Collins’ Crypt: JAWS With Paws, But Not Much JAWS

MAN'S BEST FRIEND thankfully chewed its own path of terror without reminding you of the shark.

It's one of the great Hollywood anecdotes (at least within the horror genre): producer Robert Kosberg got a greenlight with a three word pitch: "Jaws with paws!". That film became Man's Best Friend, released via New Line in 1993, and has now been given the Scream Factory badge of honor as one of the first in their hopefully long-running series of New Line/Warner Bros acquisitions. I hadn't seen the movie in over twenty years, but I remember being a fan and watching it several times when it was released on video in 1994, having missed its theatrical release. My interest was primarily Lance Henriksen's major role; I was already a fan of his from other things like Aliens and Terminator, so I was excited to see him in a big part (indeed, the VHS art actually featured him instead of Ally Sheedy).

So no, even though it got the execs excited, it was not its "relation" to Jaws that interested me. In fact, I'm not even sure if I had seen Spielberg's masterpiece in its entirety at the time, as my first memory of seeing the entire (well, "entire", as it was on TBS and cropped, of course) film was a year or two later during a summer break. But watching again now, with about a dozen or more viewings of Jaws in between, I was kind of taken - and impressed - with how minimal Bruce the shark influenced Max the dog, as beyond the basic "animal kills people" plot (which, let's not forget, Jaws didn't invent) there is very little in John Lafia's script that seems to be directly referencing or even paying homage to the earlier film.

For starters, there's no "close the beaches" type subplot. If you're a novice at Jaws ripoffs, you might be shocked at how often the films that came in its wake helped themselves to this scenario. The specifics always change, of course, but the general idea is always the same: our hero knows there's a threat, but the people who sign his paychecks are too concerned with their financial stake in whatever event the monster might disrupt, so it proceeds as scheduled and things go very badly. There are countless versions: Kingdom of the Spiders had a county fair, Grizzly had the start of the camper season, The Car had a... *checks notes* marching band show?, etc. The killer snake movie (ahem) Jaws of Satan had one of my favorites: the higher ups refused to delay the opening of a new dog track, and naturally this came to bite them on the ass when the snakes ravaged the big unveiling, menacing the likes of Christina Applegate (in her first role) all so people could bet on which abused dog chased a fake rabbit the quickest.

Man's Best Friend has none of that - our hero Ally Sheedy is a reporter doing a story on a lab that is experimenting on animals, and inadvertently frees Max, a Tibetan Mastiff who instantly takes a strong liking to her, and for the first 25-30 minutes the movie's more or less a heartwarming tale of a woman rescuing a lovable and very smart dog. But eventually Max's true colors show, menacing Sheedy's boyfriend (Fredric Lehne), eating a cat, and finally killing random antagonists like a mace-carrying mailman and the asshole who runs the junkyard. Sheedy is unaware of most of this behavior of course, and while Lance warns the police of Max's potential for harm he just wants him back for his own nefarious reasons, so there's really no traditional Brody-type character warning everyone, nor is there any big event for Max to wreak havoc upon.  

Instead, it's more of a Frankenstein thing - Max is a sympathetic villain, something you can't quite say about the damn shark. Bred to be a weapon (I guess? Lance says "in the right hands he can save thousands of lives" but never clarifies how that would work), he isn't just a mindless killing machine - you get the impression that if Lance stopped by to administer his wonder drug that kept Max in check, he might just be a regular house dog. Well, OK - the drug and also if Sheedy's character was single. Perhaps Max just recognized Lehne from his usual bad guy characters (Yellow Eyes!), but he has it out for the guy instantly even though he seems like a pretty OK dude. In fact he doesn't want the dog there at all, but agrees to let her keep him, so if anything Max owes him a solid. Instead he chews his brake line and later lets his acid piss stream on his face. But before all that, he's just like, being a good boy unless someone antagonizes him first.

Another thing that keeps Jaws off your mind is the lack of everyone coming together to take him on, which is a big part of what drives that film to greatness. The movie has a varied group of characters - Sheedy's thirsty reporter, Henriksen's mad doctor, Robert Costanzo as a cop, the great William Sanderson as the junkyard owner - but they never all kind of band together to stop Max, or even interact all that much. Costanzo's character doesn't even know Sheedy's exists until the last like 15 minutes or so, and Lance and her really only have like two scenes together (Sanderson is largely wasted in a one-sequence role that mostly just seems like it's there to pad the brief runtime, to be honest). It's another hallmark of Jaws ripoffs, when the various folks all meet up and set their differences aside to achieve their common goal, but we don't get that here.

In fact, the only direct nod is the opening, where a woman who works at the lab is doing her rounds when she is attacked by an unseen creature (growling and the low angle POV tells us it's not a human), in a manner not unlike Chrissie in Jaws' classic kickoff. She even grabs at a cage before being pulled away from it, as poor Ms. Watkins did with the buoy - the homage is clear without being derivative. And it even has a purpose; as Lafia explains in his commentary, he wanted someone watching the movie blind to have the same trust in Max that Sheedy does at first, so we're not supposed to even know it's Max that killed her - it could have been any of the animals there. He even likens the following stretch to a Disney movie, and he's not really far off: a dog escaping some generic bad guy and bonding with a nice lady (and her neighbor's kid for good measure) could easily be a scenario in one of their live action films - it's not until he gets jealous of Sheedy and Lehne's lovemaking that the Disney angle gets lost.

Unfortunately, while I doubt anyone at New Line thought they'd make Jaws money, I'm sure they were pretty bummed out when it couldn't even make Jaws: The Revenge money, coming in at a mere $12.9m. To be fair, 1993 was not a landmark year for the genre at the box office; outside of Jurassic Park (natch) audiences were largely staying away from anything with monsters or supernatural elements, preferring to get their thrills from more grounded fare like The Good Son and Malice. And this was before the "From the director of _____" kind of marketing really got widespread, so Lafia's success with Child's Play 2 didn't help much either. Nowadays something like this wouldn't even go theatrical at all, which is a shame but its low-key, "B+ movie" appeal might play better at home anyway, and I'm happy Scream Factory has rescued it from near-obscurity (and given it a nice Blu-ray presentation to boot).

But back to the "Jaws with Paws" anecdote - considering that's how the movie began, I really hope people give it a little credit for being so un-Jaws-like, when so many others have seemingly gone out of their way to remind us of Spielberg's legendary blockbuster. I get the inclination to pay your respects, but to me it always makes sense to do it in a quick and/or subtle way (Deep Blue Sea's license plate gag comes to mind as a good example) rather than lift whole scenarios or present a character that's a carbon copy of Quint. Because let's face it - there aren't a lot of movies that are better than Jaws, and it makes no sense to remind someone of a superior film they could be watching instead. Man's Best Friend may not be a classic, but you can get sucked into it without constantly hearing John Williams' strings (indeed, Joel Goldsmith's score is pretty great on its own) or hearing some tired "bigger boat" variation - here's hoping the Jaws ripoffs of tomorrow follow its lead.