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Dogs in movies have been the stars of the show in many popular movies: “Lassie” from Lassie, “Toto” from the Wizard of Oz, “Beethoven” from Beethoven, “Marley” from Marley & Me, and more. Whether they’re the star of the show, saving the day, or supporting characters, dogs help make movies great — horror movies included.
Through the 1930s, the cinema legacy of German Shepherd Dog heroes like “Strongheart” and “Rin Tin Tin” established screen dogs as companions and family protectors. Movie producers never cast them as villains. Then things changed.
The harlequin Great Dane cast as the Baskerville hound in the 1914 German version of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” is arguably the first horror dog in motion pictures. The Baskerville Hound has been portrayed variously by a Rottweiler, Giant Schnauzer, shaggy German Shepherd Dogs, and even a comic Irish Wolfhound. But it is the tall, powerful Dane who’s most frequently cast in the film versions of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1902 Gothic detective novel which, appropriately enough, takes place in late October. (The book’s hound was a Bloodhound–Mastiff cross, painted with glowing phosphorus.)
So what does it take to make a nightmare hound? The best ones usually have extra-normal powers, some degree of indestructibility, and are actual dogs rather than a computer-generated one — although in attack close-ups, puppet heads may be used when the going gets rough.
Police Dog Breeds
Police dog breeds, particularly the German Shepherd Dog and Doberman Pinscher, served with honor during World War II. By the 1970s, however, their war reputation was twisted into undeserved villain status in films like The “The Doberman Gang” (1972) and “Trapped” (1973). Their predecessors in the 1930s included a pack of Great Danes in “The Most Dangerous Game” (1932).
Some of those Danes were rented from comic film star Harold Lloyd, who had a very large kennel of purebred dogs. In 1945, “The Most Dangerous Game” was remade as “A Game of Death” with the 1932 footage of the pack reused but featuring a new addition — a “man killer” Dane loose in the mansion.
Dogs Gone Wild
“Dogs gone wild” is perhaps the most gut-wrenching genre. The scenarios typically start off with one unexplained incident and escalate to a coordinated and determined assault on people trapped in a house or car. Often experts or reporters, futilely grasping for an explanation, speculate the dogs have a “strain” of rabies. Packs of purebreds and mixed breeds appear in “Dogs” (1976), “The Pack” (1977), and “The Breed” (2015). A homogeneous pack of GSD types is terrifying in the Australian 2015 version of “The Pack.”
Laboratory creations are the work of a scientist (frequently mad and always a man) who either works independently or for a megacorporation or the government or Army. These dogs are surgically altered; computer-controlled; chemically, biologically, or genetically manipulated; or some combination of each — all for some unspecified “benefit” to mankind.
The cyborg in 1984’s “The Terminator” inspired canine copycats such as the Tibetan Mastiff in “Man’s Best Friend” (1993). Dobermans deliberately infected with a manmade virus in “Resident Evil” (2002) become vicious and, over several sequels, transmogrify into zombies and then aliens.
Supernatural canines almost included German Shepherd Dogs as agents of Satan in “The Omen” (1976) but English quarantine laws prevented their import, so a local kennel of trained Rottweilers was used. Almost anything goes in “Monster Dog” (1984), starring shock-rock musician Alice Cooper and a mixed pack of permanently rabid dogs led by a werewolf. A curious hybrid villain appears in “The Face of Marble” (1946), in which a Great Dane resurrected with electricity and experimental serum somehow becomes a zombie-ghost.
Alien Dogs are scarce, but two of the best are “The Thing” (1982) and its prequel, also titled “The Thing” (2011), where an alien-inhabited Siberian Husky causes frightening mayhem for Antarctic researchers. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the silly TV movie “Night of the Wild” (2015), where a small town doesn’t seem to connect the appearance of glowing green meteorites with local dogs suddenly attacking their owners — including the firehouse Dalmatian, a blind man’s guide dog, and even two little white mixed-breed dogs at the groomer.
Comic Horror Dogs
Comic horror dogs include Goth goddess Elvira’s white Poodle, Gonk, who, as a sorceress’s familiar, transforms himself into a glowing-eyed Rottweiler in the campy “Elvira, Mistress of the Dark“ (1988). Floofsums, a white Poodle zombie (played by a man in a suit), provides some novel terror in “The Boneyard” (1991).
“The Sandlot” (1993) and its 2005 sequel have a hulking junkyard Mastiff as the fearsome neighborhood legend. While the baseball team eventually learns that he is friendly, in their overworked imagination “the Beast” had feet as big as kitchen pots, a head and gaping jaws several times larger than life, and he ate kids — all elements of a really good, scary campfire story.
In Stephen King’s “Cujo” (1983), a rabid Saint Bernard becomes a canine battering ram trying to get at a terrified mother and son trapped in a small car. King could hardly have picked a breed with a more benevolent reputation. Saint Bernards, as Alpine rescuers and children’s companions, were the epitome of the Victorian/Edwardian good dog. J.M. Barry’s own Saint, Porthos, was the inspiration for the Landseer Newfoundland, Nana, in his novel and play, “Peter Pan” — and on stage and film, the canine nanny is often played as a Saint Bernard.
It was a challenge for the film crew to make this giant softy look scary. The “rabies” drool (egg-white froth) was continually reapplied as it got licked off between takes. There were five to 10 Cujos (depending upon who tells the story) and each specialized in a specific stunt for the camera to get at their favorite chew toy.
Besides the cadre of trained Saints, there was a man in a dog suit, a mechanical dog head, and, if needed, a Cujo suit for a Labrador (never used). Happy tails are a frequent problem when making horror dog films and actor Dee Wallace remembers the Saint Bernards being such cheerful souls that their tails had to be tied to their legs to prevent them from wagging on camera.