Devil Dog: Hound of Hell (1978) – TV Horror Review

Devil Dog (1978)Man’s best friends turns out to be a family nightmare in this mediocre made-for-television movie about a household pooch sired by satanic forces. The scares are few and far between, but the the campy concept may amuse fans of cult movies, and there is also a certain nostalgia appeal for those old enough to fondly recall 1970s tele-films.

This is one of a handful of indifferent television movies directed by the talented Curtis Harrington in the 1970s.* Harrington had a gift for atmospheric, suggestive horror of both the supernatural and the psycho variety (as evidenced in feature films ranging from NIGHT TIDE to GAMES), but he was less adept at the more blunt approach of “monster movies” with their special effects and crude shock techniques, especially when working the television medium, where the shocks were necessarily blunted.

As in Harrington’s other television horrors, the flat lighting works against Harrington’s penchant for establishing mood and atmosphere. With subtlety thus mitigated, the film has to find other ways to frighten, but most of the horror takes place off screen – probably for a combination of budget and censorship considerations. The low budget also means that the special effects, when the rear their ugly head (which is only once or twice), are laugh out loud funny: early shots of the puppy’s flashing red eyes are marred by the fact that the insert close-up seems to be of a much older dog; when the devil dog finally reveals his true form, he looks as if he is wearing leftover costume and makeup used to turn garden variety lizards into dinosaurs for cheap sci-fi flicks.

Riffing off THE OMEN, the script has a household pet convenietly killed, only to be replaced by a new doggie, named Lucky, who turns out to be evil incarnate. Mysterious accidents claim the lives of those who suspect the dog’s true nature. Betty Barry (Yvette Mimieux) and her two children (Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann) fall under the dog’s spell, until father and husband Mike (Richard Crenna) gets some useful advice from an Ecuadorian shaman, which helps him send the beast back to hell.

The story just barely manages to hold interest, offering a glimpse of a better movie that could have been made under different circumstances. The real “evil” at play is not so much the string of deaths meant to offer “shocks” before each commercial break; it is that Mike’s family turns against him. Daughter Bonnie and son Charlie become disobedient, and when dad tries to discipline them, Betty interferes, at one point even claiming to have seduced a school official who had suspicions about Charlie’s having rigged a school election. One could easily imagine a rewrite in which the devlish nature of the dog was left ambiguous, suggesting that Mike is merely projecting onto the innocent animal his own frustration over his disintegrating home life.

This is the sort of Val Lewton approach that Harrington put to good use in NIGHT TIDE, his debut feature, but DEVIL DOG undermines it with an opening prologue leaving us in no doubt that the title really is meant to be taken literally: we see  a cult performing a ceremony to summon a shadowy cannine demon, who sires a litter of pups by an innocent female dog.

At least the prologue gives us a chance to enjoy the always appealing Martine Beswicke (she of DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE). In fact, casting is one of the film’s strengths. Character actor R. G. Armstrong shows up for one scene as a fruit vendor who foists the devil dog off onto the unsuspecting Barry children. Crenna and Mimieux do their best to take things seriously in spite of the absurdities. Best of all is the jokey casting of Richards and Eisenmann, previously scene as the psychic siblings in ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN - it is kind of fun watching the Disney duo turn evil (well, bratty and disobedient, which is evil enough for TV movies of the time).

As for the fear factor, Harrington pulls off only one effective moment. Early on, while Mike is trying to repair a lawnmower that refuses to turn on, Lucky stares ominously at him; the mower mysteriously fires up, and Mike finds himself hypnotically compelled to move his hand closer and closer to the whirling blade. Unfortunately, the scene causes some story problems, because Mike seems to immediately forget about it and then takes the rest of the film to realize what this incident should have proved to him beyond all doubt: this is not a nice doggie!

The obligatory happy ending reminds us that Lucky was one of a litter, meaning that other devil dogs could be out there raising hell. If this was intended to set up a sequel, the intentional never became a reality. Maybe the other pet adopters were smart enough to see the warning signs early on and send their devil dogs immediately back to hell – or at lest to the animal control shelter.

DEVIL DOG: THE HOUND OF HELL (1978). Directed by Curtis Harrington. Written by Elinor Karpf & Steven Karpf. Cast: Richard Crenna, Yvette Mimieux, Kim Richards, Ike Eisenmann, Victory Jory, R. G. Armstrong, Martine Beswicke, Lou Frizell, Ken Kercheval.

FOOTNOTE:

  • Harrington’s other made-for-television horrors include THE CAT CREATURE (1973), KILLER BEES (1974), and THE DEAD DON’T DIE (1975).

About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

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