Cujo

The work of Stephen King needs little introduction. An insanely prolific and bestselling author of horror, sci-fi and fantasy fiction, his bibliography reads like a list of all-time genre classics. Well known for his tales featuring ordinary people who encounter terrifying supernatural intrusions upon on their everyday lives, his work has been adapted for film and television countless times throughout the years and his voice and influence are ubiquitous throughout the horror genre.

King’s tenth novel (or seventh, if you discount the three novels he penned under the Richard Bachman pseudonym), Cujo (1981), omits the presence of the supernatural but is no less terrifying or intense for doing so. It tells of a young woman and her infant son who are trapped in their car at an isolated farmhouse when confronted by a rabid dog. While the premise sounds bare-boned, there’s much more going on in the tale than immediately obvious, as King explores themes such as addiction, free will, childhood fears, adultery and familial dysfunction. Written during a time when he was struggling with alcohol and drug dependence — critics have suggested the rabid dog is a thinly veiled metaphor for addiction — King stated in his memoir, On Writing, ‘I barely remember writing [Cujo] at all. I don’t say that with pride or shame, only with a vague sense of sorrow and loss. I like that book. I wish I could remember enjoying the good parts as I put them down on the page.’

The novel was adapted for the screen by Lewis Teague in 1983 and features all the sweltering claustrophobia and intensity that made the novel so gripping. Teague’s adaptation is the subject of a new book by Melbourne based author and film historian, Lee Gambin. Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo (BearManor Media) is a staggeringly detailed work featuring academic scene-by-scene analyses alongside in-depth interviews with key members of the cast and crew, including stars Dee Wallace, Daniel Hugh Kelly and Danny Pintauro, director Lewis Teague, and composer Charles Bernstein.

Of all the Stephen King adaptations, what made you decide to write a book on Cujo?

Cujo is most definitely a favourite of not only King’s adaptations, but of ’80s horror films in general. There are a number of reasons as to why I chose to write a book all about the making of Cujo, and primarily it was to discuss the film on an analytical level because I feel it says a lot more than audiences are led to believe. The film has a deceptive simplicity to it, and yet lurking under the surface is a remarkable critique on domestic unrest, the class system, elements of real and imagined fear, economic turmoil and so much more. It is a brilliant example of both the horrors of circumstance as well as a poignant take on the ‘woman in the storm’ syndrome. I’m also a massive fan of dog-centric films, and this one holds a very special place in my heart. Also, I love eco-horror movies, a subgenre of horror that means a lot to me, and I have always championed those films, and Cujo is at the fore of those.

Yes, you’ve authored a book on eco-horror cinema (Massacred by Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film, Midnight Marquee Press) and have just finished working on a book about the classic werewolf film The Howling. What is it about horror cinema that you find so appealing?

Who knows? I’ve always loved horror; it’s my comfort blanket. That will always be one of the hardest questions ever to answer.

Why do you think the work of Stephen King — who is synonymous with horror — has remained so popular throughout the years?

Because he has an excellent understanding of character and the human condition. I feel that Stephen King writes the people that populate his stories with such richness, complexity, integrity and compassion that they are genuinely relatable and captivating. They can be monstrous and insane, like Margaret White in Carrie, but still have a deep-rooted sadness that gives us, the reader/viewer, an understanding of where they’re coming from — in that particular case, there is a sense that Margaret truly does love and want to protect her tormented telekinetic daughter. In Cujo, we understand the fundamental basic notion of the third act, and that is a mother’s love for her child and her determination to keep him safe and alive. Also, King does a great job at deconstructing institutions which I find fascinating — the prom becomes a hell on earth in Carrie, the family dog as a monstrous leviathan in Cujo and so forth.   

You said that Cujo holds a very special place in your heart. What is it about the film that speaks most to you?

It is most certainly a film I hold close to my heart — I wrote a monograph on it because it does! I think the main thing that it does is speak volumes about a whole array of things, but it has this façade of being a very basic story. I am a massive fan of straight, streamlined narratives that are sturdy, solid and well-constructed. Cujo is a perfect example of this. It is a lean tale about two families and this poor unfortunate St. Bernard who ends up with a nasty case of hydrophobia, and yet this tale, when scrutinised, is about multiple things, and that kind of brilliance really appeals to me. There are so many convoluted stories out there being told through either film or literature, and things get lost along the way because they are trying to say a lot without really sticking to a linear construct. Cujo rejects this and builds itself up as a measured, perfectly calculated dramatic piece that comments on relationships, family, personal happiness, survival, abuse, anxiety, caginess and much more.

Having re-watched Cujo recently, I was surprised and enthralled by how much is going on in it, on a subtextual level. For example, the impact Donna Trenton’s (Dee Wallace) adultery has on her life seems to parallel what is happening to the dog after it’s bitten by the rabid bat and goes on the rampage. How fair do you think it is to say that the film speaks of the dire consequences that stem from a lack of control?

Beautiful question — and this is stuff that I examine in depth in my book. There is this fabulous connection made between the infection of rabies in the St. Bernard and the breakdown of the American family. While Cujo falls into the vortex of the disease and transforms into a violent beast, the pollutants that linger in the Trenton marriage surface and make themselves known, tearing the domestic unit apart. Control is a super important factor in the film on a thematic level; Cujo has lost all control and Donna has lost the trust of her husband and has to reclaim her position as mother and caretaker of her son, Tad, while she is under attack during what becomes a siege, as well as a take on the biblical Three Days of Darkness.

In the novel, King writes ‘[Cujo] had always tried to be a good dog. He had been struck by something … free will was not a factor.’ How is this idea carried over in the film in terms of the choices various characters make? Is free will a major theme?

Absolutely. Free will is a recurring theme in the film; it is something that puts the characters in dire jeopardy. Donna’s extramarital affair — a response to her feeling useless, ‘just a wife and mother’ and her fear of getting old — stems from free will, and eventually leads her to be punished by this slobbering bloodthirsty rabid dog. Whereas her counterpart, the working-class Charity Camber, is a put-upon farmer’s wife, who eventually earns her free will when she gathers the courage and strength to leave her abusive husband Joe, thanks to a miraculous lottery win — the idea of fate intercepting and hammering a connection to a self-made or self-earned free will.

How did you balance your critical analysis of the film with your research on its production history?

As film writers, it is our job to always balance our own idiosyncratic analysis and film theory work with the production history, as well as always giving a voice to those who worked on the films. I am a massive champion of always giving those artists who worked on the film the spotlight and allowing them to discuss their artistry. So, the way I structured the book was to write my analysis and integrate production history and then lead off each chapter with exhaustively in-depth quotes from cast and crew.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing Nope?

I would say chasing up some interviewees that eventually were unavailable. However, thankfully I have over thirty people interviewed in the book, which is great!

There are several King adaptations widely considered classics — Carrie, The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption, etc. While Cujo has a strong cult appeal, why do you think it perhaps isn’t regarded in the same way as those titles? Is there anything specific you can point to that suggests the film has been cruelly overlooked and underrated?

Possibly the answer to this might be in the same regards as to why Dee Wallace was snubbed at the Oscars for her performance in the film, which honestly really and truly should have earned her a nomination for Best Actress that year: because the film is about a rabid dog. Maybe the wider audience feels that a rabid St. Bernard movie is not as ‘highbrow’ as a haunted hotel film [The Shining]. Who knows? All I can say is Cujo is superb and if people don’t think that it is, it’s their loss and they’re truly not watching the same film I am.

Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo (BearManor Media) is available now.

Posted by James Gracey

James is the author of Dario Argento (Kamera Books) and a monograph on The Company of Wolves (Devil’s Advocates). He contributes to Diabolique, and has also written for Paracinema, Film Ireland, Eye for Film, Little White Lies and The Quietus.