Man’s Best Friend (1993) Retrospective

SUMMARY

Judy Sanders (Robin Frates), an employee of a genetic research facility named EMAX, contacts television personality Lori Tanner (Ally Sheedy), planning to meet after work so she can show Lori the atrocities and animal cruelty that go on in EMAX’s laboratories. As she proceeds back to work, an animal assailant attacks and kills her before being sedated by Dr. Jarret (Lance Henriksen), a scientist performing vivisection and genetic altering and the owner of EMAX. Later, Lori arrives at EMAX, breaks into the laboratory, films the various animals that are being experimented on, and frees a Tibetan Mastiff named Max before escaping with him. Jarret immediately goes to the police and reports that his dog has been stolen. Later that day, a mugger (Thomas Rosales, Jr.) steals Lori’s purse, but Max chases the thief, brutally kills him, and retrieves the purse.

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Unaware that Max killed the mugger, Lori develops a bond with him, much to the disapproval of her boyfriend Perry (Fredric Lehne), who insists Max must stay in the backyard. However, Max can understand human conversations and becomes protective of Lori. Dr. Jarret is questioned by the police about Max and reveals that Max is a genetically altered dog, spliced with the DNA of various other animals such as big cats, snakes, chameleons, and birds of prey, giving him enhanced strength, speed, and senses. Max is also prone to violent rages, and Jarrett regularly gives him a drug to keep him relaxed, but he fears that it won’t be long before the effects of the drug wear off.

Max acts loyal, obedient, and lovable to Lori, but when her back is turned, he starts wreaking havoc in the neighborhood, terrorizing some local children (though he seems all right with Lori’s young neighbor Rudy), devouring a cat, destroying the brake lines in Perry’s truck, mating with Rudy’s collie Heidi, and murdering a mail man (Rick Barker). All of these incidents go unnoticed by Lori. Realizing Max is trying to kill him, Perry tries to poison Max, but Max smells the poison in the meat and chases Perry out of the house. After Perry escapes in his truck, Max eats Lori’s talking pet parrot and flushes the poisoned meat down the toilet.

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Noticing Perry’s animosity towards their new dog, Lori decides to find Max a new home. She takes him to a junkyard and leaves him with the owner Ray (William Sanderson), who assures her that Max will be taken to a ranch in a few days. However, when Lori leaves, Ray chains Max to the wall and beats him with a shovel. When Max pulls loose from his chain, Ray burns his face with a blow torch but is quickly overpowered and killed. Max, now severely scarred, leaves the junkyard and makes his way back to Lori’s house. The police, after discovering the dead mugger and having Dr. Jarret clarify that it was Max who killed him, now intend to stop Max at any cost. By the time Max returns to Lori’s, Perry has replaced him with a new puppy named Spike. Max, feeling betrayed, burns Perry’s face off with acidic urine and attacks Lori before the police arrive. Max then flees the house and evades the cops and an animal control unit by utilizing his genetic gifts.

As an ambulance takes Perry away, the police demand Lori’s help to catch Max and wait for him. Max returns and kills the officers watching the house, which Lori soon discovers. In an attempt to get him back, Jarret kidnaps Lori and Spike in hopes that Max will follow them to the EMAX building, which he does. In the laboratory where she first discovered him, Max relinquishes his aggressive, homicidal nature and begins to kiss Lori’s hand. Jarret shoots Max with a shotgun before being knocked onto a large electrical cage, which kills him. Lori pets Max’s head as he dies. Three months later, Rudy’s collie has given birth to puppies, most of which look like their mother, with the one exception being a small black puppy that resembles Max.

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BEHIND THE SCENES

On the surface, Man’s Best Friend would seem like a good idea. Animals with fangs and an attitude have always been a horror staple and, as a one-shot creature feature, the tale of a guard dog from hell seems like a natural. But there’s more to this canine chiller than meets the eye. Rumor has it that this exercise in “Jaws with Paws” is being touted by producer/distributor New Line Cinema as a franchise character to replace the soon-to-conclude Nightmare on Elm Street series. For better and worse, that makes Man’s Best Friend, a dog of a different breed.

“Cut!” yells director John Lafia as he emerges from behind a clutch of cameras and crew people and walks down the hallway, where actress Ally Sheedy, bearing a tired smile on her makeup-smudged face, comes back through the open door. By day, the corridor is part of the thriving Sun Valley, CA Department of Water and Power complex. But in recent weeks, the night has transformed the building into a deadly playground in which Max, a lethal, genetically engineered guard dog, comes out to bite down on his victims.

“That was good, real good,” praises Lafia, “I think what we need to do is hold an extra beat before you crash through the final door.”

Sheedy nods in agreement, and Lafia turns to his AD. “Does she have Fluffy?” he asks. “Yeah, she’s got the dog,” responds the AD, pointing to a crew member who holds Fluffy, the stunt puppy that Sheedy will carry when the mad dash is shot for real. Sheedy takes the dog and walks back down the hall and out of sight, preparing for another run. “OK,” says Lafia, returning to his place behind the camera. “Let’s do it again.”

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There’s the cast, for starters. Sheedy is not an actress usually associated with this type of movie, but she’s the star of this one. Lance Henriksen, better known for higher profile genre titles, takes the male lead. On the down side, Man’s Best Friend’s horror content has been softened somewhat during the course of the production; what was originally intended as a Terminator style story, complete with a great transformation sequence courtesy of the FX pros at Kevin Yagher Productions, has been toned down to have a more Frankenstein-like feel. But Lafia, during a break to set up the next scene, explains that Man’s Best Friend definitely has the bite to go along with its bark.

“The dog in this movie does nothing that a real dog wouldn’t do,” says the director. “What we’ve done is taken that ideal as far as we could go, and then turned it up one more notch. For example, there’s a scene where a mailman comes to the house, the dog growls at him and the guy maces it. All we’ve done is have the dog kill the mailman and bury him in the yard. Also, regular dogs chase cats, and so does ours. The only difference is that our dog chases a cat up a tree, goes right up after it and swallows it whole.”

Responsible for the movie’s four-legged star are Yagher, who created the fake dogs, and animal trainer Clint Rowe, handling the real ones. Lafia, who claims he got the idea for the film by observing the actions of his family’s two dogs, managed to push the project through the New Line development pipeline with very little resistance.

“A movie about nothing more than a killer dog would have been boring,” he states. “What was interesting to everybody from the word go was that the dog is much more intelligent than a normal one. It can comprehend English and, probably most horrifying of all, it can think independently.

“There are no scenes where the dog just rips somebody apart with its teeth,” he continues. “Max does smarter things like chew through the brake lines of a car and wait for the driver to crash on the highway. It’s more interesting to have an intelligent dog than just a vicious one.”

The director points out, however, that creating the illusion of a dog made intelligent through experimental means was only one of Man’s Best Friend’s hurdles. Finding the right breed of canine was the rest. “We talked about making the dog a German Shepherd, a Doberman or a rottweiler, because they were the easiest to train. But everybody has seen those dogs before, and so we decided we wanted something new.

“And we knew that, since Max has a lot of scenes where he’s not doing anything mean, we needed an animal that could look cuddly and lovable,” Lafia continues. “If the dog was ferocious-looking from the beginning, there would be no logic to the things that go on in this story. I mean, why would Lori steal a dog and take it home if it looked like it would rip your throat out? That’s why we finally decided on a mastiff. This breed has the right size so that even if it didn’t look like it was the meanest thing in the world, at least it was big.”

With the project approved, Lafia spent a year whipping the Man’s Best Friend script into shape. “I went through many drafts and lots of changes, and was under a great deal of pressure to come up with solutions and alterations,” he recalls. “My original treatment would have been a $70-million movie with incredible computer effects and lots of morphing. At that point, the dog was more like the Terminator. But as the budget came down, it became more like The Fly. The dog became something you really cared about, and the human characters became more real.”

According to Lafia, it was these elements that made Man’s Best Friend a magnet for the talents of a cast not usually known for inexpensive horror. “One of the main things that made this attractive to Ally and Lance was that while this film is a popcorn thriller on one level, it also has something to say. This is not a Greenpeace film that is trying to ram a message down your throat. It’s a horror film on the high end of the genre that has a noble cause.”

This approach has resulted in a mix of traditional genre standards and an emphasis on characterization. “We’ve got scenes like the one we just completed, with a lot of running and action,” Lafia says. “Then there are scenes like the one we’ll be shooting next, a dialogue sequence that explains a lot about the characters.”

The director goes on to reveal that getting the former type of scene in the can hasn’t been much more difficult than the latter. “The dog sequences have gone fairly well, considering how tough it can be to work with animals,” he notes. “We’ve got five dogs to work with; one is kind of the main dog, and there are four additional ones that each do a different thing. And then there are Kevin’s effects.

“From a director’s point of view, though, the dog sequences have been the most challenging.” he continues. “Roughly 85 percent of this film contains the real dog, while the other 15 percent is the effects. But that 15 percent is the critical footage, stuff the real dog couldn’t do and that we couldn’t get otherwise. Shooting the real and mechanical dog footage so that it edits together seamlessly has been the toughest job.”

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How gory the canine kill scenes will be is still up in the air, but Lafia notes that he hasn’t intended to show the carnage sequences in their entirety. “There will be bits and pieces,” he says. “You might see the beginning of a kill, or the end result. What I can tell you is that you will get the point that this dog means business.”

“We’re ready for the next scene, sir,” comes the call from the AD, and Lafia walks down a hallway and through a cluttered, heavily-lit lobby area. In an adjacent conference room, Henriksen, Costanzo and Cassini are preparing for a scene in which Dr. Jarret is reporting the theft of the dog to the police. Essentially designed for exposition as the cops, sitting around a table with Jarret, get the facts on the theft, the scene soon becomes a true actors’ sequence in the course of a detail oriented series of takes.

At one point, for instance, Henriksen and Costanzo discuss the latter’s cigarette dependency and how it should be played out in the scene. At another point, Lafia and Henriksen work out the beats on a dialogue sequence, with subtlety and nuance in mind. “What kind of work do you do here?” questions Costanzo at the conclusion of the exchange. Henriksen clasps his hands and sets his face in a look that reflects deep hopelessness and frustration. “The work I do has to do with saving lives,” says the actor in a low, cutting monotone. “Human lives.”

Lafia is finally satisfied with the scene, prints it and calls for lunch as the clock strikes 11. During the break, Henriksen, puts a philosophical spin on his involvement in this shaggy dog story. “I’m playing a guy who is chasing after the devil in his own soul,” says the actor. “He’s like a Dr. Frankenstein who is going through terrible angst while looking for his runaway monster, knowing all the while just how horrible his creation can be.”

The fact that Jarret is not a cut-and-dried character was one of the key reasons that Henriksen accepted the role. “This character is not a totally good or bad guy, and that was very much the attraction for me,” he explains. “These days, I’ve adopted the attitude that there are really no good guys, and I’ve gotten to the point where I’m sick of playing characters that only have one dimension. So Jarret is ideal.”

The actor gives points to director Lafia for giving the cast the creative space he feels necessary to make Man’s Best Friend more than generic scare fare. “We’ve done a lot of improvising, and the best things from that work have been locked into the script,” Henriksen says. “We’ve had the opportunity to search out and find these characters. There have been a lot of surprises for me on this

film, and I’m still being surprised as we go along. There’s a definite effort being put forth to avoid the clichés and come up with something interesting.”

“OK, action,” yells Lafia a couple of weeks later on a sunny afternoon in the Southern California suburb of Sierra Madre. The cameraman, lying prone on the ground, starts the camera rolling

“Attack!” calls the director. The mastiff, held securely on a leash, lunges at the camera, barking and showing lots of sharp teeth.

“Cut! That was good! Let’s do it again.” A minute later: “Action! Attack!”

Instinctively, all eyes are on the mastiff as its trainer coaxes the obedient and docile dog into camera position.

“Action! Attack!” The kindest dog in the world turns ugly and charges.

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The character of Max became a crucial focus of the movie, as the dog is virtually a co-star with Henriksen and Sheedy. Top effects designer Kevin Yagher was brought into the project and dog effects for the film, and it was originally thought that his work would cover most of the dog shots. He designed some incredibly lifelike cable-controlled and remote-controlled puppets that were capable of a wide range of canine behavior. But, over the course of the shoot, Yagher often found his creatures upstaged by a crew of actual Tibetan Mastiffs, who had been trained by Clint Rowe. A team of five dogs were coached to perform specific tasks and display certain behaviors-one was the best at menacing growls, another was the most affectionate, one was the best leaper and jumper, another was best at wrestling with the actors, and so on.

“They wanted my input, because they knew I would have to make the mechanical counterpart to the real dog and wanted to know what would be the easiest to make,” says the artist, who dismisses early rumors that he received $1 million for his work on the film. “What I suggested was that they not go for a Great Dane or any other short-haired dog, because that would make it difficult for me to hide things. The mastiff works because it’s a large animal with long, primarily dark hair.”

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“These are phenomenal dogs,” said Henriksen. “Clint Rowe is probably the best in the business, and the quality of performance from his animals is right on the button. He’s done a good enough job that I don’t feel the way I do when I’m working with a bad actor. These dogs are great actors. There’s no hedging or wedging-they’re totally upfront. Max will come across as a dignified, beautiful animal who can act.”

Lafia was pleasantly surprised that the real dogs could be relied on to carry the movie, although he still found quite a bit of work for Yagher’s mechanical dogs. “The real dogs were able to perform, so we ended up using a lot more of them,” he explained. “Plus one of the big problems was that the human eye is so trained as to how dogs look and move. It’s hard to fool people with puppets. We found we had to be very judicious. We used the puppets for the shots that we couldn’t get any other way and then filled the sequence in with real dog shots. Basically, there was no way I was going to shove a real dog’s head through a windshield. That kind of action was up to Kevin.”

Across a couple of residential front lawns from where this day of dog pickups and minor dialogue action is taking place, Yagher sits with his FX crew and a full-sized, radio controlled canine mockup. Watching the real dog do its thing, the artist bemoans the fact that what he considers some show stopping dog FX have been cut from the film.

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“We’ve become more the insurance rather than the main attraction,” Yagher says, though the film did allow him and his crew a few moments to show their stuff. “A lot of what we’re doing is specialty shots that couldn’t be done with a real dog. You couldn’t burn a real dog with a torch, and a real dog couldn’t squeeze a tire until it pops. So that’s where we stepped in. We also did a nail-extending scene that may be used, as well as a leg and head for the mailman-munching sequence.”

Yagher then created a series of mock-ups that included 15 dog bodies and 12 heads for the normal and second-stage, burned-face versions. “Six of the heads have full radio control that includes snarls, muzzle movement and lip quivering,” he describes. “There’s also a posable dog and a two-thirds model that has everything except the tail and hind legs. We also have some hand and shoulder puppets for quick biting sequences.

Unused third-stage transformation
Unused third-stage transformation

“Originally, there was going to be a third-stage transformation,” says Yagher. “It was supposed to take place because of all the experimental drugs in him. The muscles were going to get bigger, the teeth were going to grow longer and he was basically going to end up looking more like a wolf than a dog. There was also a scene in which the animal gets completely burned; it was going to be the big payoff, kind of like the ending of The Fly. But all of that stuff has been cut,” he sighs.

To illustrate the talents of his mechanical pooch, the artist revs up the dummy Max and works it through a number of facial exercises. It looks quite real, and pretty ferocious. Suddenly, from across the way, comes another shout from Lafia. “Let’s do it again! Everybody ready?”

Filming one of special effects supervisor Kevin Yagher's cable-controlled Max rod puppets in attack mode, used to capture action live dogs were unsuited for.
Filming one of special effects supervisor Kevin Yagher’s cable-controlled Max rod puppets in attack mode, used to capture action live dogs were unsuited for.

“This is no CUJO,” said genre-vet Henriksen. “It’s head and shoulders above that. It’s a highly unusual film in that it hits on a lot of good levels, and by now I definitely know when I’m in a good movie. I can tell. this one is a study in obsessed behavior. You have the vivisectionist, and then you have the animal rights people, and what Ally and I found out as we improvised our arguments in the film and tried to hold our ground is that both sides can be right. There are no villains in this film, only victims, and people trying to rescue the victims. I love doing this kind of genre film, because it’s always a morality play. Even when you get down to the point where you have a dog chewing off your hand, it’s always going to be some deeper morality at the core.

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That may sound like heady talk for a lethal attack dog movie, but director Lafia also pointed out that what appealed to him about the project was the ability to give the story some texture and depth without sacrificing its occasionally bone-crunching thrills. “I think this film is closer to KING KONG in spirit than it is to more contemporary films,” he said. “You could fear Kong when he was stomping around and crushing giant snakes, but he was also saving Fay Wray’s life. This dog is the same way. He’s not a straight-out villain. And it may be a strange thing to say about a movie that features a dog, but this project has a little more humanity to it. The dog is a lead character that you have mixed feelings about. For the most part you like him a lot. He’s motivated enough so that when he does some damage you won’t feel angry toward him. He’s not evil. His temperament is not mean-spirited. He goes after paper boys and mailmen and does all the things that dogs do, but he can take it a little further.”

The notion of genetic experiments gone awry has certainly been explored in many films, but MAN’S BEST FRIEND may be the first to so closely tie the idea to the real controversy over animal vivisection. Lafia studied videotape footage of real laboratories that had been raided by animal liberationists and designed the film’s laboratory accordingly. He hoped to touch on the issue of animal experimentation without sounding preachy and without detracting from the drama of the story. To that end, he said he used THE CHINA SYNDROME as a mode, and laughingly called MAN’S BEST FRIEND a “politically correct thriller-sci-fi-horror film.”

“There’s an underlying theme about vivisection and about how much right we have as humans to do what we do,” he explained. “That’s the serious tone. But there’s also a more lighthearted tone of someone taking home a pet and not knowing what it’s capable of doing. These two things are happening at once, and there is definitely a black humor edge. I think this film might surprise people, by being better than they might expect. We’ve come up with characters that would work in a non-genre film as well, and that was a big part of my goal. We stayed away from gratuitous blood, although I believe that gratuitous blood is great if it’s done in a freewheeling enough fashion. Watching MAN’S BEST FRIEND you should feel like you’re watching a real movie, as opposed to something where you’re just waiting for the next effect to roll forward.”

Henriksen noted he felt he could see both sides of the vivisection issue. “It’s not back and white,” he said “I agree that if you’re making eyeliner and hair products you don’t need to carve up living creatures prove that acid burns the eyeball. That’s completely unnecessary. But when they put baboon’s heart into a person, I’m sure the recipient is happy to be kept alive. If we could find something like a genetic method growing back a lost limb, that would be real progress.”

Director Lafia has moved from deadly dolls to predatory pets, and the change provides an added element of suspense. “At one point Max is given to a guy who’s a dog beater, and you can imagine how that turns out. But when he finally comes back toward our heroine, you’re not sure whether he wants to kill her or just get back to her. That’s part of the suspense. Not until the very end does the audience know what Max’s intentions are.”

As for Henriksen’s final thoughts on playing the role of chew toy for a highly advanced pup, he said that by the end of his shooting schedule, he felt that a strong bond had been forged with his canine co-stars.

CAST/CREW
Directed
John Lafia

Produced
Robert Engelman
Robert Kosberg
Dan Grodnik

Written
John Lafia

Music
Joel Goldsmith

Special Make-up Effects
Chris Yagher
Kevin Yagher

Ally Sheedy as Lori Tanner
Lance Henriksen as Dr. Jarret
Robert Costanzo as Detective Frankie Kovacs
Fredric Lehne as Perry
John Cassini as Detective Emilio Bendetti
J.D. Daniels as Rudy
William Sanderson as Ray

CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
Cinefantastique#25n04
Fangoria#128

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