugging for the camera. It is very mild, even for what is ostensibly a kid's movie. For no explainable reason, the creators of the film decided to spice things up with the interior monologue of a dog named Monster, who is prone to dropping a few curse words once and a while. No other animals talk in the entire film. Monster has zero impact on the plot, and I only assume was inserted at some point to give the movie a PG rating.

If you like notable TV actors then this might be the movie for you, Conrad Bain of Different Strokes fame, Jim Backus from Gilligan’s Island, and Valerie Bertinelli, star of One Day at a Time, all have roles. The acting in the film is relatively good, especially when watching these actors try and bring something to the nonsense plot and unending dearth of comedy throughout its run-time. C.H.O.M.P.S. himself isn’t called on to do much more than run and occasionally jump on someone. The dog doesn’t have much charisma on screen, but he hits his marks and does what he is supposed to with a minimum of fuss.

Must be running on Windows 10
The film briefly mentions C.H.O.M.P.S. as not having any real affection or emotions. This element is entirely forgotten for the rest of the story until the end, when it is brought up again for one "heartfelt"scene. This is promptly dropped by the time the final wacky wrap-up gives way to the credits.

I have no way to show C.H.O.M.P.S. any affection because it doesn’t deserve any. It’s a middling, unfunny, ramshackle mess of a movie. C.H.O.M.P.S. needs to be euthanized and thrown in the recycling bin.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Play Dead


Play Dead
1981
Peter Wittman

Hester (Yvonne De Carlo) arrives at the funeral of her sister, whom she blames for stealing away a lover years ago. Vowing revenge, she gives her heirs a Rottweiler named Greta. Greta seems benign, but secretly Hester is using black magic to control Greta and bump off her relatives one-by-one. Only a bumbling detective named Otis ) Glenn Kezer seems to glean what’s really happening, but he too could fall victim to Hester's wicked scheme.

Play Dead takes an otherwise interesting premise and squanders it. Operating like the half-hearted offspring of Devil Dog: Hound of Hell (1978) and The Omen (1976), we are presented with a vessel of evil through Greta, a sinister looking Rottweiler. Rather than having Greta maul her victims, she carefully finds ways to do them in and make it look accidental.  None of the murders that Greta commits are particularly clever or gruesome, and this continually robs the film of what little momentum that it possesses. I think the movie could have stolen even more obviously from The Omen and made Greta some breed that was smaller and less threatening. Everyone expects a big scary dog with a pentagram on its collar to be up to no good (except the characters in this film, they are oblivious to the point of absurdity), there’s just no surprise here.

"Did you just call me Morticia Addams?"
Yvonne De Carlo, of Munsters fame, plays Hester, the woman who is behind Greta’s evil deeds. I’m grateful the movie didn’t try and milk the fame of her former role. There is a touch of gothic evil in her, but it is very much hidden behind the veneer of a wealthy socialite who is wary of her needy relatives. She’s charming and engaging when she’s on screen, except for the closing moments of the story, the movie never finds her much to do. The real star of the movie ends up being, Detective Otis (Glenn Kezer). He’s a schluby guy who’s happy to borrow another officer’s car without asking, and seems much more interested in sandwiches than doing any detective work. In the desert of entertainment that is Play Dead, he is a tiny oasis of amusement.

"Ris rovie really rucks."
What the movie lacks in chills it more than makes up for in awkward sex scenes. Play Dead features not only two uninteresting bathing scenes, but it also manages to engage in one of longest and least sensual undressing scenes ever put to film. It’s a moment that goes nowhere, advances nothing except the running time, and only culminates in hilariously dated briefs as its punchline.

Aside from a tiny bit of blood and nudity, Play Dead is milder than most TV movies of the era. It is not energetic or interesting. It’s only useful as a way to see Yvonne De Carol in a non-Musters roll late in her career (and honestly just go watch Cellar Dweller (1988) or Mirror Mirror (1990) if that’s what you are looking for). Play Dead is very aptly titled.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Lucky


Lucky
2004
Steve Cudden

Millard Mudd is an alcoholic scriptwriter for cartoon shows. He’s lonely, depressed, and his career is going nowhere. One night he ventures out from his (literally) beer can filled home to get some more booze when he runs over a small dog. The dog's tag says ‘Lucky’. He takes Lucky home, sews its guts back in, and despite the fact that it isn’t moving or breathing he keeps it as a friend. Finally realizing that maybe his new pal isn’t doing so well, he buries it, only to have Lucky pop out of the grave and speak to Millard telepathically. Lucky is here to help Millard’s career as a writer, and the dog only has one request. Millard has to start giving in to his murderous urges.

The face of evil.
Lucky is a black comedy at heart. It does tread into some very dark places, including rape, torture, neophilia, and mutilation.  This is a film out to push a few buttons, and since the director and the writer both have worked almost exclusively for animated shows, just like the wayward main character, this movie probably served as a release valve from those pressures. Writing for children’s animation, especially in the 1990s limited the subject matter and how adult a writer could push a story. With that in mind, the extreme elements of this movie begin to make more sense in terms of why they go as far as they do.

The comedy in Lucky mostly stems from the sardonic voice of Millard as he narrates his life. Often the narration serves as crutch for weak writing in films, but here it allows the viewer not only a peek into the mind of an isolated person who’s sanity is crumbling, but also his detachment from his actions. The verbal back and forth between Millard and Lucky are some of the best moments, and it is in these moments that the writing really shines. The transition of Lucky from comic foil to controlling abuser is some great work.

The other face of evil.
Lucky looks extremely low budget, with a dark grainy picture and some very limited location work. Director Cudden makes the most of Millard’s dingy cluttered house. The place feels cramped and disgusting, and it never allows either Millard or the viewer to relax. The small amount of special effects in the film work well, going hand-in-hand with the griminess of the production. Sydney (the dog who played Lucky) isn’t required much to do beyond stare at Millard, but even that can be a challenge for some animal actors. Sydney never gives the appearance of being anything more than a normal dog, which goes well in forcing the viewer to ask what is real and what is Millard’s delusion.

Lucky is very strange film, its angry, silly, morose, and vile. It has just enough absurd humor to keep it from becoming too alienating (well, to a point). There isn’t a very deep plot to be found. Millard is in a bad place when meet him and he’s even worse off by the end. If you feel like watching the slow disintegration of man via  a talking dog, Lucky is the film for you.*

*A Magic Puppy may also be the film for you.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Monster Dog


Monster Dog
1984
Claudio Fragasso

Vincent Raven (Alice Cooper) is taking has band back to his ancestral home to film a new music video. His family isn’t a popular one, since his dad was allegedly a werewolf and local suspicion runs rampant that Vincent will is one too. Vincent starts to have odd visions, and all the while local dogs are becoming aggressive pack hunters.

Monster Dog is basically a traditional werewolf film, and a traditional werewolf is film is often a mystery about the identity of the monster. Monster Dog is not different in this respect; the viewer is led to believe that Vincent Dawn will become a fanged master of all the local mutts, but is he really the one killing people? The movie does manage to string this question along for most of its running time and it even offers a solution that almost makes sense. So what went wrong?

Maybe he just needs some eye drops?
I think it comes down to a couple things, firstly this directed by Claudio Fragasso, the man who gave us the unhinged classic, Pieces (1982) and the unhinged not-so-classic Troll 2 (1990), so no need to worry about logic or story. Many Italian genre films of this period eschew logic for tone, leaving the movie one of two options, keep the story simple (Demons 1985), or jump into a convoluted twisting mystery where the solution makes no more sense than the question (i.e. most giallos). Monster Dog goes for a moody and weird tone, but also tries to create a tangled, ‘who’s really a werewolf?’ story and ends up just being confusing.

The second issue, and arguably a much larger one for some people, is the fact that Alice Cooper’s entire dialog has been dubbed over by another actor. The film was originally intended for a Spanish audience and Alice’s original vocal track was dubbed over in Spanish. They probably had no money to get Mr. Cooper back in the studio for a redub.

"Yay, it's almost over!"
The movie opens with a music video by Vincent Raven that is quite terrible. The song’s title is ‘Identity Crisis’ which I guess is clever, but perhaps too on the nose. The score aims for the epic synth horror sound of Goblin but falls very short. You can’t just throw a bass guitar, and some choir sounding synthesizers together and expect magic to happen.

Monster Dog isn’t a total loss. I think the actual monster is a unique design that leans away from the a more wolf-like appearance into something stranger. The actual prop is a little stiff, but it works on screen just fine. I also like the fact that the creature can exert control over the local dog population. It is an interesting take on the mythos. The movie doesn’t skimp on the blood and gore, offering plenty of messy attacks. That is one place Fragasso rarely dissapoints.

Monster Dog never touches the off-the-wall heights of Pieces or the sub-basement lows of Troll 2, (I'll just throw in a random plug for my favorite Fragasso related film right here: Terminator II: Shocking Dark), but it does manage to entertain the viewer with the barest competence. I will promise you that will never see another werewolf movie like it.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Moonwolf


Moonwolf
1959
George Friedland

Wolf is a dog who has been sent into space as part of a rocket test. He was rescued as a pup by one Dr. Peter Holmes (Carl Möhner). Dr. Holmes keeps losing and being reconnected with his dog, and now finds himself once again venturing out to be reunited. Only this time he’s about to run in to someone from his past who is not happy to see him.

There’s a certain joy to be found in getting oversold on a b-movie. Posters and trailers announce that you will witness the most horrifying monster of all time, you will be so sacred that you will need to sign a waiver before you enter the theater, or HEROIC ASTRO-DOG IN OUTER SPACE. It might burn you a little the first few times, but eventually you come to adore the bravado with which these films put forth their usually cheap wares. The flip-side to this is a poster or trailer that deliberately misrepresents itself. Occasionally, this can be an artful way to catch an audience off guard; more often than not, it’s just a means to get some butts in the seats before they know what’s gone wrong.

"Look, it's a completely legitimate choice for a hat..."
I’m not sure what Moonwolf was trying to accomplish by positioning itself as a ‘dog in space’ movie. Technically, yes, there is a dog, and yes, it does go to space, but all of that happens off screen. The dog never lands on the moon. It never has a moon adventure in its little doggy space suit. Nothing. This film is only science fiction in the sense that the U.S. had not put any dogs into space in 1959 (the Russians had launched plenty at this point).

Moonwolf is actually a tepid romance story that is preceded by a tepid nature documentary of sorts. The whole thing starts out promisingly enough with Wolf being prepared for his journey into space. Once all of that is out of the way (with prerequisite stock footage of a rocket launch), we turn to Wolf’s owner, Dr. Peter Holmes reminiscing about finding Wolf as a lost puppy in the forest. He rescues the dog, loses it, and finds it again. 1950s space exploration movies aren’t without their filler (strangely enough it often comes in the form of dance sequences),  and at this point in the film I figured this was just the story killing time until we get to see what Wolf is up to in space.

Nope.

"Wolf just ate all the pieces out of the Operation game."
Instead, we jump in time to Wolf having already landed somewhere in Finland, and Dr. Homes heading out to rescue him. Is it wilderness adventure time at least? Sorry, no. Rather we are backed into an uninteresting love triangle that resolves itself just in time for about a minute of Wolf being released from his space capsule.

 Even going in with the full knowledge that Moonwolf isn’t really about a moon, or a wolf, much less both at the same time, it’s a dull disappointment.  When I first heard of the title I wondered why it wasn’t more well known, but after sitting through all 83 minutes, I know exactly why.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Devil Dog: Hound of Hell

Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell
1978
Curtis Harrington

The Barry family replace their formerly living pet with a new dog. They make the worse possible choice when they pick up a German Shepard puppy from some people who aren’t Satanic cultists, and totally didn’t just sell them an evil possessed dog. Once the dog is brought in the house, strange accidents began to happen, and soon enough, Mike Barry (Richard Crenna) suspects his new pet is a force of evil. While he flies off to Ecuador to confirm his suspicions, his family is slowly being transformed into a coven of devil worshipers.

What makes Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell interesting is that it isn’t just a collection of supernatural dog attacks, but instead, the title monster exists to undermine the family from  within. I’m sure this choice came about due to the budgetary and content restrictions imposed on the production as a television movie. It elevates the devil dog from just being another hungry
monster to something truly evil, and it helps alleviate some of the inherent silliness of a Satanic cult of puppy sellers. You can also attribute some of this more intelligent approach to the popularity of The Exorcist (1973), and a rise of interest in the occult in popular culture.

"Aww ma, we want to go do evil..."
Devil Dog still has it’s share of pulpy pleasures, especially during the finale, when Mike Barry faces off against his pet in it’s true form: a giant horned Rottweiler complete with a lizard frill. The closest the film ever comes to outright visceral horror is a scene of the devil dog trying to influence Mike to put his hand into the spinning blade of a lawn mower. Even with the knowledge that this a TV movie and it probably isn’t going to go as far as it could, it still adds a little excitement to the proceedings.

Iit isn’t the most dynamic looking film, but Shriek Show’s Blu-ray shows off a crisp image. There aren’t a vast number of special effects, aside from a few moments of glowing eyes, and the devil dog’s monstrous form which isn’t wholly successful, but it works better than you would expect. The lo-fi quality of the effects give those last few moments a surreal edge that work in its favor.

Ok, who mentioned going for a walk?
Richard Crenna and Yvette Mimieux are reliable actors and they sell their plight well. Its always dicey when younger actors are in the mix, but Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards are fine in their roles, if never especially engaging, this might be due to the fact that they are supposed to be acting strangely thanks to the influence of the dog, but it’s difficult to say.

Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell is a clever little film that tackles a pretty silly premise and manages to extract something decent despite some (or maybe due to its) limitations. A lot of it seems very quaint now, but I could imagine this being a good nightmare inducing ninety minutes (plus commercials) for someone sitting down in 1978 to find out exactly what the heck a devil dog is supposed to be.