Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on October 18, 2012
One of my neighbors owns a beautiful big black lab and the dog lets out a loud howl every time a siren goes off in the distance. The noise can be a little unsettling and tends to shatter the tranquility of our quiet suburban street. The dog’s gloomy cries sound like the melancholy moans of a dying man or the wailing lament of his grieving loved ones. Some element of the dog’s howl gets under my skin and seeps into my bones reminding me of all the dogs I’ve feared and loved. Since it’s the season of scaring I thought it would be a good time to revisit some dog-centric horror movies where man’s best friend was transformed into man’s best fiend.
While cats are most often associated with Halloween there are plenty of dark myths and terrifying legends linked to canines. Hellhounds and mysterious black dogs have been part of our collected haunted history for centuries. These demonic creatures are often described as howling, growling ghost-like apparitions that roam mist covered marshes and lonesome highways or stand guard over abandoned graveyards and ancient cemeteries. Their eyes glow red or fiery yellow and their ominous presence usually prophesied death, destruction or some unknown horror brought upon any poor soul that happens to cross their path.
Like the severed heads that my fellow Morlock, Richard H. Smith, wrote about so vividly a few weeks ago, the origins of hellhounds can be traced back to antiquity and most likely stem from Greek and Roman mythology. Legend has it that a large hound called Cerberus guarded the entrance to the underworld and prevented anyone from escaping. The dog was often represented in art and literature as having multiple heads (usually three, sometimes two and as many as one hundred) but occasionally it was depicted with just one. It’s worth noting that one of the very first full-length feature films made in Italy was the marvelous L’INFERNO (1911) based on Gustave Doré’s illustrations for Dante’s Inferno as described in the Divine Comedy. L’INFERNO contains many frightening creatures including flesh eating devils and winged monsters as well as a three-headed Cerberus, the original hellhound.
16th century legends about phantom hounds roaming the fog shrouded British countryside inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write one of his most celebrated Sherlock Holmes novels, The Hound of the Baskervilles. This fascinating tale was originally published in 1902 and tells the story of the accursed Baskerville family who is haunted by a huge demon-like hound that stalks the gloomy moors near their isolated manor house. Doyle’s story has the distinction of being adapted for film and television nearly 30 times and the best renditions of The Hound of the Baskervilles are the ones that play up the fright factor and terrify viewers as well as perplex them. Director Sidney Lanfield accomplished this feat in 1939 with his exceptional take on Doyle’s story starring Basil Rathbone. The film is as moody and atmospheric as some of Universal’s best monster movies. I’m also especially fond of Hammer’s HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1959) directed by British terror master, Terence Fisher and starring Peter Cushing as the pipe-smoking sleuth. Fisher’s film managed to inject some much needed life into the dog-eared mystery of the moors.
One of my favorite horror trilogies happens to be the series of OMEN films that were released between 1976 and 1981. THE OMEN (1976) stars Gregory Peck and Lee Remick as eager parents who unknowingly adopt the Antichrist. Satan’s son soon develops an unhealthy relationship with a demonic Rottweiler and in one of the film’s scariest scenes, Gregory Peck along with costar David Warner, are pursued through a cemetery by a pack of hellhounds that seemed to have crept right out of Hades. In OMEN III: THE FINAL CONFLICT the Antichrist is now a grown man played to perfection by Sam Neil. He’s still the owner of a Rottweiler but this time his strange relationship with dogs takes a particularly nasty turn during a fox hunt when he orders a pack of hunting hounds to tear apart one of his enemies. The hellhounds in OMEN III don’t look particularly frightening at first but when they attack the animals are downright terrifying.
Following the success of the OMEN movies hellhounds became the focus of a handful of low budget fright films including ZOLTAN, HOUND OF DRACULA (1978) and DEVIL DOG: THE HOUND OF HELL (1978). In ZOLTON a vampire dog goes around turning helpless puppies into bloodthirsty monsters that are about as threatening as teddy bears. Thankfully the appropriately creepy Reggie Nalder (SALEM’S LOT; 1979) plays a Reinfield-like character named Veidt Smith and he gives the movie a little more bite. Curtis Harrington’s DEVIL DOG is more interesting thanks to a cast that includes Richard Creena, Yvette Mimieux and Kim Richards. The story involves a naïve family who adopt a satanic puppy and they eventually become possessed by the dog’s evil nature. Neither of these films are particularly scary but their dog-centric narratives are noteworthy.
Many Italian filmmakers have famously used dogs to frighten and terrify movie audiences including horror maestro Mario Bava who had Barbara Steele command two large hounds in BLACK SUNDAY (1960) where she played Asa Vajda, a powerful sorceress who was burned alive at the stake. She rises from the dead to exact revenge on her family including her look-alike ancestor Katia (also played by Steele). When we first meet Katia she’s walking her mastiffs in a mist-filled cemetery. The huge animals are leashed but still appear threatening and their eyes seem to glow with some arcane light. The image of Katia and her dogs is powerful and undoubtedly inspired many imitators including director Rafael Baledon who conjured up a similarly eerie scene in his atmospheric Mexican horror film CURSE OF THE CRYING WOMEN (1963) where a would-be witch named Selma harnesses three large attack dogs.
Director Dario Argento featured a guide dog in SUSPIRIA (1977) that ferociously turns on his master in one of the film’s most memorable scenes. Argento’s 1982 film TENEBRE also contains a vicious dog attack by a Doberman who ends up being an accomplish to a violent murder. I also can’t forget Lucio Fulci’s supernatural horror film THE BEYOND (1981), which features a terrifying scene with a blind woman played by Cinzia Monreale who is brutally killed by her furry companion. In both SUSPIRIA and THE BEYOND the dogs are possessed by some evil otherworldly force that eventually consumes them exploiting our primitive fear of wild animals that can’t be tamed or trusted.
Many other horror films depict dogs as unwilling victims of unsavory scientists that eventually turn on their masters much like Frankenstein’s monster. The best example of this is probably Georges Franju‘s classic French horror film EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1960), which features a doctor who selfishly uses dogs in his medical experiments and is eventually killed by them. DOGS IN HELL (1982), MAN’S BEST FRIEND (1993) and ROTTWEILER (2005) all presented stories about genetically engineered dogs that were transformed into ferocious fiends. And in dark thrillers such as TRAPPED (1973), THE PACK (1977), THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL (1978), BAXTER (1989) and even Samuel Fuller’s WHITE DOG (1982), dogs become bloodthirsty killers due to extensive human training, extreme neglect or unimaginable cruelty.
Author Stephen King and director Lewis Teague took a different route and blamed nature along with human neglect for a dog’s murderous behavior in CUJO (1983), which tells the tale of a large St. Bernard who is bitten by a bat and infected with rabies. The poor dog eventually becomes violent and after viciously attacking a mother (Dee Wallace) and her young son (Danny Pintauro) the sick animal traps them in their broken down car. In many ways CUJO is a subversion of classic canine films such as OLD YELLER (1957) and SOUNDER (1972). Like THE PACK and WHITE DOG, I find CUJO more heartbreaking than heart clenching but the movie manages to illustrate a parents very real fear of losing a child.
THE THING (1982) as well as THE HIDDEN (1987) both demonstrated how unfriendly space invaders could turn our dogs against us. And zombie dogs or undead hounds are another threat that films such as PET SEMATARY TWO (1992) and RESIDENT EVIL (2002) both tackled successfully. Most recently director Tim Burton has reanimated his short film FRANKENWEENIE (1982) into a full-length feature with the same title that tells the story of a young boy who attempts to resurrect his dead dog. This dark fairytale for adults and children speaks to the grief we feel when we lose a dear pet that has become a close companion, friend and confidant.
These are just a few examples of dog-centric films that might appeal to anyone who appreciates canine related chills and thrills but feel free to share some of your own suggestions in the comments below.
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