Monday, April 29, 2019

“Why Would Anyone Want to Kill an Old Caretaker?” - Monster Dog (1984)

We must continue our exploration of the films of Claudio Fragasso, and what better entry point could there be than the famous Alice Cooper vehicle Monster Dog (1984)?

Unfortunately, not all your universe's critics appreciate Monster Dog, or Mr. Fragasso for that matter. Reviewer tom_stratford writes, "Absolutely one of the worse films ever made." Reviewer Zorin-2 writes, "After I watched it I decided it was not worth the plastic it was made with and the paper it was printed on. It had horrible acting (including Alice Cooper) and really fake looking special effects." And reviewer tom-1908 writes, "This is, quite simply, the worst film I have ever seen. Not so bad it's good; just so bad. So very, very bad. Not one single person involved with it was even remotely competent in any way."

Needless to say, these reviewers are clearly confused about the difference between a bad film and a classic. Let us jump into the film and see if we can tell the difference. Please read on...

Alice Cooper plays a rock star named Vincent Raven, who opens the film with a music video in which he sings about having an identity crisis. After the video is done, we see a van loaded with equipment driving through the mountains. Mr. Cooper says to his manager, “The next one we do has got to have more punch.” He and his band are driving back to his old home town for inspiration creating songs, and to shoot a new video. Mr. Cooper explains that there is nobody in his old house except for the elderly caretaker Joss. “He’s been alone in the house all these years. Joss. I can hardly remember his face.” He adds, “We were always asking him to make us malts.”

Joss, it turns out, is waiting at Mr. Cooper’s old mansion with dozens of plates of sandwiches.

When it appears Mr. Cooper is late, Joss sensibly puts one plate of sandwiches in the refrigerator before he investigates an odd noise elsewhere in the house. He opens the front door to find a group of dogs staring at him, as if they are petitioning him to construct a series of doghouses for them, or some such thing.

The dogs growl at Joss and bare their teeth.

Elsewhere, a pair of policemen complain about the “goddamn fog.” They stop Mr. Cooper’s van, and Mr. Cooper helpfully explains the presence of a roadblock to his band mates: “They’re making a whole big deal about those mad dog stories.”

He has a good time with the two bearded policemen. One policeman recognizes the singer, but the older policeman just says, “I can’t tell one of these newfangled souls from another. But if you really are Lou and Martha’s boy, you sure as hell should remember me.”

“Sheriff...Morris. Yeah, I remember.” He laughs, and for some reason thinks it’s appropriate to say, “I used to sit on your lap and piss all over your pants, right?”

“That’s right, boy. You was more full of water than Hoover Dam. And now he’s a rock singer, huh? Sounds like more pissin’ to me.”

After warning Mr. Cooper and his friends that five people have been killed by mad dogs, the policemen let them go. Unfortunately for them, the sheriff is killed offscreen minutes later, and a monster dog jumps at the other policeman.

As they continue to drive, Mr. Cooper and his friends inadvertently run into a non-monster dog. Of course, Mr. Cooper carries the dog to the side of the road and then kills the poor creature by smashing a rock onto its head (offscreen). The murder of the canine appears to bring a new character into the picture: an old man wearing a bloody shirt. “Now you’ve done it. Can you feel the wind?” he asks. “The wind is lifting the fog. And blowing away the clouds that cover the moon. Now he’s back at last. He will command the hounds. And all of you...all of you will die.”

“It was an accident,” Mr. Cooper says, for some reason.

“All of you will die,” the man repeats. He adds, “You’re already dead.”

The man wanders off into the forest, but Mr. Cooper decides to find him so they can drive him to a hospital. As they walk, his girlfriend says, “Vince, we’ve got to find him.”

“Sure we will,” Mr. Cooper replies. “He’ll be great in our video.”

A monster dog jumps out at them and they scramble back to the van, where they drive away, ignoring the old man and continuing their journey over what now appears to be the surface of the moon.

They finally reach Mr. Cooper’s old house, whose interior resembles that of Castle Dracula.

While Mr. Cooper looks for Joss, his friend Sandra appears obsessed with a family portrait—perhaps she is taken by the fact that the father is a zombie. While the band mates look for food in the kitchen (and say “Wowee!” when they find Joss’s tray of sandwiches), Mr. Cooper loads a shotgun and climbs a spiral staircase a la The Haunting (1963) to the roof. He finds nothing.

During the night, Angela is assaulted by the old man from the woods, as well as the bodies of her friends. The man implies that Mr. Cooper will survive the night because he will be responsible for the band members’ murders. The man disappears, but Angela walks through the empty halls, intoning at the top of her voice, “Watch out for the old man. He’s trying to kill us. But we’ll kill him first. We’ll kill him before he gets a chance.”

Her experience culminates in her finding Mr. Cooper in a rocking chair, but when he turns around his face looks like that of a werewolf—or a monster dog.

Angela wakes up screaming to find out nobody has died or transformed into a monster dog. The other band mates make fun of Angela, despite the strange dog attacks, but Mr. Cooper seems to take her seriously, as if he knows something they don’t.

Later, Mr. Cooper reads a book with a still from The Wolf Man (1941) pasted onto one of the pages. The book is called Werewolves: Myths, Legends, and Scientific Realities.

Mr. Cooper explains: “There’s a disease. A heart disease that transforms the patient into some kind of madman, a beast that goes howling at the moon like a wolf.”

It turns out Mr. Cooper’s father was afflicted by the self-same heart disease. “Sometimes when the moon was full, he’d leave the house and go wandering through the fields like an animal. One time my mother found him underneath a bush.” The villagers stabbed him to death with pitchforks and then set him on fire. Fortunately, such a traumatic incident does not appear to have affected Mr. Cooper emotionally in any way.

In an eerie sequence, Mr. Cooper’s girlfriend Sandra walks past the painting of the family, now illuminated by moonlight, and in the painting she sees a monstrous dog creature lurking in the bushes. “Oh no,” she says.

The next day, the group starts shooting their music video, which for some reason involves a great deal of chicken wire and rain ponchos. The video shoot segues into a scene where the caretaker Joss falls through a window into the living room, dead.

“Why would anyone want to kill an old caretaker?” asks one of the band members, sensibly. There is no answer to this classic, timeless question.

In the confusion surrounding Joss’s death, Angela disappears outside, and Mr. Cooper runs outside with a shotgun to find her—presumably not to shoot her. As he chases after Angela, a posse from town, believing Mr. Cooper to be a werewolf responsible for all the recent dog attacks, searches for Mr. Cooper. The posse drives their station wagon to his mansion, brandishing their silver-bullet-armed guns while Mr. Cooper’s friends brandish their own guns.

Despite the fact that the posse look about as evil as a posse can look, one of Mr. Cooper’s friends wants to let them into the house to have a beer.

“Vince said we shouldn’t open up to anybody,” Sandra says.

“But these people are in the same boat as us,” says the gullible stooge. “And it seems to me, the more guns we have around, the better.”

Sandra is convinced, and lets the evil posse into the house. As soon as they enter, they begin acting evil, attacking Mr. Cooper’s friends and taking them prisoner.

“Don’t you understand that werewolves are just an idiotic superstition?” asks Sandra.

The lead posse member explains himself: “It was a night like this.” [Note: The scene takes place in the daytime.] “A night when there was a full moon. It is then that they transform themselves. When Vince gets back, I’m gonna shoot him right through the heart with this silver bullet. That’s how you kill werewolves.”

Sandra threatens to go to the sheriff, but another posse member paraphrases the famous song: “The sheriff’s dead. So is the deputy.”

Sandra explains that she saw the monster dog last night when she was with Vince, so he can’t be a werewolf, but the posse doesn’t believe her. “Well, I guess you must be the werewolf’s sweetheart. Ain’t that right?” The posse members chuckle loudly.

Mr. Cooper finds Angela and brings her back to the house, but when they open the door, the posse shoots Angela by mistake.

A chase ensues, with Mr. Cooper leading most of the posse to the roof while one man remains with orders to shoot Mr. Cooper’s friends. He accuses two of the men of being “queers.” “Queers make,” he says, then pauses for several seconds before continuing: “My stomach turn!” He hits one of them with the butt of his gun. Fortunately, Sandra manages to ram a fireplace poker through the homophobe’s boot, pinning him to the floor.

Upstairs, Mr. Cooper straight up murders all but one of the posse in cold blood--he blows the top of one's head off. (To be fair, they are the men that killed his father, so perhaps he is justified.)

Things go from bad to worse when a pack of dogs breaks into the mansion, attacking the friends and through means too complex to describe here causing one man to be set on fire and stumble through a window.

Then the real monster dog breaks through the door.

The survivors barricade themselves upstairs, with one of them, Mary Lou, accusing Mr. Cooper of being the monster dog. “You are a werewolf! I know you are! I know it!”

Later, the dogs all calm down and Mr. Cooper, Sandra, and Mary Lou reenact the ending of The Birds (1963), making their way to the posse’s car outside. Mr. Cooper and Sandra then immediately return to the mansion because the keys are not in the car. After they find the keys and return to the car, they drive away, only to find out that Mary Lou is dead and the monster dog is in the car. The car crashes, and we follow Sandra as she stumbles through the foggy landscape looking for Mr. Cooper.

She stumbles upon the bloody old man from the beginning, who says something confusing about a new king who will live in the House of the Dead forever, presumably referring to Mr. Cooper. The old man falls over, dead.

Seconds later, she finds the injured Mr. Cooper, who begs Sandra to shoot her to prevent him from turning into a werewolf.

He begins to transform.

She shoots him. He dies. Shockingly, there is no twist ending—unless you count the music video that closes the film, which is a repeat of the song from the opening, intercut with shots from the movie we have just finished watching.

Of course, as a Claudio Fragasso project, a film like Monster Dog is full of symbolism and metaphor and deep philosophical questions. Perhaps the primary question the film poses is the conflict between youth and experience. Alice Cooper was only 36 years old when he starred in this film, so of course he represents youth, along with his 31-year-old girlfriend, played by Spanish actress Victoria Vera, and the other youngsters in Mr. Cooper's band. This group of youths is pitted against an older, more traditional generation represented by the sheriff (played by 44-year-old Ricardo Palacios) and the evil posse who killed Mr. Cooper's father (led by 41-year-old Charly Bravo). The youths try to do the right thing while the older generation opposes them, but in the end Mr. Cooper himself is revealed to be a werewolf. What is Mr. Fragasso saying? That even the most energetic, rambunctious youths are destined to grow old and become evil? Yes. That is clearly what Mr. Fragasso is saying.

It is unfortunate that Alice Cooper (whose real name is Vincent, inspiring the name of his character in Monster Dog, an indication that the film was truly a passion project designed to share the reality of Mr. Cooper's life with the moviegoing world) did not enjoy more starring roles in films. His cinematic career primarily consists of him playing himself as well as small cameos, which of course are a treat, but based on Monster Dog, he is clearly capable of meatier, non-cameo roles. At least for his starring debut he was able to perform in a Claudio Fragasso film made in Spain with Spanish and Italian crew members--perhaps the most creative combination of filmmakers in the world. As a result, we, the filmgoing audience, will always have Monster Dog, and for some of us, that will be more than enough.