Curtis Harrington’s name may not be familiar to most film buffs, but he has left an imprint on filmdom over the last half a century. In his eighty years on earth, Harrington, who died in 2007, worked with and befriended a unique group of individuals, from James Whale to Kenneth Anger and Maya Deren to Roger Corman and Aaron Spelling.
In the documentary House Of Harrington, released in 2009, Curtis Harrington gives a first-hand account of how his career. A child of California in the 1930’s and 40’s, Harrington’s career began (and ended) with his obsession with Edgar Allan Poe and The Fall Of The House Of Usher. In between, he created many classic B-horror and television movies, usually featuring legendary actresses in their later years such as Shelly Winters and Gloria Swanson. Near the end of his life, critics called him “the George Cukor of horror,” recalling the famed director who also had a reputation of working well with actresses. Other projects included directing for the TV series Charlie’s Angels and Dynasty and advising on Bill Condon’s biopic of friend James Whale, Gods And Monsters.
While just about all of Curtis Harrington’s film work can be classified as horror, his subjects within that genre are pretty diverse. His feature film debut, 1961’s Night Tide, involves Dennis Hopper falling in love with a mermaid. In 1971 Harrington directed two movies starring Shelley Winters, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? and What’s The Matter With Helen?, co-starring Debbie Reynolds. Other films include the classic TV movie How Awful About Allan, starring Anthony Perkins, and Voyage To The Prehistoric Planet, a re-edited Soviet sci-fi movie with Basil Rathbone in additional scenes.
My personal favorite film of Mr. Harrington’s is hardly ever even mentioned. In fact, in an interview he gave in 2005, he dismissed it as “pathetic”. I guess if you made a film called Devil Dog: The Hound Of Hell, you’d run away from it, too.
Devil Dog: The Hound Of Hell seems to be part of an unintended craze in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s of films about evil dogs. In fact, I originally confused Devil Dog for the Michael Pataki/Jose Ferrer film Zoltan: Hound Of Dracula, also made in 1978. However, most people who think of evil dogs of that era go back to Cujo, Stephen King’s misunderstood rabies case of a few years later.
Premiering on CBS on Halloween 1978, Devil Dog stars TV staple Richard Crenna as Mike Barry, a man whose family falls under the influence of a satanic dog. There’s not much to spoil, but there are a lot of great moments in this movie. How can you not do a good job re-enacting the Satanic impregnation of a German Shepherd? There’s really no wrong way to screw it up, although Harrington’s flair for theatrical ceremony, going back to his days as an experimental filmmaker and cohort of Kenneth Anger, doesn’t hurt either. Having R. G. Armstrong as the Satanic cult leader is inspired too, because he really sells the fake sincerity after the dark station wagon runs over the Barry family’s dog and all of a sudden his fruit truck appears. Of course, he gives the children apples.
Richard Crenna had a long, varied career, doing everything from Our Miss Brooks to the Rambo movies. Yvette Mimieux is best known from her work in the 1960’s, especially The Time Machine, while the kids are played by Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann, who previously played brother and sister in Escape From Witch Mountain. Richards has added notoriety these days as one of the Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills.
The first part of Devil Dog works especially well, although it loses steam as soon as everyone but Crenna is either possessed or dead. The death scenes are well directed, especially the maid’s, although after the second or third “THAT’S FUNNY; DOGS USUALLY LIKE ME”, it gets old.
And then there’s the actual “devil dog." They seem to be using the same German Shepherd over and over, as both the title character and his/her mother. I can’t be completely sure, but I think they even use the same dog for the Barry’s old mutt, who was supposedly run over by the same ominous station wagon that pulled up to the kennel in the beginning. The dog did not look menacing at all, but it adds to the film’s camp value. As Harrington said, “I did every trick in the book to try and make that lovely dog look evil. Even the puppies in it were supposed to look evil. It was just absurd!“
Devil Dog: The Hound Of Hell may have been something Curtis Harrington wanted to forget, but it works as a nice entry point to discovering this overlooked director. It is scarier than any broadcast TV movie of the 1970’s has a right to be, and campier, too. A remake would make for a great Syfy channel movie, and if done just right, could be a perfect springboard for the next Curtis Harrington to get his start. He’d better watch more of the original Harrington’s films, however, to get a fuller picture of this cult director.
Resources And Further Information:
Ike Eisenmann on Devil Dog and Witch Mountain - YouTube. The actor who played the son, Charlie, in a brief clip about his role in Devil Dog, presumably for a DVD extra. Also on YouTube is another clip of Eisenmann telling of how the dog wrangler “sensed” that Lou Frizzell, who played the Barry’s neighbor, was near death.
Open Secret (Gay Hollywood 1928-1998). Ehrenstein, David. New York, William Morrow and Co., 1998. pp. 67-69. Passage detailing Harrington’s friendship with James Whale.