Director/Screenplay – Robert A. Burns, Producers – John H. Jenkins & Lin Sutherland, Photography – Richard Kooris, Music – Ed Guinn, Makeup Effects/Art Direction – Paul R. Smith. Production Company – Jenkins Rondo Sutherland Productions/Jenkins Films
Terry Evans (Jerry Scheider), Mitch Pileggi (Woody Bukowski), Jonathan M. Ingraffia (Ike), Andy Tienann (Ken Richards), Catherine Molloy (Sharon), John Dodson (Richard ‘Toad’ Slovino), Daniel Medina (Leon Moyer), Rachel Winfree (Turquoise), Aldo Ray (Mr Bouchard), St. Blaze (Sergeant Samuelson)
Ken Richards rents a room at a boarding house in Austin, Texas that has been vacated by his friend. He meets the six other eccentric tenants. When he becomes friendly with fellow tenant Sharon, this upsets the nerdy Ike who fancies himself to be going out with her. Ike and the loudmouth building supervisor Woody plan a prank on Ken by putting the carcass of Ike’s dead dog in Ken’s bed and telling him that Sharon is waiting for him. What Ken is not aware is that they have rigged the light switch to give him a shock when he goes to turn it on. But the prank goes wrong and Ken is instead fatally electrocuted. Shortly after this, the nervous and withdrawn Jerry, who lives in the room opposite Ken, claims that a vicious, possibly supernatural, dog is prowling the halls of the house. And then the other tenants start being slaughtered by the mysterious dog.
Mongrel was the one and only directorial outing from Robert A. Burns. The Texas-based Burns, who should not be confused with Bob Burns, the famous genre memorabilia collector, gained a name as a production designer and art director. Burns’s most famous creation was the house of bones and human skin in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1977) and he performed similar duties on other genre works like The Hills Have Eyes (1977), The Howling (1981) and Re-Animator (1985).
Killer dog films have never fared particularly well – look at the likes of Dogs (1976), Devil Dog: Hound of Hell (1978), Zoltan … Hound of Dracula/Dracula’s Dog (1978), Rottweiler/Dogs from Hell (1982), Monster Dog (1984) and Rottweiler (2004), most of which collapse into the ridiculous. The killer dogs in The Pack (1977) and parts of The Omen (1976) fared okay but before that one’d have to look at some of the various adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novel The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) to find a worthwhile killer dog film. Needless to say, Mongrel does not defy the expectations of this micro genre niche.
Robert A. Burns more than clearly demonstrates the old adage that a person who succeeds in their respective area of expertise (art direction) may not necessarily excel in a related arena (film direction). In fact, when it comes to directing a film rather than just its decor, Burns fares poorly. Things seem to take forever to happen – it is half the film before the ghostly dog makes its appearance, for instance. Up to that point, Burns focuses on the lives of the tenants in the boarding house, most of which consists of a good deal of unrestrained bad acting. Burns’s pacing is extremely laidback and these scenes do not do anything except draw the show out endlessly. And when it eventually comes to the dog attacks, Burns substitutes cheap lighting and a ratty synth score that fails to create anything in the way of atmosphere. The film eventually arrives at a preposterous twist revelation that reveals that there is no ghost dog after all but someone who snapped after witnessing Andy Tienann’s accidental death and who now believes that they are an avenging ghost dog.
When it comes to his actors, Burns has allowed most of his cast the opportunity to have their heads and to overact a series of poorly drawn caricatures. Especially irritating in this regard is Jonathan M. Ingraffia as a tall, nerdily bespectacled military buff where Ingraffia plays everything with a completely amateurish lack of subtlety. It is only Mitch Pileggi, later the serial killer in Shocker (1989) and Assistant Director Skinner in tv’s The X Files (1993-2002, 2016-8), in his first screen performance, who acts his way above the dross as the loudmouth building manager. The only other name that one recognizes among the cast is exploitation veteran Aldo Ray who puts in a brief appearance as the owner of the building.