The prevailing wisdom has always been that you should never ever ever kill a pet in a movie. You can kill all the people you want. Husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, neighbors, parents, soldiers, nuns. But kill the adorable dog or kitty cat, and you risk losing the audience. Of course, this means that filmmakers know they have a deadly weapon at their disposal to push our buttons. In this CHUD list, we’re going to take a look at cinema’s saddest, funniest, most messed up and most memorable pet deaths. Remember, we didn’t make these movies. We just work here.
Film: A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
Director: Charles Crichton
The Pet: Three unlucky Yorkshire terriers.
The Owner: Mrs. Coady (Patricia Hayes), an elderly woman who enjoys walking her dogs.
The Context: Two London criminals, bossman George (Tom Georgeson) and his stutter-prone sidekick Ken (Michael Palin) join forces with two American criminals, the sexy con artist, Wanda Gershwitz (Jamie Lee Curtis), and her obnoxious Anglophobe boyfriend Otto (Kevin Kline). Together they commit a robbery, which goes successfully, except for one Mrs. Coady who witnesses the crime. Double-crosses and wackiness ensue, as Wanda gets friendly with George’s attorney Archie Leach (John Cleese) in an attempt to discover where George hid the loot. Meanwhile, Otto has decided that poor stuttering Ken shall be assigned the duty of eliminating their only witness.
Off To the Big Pet Store in the Sky: Ken may be a criminal, but he isn’t a particularly great hitman. His first attempt to kill Mrs. Coady involves a viscous Doberman pinscher, which Ken lets loose down the street while Mrs. Coady is walking her three doggies. If Ken had fully thought this through, he may have seen this obvious outcome coming:
Ken’s next attempt is a little better. He dresses up as a Jamaican (naturally) and attempts to run over Mrs. Coady in a car. He comes close to succeeding. Though the only casualty is once again an unfortunate Yorkie.
Third times the charm, right? Determined to make Mrs. Coady’s demise look like an accident, Ken’s third plan is rather elaborate. Using a sniper rifle, Ken plans to shoot the rope securing a block of marble dangling outside Mrs. Coady’s building, causing the block to fall and crush Mrs. Coady. Once again, he comes awfully close.
This is about as funny as killing three Yorkshire terriers can get. Screenwriter John Cleese knows farce and he knows physical humor, and this is a pitch perfect (and deliciously dark) example of both. The fact that Ken is an animal lover, and keeps getting injured in his attempts, actually makes you feel a little bad for him — as bad as you can feel for someone who is trying to kill an old lady for reasons of personal gain.
Explain This to the Humane Society: It was an accident! I swear! I was trying to kill that old lady! I’d never hurt an animal on purpose!
Bonus: Karma is a bitch. And Otto is a psycho. Eventually, in an attempt to get Ken to reveal where George hid their booty, Otto ties Ken to a chair. He then prepares for a popular British meal: fish and chips. Otto shoves french fries up Ken’s nose, and then proceeds to eat all of Ken’s many fish, while a stunned and stuttering Ken watches helplessly.
– Josh Miller
And here we are at last: #1.
It probably won’t come as a huge surprise to learn that the massive list of nominations we assembled (from which these 20 installments were culled) was comprised of about 70% dog deaths. Dogs are the oldest domesticated animal. They represent human-animal companionship to an extent that no other pet really has or likely ever will (until they finally domesticate otters in the distant future). Killing a dog is so innately effective that very little needs to be done on the part of filmmakers to push our buttons. A dog gettin’ it can be a cheap and easy fucked-up moment for a horror movie (like Michael Rosenbaum’s pooch getting microwaved in Urban Legends, the seeing-eye dog getting shot in The Toxic Avenger, or Nicole Kidman accidentally shooting her lil’ guy with a spear gun in Dead Calm), or a casual aside to demonstrate that a movie really means business (like poor missing Pippet in Jaws).
Of course, the most emotionally weighty man’s best friend deaths are when the dog really is our man’s best friend. When it is our hero’s doggie that bites the big one, a doggie that has served and loved our hero for the entire film, that is when it hurts most of all. Many a worthy hero’s noble companion has met with a tragic end. Mad Max’s plucky sidekick getting a crossbow bolt in The Road Warrior, Turner losing Hooch in Turner & Hooch. But when making any list, one always has to factor in issues of legacy and those movie-moments that have stood the test of time, influenced and been imitated. Fifty-five years later, one film is still synonymous with canine tragedy above all others, and continues to fuck up children of newer generations who have the grave misfortune to catch the film on television…
Film: Old Yeller (1957)
Director: Robert Stevenson
The Pet: Old Yeller, a Labrador Retriever/Mastiff mutt.
The Owner: The Coates, a poor family struggling to get by in post-Civil War Texas.
The Context: When the patriarch of the Coates family heads off earn money on a cattle drive, eldest son Travis (Tommy Kirk), still a mere boy really, is forced to become the “man” of the family and help his mother Katie (Dorothy McGuire) run the farm and look after the youngest son Arliss (Kevin Corcoran). Enter this mix: Old Yeller, who Arliss befriends and invites back to the farm. Turns out that Old Yeller belongs to a neighbor, but when said neighbor sees how bad off the Coates are and how happy the dog makes young Arliss, he gives the lovably pooch away. Old Yeller is a handful, eating the family’s food, fucking shit up on the farm, but you can’t help but love him for it all. Plus, he is constantly saving the family from dangerous animals. First he saves young Arliss from a mama bear:
Arliss really had it coming, trying to adopt the mama’s cub. But still. Saving was needed. Then, similarly, when Travis is trying to rope some wild boars (to kill and eat), Old Yeller’s help is needed once again:
Sadly, Old Yeller’s fate is sealed when he battles yet another animal — a rabid wolf:
Off To the Big Pet Store in the Sky: Earlier in the film Travis learns about rabies, given this pearl of wisdom: “Now, you take a bobcat or a fox. You know they’ll run if you give ’em the chance. But when one don’t run, or maybe makes fight at you, why, you shoot him and shoot him quick. After he’s bitten you, it’s too late.” When Old Yeller starts to show the signs of aggression that are symptomatic of rabies, he is locked up in a pen. After Arliss, who is too young to fully understand what is happening to Yeller, is almost bitten by the dog, Katie realizes what must be done. Old Yeller must be put down. Then, in one of the most iconically tragic moments in family cinema history, Travis decides that he must be the one to put down his old friend. Travis becomes a man. Though that doesn’t stop him from crying his eyes out as his points his rifle at Old Yeller and pulls the trigger.
Duh. A kid transitions from boyhood to manhood when he takes up the responsibility of shooting his pet dog – who not only saved his life, but the life of his little brother, while also revitalizing a family that was at the end of its rope – in the face. If that’s not devastating, then I really don’t know what is.
Explain This to the Humane Society: He had rabies. The children of this family have literally never seen money, cause we’re that poor. Sorry we didn’t take him in to be euthanized.
Bonus: There is also Old Yeller‘s predecessor, 1946’s The Yearling, about the Baxter family — headed up by the very unmanly-named patriarch Penny (Gregory Peck). The family’s only living son, Jody (Claude Jarman, Jr.), is lonely and longs for a pet to care for. When a rattle snake bites Penny, they kill a deer so they can use its organs to draw out the poison. Jody then adopts the doe’s orphaned fawn, with the caveat from his parents that Jody will set the fawn free once it grows into adulthood. Well, the day comes, and Jody reluctantly tries to release his pet deer back into the wild — in the classic “Go on, get out of here! I never wanted you in the first place!” scene the spawned a zillion parodies. Unsurprisingly, the domesticated deer returns to the farm, at which point Jody’s mom shoots and wounds it. While balling his eyes out, Jody is forced to put the deer out of its misery. Really, more than anything else this just serves as an example of why people shouldn’t try to keep non-domesticated animals as pets. Bad shit usually happens in the end.
– Josh Miller