Man's Best Friend

Director: John Lafia 
Ally Sheedy, Lance Henriksen, Robert Costanzo

I live by myself in a bachelor suite. For the most part, I am very happy with this living situation. My rent is pretty low, so I always have some extra cash on hand when I stumble upon an intriguing-looking unknown movie for sale online or in a thrift store. I live downtown, so I have instant access to important lifelines like grocery stores and bus routes. And the other tenants in the building are friendly and talkative whenever I bump into one of them while leaving or returning to the building. Yet I will admit that on occasion I do feel kind of isolated living by myself, and wish for some more interaction with a living being. Other people who have shared this situation over the years have solved it by getting themselves some kind of animal to live with. In other words, a pet. As it turns out, this isn't an avenue I can explore, because the management of my building forbids tenants to have any kind of pet. Maybe it's for the best, because even if suddenly the management lifted the ban on pets, it would be very hard for me to pick an appropriate pet. Take cats, for example. Cats do take care of themselves when you are not there, and having a litter box available means you do not have to take them for walks. But when I stare into a cat's eyes, I don't see a high degree of intelligence. Dogs certainly seem smarter than cats, because you can train them to do a whole bunch of tricks. But you have to take them for a long walk each and every day, they often have odors, and they can bark. Fish do seem like a low maintenance pet. All you have to do is sprinkle a little food into their aquarium every day. But what can you do with a fish for a pet except to see them swim back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth...

I've thought about other kind of pets besides those three examples, even exotic pets like miniature pigs. Yet with all those pets I keep coming to the same conclusion, that being that I would never be totally satisfied with the proposed pet. So maybe it's just as well my building's management won't allow me to have a pet. All the same, when it comes to the subject of pets, my mind hasn't just spun around having a popular kind of pet, or a pet of a species that is somewhat less popular. Sometimes I let my mind run riot about pets that aren't here on this planet yet, but might very well one day be all around us. I'm talking about animals whose genes have been mixed together with the genes of other animals to create a brand new species. This kind of thing is happening in laboratories right now as experiments, but think of what could happen if people were to make brand new animals for pet owners. If I could have a pet, it would have the genes of a cat that make it independent, the genes of a dog that make it intelligent, and the genes of a fish that make it unnecessary to feed it a huge amount of food. Such mix-and-match animal combinations seem endless, and could potentially satisfy any pet owner completely. On the other hand, genetic manipulation still seems at an infancy. We do not know many of the long term effects of manipulating the genes of an animal, or a plant for that matter. It is quite possible that the genes of that perfect pet that I proposed a few sentences earlier could, when combined, make an animal that is an utter killing machine that could pose a real danger to mankind.

The reason that I am kind of hesitant to propose the genetic manipulation of animals will probably come as no surprise to you. That reason is that over the years I have seen countless B movies involving genetically altered animals that wreck havoc on mankind. If there has been a B Man's Best Friendmovie made about a genetically manipulated animal that is peaceful and kind, I have somehow never heard of it. This leads to the question as to why filmmakers constantly present such altered animals as malevolent. The answer that immediately comes to mind is that it's easier to depict something as homicidal than one with a fascinating mind. Also, I think many people would prefer the thrill of a movie with blood and guts rather than intelligence. Anyway, I am sure you have guessed that Man's Best Friend is a movie about a genetically altered animal. The difference with this telling is that the movie was not made by a B studio, but by a major Hollywood studio. At the start of the movie, we are introduced to Lori Tanner (Sheedy, WarGames), a television reporter who has received a tip that at a local genetics research facility, one Dr. Jarret (Henriksen, Lost Voyage) is up to no good. Lori breaks into the lab, and finds that Jarret has been enacting cruel experiments on all the animals there, except seemingly for one caged dog named Max, who appears normal. Moments after Lori lets Max out of his cage, Lori has to make a quick exit when Jarret makes an appearance, and she barely escapes to her car. Max jumps into her car shortly before Lori drives off, and accompanies Lori home. At home, Lori decides to adopt Max, much to the consternation of her boyfriend Perry (Fredric Lehne, Lost). It turns out Perry has the right to fear Max, not just the fact that Max seems very protective of Lori and doesn't look kindly towards Perry. Max is in fact a genetically engineered animal, that looks like a dog but has been given the genes of various vicious animals that have increased its intelligence, physical skills... and homicidal nature. Dr. Jarret had been regularly giving Max a drug to calm him, but with Jarret unable to medicate Max since he can't be found, the last dose of the drug slowly wears off. As the drug wears off, Max, unknown to Lori and Perry, starts to viciously attack other animals - and other humans - around the neighborhood. Not only are the unknowing Lori and Perry in danger from Max, they are also in danger from Jarret, who is determined to retrieve Max no matter what.

Based on that above plot description, I would understand if upon reading it you thought that Man's Best Friend sounded utterly routine. Like many killer beast horror movies before (and after) it, we have the spunky reporter (check), the somewhat dumb love interest (check), and a mad homicidal scientist (check). Not to mention the genetically altered beast that's central to just about everything that happens in the movie (check). So it may come as a surprise to you, as it did to me, that Man's Best Friend takes this familiar horror formula and injects it with some surprises. One of these surprises is that this particular telling is told with humor. No, this particular telling is not an out-and-out comedy (though I have to admit that the idea of a totally silly take on this formula has definite comic potential.) Instead, the movie on occasion throws in something unexpectedly silly, and these silly moments accomplish two things. First, it helps to prevent the movie from getting too grim, which would make the movie less palatable to the audience. Second, the humor basically admits to the viewers that this is essentially a silly story, and with no pretentious attitude in sight, viewers won't feel their intelligence is being insulted. Let me give you an example of the unexpected humor in the movie (Warning: minor spoilers ahead.) At one point in the story, Max encounters a cat while taking a tour of his new neighborhood. In another movie, Max would simply chase and kill the cat. But in this movie, Max chases the cat up a tree, and with his genetically altered paws manages to climb the tree and reach the cat. Once he corners the cat up the tree, Max proceeds to eat the cat, swallowing it with one long but steady gulp like a python does when slowly eating its prey.

As you can probably tell from that scene alone, one can't take a movie completely seriously when it depicts a bizarre incident like that one. And this is not the only occurrence of warped humor in Man's Best Friend. Max is such a super dog, he doesn't pee mere urine when his bladder is full, he pees acid. Though I'm not saying that all of the humor in the movie is as black as those examples. There are also a number of more gentle pokes here and there, my favorite being when a security guard at Jarret's lab, carrying a caged monkey doomed to become an experiment, casually comments, "You were probably a lawyer in another life." These regular attempts at humor also aid the movie in another way I haven't previously mentioned. Surrounding the moments of horror, they make these darker moments more effective. After laughing at a previous sequence and then suddenly being faced with something bloody or deadly, I was a little taken off guard. With a straight horror movie, you know how to feel and react, but with the mix of humor and horror I have to admit I was sometimes pushed into an uneasy feeling, not being totally sure if I should be laughing or be horrified. Although horror movies with comic elements often are botched with their execution, I had to admit writer/director John Lafia (Child's Play 2) managed for the most part to successfully mix the two extremes together. One of the key ways he manages to do this is with picking the right kind of dog to play the central "monster" of the movie. Played by several Tibetan Mastiffs, Max manages to be convincing in both of its opposite extremes. In its quieter moments, it comes across as a lovable big slob of a dog that you just want to rub on its tummy. However, on the occasions that Max shows his darker side, this breed of dog shows it can literally be one mean son of a b*tch. The depiction of Max as an unpredictable dog is very effective, enough that you'll be keeping an eye on him in every scene he appears in so that you can stay one step ahead of him, unlike the onscreen humans he interacts with.

If that last statement in the previous paragraph sounds like I am criticizing the human characters in Man's Best Friend, actually I am not. The human characters in this movie are really no dumber than the typical human characters you get in a monster movie of this kind. Though it may seem a brainless move for Lori to adopt a dog stolen from a research lab, the movie at least shows her point of view - Max indeed seems to be such a smart and lovable dog at first sight. And I could understand many of the actions of the other humans, even when the character of Dr. Jarret starts making reckless actions during his pursuit of Max - it's made clear he's desperate. Another thing I appreciated about the writing of these characters is that unnecessary fat has been stripped so the characters get immediately to business. Lori, for example, has broken into the lab barely six minutes after the movie has started. Maybe speed such as this leaves very little room for character development, but in a movie like this, character development isn't really needed. We've seen the spunky reporter and mad scientist characters before, so we can fill in the missing minor details from other movies we have seen. It also helps that the level of acting by the various performers is always at an acceptable level. Ally Sheedy puts in a lot of enthusiasm into her performance, so we really believe her character's love of her job, boyfriend, and Max. And Lance Henriksen is appropriately intense as the mad scientist, taking his somewhat limited number of scenes and giving them enough evil vibes that you'll hope he gets his just desserts in the end. Man's Best Friend is a pleasant surprise, giving an old formula enough new (and unexpected) touches to come across as fresh, and handling the expected moments in a professional manner that won't make you mind seeing them all over again.

(Posted November 6, 2015)

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See also: Crocodile, Dogs, Ticks