New Line // 1993 // 87 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // August 15th, 2003
Nature created him. Science perfected him. But no one could control him.
Reporter Lori Tanner is desperate for a story that will break her out of the fluffy features she is forced to do as part of her job. When she gets a tip that animals are being harmed at a local science lab, she heads out to try and get the scoop. After breaking in, what she finds is truly disturbing: a potential powder keg of abuse and experimentation. But before she can complete her filming, the facilities owner, Dr. Jarret, confronts her. In the confusion, Tanner escapes along with Max, a Tibetan Mastiff at the center of some seemingly awful research. Lori takes Max in and her live-in lover develops an instant dislike to the dog -- and the feeling is mutual. As a matter of fact, Max seems to guard Lori jealously and violently threatens anyone around her. Slowly, everyone comes to realize that Max is not like other canines. And it turns out that this is quite the understatement. Dr. Jarret has genetically altered the brute to take on the killer characteristics of several species, from bears to cheetahs, in order to breed the perfect guard dog. Max is unstable and requires medication to keep him balanced, and it's been days since his last injection...
As our furry friend starts to come unglued, Lori and her terrorized boyfriend begin to see that Max is vicious and lethal. As the police and the mad doctor frantically search for the dangerous pooch, everyone understands they are no longer dealing with Man's Best Friend.
Man's Best Friend is a decent little killer animal thriller, the kind of monster movie the 1980s made famous. Basically still functioning under that blockbuster Hollywood mentality of the high concept, this 1993 film combines the universal likeability of the dog with the nastiness of evil abuse and genetic experimentation to place a potential flesh-rendering beast at his master's feet. While this premise, in general, is a little preposterous -- after all, the idea that any animal can be genetically mutated to have a chameleon's sense of camouflage seems totally far-fetched -- it is still handled with great skill and a fair amount of realism. Yes, there are a couple of times where the amount of suspension required to get the disbelief out of your head is so great that a hernia or major sacroiliac attack of some sort is threatened (like when our predatory pooch climbs up the side of a house -- uh huh), but in other instances when believability should be tested (the final dog/car chase) the movie actually works. Kudos goes to the cast and the creators of this minor motion picture for playing it straight (mostly) and delivering on the danger. As always, Lance Henriksen seems to be locked in a private mental hell that is telegraphed all over his impressive, expressive face. It's not hard to believe him as a megalomaniacal mad scientist vivisecting the special qualities out of endangered species to build one hyperactive slaughter dog. No one captures misplaced insanity better than loony Lance. What's more interesting is the way Ally Sheedy balances her professional and personal personas to create an enigmatic and effective heroine. This was a good role choice for The Breakfast Club star, since it showed she could play responsible and vulnerable at the same time.
But most of the credit must go to director John Lafia for keeping this potentially ludicrous film from spinning out of control. He understands, from his work on such other thrillers as Child's Play 2, that ancillary issues can kill atmosphere and dread. And a couple of times he drops the ball and lets dumb, Dumb, DUMB!!! jokes and manipulative sequences come close to almost destroying his movie. The first instance is a doggy "love scene" between our hero, the deranged DNA case Max, and a hopped up hoochie of a collie. As a terrible version of "Puppy Love" blares across the soundtrack, the about to copulate canines perform a pathetic "like people" pantomime (looking "shy," laying back in the bed) which is just atrocious. Then, as a neighbor woman searches for her cat (too late, Max swallowed the beast whole in a tasty gore scene), we hear the sonic resonance of the bitch's (species appropriate, so no protesting) orgasm blaring through the neighborhood. Repugnant. But the second instance is even worse. William Sanderson (Blade Runner's J.F. Sebastian) plays an outwardly nice junkyard owner who agrees to watch Max when Sheedy feels he is no longer safe at her house. His character, Ray, speaks lovingly of how he will care for Max and treat him well. Then the minute Sheedy leaves, he beats the dog over the head with a shovel. And then what he does with an acetylene torch...well, it's too disturbing to mention. Of course, our crazed canine achieves some comeuppance by taking a big deadly bite out of Sanderson's crotch, but the scenario is unnecessarily cruel and threatens to undermine everything before and after. It's all a matter of tone. A similar mailman confrontation is handled perfectly, but it's the occasional missteps like the case of junkyard injustice that keep Man's Best Friend from being 100% successful.
But before PETA starts protesting, be aware that no real animals where hurt in the film (special effects wiz Kevin Yagher handled the deception). However, there may be some manner of objections from FETID (Filmgoers for Extra Treats Integrated into DVDs). New Line handles the release of Man's Best Friend in a milk (bare) bone fashion: it's perfectly acceptable but otherwise about as blah and nutritious as eating sawdust. The only extras here are trailers for other, rather random New Line products. There are no cast filmographies, no interview footage, nothing to explain how the animals used were trained and protected. Nope, what we get is the latest in a long line of austere releases from this company that assumes that offering the movie in either full or widescreen is bonus enough. So the question becomes, are the transfers sufficient to secure sales. Again, the answer is mixed. The anamorphic 1.85:1 image is clean and crisp, but this then helps to highlight the antiquated techniques -- rear projection, blue screen -- used to create many of the film's fright scenes. And nothing destroys a scare's effectiveness more than seeing how it was done so blatantly. Still, the letterboxed version is better than the open matte full screen, since it allows for the action sequences to play out with a greater scope of potential danger. Besides, true film fans champion, not cringe at, the original theatrical aspect ratio. It's just too bad New Line saw fit to make such a paltry package out of this film. A commentary or effects retrospective would have been nice. But as it stands, Man's Best Friend is a decent horror film occasionally hindered by the cruelty inherent in its subject matter and an awkward frivolousness in tone. This is one mutt movie that earns the other SPCA seal of approval -- that's the Scary Picture Connoisseurs Association.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 87 Minutes
Release Year: 1993
MPAA Rating: Rated R