Graveyard Shift

'Man's Best Friend' Is A Charmingly Stupid '90s Horror Movie  

Orrin Grey
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For those who don't remember it, Man's Best Friend is the kind of movie that could only have come out in the early '90s. An R-rated horror flick that seems designed specifically to encourage 12-year-olds to sneak into the theater, Man's Best Friend stars Ally Sheedy and Lance Henriksen, along with a great big, genetically modified dog.

Sheedy plays Lori, a reporter who breaks into a genetics lab to do an exposé on their animal experimentation, only to befriend Max 3000, AKA Max, a genetically engineered super-dog with the unfortunate side-effect that he'll turn into a vicious predator unless he is administered the proper remedy. Of course, things go wrong and Max ends up going home with Lori, while the two of them are pursued by some inept cops and Henriksen's sinister Dr. Jarret. From there, it's simply a matter of sitting back and munching on popcorn while Max offs the most unlikable characters and the filmmakers show off the pup's genetic modifications.

'Man's Best Friend' Is Essentially 'Cujo' Meets 'Child’s Play' 
'Man's Best Friend' Is Essenti... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list 'Man's Best Friend' Is A Charmingly Stupid '90s Horror Movie
Photo: New Line Cinema

Maybe this shouldn't come as much of a surprise, given the pedigree of Man's Best Friend. Writer-director John Lafia is one of three writers credited on the screenplay for the original Child's Play, and he directed the first sequel just a few years before Man's Best Friend hit theaters. While the trailer implies more child-in-peril scenes than Man's Best Friend actually delivers, the genetically enhanced dog does go after the local paperboy and terrifies Lori's rollerblading neighbor kid, who apparently comes over and lets himself into her house whenever he wants.

The dog in Cujo is a Saint Bernard, while Max 3000 is played by five Tibetan Mastiffs. In spite of the difference in breed, the two animals even look kind of similar. And, of course, there are also similarities between Man's Best Friend and Frankenstein, with Max having been created in a lab and ultimately turned on by his creator. However, Dr. Jarret's motives and feelings toward Max are certainly harder to plumb than Victor Frankenstein's ever were.

The Opening Credits Play Over An Intense Montage Of Old-Timey Dog Pictures 
The Opening Credits Play Over ... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list 'Man's Best Friend' Is A Charmingly Stupid '90s Horror Movie
Photo: New Line Cinema

Even before the film's cold open, we're treated to a montage of classical paintings featuring dogs - and sometimes other animals - that veer from normal to sinister as Joel Goldsmith's melodramatic score swells. Goldsmith later went on to compose the music for several of the Stargate TV series.

By the time the credits end, however, the paintings have returned to "normal," and we close on an image of a little girl holding a puppy. This foreshadows not just the film's arc, but also its final scene.

The VHS Cover Made Max Look Like A Cyborg Dog
The VHS Cover Made Max Look Li... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list 'Man's Best Friend' Is A Charmingly Stupid '90s Horror Movie
Photo: New Line Cinema

Man's Best Friend made a decent showing at the box office, earning $12 million from a $6 million budget, but most people who saw it probably picked it up at their local Blockbuster, where the cover art promised something that the movie didn't deliver. Featuring Lance Henriksen front-and-center (and no sign of Ally Sheedy except on the back), the VHS cover also showed Max in a shiny chrome hue, heavily implying that Max is a cyborg. This implication is only strengthened by the quote from Jeff Craig of Sixty Second Preview on the back, which calls Man's Best Friend "a canine Terminator."

While this marketing technique was likely meant to cash in on the popularity of the Terminator franchise (Terminator 2 had come out just a couple of years before), it couldn't help but disappoint those who went into Man's Best Friend expecting a cybernetic pooch before the credits rolled.

The Appeal Of This Film Lies In Watching Max Take Out Bad People
The Appeal Of This Film Lies I... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list 'Man's Best Friend' Is A Charmingly Stupid '90s Horror Movie
Photo: New Line Cinema

Slasher films often get a bad rap for being "body count" movies where the villain takes out various unlikeable characters - and some horror movies definitely fit that mold. Man's Best Friend is one of them. While Max is certainly the monster, and Dr. Jarret is both co-protagonist and bad guy, almost all of Max's victims (with one or two exceptions) are characters we've been primed not to like.

From a purse-snatching mugger to smug and unhelpful cops to an offensive junkyard owner, most people who encounter Max are jerks, either to him directly or to Lori. Even the postal worker, who probably gets worse than he deserves, seems to take some delight in macing Max. Meanwhile, Lori's boyfriend comes off as kind of whiny, even though he really doesn't do anything all that bad until after Max has already chewed through his brake lines.