Sunday, April 15, 2012

Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell (1978)

A bunch of worshippers of The Beast has the best plan ever: they buy (how fiendish!) a worthy female Alsatian (only the best breeding dogs for evil!) and impregnate her with the seed of "the Barghest" (not really your mythological Barghest). Then, they run over the dogs of random typical US upper class (yeah, sorry, these rich people may call themselves middle class, but they can't fool anyone) families and then flaunt adorable devil dog puppies in front of their children's eyes.

That's what happens to the Barrys, at least. Soon, the dog has made adorable puppy eyes at the family's housemaid (who, not being white, at once identified the cute little bugger as evil) until she catches flames and dies, corrupted the innocent Barry children Bonnie (Kim Richards) and Charlie (Ike Eisenmann) until they lie, cheat, and paint pictures of a three-eyed demon, gets to mother Betty (Yvette Mimieux) as well, and has killed various neighbours and do-gooders with the power of its mind (no dog attacks in this devil dog movie). Only father Mike (Richard Crenna) seems immune to the mutt's evil influence, well, except for an episode in which the dog tries to hypnotize him into sticking his hand into a running mower and nearly succeeds. What is a man to do?

Fortunately, the powers of good, as represented by a lady occultist with a British accent and a toothless Ecuadorean shaman (Victor Jory) are able to identify the dog, and explain to Mike that he's one of the Blessed of the Light whose job it seems to be to send evil dogs back to hell by showing them their new magical tattoos.

It's not uncommon, at least among people talking about the director at all, to see Devil Dog as the point when Curtis Harrington's career as a director derailed completely. What he made after this TV movie seems to confirm this theory, at least, but it's a mistake to see Devil Dog as a failure.

Sure, the film is about as effective a horror film as a nice, relaxing evening in front of a fireplace, but seen as a comedy, the film's brilliant. In fact, there aren't many films I laughed as long and hard at as this one, and the longer the film went on, the clearer it became to me that Harrington must have known as well as anyone he wasn't really making a weird The Omen rip-off where the antichrist is replaced by a particularly friendly looking dog, but a parody of such a film; unless Harrington was a much dumber man than any of his other films suggest, but if you believe that, there's still that bridge for sale.

Once I began interpreting what I was seeing as consciously comedic, the whole film began to make much more sense to me. After all, there's no other reason to cast your devil dog with such a good-natured looking dog (not to speak of the adorable puppy phase of the film) who hypnotizes his victims to death (while looking bored), to give your actors lines like "My dog...he's taken over my wife and children. And somehow he kills anyone that tries to stop him", or to feature some fascinating information by that British lady about the differences between one-eyed and three-eyed demons (turns out one-eyed demons are much easier to fight because they are pretty stupid; now would you like a cuppa, my dear?). There are also some fantastic moments in bad acting on display, with hardly a scene featuring an evil family member that isn't made hilarious by the most excellent "evil" facial expressions (well, and the choice dialogue, too), and of course the epic final fight between Richard Crenna and his lantern hand against a large-rear-projected dog with horns and a lot of fluffy bits (are Barghests part bird, all adorable?). It also bears repeating that the film indeed tries to pretend a story about good white upper-class people being driven to evil by the family dog is somehow frightening; seldom has a horror comedy been that straight-faced.

Barely a scene goes by that does not feature something sublimely ridiculous. Especially the death by hypnotism scenes are awe-inspiring in their wrong-headedness, but really, every second of the film made me happy.

Unless I produced this write-up under the influence of my new demonic dog, and am now lying to you to provoke you into watching Devil Dog.

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