United States - 1984
Director – Peter Wittman
Academy Home Entertainment, 1986, VHS
Run time – 1 hour, 26 min.
Play Dead is part of the long tradition of evil animal films which itself is a sub-premise of the classic man vs. nature theme. Though it wasn’t the first such entry in the subgenre, Jaws ushered in a host of spinoffs in the video-era that wound down to sporadic entries featuring all nature of random animals from alligators to earthworms turning aggressive and attacking humans. Seems like the relative popularity of Cujo (1983) spawned a brief attempt to coat-tail the evil dog concept. Play Dead is an incredibly absurd case in point.
At her mothers funeral, Audrey and her boyfriend Glen have a confrontation with Audrey’s aunt Hester. She’s been at odds with the rest of the family ever since Audrey’s father rejected Hester for the deceased. Now Hester hangs around her house drinking brandy and talking to Audrey's dead father and her dog Gretta. Typically, after a few glasses Hester will break out the satanic acoutrements and chant some incantations over the dog which at these special moments refers to as “canis diabolis” and adorns with a pentagram necklace.
This time she means business, and the day after her ritual she pays a visit to Audrey and presents her with the dog, as a gift. Prior vitriol and hatred aside, apologies are quickly accepted, hands shaken and all of that and Audrey graciously accepts an unfamiliar 100 pound carnivorous gift from her mortal enemy.
That night after visiting for dinner, Audrey’s brother returns to his car where the waiting dog, having calculated the velocity and mass of an oncoming vehicle leaps from cover and startles him into the path of the car where he is killed, or anyway some blood runs from his mouth and there is a funeral. Greta has harnessed the awesome powers of geometry and physics to mastermind a series of untraceable “accidental” deaths.
Devastated by her compounding filial devastation Audrey listens to her collection of food-court ambiance records and invites Glenn over for a romp between the poorly edited shots of body doubles with different breast sizes. Her face looks a little frightened, but “her” hands eagerly ply Glen's generously bulging shorts as Greta watches patiently nearby.
Suddenly a good-ol’-boy detective is investigating the death of her brother, squeezing out homely anecdotes all the while. Audrey’s neighbor is electrocuted by Greta who opens the bathroom door in effusive and unnecessary slow-motion, picks up the hot curling iron and drops it into the tub. Waiting long enough for the convulsions to stop, she then carefully removes it from the tub.
Next it’s Glen’s turn. After a totally exhausting tennis game with Audrey he sits down next to a tree and promptly falls asleep with Greta leashed to his wrist. The dog quickly runs around the tree and Glen wakes just in time to be choked to death by the leash. But is in the coroners report where the crescendo of logically and visually dissonant scripting comes to a head. The coroner and detectives assessment is that someone choked Glen to death with one incredibly strong hand, and that Glen fought back with one hand, while the dog stood idly by. The nature of film requires the suspension of disbelief, but really, that’s your theory? When the detective finally starts to suspect the dog, it's too damned late and she quickly dispatches him with a quick dose of lye powder in his alka-seltzer (Greta is also comfortable with basic chemistry). Hester suddenly decides that her work is done, and leaves her initial victim Audrey alive to cry about her mullet.
Rather than a clever script or a good idea for one, it’s clear that the backers for this movie just found a well-trained dog and decided to build a movie on that premise alone. And it’s abundantly clear why Troma, in an effort to build their reputation picked up this film for distribution.
This box art is from Horror Playground.com in case you couldn't tell. There also exists another alternate non-Troma video sleeve which I am hoping to track down soon.
One British and two French and VHS covers courtesy of the generous Agressions Animales.