Man’s Best Fiend

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.

I got to keep moving, I got to keep moving
Blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail
Mmm, blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail
And the day keeps on remindin’ me, there’s a hellhound on my trail
Hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail. – Robert Johnson

0 Response Man’s Best Fiend
Posted By timewarp : October 18, 2012 2:36 pm

Well, what to say?!!!:). I love pooches (dogs in American English:)). Sometimes they are better than human beings when it comes to showing feelings…most of the times they are better than us in that little ‘trick’:). My dog Minu died of old age (17 years old!) and I loved him. My dog was one of my best friends…and best fiends at that 2!! Dogs are animals all the same and they can get crazy at times, so beare of the POOCH!!!:):)

Posted By timewarp : October 18, 2012 2:36 pm

Well, what to say?!!!:). I love pooches (dogs in American English:)). Sometimes they are better than human beings when it comes to showing feelings…most of the times they are better than us in that little ‘trick’:). My dog Minu died of old age (17 years old!) and I loved him. My dog was one of my best friends…and best fiends at that 2!! Dogs are animals all the same and they can get crazy at times, so beare of the POOCH!!!:):)

Posted By Susan Doll : October 18, 2012 3:19 pm

Terrific post — great tie-ins to Robert Johnson and mythology. I once co-wrote a little booklet of ghost stories, and we dug up the “Black Dog Stories” or “Black Shuck stories” from England. A black shuck is a demon dog. The first recorded story pops up around 1577 when a large black animal attacked a church in Blytheburgh. Supposedly as it ran through the church, it left scorch marks in its path. Another attack around the same time occurred in Bungay. This time the dog had fire at its heels and burned people as it raced by. A black shuck normally appears at crossroads, bridges, doorways, or other boundaries. Legend has it that it is an omen of death.

Timewarp: I love dogs, too, and do not believe they are evil. These are only movies playing with our fears.

Posted By Susan Doll : October 18, 2012 3:19 pm

Terrific post — great tie-ins to Robert Johnson and mythology. I once co-wrote a little booklet of ghost stories, and we dug up the “Black Dog Stories” or “Black Shuck stories” from England. A black shuck is a demon dog. The first recorded story pops up around 1577 when a large black animal attacked a church in Blytheburgh. Supposedly as it ran through the church, it left scorch marks in its path. Another attack around the same time occurred in Bungay. This time the dog had fire at its heels and burned people as it raced by. A black shuck normally appears at crossroads, bridges, doorways, or other boundaries. Legend has it that it is an omen of death.

Timewarp: I love dogs, too, and do not believe they are evil. These are only movies playing with our fears.

Posted By Klara : October 18, 2012 3:37 pm

I find Cujo’s predicament truly heartbreaking, too. And that’s one of the instances of a Stephen King story where the movie didn’t even come close to capturing his story’s brilliance (unlike The Shining, in which the story translated better on screen than it did in the book.) I read Cujo in a matter of hours one day — could not put it down. It’s one of my favorite stories. The brilliance of the book is that it tells Cujo’s side, as well, from the perspective of the sick dog: you actually experience how horrible it feels to be rabid. It’s just that he’s suffering terribly — like at the end, when he’s smashing his head against the car (the only protection the mother and child have against him) he is merely trying desperately to stop the terrible pain and sounds blasting in his head. When reading the book, you can understand more definitively that the dog is not simply aiming to kill them; he’s trying end his own misery. The story also has a lot of other interesting metaphors (about fear) that the film was not able to demonstrate as well as it could have. Instead of Carrie remakes, I can never understand how someone hasn’t done an adequate take (or remake) of Cujo. I actually had set out to write the screenplay for it myself a few years ago, right after I read the book!

Posted By Klara : October 18, 2012 3:37 pm

I find Cujo’s predicament truly heartbreaking, too. And that’s one of the instances of a Stephen King story where the movie didn’t even come close to capturing his story’s brilliance (unlike The Shining, in which the story translated better on screen than it did in the book.) I read Cujo in a matter of hours one day — could not put it down. It’s one of my favorite stories. The brilliance of the book is that it tells Cujo’s side, as well, from the perspective of the sick dog: you actually experience how horrible it feels to be rabid. It’s just that he’s suffering terribly — like at the end, when he’s smashing his head against the car (the only protection the mother and child have against him) he is merely trying desperately to stop the terrible pain and sounds blasting in his head. When reading the book, you can understand more definitively that the dog is not simply aiming to kill them; he’s trying end his own misery. The story also has a lot of other interesting metaphors (about fear) that the film was not able to demonstrate as well as it could have. Instead of Carrie remakes, I can never understand how someone hasn’t done an adequate take (or remake) of Cujo. I actually had set out to write the screenplay for it myself a few years ago, right after I read the book!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 18, 2012 3:40 pm

timewarp – I love dogs too! All animals really. Hopefully you got some sense of that in my post. I owned a dog once when I was a child and I’d like to get another some day.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 18, 2012 3:40 pm

timewarp – I love dogs too! All animals really. Hopefully you got some sense of that in my post. I owned a dog once when I was a child and I’d like to get another some day.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 18, 2012 3:42 pm

Susan – That booklet sounds like a great read. I love those types of folktales and legends.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 18, 2012 3:42 pm

Susan – That booklet sounds like a great read. I love those types of folktales and legends.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 18, 2012 3:45 pm

Klara – Love what you had to say about CUJO and couldn’t agree with you more. Most of King’s stories are much more interesting than the movies made from them. A remake of CUJO would be welcome by me!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 18, 2012 3:45 pm

Klara – Love what you had to say about CUJO and couldn’t agree with you more. Most of King’s stories are much more interesting than the movies made from them. A remake of CUJO would be welcome by me!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 18, 2012 3:49 pm

Just realized I forgot to mention one of my favorite dog films from the ’80s, BAXTER. It’s a French film and one of the few I’ve seen that does an incredible job of giving voice to what’s going on in a dog’s head. It’s a disturbing movie, more chilling than frightening really, but I think you’d appreciate it Klara. I’m going to go ahead and add it to my post now.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DqJtJL6bSRg

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 18, 2012 3:49 pm

Just realized I forgot to mention one of my favorite dog films from the ’80s, BAXTER. It’s a French film and one of the few I’ve seen that does an incredible job of giving voice to what’s going on in a dog’s head. It’s a disturbing movie, more chilling than frightening really, but I think you’d appreciate it Klara. I’m going to go ahead and add it to my post now.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DqJtJL6bSRg

Posted By Klara : October 18, 2012 4:19 pm

I’m so glad you appreciate Cujo — and that you’d also welcome a remake (one that Hollywood is way too slow and uninspired to go after ;))… And thanks for sharing Baxter, Kim, (wow) I need to check it out! The French have done their share of justice with dog stories. I highly recommend Sam Fuller’s ‘White Dog’ if you haven’t seen it. Written by Gary Romain, who was French — of course it presents more of a social commentary rather than providing a ‘horror context’, but the result (in either context) is horrifying. ‘White Dog’ is a masterpiece… again, heartbreaking for what the truly innocent dog is experiencing and how it merely reflects the bad behavior of his human counterparts… Animals are nicer than people, as Morrissey recently said ;) I also wrote about ‘White Dog’ before: http://retroactivecritique.blogspot.com/2011/06/white-dog-1982.html

Posted By Klara : October 18, 2012 4:19 pm

I’m so glad you appreciate Cujo — and that you’d also welcome a remake (one that Hollywood is way too slow and uninspired to go after ;))… And thanks for sharing Baxter, Kim, (wow) I need to check it out! The French have done their share of justice with dog stories. I highly recommend Sam Fuller’s ‘White Dog’ if you haven’t seen it. Written by Gary Romain, who was French — of course it presents more of a social commentary rather than providing a ‘horror context’, but the result (in either context) is horrifying. ‘White Dog’ is a masterpiece… again, heartbreaking for what the truly innocent dog is experiencing and how it merely reflects the bad behavior of his human counterparts… Animals are nicer than people, as Morrissey recently said ;) I also wrote about ‘White Dog’ before: http://retroactivecritique.blogspot.com/2011/06/white-dog-1982.html

Posted By Klara : October 18, 2012 4:28 pm

Also, on a side Halloween/horror film note — werewolves are essentially dogs, too. And I always feel like people are split in three groups: are you a vampire, zombie or werewolf fanatic? Seems like people are typically most passionate about only one of those types of stories. I can say wholeheartedly I don’t care at all for ANY vampire OR zombie stories, or movies… but I’m strangely drawn to ANY werewolf story — I just care most about those innocent (and essentially trapped) dogs! ;)

Posted By Klara : October 18, 2012 4:28 pm

Also, on a side Halloween/horror film note — werewolves are essentially dogs, too. And I always feel like people are split in three groups: are you a vampire, zombie or werewolf fanatic? Seems like people are typically most passionate about only one of those types of stories. I can say wholeheartedly I don’t care at all for ANY vampire OR zombie stories, or movies… but I’m strangely drawn to ANY werewolf story — I just care most about those innocent (and essentially trapped) dogs! ;)

Posted By Cary Watson : October 18, 2012 7:49 pm

Nice to hear a shout out for Hammer’s Hound of the Baskervilles. Peter Cushing was an excellent Holmes. Another victim of Doberman attack was George Kennedy at the end of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. With the exception of Baskerville and The Omen, I find dogs don’t come across well as threatening creatures. I think it’s because it’s usually painfully obvious that the dogs are responding to commands from just off-screen. A bad recent example of this was Frozen, with wolves frisking about and mostly ignoring the “terrified” actors. But the worst of the bunch (pack?) has to be The Killer Shrews, a 1959 creature feature in which a dozen mutts are dressed up to look like giant, mutated shrews. It’s one of those so-bad-it’s-hilarious films. And I think those dogs next to Barbara Steele are Great Danes, not mastiffs.

Posted By Cary Watson : October 18, 2012 7:49 pm

Nice to hear a shout out for Hammer’s Hound of the Baskervilles. Peter Cushing was an excellent Holmes. Another victim of Doberman attack was George Kennedy at the end of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. With the exception of Baskerville and The Omen, I find dogs don’t come across well as threatening creatures. I think it’s because it’s usually painfully obvious that the dogs are responding to commands from just off-screen. A bad recent example of this was Frozen, with wolves frisking about and mostly ignoring the “terrified” actors. But the worst of the bunch (pack?) has to be The Killer Shrews, a 1959 creature feature in which a dozen mutts are dressed up to look like giant, mutated shrews. It’s one of those so-bad-it’s-hilarious films. And I think those dogs next to Barbara Steele are Great Danes, not mastiffs.

Posted By Klara : October 18, 2012 8:33 pm

And Kim — as usual, your image selection here is impeccable. I keep wanting to look at them :)

Posted By Klara : October 18, 2012 8:33 pm

And Kim — as usual, your image selection here is impeccable. I keep wanting to look at them :)

Posted By Doug : October 19, 2012 12:48 am

A great post with many far-ranging examples of Dogs in film, especially horror films.
‘Satanic’ hounds, or those dogs who are loyal to an evil master would be the most frightening to me, because they ARE loyal, and often strong and dangerous-a Doberman rightfully is scarier than a Teacup Poodle…
Kimberly, you mentioned Carpenter’s “The Thing”-what I found striking was that the dog appeared being chased by a crew in a helicopter, and Kurt Russell’s group didn’t understand why they were trying to kill it. That confusion added to the story greatly. Poor little dog, being hunted by those crazy Norwegians!

Posted By Doug : October 19, 2012 12:48 am

A great post with many far-ranging examples of Dogs in film, especially horror films.
‘Satanic’ hounds, or those dogs who are loyal to an evil master would be the most frightening to me, because they ARE loyal, and often strong and dangerous-a Doberman rightfully is scarier than a Teacup Poodle…
Kimberly, you mentioned Carpenter’s “The Thing”-what I found striking was that the dog appeared being chased by a crew in a helicopter, and Kurt Russell’s group didn’t understand why they were trying to kill it. That confusion added to the story greatly. Poor little dog, being hunted by those crazy Norwegians!

Posted By swac44 : October 19, 2012 12:14 pm

Dang it, Cary beat me to a The Killer Shrews reference! It’s kind of painful and depressing, but kind of a low-budget classic in its own deranged way. I recommend the MST3K version, if only for the great skits in-between movie segments, where they write their own theme song for the film, and come up with a Killer Shrew cocktail (due to the amount of drinking the characters do in the movie itself).

I was lucky enough to catch a silent British version of The Hound of the Baskervilles at a festival once, and to make the hound seem more menacing, the filmmakers simply scratched out the dog’s eyes on the negative (or some other pre-print material) so that they just glowed white whenever the beast was on screen. It’s the ultimate low-budget special effect, but it still kinda worked.

Posted By swac44 : October 19, 2012 12:14 pm

Dang it, Cary beat me to a The Killer Shrews reference! It’s kind of painful and depressing, but kind of a low-budget classic in its own deranged way. I recommend the MST3K version, if only for the great skits in-between movie segments, where they write their own theme song for the film, and come up with a Killer Shrew cocktail (due to the amount of drinking the characters do in the movie itself).

I was lucky enough to catch a silent British version of The Hound of the Baskervilles at a festival once, and to make the hound seem more menacing, the filmmakers simply scratched out the dog’s eyes on the negative (or some other pre-print material) so that they just glowed white whenever the beast was on screen. It’s the ultimate low-budget special effect, but it still kinda worked.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 19, 2012 3:25 pm

Cary – I watched THUNDER BOLT & LIGHTFOOT for the first time about 4 months ago but I completely forgot about the dog attack. Thanks for the reminder! As for the mastiffs/Great Danes, I’m no dog expert but in some reviews I’ve read of BLACK SUNDAY they referred to them as mastiffs. Does that mean much? No. They look like they might be a mastiff/Great Dane mix to me but as I said, I no dog expert.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 19, 2012 3:25 pm

Cary – I watched THUNDER BOLT & LIGHTFOOT for the first time about 4 months ago but I completely forgot about the dog attack. Thanks for the reminder! As for the mastiffs/Great Danes, I’m no dog expert but in some reviews I’ve read of BLACK SUNDAY they referred to them as mastiffs. Does that mean much? No. They look like they might be a mastiff/Great Dane mix to me but as I said, I no dog expert.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 19, 2012 3:25 pm

Klara – Thanks again! I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 19, 2012 3:25 pm

Klara – Thanks again! I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 19, 2012 3:28 pm

Doug – Thanks! Carpenter’s THE THING has a terrific opening. Possibly on of my all time favorites that really sets the tension and adds a lot to the overall mood of the film. Great movie!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 19, 2012 3:28 pm

Doug – Thanks! Carpenter’s THE THING has a terrific opening. Possibly on of my all time favorites that really sets the tension and adds a lot to the overall mood of the film. Great movie!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 19, 2012 3:30 pm

SWAC – I can’t remember if I’ve seen THE KILLER SHREWS or not. I’m going to have hunt down the trailer on youtube. If I did, it was probably when I was a kid and I thought the dogs WERE giant killer shrews.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 19, 2012 3:30 pm

SWAC – I can’t remember if I’ve seen THE KILLER SHREWS or not. I’m going to have hunt down the trailer on youtube. If I did, it was probably when I was a kid and I thought the dogs WERE giant killer shrews.

Posted By Juana Maria : October 24, 2012 9:39 pm

First of all, I am a cat person myself. I have 4 cats and I am proud of that! When I first saw this article,an obscure film of James Garner came to mind called “They Only Kill Their Masters”. They have played it on T.C.M. before. As for ” hell hounds”,Cerberus of Greek/Roman mythology comes to mind. I love Robert Johnson’s blues!

Posted By Juana Maria : October 24, 2012 9:39 pm

First of all, I am a cat person myself. I have 4 cats and I am proud of that! When I first saw this article,an obscure film of James Garner came to mind called “They Only Kill Their Masters”. They have played it on T.C.M. before. As for ” hell hounds”,Cerberus of Greek/Roman mythology comes to mind. I love Robert Johnson’s blues!

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