Thursday, November 27, 2008
Cujo (1983, Lewis Teague)
You can count on Dee Wallace Stone to act her head off.
In the era of 80s "Scream Queens" she was the most unlikely; the oldest, the classiest, the most legitimate actress. She fought beasts but didn't bare breasts. She was your mom. When desert cannibals struck, when pervert werewolves attacked, when maneating furballs showed up at the farm, when slimy penis head aliens were in your closet, Dee Wallace had your back once she was done shrieking and crying. First panicked, then striking with the fury of a woman whose offspring are in mortal danger. Damned if her histrionics didn't make you believe those puppets could bite, too.
Cujo is an underrated film on several accounts and especially for Wallace's finest hour as the mother besieged inside a broken down Pinto by a rabid St Bernard. The premise is a throwaway sick joke, a piano falling on an old lady. The storytelling amps up the stakes into their primal essence the way Spielberg's Duel did for road rage. 1983 also saw Stephen King adaptations from Carpenter and Cronenberg and even without the genre prestige, Lewis Teague affords the film a classy, novelistic pace. Subplots from the book are rearranged and parsed down cunningly. Wallace's extramarital affair and Cujo's rapidly worsening foamy mouth are contrasted even better on film than the book was able to do in print. Elmer Bernstein's score is typically fantastic.
The first death does not even occur until halfway through the runtime, at which point the rollercoaster drops from the top of the hill. Pure class. Stephen King's trash paradoxically necessitates a touch of class for any successful film. His personal stab at pure trash delerium, Maximum Overdrive, could only last through the first act before running out of steam and trying to make you care about a romance.
Cujo is maybe the most concise King novel ever, with only six main characters and a dog. At the heart of the story there is merely a family unit in danger, first by betrayal and then by the teeth of ol' Cooj. Except that's not grand enough for King in the novel; the dog may actually be posessed by the spirit of The Castle Rock Killer, last seen in The Dead Zone and now speaking to Wallace's son as a malevolent boogeyman in his closet. The first few chapters that illustrate young Tad's fear of the dark, and his room, and the sadistic nature of evil that children comprehend on a gut level when they begin to have nightmares are easily the best of the book. They're the only part that Teague couldn't do better in live action, and are relegated to a disarmingly cute scene in which Tad runs to bed after turning the lights out. It's a bit heavy to shoehorn into a story about a rabid dog, less logical than the ghostly allusions around the living car Christine (which Carpenter excised from his film out of convenience - it's more fun not to know. This quintessential King theme would get its full exercise a couple years later with IT.
Oh yeah, the kid dies in the book. The dark forces from the impenetrable beyond win. King never receieved so much hate mail in his life!
Teague never had much of a career. All anyone remembers him for is this and his other creature feature, the John Sayles-penned Alligator, which isn't half as good as this. His biggest commercial success, Navy SEALS, is admired mostly by illiterates.
Sayles also penned The Howling and years later, Dee Wallace appeared in Alligator II: The Mutation. What does it all mean? For one brief and shining moment, the perfect director met the perfect actor for the perfect project. Shame no one noticed.
Who Let The Dog Out?
- brilliant DVD reissue tagline