Any dog owner can tell you that a common thought that pops into their head is that they wish they had the ability to know what their dog was actually thinking. A fun pastime in our household is to give voice to our pup and make him “say” the most ridiculous and off-color things. In 1977 author Ken Greenhall took this basic idea and took it to its most nihilistic and disturbing ends with his novel Hell Hound. If you take the family friendly A Dog’s Purpose and put it through an almost Lynchian blender, you get an idea of what the tale offered. The story had a darkly comedic undercurrent to supplement the high-minded, occasionally horrific journey. In 1989, French director Jérôme Boivin adapted the novel for the silver screen under the title Baxter. The movie is less forthright about its horrific elements than similar unhinged dog tales such as Stephen King’s Cujo, but the wry humor that the film uses elevates this to something that the arthouse crowd can appreciate.
Baxter, a white bull terrier, has a very bleak view of the world. Through his narration, Baxter muses on the dark beauty of the world and the general weakness of those who surround him. All he really wants is a master who understands him, who shares his love of chaos and dominance over others. In the small world that Baxter inhabits, there are not many people who make a particularly compelling case to believe in anything otherwise. The town is filled with infidelity, cruelty, voyeurism and even a burgeoning Hitler-admiring sociopath – the latter of which might actually be the best fit for our pup’s sensibilities. The first owner that Baxter goes to is an older woman (Lise Delamare), who fears him at first before becoming enamored with the cute little dog. Baxter has nothing but contempt for this woman, her sedentary lifestyle and her unyielding affection. She is weak and easily dominated, and Baxter yearns to be with the vibrant, amorous couple across the street. Helping her take a quick trip down the stairs might help manifest his desires.
Baxter does not inherently want to kill people, but, if he cannot find a good solution to better his life any other way, he is not above it. One of the most interesting aspects of Baxter is discovering what truly fuels his actions. His thoughts are simultaneously both limited from the point of view of a dog but frightfully acidic and thoughtful within the context of his mind. His life is a series of joys and disappointments. The young couple across the street do end up adopting him for a time. We learn that Baxter can indeed be happy under the right circumstances. But when weakness enters the household in the form of a baby, the illusion breaks and he is back to his old, contemptible ways. His final owner is where the movie really veers into the more horrific side of the story. Baxter loves a firm hand, and he certainly gets that with a young boy with some bizarre tendencies. The film builds you up to believing it is one thing, and it takes an interesting turn to something much more complex.
Baxter is not the only monster in this story, as we discover with the budding young sociopath who adopts him. This section of the film is the most fascinating and also the most hard to stomach. There is some realistically staged animal cruelty – both animal-on-animal and human-on-animal – that may put off more sensitive viewers. Throughout this process, though, Baxter continues to offer up cutting insights into the world that have to make you laugh for all of the darkness. A particular stretch in which he excoriates his natural urge to procreate with a pup in heat leads to a universal thought about weakness of the flesh. These are wild thoughts coming from what appears to be an adorable little puppy. The movie is very dark, but very well crafted and executed. The narrative can be a bit slow at many points, but those who enjoy the mind of Baxter will appreciate the extra time spent within it. It is better to not go into this one expecting a proper horror film. Baxter is a morbidly funny psychological examination of a nihilistic canine.
Baxter comes to Blu-Ray with a digital AVC encoded 1080p transfer that is very strong. I could not find any specific details on this transfer, but given the quality it has likely been scanned at a 2K resolution in recent years. The presentation is fairly solid throughout with only the occasional mark against it. This transfer maintains the natural film grain of the presentation and only runs slightly on the soft side in a handful of shots, most likely due to limitations of the original source material. Colors appear stable under the mostly overcast sky, and instances of print damage have been cleaned up immensely with only the occasional specks and marks visible. Overall clarity and detail is pretty great with natural skin tones and subtle facial features that are easily noticeable in closeup. Black levels are a bit less impressive with some of the darker scenes near the end lacking immense depth. Delineation occasionally struggles as fine details are lost in a dense mass. This new presentation from Scorpion Releasing is a great effort for the long-unavailable film, which should please fans who have been eagerly anticipating a proper release.
The Blu-Ray disc comes with a remastered DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track in the original French that preserves the artistic intention of the film. The score sounds good throughout the duration of the film, as it sets the moods for the events of the story. There are rarely moments where it threatens to overwhelm competing sounds, as elements work together in harmony. Dialogue is very clearly defined with a special emphasis put on the voice-over narration that always sounds strong. Environmental sounds such as the garden fountain are rendered well alongside everything else. Scorpion Releasing has given this film a worthy audio presentation.
- Audio Commentary: Filmmaker Mark Savage gives a thoughtful commentary track in which he reveals his personal experiences with the material, dissects the themes and developments of the narrative, explores the structure of the film in comparison to the novel and many more interesting insights. Worth checking out for fans of the film even if it relies on material from the novel a bit much.
- Trailers: Various vintage trailers for other films from Scorpion Releasing are presented here in a package including Slow Dancing In The Big City, September 30 1955 and more.
Baxter may not be a dog you want to have in your own house, but his nihilistic thoughts make for an interesting feature. The film is definitely not for everyone, but those who appreciate a comedic exploration of a dark soul should have fun with this one. Scorpion Releasing has released a Blu-Ray with a very striking A/V presentation and a worthwhile commentary track. If the premise of a murderous dog trying to find his one true owner sounds interesting and you like offbeat films in general, you should give this one a shot. Recommended
Baxter will be available to purchase on Blu-Ray on May 18, 2021.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.
Disclaimer: Scorpion Releasing has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.