Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell (1978) -**½
The vogue for diabolism and the occult surely did bring out the silly side of the mostly (and for the most part justly) well-regarded made-for-TV horror films of the 1970’s. Somehow, the same creators who could make winning use of a risible premise like the homicidal rampage of an animate bulldozer lost all composure in the face of Satan and his disciples. While other subgenres inspired the artisans of the primetime spook-show to such heights as Gargoyles, Trilogy of Terror, and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, the same industry’s forays into demonomania were more likely to yield Satan’s School for Girls, The Horror at 37,000 Feet, or Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby. They also yielded Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell, in which a coven of evil witches strike a blow against God and all his works by breeding a litter of puppy Antichrists!
Now as any breeder knows, you don’t get extra-special pups without an extra-special dam and an extra-special sire. To acquire the former, the head of the cult (Martine Beswick, from Strange New World and Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde) spends a small fortune on a prize-winning German shepherd bitch from the Lakeland Kennel. For the latter, she and her followers summon up the demon Barghest at their next sabbat. That scene is a fine example of the subtle joys of made-for-TV crap, a case of the imagination left to fill in details infinitely more ridiculous than anything the filmmakers could afford or would be allowed to show. The coven is gathered in a barn or a stable or something, with the high priestess standing in prayer before a tacky altar and Lady— that’s the dog— staked out in the center of a pentagram drawn on the earthen floor. A fell wind rises up to announce the success of their conjuring, the coven file out into the corral outside the barn— and suddenly it dawns on us that the witches are trying to afford Barghest and Lady some privacy. Hot on the heels of that realization come the full implications of Satanic bestiality, after which it’s off to the races in every viewer’s mind. What kind of slack-jawed demon mouth-breather likes to fuck dogs? Or is this the kind of short-straw gig that every fiend in Pandemonium does their level best to get out of whenever it comes up? “Damnit, Azathoth!” do they say, “I was on dog-fucking detail last week! It’s your turn this time!” And is that the real reason why the coven goes outside— because they know how embarrassed Barghest is going to be? Do demons suffer from performance anxiety? Or is it just that none of these people want to find out what passes for mood music in the Abyss? (My money’s on Big Black’s Songs About Fucking…)
Four months or so later, Mike and Betty Barry (Richard Crenna, from Death Ship and The Evil, and Yvette Mimieux, from Black Noon and Snowbeast) return home from somewhere or other to find that some asshole ran over their dog, Skipper. George next door (Lou Frizzell, of Capricorn One and The Other) saw the whole thing. The poor dog ran out into the street in a totally uncharacteristic manner, and some guy in a big, black station wagon plowed over him without any effort at evasion whatsoever. George chased after the driver on foot, but you can imagine how much that accomplished. And to make a bad situation worse, today is the Barrys’ daughter’s birthday, and Bonnie (Kim Richards, from The Car and a made-for-TV version of The Picture of Dorian Gray) loved that little dog more than anything. Distraught, Bonnie declares her own party cancelled, has her folks call around to disinvite all her friends, and retreats to her bedroom for a good sulk. Her brother, Charlie (Ike Eisenmann, of Escape to Witch Mountain and Terror Out of the Sky), tries to cheer her up, but only makes things so much worse that Bonnie gets on her bike to flee the scene altogether.
That’s when the farmer (R. G. Armstrong, of Angels Die Hard and The Beast Within) drives up. He wants to know if Bonnie and Charlie think their parents would like to buy some of his fresh produce, but what catches the kids’ eyes is the litter of German shepherd pups in the back of his truck— little damn things and cuter than hell, like a pack of carpet-shitting tribbles. Bonnie decides on the spot that she has to have one, her earlier protests about Skipper’s irreplaceability notwithstanding, and under the circumstances, no one has the heart to refuse her. We’ve seen that farmer somewhere before, however. That’s right— he was there in the barn with Martine Beswick, helping her to pray up that dog-fucking demon. So perhaps it would be better to say that Lucky (as Bonnie dubs her new pet) is exactly as cute as Hell.
The first hint of Lucky’s infernal nature comes that very day, when George comes over to visit, and his monstrous great Dane, Prince, proves inexplicably terrified of the tiny shepherd. Maria the maid (Nightkill’s Tina Menard) finds Lucky equally unnerving, but is only slightly better able to articulate her misgivings than the neighbor’s dog. Even that is too close a call for our waggly-tailed Antichrist’s taste, however, and just days later, Maria is killed in an accident with the world’s most incendiary prayer candle. Strangely, no one thinks to question how she managed to burn herself to a frazzle in an otherwise unoccupied house without taking the entire edifice with her. Then, on exactly the anniversary of Lucky’s adoption by the family (and I assure you the jump is just as jarring in the film itself as that makes it sound), Mike has a weird experience involving the dog and a supposedly broken lawnmower. Barry has the machine up on its back so that he can investigate why the blade keeps stalling out, and as Lucky looks on, the mower spontaneously cranks into life. More alarmingly, Mike soon finds himself wrestling with the damnedest urge to stick his hand into the whirling blade! Lucky trots off as if no longer interested once Mike fully regains his senses. Barry doesn’t consciously identify Lucky as the cause of his visit from the Imp of the Perverse— I mean, he’s not crazy, right?— nor does he ever connect that incident with what happened to Maria. He never forgets it, though, either. And he’s never quite comfortable alone with Lucky from then on.
The Dark Powers are playing a subtler game than that, however. Some time after the Lawnmower Incident, Charlie and Bonnie start acting weird. Not too weird at first, mind you— just sassing back, keeping odd hours, behaving secretively about strange new hobbies, that sort of thing. Almost as if they were— I don’t know— turning into teenagers or something. It gives Betty the willies, though, and she tries her level best to communicate her misgivings to her oblivious husband. Alas, by the time Mike notices the change in his kids, Betty has changed too. Now, when Miles Amory (Ken Kercheval, from The Demon Murder Case and The Disappearance of Flight 412), a guidance counselor at the kids’ school, comes forward with accusations that Bonnie is cheating in her classes, and that Charlie framed a boy for stealing as part of a plot to capture the election for class president, Betty not only defends her wayward children, but even attempts to seduce Miles into dropping the matter. She makes no effort to hide her unethical behavior from Mike, either. Meanwhile, Lucky returns to killing directly. First he takes out George’s dog, then he goes after Amory when Mike decides to seek his aid in getting to the bottom of what’s happened to his family.
Finding Lucky on the premises in the aftermath of Amory’s death finally gets Barry thinking about that afternoon with the lawnmower again. Initially, he makes the reasonable assumption that he’s succumbing to paranoia, but his doctor (Jerry Fogel) gives him a clean bill of health, both physical and mental. At worst, he thinks Mike could stand to take things a little easier at work. Then Mike sees a curious story on the TV news. A man in the next exurb over has gone on a loony shooting rampage, and the only thing his wife (Lois Ursone, from The Joys of Jezebel and Two Roses and a Golden Rod) can offer by way of explanation is that he’s never been quite right since they adopted that dog about a year ago. Suddenly realizing that he may not be alone in his plight, Mike vows to deal with his demonic pet once and for all. His first efforts in that direction are unavailing, however. He drives Lucky out to a remote patch of forest to shoot him, but even at point-blank range, the bullets can’t seem to find their target. And when he leaves Lucky to fend for himself in the woods, Mike returns home to find that the dog has somehow gotten there ahead of him.
Fortunately, Barry lives in a town with an antiquarian book shop owned by an occultist weirdo (Gertrude Flynn). He goes to see the old bat, and she has a few suggestions for him. Bookshop Lady knows about Barghest, for one thing, and she also knows about a test whereby someone pure of heart can determine the state of a demoniac’s soul. On a potentially more helpful front, she points Mike toward a spot in Ecuador where ancient cliff paintings depict a Barghest-like demon who doesn’t look a thing like Barghest (at least if we can judge by the watercolor [bloodcolor?] painting adorning the altar that the Barry kids have constructed in the attic). Perhaps that means the Indios down that way have tangled with Barry’s nemesis from time to time? Mike hightails it to Ecuador after performing Bookshop Lady’s possession test on Bonnie, and once there encounters a shaman (Victor Jory, of The Man Who Turned to Stone and Cat-Women of the Moon) whose prescriptions just might stand him in good stead against Lucky.
Oddly enough, Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell started life as a sequel to an episode of “Kolchak: The Night Stalker.” In “The Devil’s Platform,” the monster of the week was a shady politician whose pact with Satan gave him, among other things, the ability to transform into an invulnerable German shepherd. The episode ended with the talisman embodying the pact destroyed, and the politician permanently trapped in canine form. The makers of Devil Dog originally wanted to continue that story as a spinoff telefilm, but rights issues tripped them up. I don’t know which part of that delights me more— that somebody thought audiences were yearning to see the further adventures of Tom Skerrit, Demon Pooch, or that somebody else was sufficiently concerned about the integrity of “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” to stop them.
Like most TV movies of its era, Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell is thoroughly professional. Richard Crenna, Yvette Mimieux, and Lou Frizzell were all reliable B-list actors, and their performances here are solid enough all around. The same goes for Martine Beswick and R. G. Armstrong in their smaller, justifiably hammier roles as the villains behind the villain. Even the kids playing Charlie and Bonnie had done this sort of thing enough by 1978 that they could be trusted not to wreck the picture. And behind the camera, Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell had no less an ace up its sleeve than Curtis Harrington in the director’s chair! Certainly this movie doesn’t bear comparison with The Killing Kind or even Night Tide, but there are typically Harringtonian touches of minor artistry here and there. I especially like the scene that has the newly corrupted Betty disavowing her earlier worries over the children, and changing the subject by inciting Mike to sneak next door with her to go skinny dipping in George’s pool. It’s a completely innocuous moment in which something is nevertheless obviously off.
But again in the way of contemporary TV movies— or more specifically, in the way of those in the occult horror subgenre— Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell is progressively undone by its increasingly ludicrous story, then finally shoots itself in the head with a special effects set-piece of stunning inadequacy. There’s simply nothing Harrington can do to make us forget that this is an Omen rip-off in which the Antichrist is a dog. Nor can he disguise how Devil Dog takes another deep wallow in silliness every ten to fifteen minutes, beginning with the demonic dog-fucking scene. The best he can manage is to spend as little time on Lucky’s infancy as possible (trust me— no words can do justice to Maria’s faceoffs against a supposedly spooky puppy), and to give us only a glimpse of the dog in his true form during the attack on Miles Amory. We see Lucky’s full fiendishness clearly enough that first time to perceive that we’ve just witnessed something utterly ridiculous, but not for long enough to fully appreciate what. Eventually the climax must come, though, and it’s to Harrington’s credit in a way that he refuses to shirk the responsibility that entails, nevermind that it means blowing what little remains of the film’s dignity to kingdom come. You see, Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell resembles Dracula’s Dog in that it gives us a live canine in monster makeup. But whereas the latter notorious travesty was content to suggest doggy undeath simply by dyeing the brown parts of Zoltan’s coat a sickly gray, this movie goes all out in a way not seen since the 1950’s heyday of the Custom Gator. In the final showdown, Lucky is magnified to many times his natural size through the magic of matte printing. He’s also rendered starkly black and pale gray via screwy exposure settings. Meanwhile, a Lon Chaney-esque contraption of wires stretches his lips all the way back to the hinges of his jaws, emphasizing the jaggedness of his cheek teeth and encouraging him to gape his mouth repeatedly while obsessively licking his chops. He also gets a pair of tiny horns to wear, one above each eyebrow like a stereotypical human-faced devil. And for reasons I cannot begin to fathom, someone has tricked the poor animal out with Tina Turner’s wig. No, I’m quite serious. Think of Tina Turner in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, and then put that hair on a dog. With wee little horns poking out from under it. It’s unbelievable, and it’s reason enough to watch Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell all by itself.
This review is my straggling-in-late contribution to the B-Masters Cabal’s examination of movies about killer pet. Click the link below to see what my colleagues brought home from the pet shop.