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Monday, 5 May 2014

Cujo (1983)

Director: Lewis Teague
Stars: Dee Wallace, Daniel Hugh-Kelly, Danny Pintauro, Ed Lauter and Christopher Stone
This film was an official selection at the 10th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
I was an avid reader of horror fiction in the eighties, though I leant far more towards British gore novels than the psychological American books. In the UK, James Herbert had revitalised the genre at the same time Stephen King did in the States and the titles that made the difference, respectively The Rats and Carrie, were the ones that were promptly imitated. However, as I devoured the novels of Guy N Smith, Richard Laymon and Shaun Hutson, I still got to experience the novels of Stephen King, merely through their endless adaptations to the big screen. It seemed like every time he farted in public, someone felt the need to turn the result into a movie and they rapidly worked through his prolific bibliography. There was a point in the eighties, long before Frank Darabont arrived, where it felt like every King adaptation sucked. It isn't quite everything in between Carrie and Misery, because there's at least Stand by Me and The Shining in there but it's close. So experiencing his work by proxy didn't really endear me to it.

I first (and last) saw Cujo during that period on VHS and remember it as being as inconsequential as the rest of them, if not down at the level of a Maximum Overdrive or a Children of the Corn, but I was young at the time and should revisit it afresh as an adult. As I'm watching this time because it screened at this year's International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival with a live Q&A from lead actor Dee Wallace, I also took the time to catch up on her other iconic horror movies to take stock. What I discovered was that The Hills Have Eyes has lost a lot of its original punch while The Howling feels stronger than ever; that her talents are wasted in Critters, but utilised superbly in The Frighteners. What surprised me most is how differently she was used in each of these films: progressing from a nascent scream queen in The Hills Have Eyes to a strong and substantial lead in The Howling, only to be stuck in a pointless post-ET mum role in Critters but eventually resurgent in a neat subversion of what we might expect in The Frighteners.

So how does Cujo fit with these and how does Dee Wallace's role stack up against those others? Well, it's two years after she made herself really noticed by the horror community in The Howling and a year after her biggest film, ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, which made her a star. It's too soon to count as part of the slide down to Critters and other less remembered pictures like Popcorn and Alligator II: The Mutation. Cast as Donna Trenton, the mum, as was already becoming her curse, it feels like she was still able to stretch the boundaries of such a role for the moment, as she's not 'merely' the mum that she was in Critters. It isn't long before we realise that Vic, her screen husband and the father of her screen son, is not played by her real life husband, Christopher Stone. He's Steve Kemp instead, the guy she's doing on the side. Perhaps for Steve, it made up for Vic destroying him each week at tennis. Perhaps for Wallace, the role appealed as being a little less wholesome than in ET. The bonus is that her cheating scenes were with her hubby.
Initially, it's played well enough, if obviously enough. It begins innocently with a fluffy bunny, then gets sinister as a large St Bernard chases it. It returns to cutesy as it becomes clear it'll never catch it, only to turn sinister once more as the dog sticks its head into a burrow, barks at the rabbit and sets off a colony of bats. One bites him on the nose and, hey presto, we have a movie. Of course, the dog is Cujo and the bat was carrying rabies, something that nobody in the film seems to actually notice until it's too late. I don't know about you, but if my large and much loved St Bernard wandered home with a large wound on his nose, I might just notice and keep an eye on him to see how he does. If I knew there were bats under my property, I'd have him into the vet for shots in a flash, if he hadn't had them already, of course. But that isn't what the Cambers do. Surprisingly, believability is not a big problem in this movie, as King built his internal consistency well and it wasn't lost in translation. There are certainly moments though.

Talking of moments, there's a telling one soon into the film, because it sets itself up capably. Donna and Vic have a son, Tad, who's at the point where he's conquering fear just to run from his light switch to his bed. This is far more important than the inevitable opening of the closet door, ensuing scream and visit from the parents; it's all to build up to a line from Vic. 'There are no real monsters,' he tells his son, a key line because of where we're going. He's soon going to meet a real monster, though we don't require any text at the end of the film to realise that Cujo is never a monster through his own volition. The poor dog fights his infection valiantly and successfully avoids hurting at least one person he cares about, though it's a losing battle, of course. This rare sympathy that we have for the monster in a horror movie does a lot to elevate the picture, but it's nowhere near enough. There are other components more important to add into the mix too and Cujo just doesn't have all of those.
Two things leapt out at me thematically. One is that it's a very American story, by which I mean that it's populated not only by American characters but by quintessentially American characters; we could easily call them archetypes. Vic is as American as apple pie, as the saying goes. He's an advertising executive, which sixties sitcoms told us was the best profession, while his wife stays home and takes care of their son and the house. It's a big house in a small town with a white fence around it (albeit not a picket fence) and the green of the country surrounding them. They're a two vehicle family: he drives a red sports car, while hers is a more traditional yellow hatchback to carry Tad and the groceries. The people they interact with are small town archetypes too, from the mechanic who's too busy with old work to take on new to the mailman who sends Vic to a really good one outside of town. Of course the cracks are showing. Both the Trentons' cars are in need of repair and, clearly, so is their marriage.

The other theme is trust. Vic and his partner Roger built a particular ad campaign for Sharp Cereal that's all we see on TV, but a mass panic breaks out as a red dye problem causes customers to believe they're bleeding internally. Vic highlights how they made kids trust the cereal's spokesman, the Professor, only to let them down. His wife is betraying his trust by screwing around on him, even though she freely admits he's a great husband. Surely they can trust the school Tad attends but, when Donna picks him up, he has a cut on his head. He fell off the swing, he says, and he may well be telling the truth, but we're doubting everything at this point. Of course, the same thing applies to Cujo. We're set up to trust the huge lovable beast that adores kids, but he turns into a sort of four legged slasher. All these archetypes scream out to be trusted, like a Norman Rockwell painting, but we're being shown the underbelly or the dark side, why nobody can be trusted. Think about it a little and you'll realise that it's a very pessimistic story.

I might have appreciated that more if the characters were well defined but, however much the actors try to flesh them out, we really only see the bones. We're shown two families, the Trentons and the Cambers, who are the owners of Cujo, but every member of each is shallow without any background provided to explain their actions. Donna's cheating on Vic, but we aren't given any reasons why; all we know is that she is. Similarly, Charity is scared of her husband, Joe Camber, the mechanic to whom Vic takes his car, but we aren't told why, just shown that she is. We can guess, of course, but we aren't given anything to really build that guess on. So Joe's a great mechanic but a poor human being? So Donna's sleeping with another man but wants to stop? So what? Without background to build their character motivations, what we really have is just a set of stage directions that empty the stage by the midpoint. It's only then that what we all remember about Cujo actually begins: the siege of Donna's Pinto by a rabid St Bernard.
By the halfway mark, almost everyone in the already sparsely populated cast has left the film, either by car, lottery ticket or rabid jaws. The second half begins as our memories might have expected the whole film to begin, with Dee Wallace driving that yellow hatchback up to Joe Camber's place to be fixed, with only her son and her sweat moustache for company. Cujo's there as soon as they arrive, ready to try to climb through their windows or scramble through the windscreen, and so the siege begins. If it took far too long to get to this point, at least some great cinematography shows up with the tension. There's a wonderful shot of the car, with a slow pan back to first emphasise its isolation and then to highlight that Cujo is watching, ending by moving around the dog from the back to the front to demonstrate just how scarily far the rabies has progressed. The cinematographer was Jan de Bont, a talented and experienced Dutchman over a decade before he would become the director of action flicks like Speed and Twister.

The second half is much better than the first, though it's inevitably sparse. Fortunately the time is spent with the three characters we care about most. Donna is a cheating wife but she has at least stopped the affair and owned up. Dee Wallace sells that and makes us care; the frustrating lack of background is the script's fault not hers. Tad is an innocent already trying to deal with fear, only to find himself caught in a terrifying ordeal. Danny Pintauro, only six years old at the time, fills the role superbly, especially powerful when he's scared, as he is for much of the second half. His seizures are very believable indeed, down to the fact that he did bite Wallace's fingers during one of them, prompting a very real reaction. Of course, then there's Cujo, in the form of five different St Bernards, along with one Rottweiler, a mechanical head and an actor in a dog costume. Cujo is believable too, even if he does wag his tail a little too often. The make up works and the scares are very impressive. The catch is that there aren't that many of them.

The film did well at the box office, ending up the fourth highest grossing horror movie of 1983, although it's not really a horror movie. The first half is drama and the second half a thriller, though it's even more of a riff on a theme without any real substance to give a foot up to what could have been. Reviews were mixed at the time and haven't got any better since because it needed to be much more than it ever was. There are some solid acting performances, especially but not only from Wallace and Pintauro, who went on to be a regular on Who's the Boss? In fact, most of the cast are better known for television work than films, only Wallace and Ed Lauter primarily remembered for movies. The one thing the film did right was to fix the ending of King's novel, which he himself wishes he'd have written differently. Unfortunately, it makes it right only to promptly add another scene that's just a pointless cliché. So my memories weren't too far off. It's better than Maximum Overdrive and Children of the Corn, but that doesn't make it great.

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