Novel by Jessica Hamilton (1977). Movie Version by Jérôme Boivin (1989).
When the movie version of Baxter came out in 1989, it went directly to the art houses. Years later the video version was consigned to the “foreign language” section of most video stores as the move was produced in France. I’ve seen it listed as a dark comedy, psychological thriller etc. , since the video release. It has since appeared on DVD with a cover so obnoxious I refuse to duplicate it. What does this all mean? It means one of the scariest horror novels and horror movies of the last century has been tossed into the casual interest bin.
The book is very difficult to find in the US. Even British editions found on the Internet fetch prices ranging from $20.00 and up. The newer DVD version is reasonable in price, but Baxter is one case where you must see the movie and read the book to appreciate the power of the work. My own reading copy was published in Great Britain by Sphere in 1977.
Baxter is the name of a mature English bull terrier given to an elderly woman as a pet. A third of the novel is told from Baxter’s point of view with the author detailing the rest of the events in a third person narrative. In the movie version, much of the action is told as a voice-over, with the thoughts of Baxter that of a rough french speaker (subtitles for us English mono-linguists). The action of the novel takes place in an unnamed US town, where the movie is moved to France.
Baxter doesn’t quite understand humans. The book implies he may be a mutant capable of self-awareness. The move doesn’t explore this angle, viewing Baxter as an ordinary dog with his own interests. He wants to be challenged, to show his strength. The old woman keeps him indoors and doesn’t allow him to be himself. Baxter is more interested in the young couple who lives across the street and prefers to be owned by them. How he resolves this quandary is chilling in the book and film.
One of the issues I have with film is it’s tendency to soften some of the horrific elements of the book. I suggest the director decided he didn’t want to go there for several scenes. There is a gruesome scene in the book involving a child. Although he may have saved his movie from the wrath of the audience, the film director turns Baxter into a victim of circumstances and not a willing participant in several murders. The final observation by Baxter in the movie is absent from the book.
Baxter’s next owners are the young couple across the street. They allow him to root in the yard, hunt rats and act on his better instincts. It all comes to a bitter end when they bring home a new born baby, which Baxter finds pathetic. He’s regulated to the garage and plots his return to favored status. This sets up the most chilling scene in both novel and film.
His final owner is a psychopathic boy living down the street. The kid has a morbid obsession with Adolf Hitler. He even begins to compare one of his classmates to Eva Braun. He spends his time playing in his own custom-made Berlin bunker in the local dump. When Baxter lets his instincts over-power him with a girl’s female dog, the final tragedy of the novel and film is set in motion.
I’m surprised this book isn’t known better. The film, a good adaptation, is available on DVD.