Color, 1989, 83 mins. 13 secs.
Directed by Jérôme Boivin
Lise Delamare, Jean Mercure, Jacques Spiesser, Francois Driancourt
Scorpion Releasing (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD), Studio Canal (Blu-ray (France RB HD), Lionsgate (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)
A horror film that has yet to be discovered by the audience who would appreciate it most, Baxter was a chilly surprise when it gradually played around the world from the late '80s into the early '90s. A very dark comedy of sorts and an icy parable about the cost of submitting to fascism, the film was based on a 1977 novel by American writer Ken Greenhall (originally published in several markets as Hell Hound). Sticking quite close to the source material, the film is essentially the dark flipside to the usual dog odyssey stories all the way from The Call of the Wild through A Dog's Purpose, painting a cautionary look at the various aspects of humanity experienced by a broken animal psyche.
Told from the point of view of the title character complete with chillingly dispassionate narration by Maxime Leroux, Baxter follows the bizarre journey of a murderous bull terrier starting with his ownership by pensioner Madame Deville (Delamare), whose affection proves to be too much for the canine who can't quite figure out what he wants from the humans around him. Deliberately getting her out of the way, he moves on to the neighboring married couple only to find the arrangement complicated by an impending baby. Again displeased with the situation and consumed by "unnatural thoughts," Baxter eventually ends up with budding neo-Nazi Charles (Driancourt), who's created his own version of Hitler's bunker at the local junkyard and proves to be the icy dictator Baxter's soul truly craves.
First released in France by the one-shot outfit P.C.C. and shown on the American art house circuit in 1991 by the equally short-lived Backstreet Films, Baxter first hit U.S. VHS back in 1997 from Fox Lorber where it was still mostly slotted by video stores in the foreign film section. The art house categorization isn't totally off base, but it also kept the film off the radar of many horror fans who would've probably gotten a great deal out of discovering it. The really unnerving material doesn't kick in until the final third when the story's message really clicks into place, and it's possible to see this as an antithesis of sorts of films like Au hasard Balthazar (or Todd Solondz's much more mean-spirited Weiner-Dog) about animals bearing the brunt of the world's troubles. Here Baxter is a rigid and, ahem, dogmatic personality who latches onto an even more destructive one in his path to happiness, only to find out that it usually isn't such a great idea to get everything you ever wanted. This film is also significant as an early job for screenwriter Jacques Audiard, who went on to international prominence writing and directing films like Read My Lips, A Prophet, Rust and Bone, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, and The Sisters Brothers (as well as the only other feature by director Jérôme Boivin, Barjo).
After going of circulation for many years, Baxter appeared on U.S. DVD in 2007 from Lionsgate sporting no significant extras and a really bad cover. Eventually Studio Canal commissioned a solid HD scan that debuted in 2020 on French Blu-ray, albeit minus any extras or English-friendly language options. That means the best option by far came in 2021 when Scorpion Releasing issued the film on Blu-ray and DVD via Kino Lorber featuring a solid widescreen presentation from the same Studio Canal master, which actually looks much better than this did in theaters. The optional English subtitles are perfectly fine, as is the original French DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono track. The big extra here is a new audio commentary by filmmaker Mark Savage (Puragtory Road, Sensitive New Age Killer), who is quite possibly the film's biggest English-speaking fan and has been championing it for years. It's a thorough and appreciative track as he touches on other works dealing with the theme of young Nazi indoctrination and fetishism like The Tin Drum, In a Glass Cage, and Beautiful Girl Hunter, the biggest challenge this would have faced being made in the U.S., the two significant alterations made from the book (including the fate of one character), and extensive background about Greenhall and his place in '70s horror fiction alongside writers like James Herbert. Also included are bonus trailers for Slow Dancing in the Big City, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (which would make a perfect double feature with this film), 9/30/55, Diva, Le Professionel, and (not surprisingly) Dogs.
Reviewed on July 18, 2021.