Fright Club: Dogs in Horror

Whether used to terrorize us or to break our hearts, dogs add something powerful to a horror movie. Unless it’s Zoltan: Dog of Dracula, because nothing, not even the most gorgeous dog, could save that piece of poo. But these dogs, these dogs are keepers.

6. The Woman (2011)

Maybe you haven’t seen Lucky McKee’s amazing, disturbing 2011 feminist horror The Woman? Get on it! But just in case, we’re going to avoid any spoilers, which means leaving you kind of wondering why this film made the list of best dogs in horror. Suffice it to say, the dogs are mentioned throughout but meeting them … well, please see this movie.

5. Cujo (1983)

A New England couple, struggling to stay afloat as a family, has some car trouble. This naturally leads to a rabid St. Bernard adventure.

Though the film contains many faults, once Donna (Dee Wallace) and her asthmatic son (pre-Who’s the Boss Danny Pintauro) find themselves trapped in their broken down Pinto (What? Those seem like such reliable cars!) with a rabid dog (bigger than the car) attacking, the film ratchets up the tensions and rewards you for your patience.

Profoundly claustrophobic and surprisingly tense, benefitting immeasurably by Wallace’s full commitment to the role, the film traps us in the heat inside that Pinto and quickly makes up for the entire rest of the picture.

4. The Omen (1976)

Billie F. Whitelaw, ladies and gentlemen. Her performance as little Damien’s new nanny really took things up a notch, didn’t they? Instantly, not only was Mummy (Lee Remick) unnecessary, but Daddy (Gregory Peck) found himself in a battle for Alpha—a battle that begins over a dog.

There are actually quite a number of great, terrifying dogs in The Omen, Richard Donner’s iconic Seventies horror. The dogs in the cemetery, the bones in the casket—what, exactly, was Damien’s mother, anyway? But Mrs. Baylock’s Hound of Hell—that’s when the unflappable Robert Thorn realized there may be things to fear inside his home.

3. I Am Legend (2007)

Yes, there are scary dogs in horror movies, but more often than not horror filmmakers use dogs to break our hearts. Oh, sure, kill all the people you want, but once we hear that off-screen whimper, we’re bawling.

Tell us Sam’s death in I Am Legend didn’t gut you. No? Well, stay away from us you sociopath.

Horror has done us some damage in the way they treat dogs: Jaws, Raw, Snowtown, The Babadook, It Comes at Night, Greta, Audition, The Hills H ave Eyes, The Wailing, Hounds of Love. But we not only loved Sam, we recognized Robert Neville’s (Will Smith) aloneness, his vulnerability to grief and madness, because of Sam. That dog is the only reason this movie works.

2. The Voices (2014)

Director Marjane Satrapi’s follow up to her brilliant animated Persepolis is a sweet, moving, very black comedy about why medicine is not always the best medicine.

Ryan Reynolds is Jerry. As Jerry sees it, his house is a cool pad above a nifty bowling alley, his job is the best, his co-workers really like him, and his positive disposition makes it easy for him to get along. Jerry’s kindly dog Bosco (also Ryan Reynolds) agrees.

But Mr. Whiskers (evil cat, also Reynolds) thinks Jerry is a cold blooded killer. And though Mr. Whiskers is OK with that, Jerry doesn’t want to believe it. So he should definitely not take his pills.

1. The Thing (1982)

Who’s a good boy?!

OK, not the new rescue dog on MacReady’s team. What a gorgeous boy he is, though. A perfect specimen, adaptable to Antarctica’s hostile climate, bred to survive. He makes those beard-tastic humans look positively vulnerable.

Fright Club: Mental Illness in Horror

Horror has not always treated the mentally ill very well. Many filmmakers twist notions of “crazy” into varying degrees of evil, but rarely with any real thought to the pathology behind it.

Some films and filmmakers make an attempt to examine illness and mine it for both humanity and fear, since nearly all illnesses of any kind are marked by both. Here are our five (OK, maybe six) favorite films dealing in mental illness.

5. The Crazies (1973/2010)

We’re cheating here, but George Romero’s 1973 insanity plague flick offers much, as does its 2010 reboot by the otherwise useless Breck Eisner, so we’re combining.

Just three years after Night of the Living Dead, the master found himself interested in taking his zombiism concepts in a different direction. Two combat veterans are at the center of the film, in which a chemical weapon is accidentally leaked into the water supply to a Pennsylvania town. Those infected go helplessly mad. Military incompetence, the needless horror of Vietnam, and the evil that men can do when ordered to do so are all central conceits in this film.

Romero may not have always had the biggest budget, best actors, or best eye for composition, but his ideas were so far ahead of their time that modern horror would not exist in its current form without him. His ideas were not far-fetched, and they fed the imaginations of countless future filmmakers. You can see Romero’s ideas and images from this film repeated in 28 Days Later, Return of the living Dead, Signal, Cabin Fever, Super 8, even Rambo – and, obviously, in the remake.

Eisner’s version offers solid scares, inventive plotting, and far better performances than expected in a genre film. Both films begin by articulating humankind’s repulsion and fear of infection before introducing the greater threat – our own government. Eisner’s greatest strength is his cast. The eternally under-appreciated Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell, unerringly realistic as husband and wife, carry most of the grisly weight, aided by solid support work from folks who are not afraid to be full-on nuts.

4. Split (2017)

A transfixing James McAvoy is Kevin, a deeply troubled man harboring 23 distinct personalities and some increasingly chilling behavior. When he kidnaps the teenaged Casey (The Witch‘s Anya Taylor-Joy) and her two friends (Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Suva), the girls are faced with constantly changing identities as they desperately seek an escape from their disorienting confines.

Meanwhile, one of Kevin’s personalities is making emergency appointments with his longtime therapist (Betty Buckley, nice to see you), only to show up and assure the Dr. everything is fine. She thinks otherwise, and she is right.

The split personality trope has been used to eye-rolling effect in enough films to be the perfect device for Shyamalan’s clever rope-a-dope. By often splitting the frame with intentional set designs and camera angles, or by letting full face close-ups linger one extra beat, he reinforces the psychological creepiness without any excess bloodshed that would have soiled a PG-13 rating.

Still, it all might have gone for naught without McAvoy, who manages to make Kevin a sympathetic character while deftly dancing between identities, often in the same take. He’s a wonder to watch, and the solid support from Buckley and Taylor-Joy help keep the tension simmering through speedbumps in pacing and questionable flashbacks to Casey’s childhood.

3. The Voices (2014)

Director Marjane Satrapi’s follow up to her brilliant animated Persepolis is a sweet, moving, very black comedy about why medicine is not always the best medicine.

Ryan Reynolds is Jerry. And Mr. Whiskers. And Bosco. Which is appropriate, because all three characters are all the same, too. Jerry hears voices. They are the voices of his pets a kindly dog (Bosco) and an evil cat (Mr. Whiskers).

As Jerry sees it, his house is a cool pad above a nifty bowling alley, his job is the best, his co-workers really like him, and his positive disposition makes it easy for him to get along. Bosco agrees.

But Mr. Whiskers thinks Jerry is a cold blooded killer, and though Mr. Whiskers is OK with that, Jerry doesn’t want to believe it. So he should definitely not take his pills.

An outstanding cast including Anna Kendrick, Jacki Weaver and Gemma Arterton join Reynolds in a really touching film that looks sideways at mental illness. While the film certainly find reason to fear the outsider, it’s also surprisingly sympathetic to his plight.

2. They Look Like People (2015)

Christian (Evan Dumouchel) is killing it. He’s benching 250 now, looks mussed but handsome as he excels at work, and he’s even gotten up the nerve to ask out his smokin’ hot boss. On his way home from work to change for that date he runs into his best friend from childhood, Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews), who’s looking a little worse for wear. Christian doesn’t care. With just a second’s reluctance, Christian invites him in – to his apartment, his date, and his life.

But there is something seriously wrong with Wyatt.

Writer/director Perry Blackshear’s film nimbly treads the same ground as the wonderful Frailty and the damn near perfect Take Shelter in that he uses sympathetic characters and realistic situations to blur the line between mental illness and the supernatural.

Wyatt believes there is a coming demonic war and he’s gone to rescue his one true friend. Andrews is sweetly convincing as the shell shocked young man unsure as to whether his head is full of bad wiring, or whether his ex-fiance has demon fever.

The real star here, though, is Dumouchel, whose character arc shames you for your immediate assessment. Blackshear examines love – true, lifelong friendship – in a way that has maybe never been explored as authentically in a horror film before. It’s this genuineness, this abiding tenderness Christian and Wyatt have for each other, that makes the film so moving and, simultaneously, so deeply scary.

1. Psycho (1960)

Was Norman Bates psychotic from the start? Or was he smothered into madness by his mother?

Hard to say – Mrs. Bates can’t speak for herself, can she? Although Norman’s mother is not a character in Hitchcock’s classic, her presence is everywhere. But to be fair, we don’t get to see her as she was, we only get to see her as Norman sees her.

Whatever the case, Norman has an unhealthy attachment to his late mother, a single parent whose relationship with her son may have driven him to some very bad deeds. Part of Hitchcock’s skill in this film is to play with our expectations of the characters.

The heroine has done some questionable things. The villain is the most sympathetic character onscreen. The most relevant character in the story isn’t even in the film. Was Mrs. Bates really a bad mom, or does she just seem like that to us because we see her through Norman’s eyes, and he’s a psycho?