We all love dogs, right? As soon as we see one skip into a horror movie, we instantly get that indescribable stomach twinge that goes along with our subconscious screaming, “Please, God, don’t let anything happen to that furry little guy!” Whether they’re an emotion eliciting plot device or jumping in, teeth bared to save the day, the four-legged companions have become a staple in horror movies just as much as the dumb blonde and the nerdy virgin. Unfortunately, dogs are most often the first characters to get eliminated from such titles, right before the body count starts its steady incline. It makes sense. Many people believe most animals have a six sense when it comes to illness and danger, so why wouldn’t the ax swinging slasher put an end to the breathing, panting security system while he bides his time and waits in the dark? When this happens, of course, the audience usually gives a more upsetting and disturbed reaction than if one of the human characters were butchered. I already said it – we all love dogs! Now let’s see how mutts and hounds have contributed to the horror genre as a whole.
Cujo is perhaps the most well-represented dog in scary movie history. Based on the Stephen King novel and directed by Lewis Teague, Cujo screened to audiences across The United States in August and September of 1983. It opened as the #2 movie in its debut week, and has gone on to be heavily regarded as one of the most iconic horror films of all time. Cujo tells the story of a St. Bernard who goes mad after a rabbit bite and spends the rest of the movie terrorizing scream queen Dee Wallace and child-star Danny Pintauro. It’s a terrifying movie, to say the least, and the shock to the audience must have been bigger over 30 years ago. However, it was a much different story behind-the-scenes as the real Cujo, a St. Bernard named Daddy, was well-trained, well-behaved and quite docile. According to some sources, Daddy had to be coaxed to the car with dog treats that were eventually thrown through the windows to get him to pounce on the vehicle. Also, Daddy had to have his tail tied down to keep it from wagging during the more violent and fear-inducing scenes. And it gets better. Daddy was only the lead dog, according to Dee Wallace and Lewis Teague, anywhere between 5 and 15 St. Bernards were used during filming; all with a special on-screen talent.
Cujo was a pretty high profile gig as far as dog showcasing was concerned. Sure, the big puppies have been used in films across the board since the invention of the motion picture camera, but it wasn’t until recently that dogs started getting credited for their work in film. While none of their credits include the horror genre, Rex The Dog was featured in 26 movies between 1923 and 1929, Happy the Dog was listed in the opening credits of “7th Heaven” and no one can forget the always disappearing dog Comet from “Full House.” When we really take a magnifying glass to on-screen credits, it becomes a difficult task to identify animal performers in this category. Pete the Dog was featured in comedy-horror Dr. Pyckle & Mr. Pryde (1925), Zak the Dog was featured in Brainscan (1994), Zeus the Dog played the title role in Rotweiller (2004) and Hachi the Dog was fortunate enough to pop up in surprise hit The Babadook. Outside of these performers, it’s hard to find a credited pooch, although they’ve held important roles in films like The Amityville Horror, Halloween, The Hills Have Eyes, The People Under the Stairs, Pet Sematary 2, Resident Evil, The Thing and many, many more. I mean, who could ever forget Chips – real name Blu – from the Dawn of the Dead remake? I sure can’t!
Here’s what I find most interesting. Dogs, without being able to speak dialogue, are better paid on set than most levels of extras and staff assistants. Oh, yeah. Dogs make bark. I mean bank. Obviously, the pooches with a more distinct look and name recognition – hello, Lassie. Hello, Rin Tin Tin – will pull in bigger bucks, and animals outside of canine gene with bigger bodies and higher capabilities will get paid more than that. Focusing back on dogs, did you know Toto – real name Terry – was paid $125 while filming was underway for The Wizard of Oz. That’s pretty good money now, and that’s even better money back in 1938. Today, though, dogs are estimated to make $400 per day or up to $10,000 per movie according to The Hollywood Reporter. To put that number into perspective, Work Chron states that a SAG certified movie extra makes $148 a day, for an 18 hour day. One must remember that, while an animal performer makes more money, fees and cuts are removed from the bill and distributed to the booker and the trainer. Still, who knew dogs were one of the better paid actors on set?
While this sounds all well and good, this also raises the aspect of animal abuse in the film industry. What constitutes animal abuse when trying to capture the perfect shot? Huge outcry hit the media in July 2017 when a video reached the internet depicting the crew of A Dog’s Purpose throwing a terrified German Shepherd into rushing water several times, even with a safety crew waiting in the wings. When it comes to horror films, how many times have we seen dogs covered in special effects make-up and gunk, and put into dangerous situations that could accidentally cause harm to the proposed pet, just as with any stunt performer? Think the zombie Doberman’s in Resident Evil. Dipped head-to-toe in goop and forced to run through prop glass, explosions and cameras zipping by them. The room for error in any movie ranges from minimal to marginal, but at least humans understand what they’re signing up for and are willing participants on set. The same cannot be said for dogs, or any other animal performer. Even thinking about the German Shepherd that’s killed by Michael Myers in the original Halloween, and how the angle he was being held at looks to be an unnatural position for any breed of dog, much less a bulkier breed.
So, the next time you see man’s best friend in a horror movie, enjoy what will probably be a short lived character arc. But, remember that the pup in front of the camera was payed handsomely for their efforts. From rabies, to robots, to zombies, to playing the saddest victims ever, dogs are probably one of the most important parts of the plot, because, again, they get much more of a reaction from the audience than humans. However, dogs can also be the hero in such movies, which elicits a round of applause and results in many viewers leaving the theater with a bigger smile. They’re cathartic, and bring joy to the viewer just as much as the cast and crew on set. We all love dogs, right? Then, raise a paw to our four-legged friends and go watch your copy of Cujo in their honor.