To experience real ‘horror’ onscreen, watch a film about a dog in danger

crying at dog movies

Roddy McDowall and Pal in “Lassie Come Home.”

Over the years, I’ve endured a lot of horrifying things in movies — brutal sadism, oceans of gore, Rob Schneider. And I sat through all of it, unflinching. Even taking notes.

But when there is even a hint that dog is about to be hurt onscreen, I start squirming.

I was thinking about this recently, when I was doing things around the house. I had the TV on, tuned to my usual default: Turner Classic Movies. The network was running a marathon salute to MGM, and they’d just gotten up to “Lassie Come Home.”

The story starts off with little Roddy McDowall’s parents — yes, the movie is that old — selling his beloved pet to raise some money. Of course, Lassie won’t take that lying down, and she spends the rest of the picture trying to get back to her boy.

First, she tunnels under her cage. Caught and returned, she then jumps over her cage. Caught again, and shipped off to Scotland, she escapes again, and begins quietly trotting home. It’s a trek of hundreds of miles, and along the way she is chased, struck, shot at and nearly killed.

Now, I had seen the movie many times before, and knew — spoiler alert! — that she eventually would be reunited with Master Roddy. But that didn’t stop me from worrying every time she faced a new peril, or from getting choked up whenever she seemed to be in pain. (A fine performer, Lassie — real name Pal — puts on a convincing limp for a few scenes.)

I knew she would survive until the end, but sometimes I wondered if I would.

And afterwards, I wondered — am I nuts?

Because, as I said at the beginning, I don’t have this problem with movies where bad things happen to good people. I enjoy murder mysteries. I adore noir. And while I’m not a fan of what I think of as geek-show cinema — you know, splatter-fests like “Terrifier” that go out of their way to disgust — give me a horror movie with a young family moving into a suspiciously cheap old house and I’m there, happily.

Michelle Williams and Lucy in “Wendy & Lucy.”

Put a dog in jeopardy, though, and my pulse starts racing. Ask me to name the saddest movies — the ones I both admire and am reluctant to ever watch again — and “Umberto D.” and “Wendy and Lucy” top the list.

This kind of canine concern isn’t specific to me, either. Recently I was recommending “Dogman,” a wild, Newark-set movie about a disabled, Shakespeare-quoting drag queen who pulls off daring jewel heists using dozens of trained dogs. There is a lot to unpack there, admitted, but the question I got most often from readers was: Are any of the dogs hurt?

It’s a common enough worry that there is even a website,, listing canine mortality rates in more than 17,000 productions. Begun in 2011, the site originally stuck to pooches; since then, it has expanded to provide warnings on more than 180 different “triggers,” from “Does a cat die?” to “Is a child abused?” (It’s a service that I honestly feel isn’t oversensitive but simply sensible; if you were just diagnosed with cancer, say, you might appreciate a heads-up before you turned on “Terms of Endearment.”)

But that still doesn’t answer the question: Why is a scene in which an animal character is hurt so much more upsetting to watch than a scene in which a human character is hurt?

A lot of it, I expect, is that we know something about the way movies work. Although there are sometimes horrible accidents or scandalous mistakes — the shooting on the set of “Rust,” the multiple deaths during the shooting of “Twilight Zone: The Movie” — we know the human violence we see on screen isn’t just fake, but done under careful conditions. That villain thrown out a window was a stunt performer who landed on an out-of-sight mattress. That gladiatorial combat was carefully choreographed, and staged with rubber swords.

The same cautions are supposed to apply to animal performers, too — at least in American productions shot under Screen Actors Guild rules, in which the American Humane Society is empowered to monitor conditions. But we still worry, and sometimes with good reason. Decades ago, “trip wires” were routinely used to make galloping horses fall; animals that broke a leg were euthanized. (Errol Flynn, an animal lover, was so outraged when he saw this during “The Charge of the Light Brigade” that he charged at director Michael Curtiz, fists flying.)

The practice was eventually outlawed, and although there is still no federal law protecting animal performers, the majority of them are treated well; the true stars among them know how to act scared or fake a sore paw. But why does seeing them even pretending to be in pain still hit us so hard?

I suspect that, for a lot of us, the reasons are rooted deep in childhood.

Let’s face it, infants are a selfish, amoral lot. They know their needs, and nothing more; it takes a while for them to realize they’re not the only creature in the world. (Some of them, sadly, grow into adulthood without ever learning that.) But then, if the child is lucky, they get a pet.

And suddenly they have something with needs they have to meet. Something vulnerable that they have to take care of, and that can’t give them anything but gratitude, and affection, in return. Those children become, in a sense, parents, too. And as a result they learn things like protectiveness, and responsibility. They feel things like tenderness, and pride.

Pets can also give children a safe, emotional space they can’t explore otherwise. Boys are rarely encouraged to show their emotions, but they can hug and pet old Rover without anyone making fun. Girls are still sometimes discouraged from being independent, but they can saddle a horse and go riding and feel strong and free.

There is a primal bond with our pets that is often far less complicated or troubled than the one we have with our parents. And it’s one we never forget, even as different animals pass in and out of our lives.

Kevin Corcoran and Spike in “Old Yeller.”

And usually, it’s a connection we pass on. My mother came from a family of animal lovers, and passed that feeling along to me. I remember being 9 or so and reading an old Victorian book called “Bob, Son of Battle.” (My mother gave me a love of second-hand bookstores, too.) The novel was set in an English village where there was both a lovely sheepdog and a horrible, vicious one. At the end, the bad dog is — trigger warning! — finally torn apart by the other village dogs. I got to that part and burst into sobs.

My mother came into the room and asked what the matter was. I silently handed her the book. She started reading. And pretty soon she was crying, too.

And, I admit, I’ve passed that soft-heartedness on to our children. We gush over strange dogs in the street. We fawn over our own. And of course, we’ve watched plenty of dog movies together — from “Old Yeller,” “Because of Winn-Dixie” and “A Dog of Flanders” to “Wallace & Gromit,” “Cats & Dogs” and far too many “Air Bud” adventures. I suspect, the next time they’re home, we’ll watch “Lassie Come Home,” too.

I’ll have a box of Kleenex ready.


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