Sometimes, this job is lonely as all giddy out. One of these days, I'm going to have to make peace with the fact that people like Finn Clark, Jonathan Stryker, JohnShaft and myself just aren't meant to be embraced by the mainstream.
It sounds pretentious, but chances are you've all been there. I grabbed a handful of old catalog titles at the video store I was working at. Titles in this stack may have consisted of MAUSOLEUM, THE DARK, VAMPIRE HOOKERS and MONSTER DOG. My co-worker, a decent guy, gave me the familiar look. I sighed as he did nothing to conceal his snickers and guffaws. Ever since I rented BLOOD BEACH (John Saxon being "The Man"), the guy never showed me any mercy.
Now, I'm not saying I'm any better or worse than the skeptics. But some people just don't understand. They don't understand how I could know or even care about these obscure directors and their ilk. They don't understand how I could find just as much enjoyment, and probably more, watching an Umberto Lenzi film as the latest claptrap starring Meg Ryan. They don't understand how I could follow these things so intently, watching the images on the screen as a big and satisfied grin creeps across my face.
And they sure as hell don't understand how I could not only watch, but be enthralled by a film called MONSTER DOG.
Even in the annals of Italian horror, MONSTER DOG is a bit of an anomaly. It would appear to many to be a standard shocker were it not for one crucial component. This film is the first and only horror film to feature Alice Cooper in a starring role.
And if you don't think that's worth a two dollar rental in itself... well, I'm afraid you just don't understand either.
Cooper plays, appropriately enough, a rock star named Vincent Raven. Raven and his band need to reshoot some scenes for a long-form music video and return to Raven's old hometown for inspiration. They picked a poor time for the pick-up shots, however, as there seem to be a number of crazed dogs in the area, tearing people to shreds. Raven tells the sheriff that they need to continue on but they'll be careful.
However, even before the group arrives at the estate, Raven doesn't seem especially thrilled to be back. He tells his girlfriend that he could always find his way home in the dark because he could smell the bullshit a mile away. When they do arrive, the place is deserted but it brings back Raven's repressed memories of his traumatic childhood.
Apparently, his father had a rare heart disease that caused him to go into a primal rage and develop symptoms of lycanthropy. This actually has some basis in reality and is suspected to being one of the contributing factors to the werewolf mythos throughout the ages. Not being especially well-read, a few townspeople shot and killed the father before Raven's horrified eyes.
You're probably thinking the same things I was. Why doesn't the group clear out when they are warned by the police? Why would Raven ever agree to come back when the town holds such awful memories? But all through the film, Raven seems to be driven. It's as if some unseen force is pulling him back to his earliest fears and his unlucky friends are along for the ride.
MONSTER DOG is often called LEVIATAN, which is a better title. The MONSTER DOG title makes the film sound like a ripoff of CUJO. What we actually have here is a multi-layered horror fantasy that does a great job expanding werewolf mythology among other things.
The film tries to juggle a number of things during it's brief running time and virtually nothing is as it appears. On one hand, we have the wild dogs mentioned earlier, but also there seems to be a much bigger monster who is controlling them all. Also, Raven recalls what happened to his father and fears that the horrible disease may run in the family. Group member Angela (Pepita James - THE LIEUTENANT NUN) seems to have psychic dreams that may confirm Raven's suspicions. Finally, a group of kill-crazy locals, led by the man who murdered Raven's father, invade the estate and prove to be even more dangerous than the monsters. Apparently, blind hatred and a thirst for blood is repeated unto the next generation as well.
It's amazing that they fit in two music video sequences in the midst of all this, but they do. They're old school videos that not only are rockin' little montages, they enhance the story as well. People forget what you can do with costume changes, jump cuts and a whole lot of fog. Hype Williams, eat your heart out.
Alice Cooper is not slumming here and he treats the part with a surprising sense of dignity. This is an Alice Cooper who was in the midst of getting clean and sober, but before he discovered the joys of golfing. At times, he looks a bit like Harry Dean Stanton. Cooper does some incredible things with this part. But there's one shocking realization that made me almost leap out of my seat. They dubbed Alice's voice!
By now, we should be used to the fact that just about everyone in these films is dubbed. But if you're going to go through the trouble of getting a multi-platinum selling artist to star in your film, shouldn't you at least make sure he gets to do his own ADR? Thank goodness the musical numbers are all Alice.
It's a shame though, because like I said, Cooper does a lot with the part. He brings complete attitude to the part. Check out the moment when he finally has to fight back against his home invaders. He has a steely-eyed glare and a perverse smile that made me recoil in shock. In other moments, he conveys a genuine sense of tragic humanity.
Most of the other actors (or dubbers) unfortunately do not fare as well. Only Pepita James does anything with her part. She illicits our sympathy as her visions haunt her, threatening her sanity long before everything around the group goes to hell.
As for the rest, not so much. Poorly delivered lines, a lack of character development and half-hearted performances almost shatter many of the scenes that don't feature Cooper or some sort of action. Thankfully, there aren't many of these scenes to be found.
There are other sloppy touches that don't mesh with the rest of the film. Huge gaps in logic are everywhere. For instance, it takes the group about five minutes to figure out who the home invaders are. It should take the audience about two seconds. Some sloppy padding also plays a part as the music video that opens the film, closes it as well.
Still, MONSTER DOG offers a lot of surprises. It starts out deceptively simple, and quickly develops into a thought-provoking and atmospheric chiller. And yes, there are a few genuine scares to be had as well.
Claudio Fragasso deserves most of the credit for pulling off a successful film, in his directorial debut. Fragasso launched into directing here after serving as a writer for many years to Italian exploitation cinema's top talents. He would go on in later years to helm such memorable shockers as ZOMBIE 4: AFTER DEATH and such baffling head-slappers as TROLL 2.
MONSTER DOG is a surprisingly great film that only a horror lover could love. But after all, that's who the film was made for to begin with.