New Line Cinema’s canine killer flick, Man’s Best Friend, was let loose on North American theaters on November 19, 1993. Billed as a horror comedy, the film tells the story of a genetically altered dog who goes on a murderous rampage after being taken home by an eager news reporter.
The film stars Ally Sheedy (The Breakfast Club), Lance Henriksen (Aliens and Pumpkinhead), Robert Constanzo (Total Recall), Frederic Lehne (Split), and John Cassini (TV’s Arrow). John Lafia directed from his own screenplay. Prior to Man’s Best Friend, Lafia was previously in the director’s chair on other horror projects including two episodes of TV’s Freddy’s Nightmares (1988-1989) and Child’s Play 2 (1990). If you have yet see John Lafia’s Man’s Best Friend, be warned: Spoilers Ahead.
“Ridiculous? Yes. Entertaining? Yes! Yes! Yes!”
Man’s Best Friend opens on a light note. One that’s full of charming canine imagery, including sketches, paintings, and illustrations. Horror fans, don’t fear. It doesn’t take long for the images to devolve into a series more sinister. After the credits, the Act One set up is quickly established. A lab worker agrees to allow a news crew into the top-secret laboratory in exchange for money. Unfortunately, the lab tech doesn’t live long enough to earn the dough. He’s tragically killed by one of the research animals, presumably Max, the mastiff that will become the focus of the story.
Desperate to break a topical story on animal cruelty, reporter Lori and her co-worker sidekick proceed to sneak into the lab anyway. While filming, they find Max and narrowly miss being discovered by Dr. Jarrett (Lance Henriksen). The pair of reporters flee the building and Max winds up following them. Then it doesn’t take long for Lori to decide to keep the dog as a pet.
Once home, Max earns all the dog points by doing cute canine things. Problem is, Lori’s live-in boyfriend, Perry, is not feeling it. He doesn’t want the dog in the house and insists that Lori’s new addition to the family stay outside. Meanwhile, Dr. Jarrett is frantically searching for Max. Through Dr. Jarrett’s scenes, we are told the back-story of the dog. It seems Dr. Jarrett genetically altered Max with the DNA of various other species. Dr. Jarrett has been administering a serum that keeps Max’s dangerous side at bay. In true horror movie fashion, the scientist reveals that the serum will soon be running out and Max could become a vicious killer!
I saw Man’s Best Friend when it first came out. Watching it again 25 years later, I was surprised to see that it holds up surprisingly well. While the film is never “scary”, it is a fun and entertaining addition to 90s horror. The look of the film is clean and polished, which I found fitting for both the laboratory and cookie-cutter suburban settings. All of the characters are presented in a cartoon-ish kind of way, but it works with the material. For example, we know right off the bat that Lori is quite the rule breaker (in her opening scenes, Lori is shown smoking in the newsroom when nobody else is) and Dr. Jarrett’s “mad scientist” characterization is solidly affirmed through a back-story dialogue scene. There’s even a pair of bumbling dog catchers that pop up a couple of times.
I love that minor characters are given arcs to a couple of the supporting animals. My favorite is the puppy that is introduced in Act Three. The puppy, Spike, is shown getting scolded for chewing on electrical cords. Later, during the movie’s finale, Spike uses his electrical cord interest in a nifty maneuver that results in the electrocution of the film’s villain. Ridiculous? Yes. Entertaining? Yes! Yes! Yes!
“I’m hesitant to call the movie “cute”, but that’s kind of what it is. Imagine Beethoven (1992) meets Cujo (1983) and you get the gist.”
One of the things that stands out the most to me is the fact that for a large portion of the movie’s running time, Man’s Best Friend works best as an allegorical stalker/obsession love story gone wrong. I know, I know, but let me explain… During the first portions of the film, Max pulls out all the stops to make an impression on his new owner, going the extra mile to appear chivalrous. He delivers towels to Lori as she is getting out of the shower. He chases down a mugger with the sole purpose of getting Lori‘s purse back. Simply put, it doesn’t take long for Lori to fall head over heels for Max.
To Max‘s dismay, Lori has a boyfriend, and Max wants nothing to do with him. All kinds of craziness ensues. Through the keyhole on their bedroom door, Max watches the couple in bed. In Max‘s mind, Lori belongs to him and nobody else. Max is willing to go to any extreme to take the boyfriend out of the picture, even sabotaging Perry‘s vehicle by chewing through the brake line.
Man’s Best Friend did okay at the box office more than doubled its production cost with ticket sales. With a budget of $6 million, and $12.9 million in returns, and room left open for expansion, a continuation of the story seemed likely. During one of the strangest scenes in the movie, Max makes his way through the neighborhood to a house where a sleek-looking collie named Heidi lives. Overlaid with the song, Puppy Love, the canine couple promptly “get it on”. Later, the movie ends with a shot of Heidi‘s newborn litter, one of which resembles Max. Despite the significant return on investment and the obvious set-up, New Line did not produce a sequel.
Most horror fans will not find the film scary. Instead, Man’s Best Friend plays out sort of like a Goosebumps episode. I’m hesitant to call the movie “cute”, but that’s kind of what it is. Imagine Beethoven (1992) meets Cujo (1983) and you get the gist. The trailers played up the traditional horror aspects, making the film appear to be more of a straightforward fright fest. In my opinion, it’s the R rating that I believe held the film back from taking a bigger bite out of the box office. With the Thanksgiving weekend release, a PG-13 family horror film would have been perfect.
“Despite the critical reception, the canine killer has found its fair share of fans over the years.”
Critics didn’t react positively to Man’s Best Friend upon its initial release. The film currently has a 18% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Despite the critical reception, the canine killer has found its fair share of fans over the years. According to Google, 87% of users like the movie. In general, I’m a fan of the killer dog sub-genre of horror, and I’m glad I revisited this one.
Man’s Best Friend is available on DVD and streaming services. Have you seen Man’s Best Friend? What did you think? Let us know on Twitter, or on our Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook group.