Pros: It's fun to watch...
Cons: ...but undeniably a bad movie by any standard of quality
1978's Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell is another of those 1970s flicks that takes on a life of its own today, some thirty years after it was made. This made for TV effort had to have been looked at unfavorably at the time; it's not particularly scary, boasts mediocre at best special effects, and comes across onscreen as boring and utterly unexceptional. Yet, the film has enjoyable performances from a surprisingly good cast and, when viewed today, is pretty amusing and filled with some truly outrageous dialog and scenarios. For the horror movie fan with a sense of humor and love of bad movies, this should be a laugh riot.
The film begins with a group of devil worshippers acquiring a female dog in order to breed the _bitch with Satan himself. This is related to the screen in a laughably concocted devil worship scene featuring a group of Satanists, some of whom wear designer shades, and prance around a pentagram and occult painting. The devil himself appears only as a shadow, but somehow manages to impregnate the dog.
Flash forward a few days to the home of the Barrie family. Following the unfortunate death of their family pet, the children, Bonnie and Charlie, are devastated, but get lucky when a produce salesman comes around and offers to give the children a cute German Shepard puppy. The kids agree, naming the dog "Lucky." Soon the entire family, including parents Mike and Betty, is in love with the new pet, but it soon becomes apparent that the dog may not be what it seems.
Director Curtis Harrington, a one-time collaborator with Kenneth Anger who would go on to make several B-movies and work extensively in TV, turns in a film that appears to have been produced with little passion. Harrington seems to merely be going through the motions in this picture, giving us a film that offers nothing in the way of suspense or even real action. The movie is conceived with minimal creativity; Harrington's set-ups demonstrate that he knew what he was doing and got decent shots, but never go the extra mile and make for compelling viewing. One gets the idea from watching this film that the director had no real interest in making the film; it was simply a way to pay some bills.
The script for the film was written by Elinor and Steven Karpf, whose work seems to have been produced to cash in on the occult horror genre which started to gain popularity after 1973's The Exorcist. The script here plays out much like your typical supernatural thriller, albeit one that has been toned down of most of the violent and/or sexual content. This toning down may be half of the problem with the picture; fans of the horror genre get precious little payoff from viewing the film. Scary moments in the film are pretty lousy and definitely minimal, and there's nary a gore effect to be found.
Knowing that the script and direction are generally sub-par, one almost has to go into this film with an approach of being entertained in whatever way possible. In the case of most genuinely awful horror films, the enjoyment factor can often be increased by laughing at the more ludicrous elements of the film and story, and Devil Dog certainly delivers in that department.
In lieu of any slam-bang special effects, the idea that Lucky is possessed is conveyed to the audience by giving us numerous scenes where the dog merely looks off-camera. A glowing eye effect is layed onto the film, supposedly illustrating the demonic nature of the animal. These scenes are pretty frequent and start to become funny, especially with the added emphasis of "scary" music cues by Artie Kane. The characters themselves, especially the peripherals, are also somewhat amusing, with the Barrie family maid, a religious Hispanic woman named Maria who becomes the first victim of the devil dog, particularly laughable.
Certain scenarios of the film are also quite funny. You have to crack up when perhaps the most tense scene in the movie involves Mike being urged to stick his fingers into a whirring lawnmower blade. This prolonged scene is actually filmed quite effectively by director Harrington, but the idea that the dog is making this man do this is rather inane. Another amusing scene occurs when Mike drags Lucky "out behind the barn" so to speak, ready to shoot him in the head. The demonic powers of the hound, however, deflect any bullets, and Lucky just looks back with his trademark blank stare.
The entire film just seems hilariously implausible: why would Satan come back to earth as a dog whose sole purpose seems to be to make the Barrie family act strangely, with Mike being urged to cut off his fingers in a lawnmower, having Charlie get fresh with his mom, or having the mom suddenly become horny at odd times? Certainly some of the issue here is that this is a TV movie, and had to present itself with certain limitations to what the story could detail, but it just seemed to me that with a little more creativity and forethought, the writers could come up with some much better material. It definitely seemed strange to me that this film was ever shown straight-faced on TV for the purpose of entertaining let alone scaring its audience.
The cast assembled for this film is rather impressive, even if they seem to be in it for the paychecks. Richard Crenna stars as Mike and does seem to portray the ideal father figure. He seems to interact with the other members of the cast in a manner suggestive of their relationships onscreen, and also is perhaps the one character who the audience can empathize with to some extent. That said, our empathy as an audience is tested when Mike continues to stick around even as his children and wife are constantly conniving against him. The breaking point of the audience's relationship with Mike Barrie comes when he suddenly journeys to Ecuador to attempt to find out how he can exorcise the demon mutt. At this point, one has to realize that the film just has no redeeming values from a logical standpoint.
Yvette Mimieux comes across fairly well as Betty, who is eventually put under the controlling spell of the dog. Mimieux consistently comes across as having dual personalities, at one minute really warm and caring to her husband, the next coming across as quite dubious. Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards, famous for their roles in Disney's Witch Mountain series, star as the youngsters of the family, and similarly fall under the control of the devil dog. Their performances too are fun to watch as they swap from being model children to devil spawn over the course of the film. It's also amusing to see two child actors from Disney films being set loose in a film like this.
The supporting cast for Devil Dog features some interesting faces. Martine Bestwick appears as the lead devil worshipper in the beginning of the film, eliciting a cool sensuality and diabolic demeanor in her brief part. Victor Jory appears as a wise man familiar with Mike Barrie's situation who offers to help him, and Lou Frizzell makes an enjoyable appearance as the somewhat manic neighbor (with eyes that threaten to bug out of his skull every time he's onscreen) who becomes an object of Lucky's hostility.
Perhaps the most mind-boggling element of the story are a couple scenes which depict the devil dog in its true form, a sort of mythical demon. These scenes show a dog with a weird crown of mangy fur around its head and two horns protruding from its scalp and are just ridiculous, especially when lousy green-screen techniques are used to make the creature appear to be floating in a cloud of smoke. This creature figures prominently in the film's conclusion, so that should give you some idea about the quality of said ending.
For such a, frankly, awful and problematic film, Media Blasters have gone all out with their DVD version. This two-disc (!) special edition features a generally nice looking print of the film (there are a couple of scenes that appear to be much lesser quality which may have been taken from a VHS source) and a second disc with around two hours of bonus material. This disc starts off with a text interview with Martine Bestwick that goes into details about her somewhat illustrious career. Also included is a photo gallery of Bestwick that shows the rather fetching actress in a variety of revealing attire.
Next up is an audio interview with director Curtis Harrington that confirms that this film was strictly a paycheck and nothing more. Harrington seems to be somewhat perturbed that he's even being interviewed about a film that he (quite obviously) was not fond of. Finally, we get a 75 minute featurette that includes interviews with produced Jerry Zeitman (who rambles endlessly about numerous projects that he's working on and quickly becomes annoying), Kim Richards (who still looks quite good) and Ike Eisenmann. This program provides some great info about the film and the persons involved in it, although it does tend to lose its focus from time to time. Overall, it's mind-boggling that such a special edition packed with bonus footage would be produced for a movie that is this "bad" by traditional standards.
Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell is one of those movies that requires the viewer to have a sense of humor about. Going into this film expecting a straight-faced horror film would be beside the point. By any conventional standards, the movie is awful, with laughable plotting, non-existent suspense, and poor effects, but it's the general insanity of the film that makes it fun. Nothing particularly makes sense in this film, which turns Devil Dog into a thoroughly enjoyable piece of bad movie entertainment. This would be a great flick to watch with a couple buddies and some beer; I can almost guarantee laughs. For the crowd that would enjoy the movie under these conditions, I would recommend the film; for the more serious film viewer, this would be abysmal.