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The F*cking Black Sheep: Man's Best Friend (1993)

THE BLACK SHEEP is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATH. We’re hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Dig in!

MAN'S BEST FRIEND (1993)

DIRECTED BY JOHN LAFIA

Off top, what’s your favorite killer-animal horror flick? Other than JAWS, that is.

Well, from CUJO to VENOM to MONKEY SHINES, we continue with our 2018 killer-animal motif! And this week’s pet peeve is regarding what has to be one of the most unjustly overlooked deadly domestic animal horror joints – John Lafia’s mordantly humorous and morbidly horrific MAN’S BEST FRIEND (GET IT HERE). Damn I love this movie! And yet, for whatever reason, possibly due to either the overt comedic tone, or public exhaustion of oversaturated canine flicks (CUJO, BEETHOVEN, K-9, etc.), the movie never found the footing it deserved. At least, critically. The movie did gross double its budget, turning $6 million to $12 million, but let’s be honest, when it comes to the pantheon of creature features, specifically among the subset of killer animal flicks, you hardly ever hear anyone bring up MAN’S BEST FRIEND first and foremost. Yeah well, f*ck all that noise Jack, we’re putting an end to that nonsense right here and now. In honor of the nefarious Lance Henriksen of EMAX, let’s vivisect MAN’S BEST FRIEND and demonstrate why, on its 25th birthday, it's always been an unheralded F*cking Black Sheep!

Let’s start on the page, shall we. Written and directed by John Lafia (THE BLUE IGUANA, CHILD’S PLAY 2), the story of MAN’S BEST FRIEND isn’t a terribly original one, but so what, it’s damn compelling just the same. At a genetic research facility called EMAX, an employee named Julie (Robin Frates) is bribed with $500 to allow TV producer Lori Tanner (Ally Sheedy) to document the cruel atrocities inflicted on helpless animals in the name of science. Too bad Julie is savagely slaughtered and smeared across the linoleum in a deep red flood of blood before she can comply with Lori’s demands. In any event, Lori and her pal sneak in to EMAX and videotape the inhumane treatment of various animals that have been violently experimented on. One such animal is Max, a Saint Bernard (really a Tibetan Mastiff, with five different dogs used in the film) that will soon be viewed, through no fault of its own, as a Sinner Bernard. That’s because a brilliant but burnt-out scientist named Dr. Jarret (Henriksen) has been splicing Max’s DNA with that of a whole range of zoological specimens. In particular, Max has been juiced with the DNA of a jaguar, bear, owl, chameleon, and snake. The result is a super-intelligent time-bomb of a killing machine, as Max has also been injected with a neuropathic sedative. When it wears off, Mad Max is set to turn his idyllic suburban street into fury f*cking road!

What I always found myself immediately drawn to in MAN’S BEST FRIEND is just how loving and loveable Max is in the first half of the movie (or at least the first act). The kindness he shows to Lori is genuine and heartfelt, which pays off in spades in terms of the requisite sympathy needed by the time Max makes his sinister switch. The way Max chases a mugger in a parking lot, only to return Lori’s purse with a big hug instantly puts you on the side of not just Lori, but Max as well. The nuanced shading between Max as antagonist and Dr. Jarret as even more evilly culpable makes for an interesting rooting dynamic as the movie unfolds. Conversely, and quite humorously, the way Max treats Lori’s boyfriend Perry (Fredric Lehne) is the polar opposite. He gets jealous of Perry when he and Lori enjoy a roll in the hay, constantly barks and slavers in his face, ready to pounce at a moment’s notice. This works so well because all of Max’s misbehavior takes place behind Lori’s back, rarely raising her suspicions when Perry hysterically lashes out.

To this end, the proper escalation of Max’s menace keeps the movie perfectly paced. At a jaunty 87 minutes, the movie flies by at a highly entertaining clip, rarely if ever falling into a boring lull that takes your interest or attention away. I’m always glued to the screen when I see MAN’S BEST FRIEND, and a lot of it has to do with the way in which Max moves towards murder. Remember, after slaughtering Julie and the mugger, Max dials it back a bit and becomes equable, only to climb back up to his stature as a calculated killer. He chases a paperboy and chews his bike tires, climbs a tree and swallows a cat whole, sabotages the brake-line in Perry’s car, etc. Then, you know it: “It’s your aaaassss Mr. Post Maaaaan!” Yup, the mailman gets his throat gouged something fierce (memorialized via the aforementioned line in FRIDAY). Of course, even when Max’s ups his evil ante and becomes a ferociously feral terminator, Lafia does a good job of keeping the sympathy for the dog largely intact. When Lori dumps Max at the junkyard to be cared for by Ray (William Sanderson), Max endures more physical abuse that makes you feel for him wholeheartedly. Max is beaten with a shovel and blowtorched in the face before going buck wild and brutally braining Ray. The moral ambiguity here is fascinating, putting the viewer in an unsure position of fearing Max or protecting him from further harm.

Where the movie separates itself from those of its ilk is in its waggish sense of dark humor. We can start with Lance Henriksen’s wildly over the top turn as Dr. Jarret - the wispy blonde hair and round glasses, the hilarious histrionics in the end, the evil demeanor, etc. But the humor goes way beyond that. I for one can never avoid a hardy chuckle every time I see the paperboy launch a newspaper at Max, and the facial reaction the dog gives immediately after. Shite’s hilarious. So too is the shit-talking parrot that Max chomps and flushes down the toilet, the fart-obsessed little kid Rudy (J.D. Daniels), and last but not least, my favorite example of the musical joke when Max mates with Rudy’s collie Heidi. That’s right y’all, I’m talking Paul Anka’s “Puppy Love.” It’s a perfect example of the wonderfully struck tone of humor and horror MAN’S BEST FRIEND brazenly boasts. It also foreshadows the final shot of the film!

But everything comes to a head during the movies strongest moment – the frenzied finale. Not only does Max make its way back to Lori’s house from the junkyard, now intent on killing Perry for trying to poison him and for replacing Max with a new puppy named Spike. Max not only sprays acidic piss all over Perry’s face, the deleterious doggie deadens the protecting police officers cordoning the house. It’d be a hell of a climax on its own right, but it’s made doubly delicious by the fact that Jarret has gone completely haywire, ready to kill Max at any cost. A seat-teetering showdown occurs at EMAX, where the film started, in which every rooting dynamic from above comes back into play. We care for Lori most, Max second, and Jarret the least, but when all three are thrown into a baleful blender of survival of the fittest in the end, the lines blur in a truly enthralling way. The heartbreaking final shot of Max and Lori in the lab should leave us with this: animal cruelty, no matter how important to scientific research, will always be wrongheaded, deeply dangerous, and rightly regrettable. MAN’S BEST FRIEND takes the horror to hilarious heights in saying there has to be a better way!

Straight up, MAN’S BEST FRIEND is one of man’s best killer-animal flicks. Sure it’s derivative, but it has the sense of humor to know as much, poke fun at its place among the subset of deadly-domesticated-pet movies, and remain delightfully entertaining from beginning to end. With its deft balance of horror and humor, extended sympathetic leash, proper escalation of intense violence, and underlying message against animal cruelty, MAN’S BEST FRIEND ought to be feted for such, rather than ostracized as a F*cking Black Sheep. Come on Shout Factory, let's get this bad-boy on Blu-ray already!

STREAM MAN'S BEST FRIEND HERE

GET MAN'S BEST FRIEND ON DVD HERE

Source: AITH

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