Lewis Teague’s 1983 big screen translation of Stephen King’s Cujo is often overshadowed by higher profile works like Carrie (1976) or The Shining (1980), stylish renditions directed by venerated directors Stanley Kubrick and Brian De Palma. Teague’s interpretation, however, is a significant entry in the King universe, a thematically-rich, sombre piece worthy of closer inspection. Noted film writer and historian (and Diabolique’s very own) Lee Gambin (We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals from the 1970’s) gives the oft-overlooked film the treatment it deserves in his exhaustive tome Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo (available from BearManor Media), a meticulously researched, painstakingly assembled behind-the-scenes look at this tragic animal-gone-amok tale. Gambin’s appraisal challenges any dismissal of Cujo as a lesser work in the pantheon, and his examination proves the film is anything but a run-of-the-mill killer canine flick.
Gambin lauds Teague’s realistic approach to the material that uses King’s foundation – the story of a rabid St. Bernard running rampant in a small Maine town – as allegory for the disintegration of an American family. Both literary and cinematic versions of Cujo depict a mother and son, stranded and trapped in a broken down automobile, and their battle with the titular psychotic dog. As Gambin points out, it’s the dramatic elements leading up to this nerve-rattling confrontation that earns the story its emotional and thematic heft, a terrifying encounter plunging all involved, even its infected canine aggressor, into what Gambin refers to as “tragedy of circumstance”. Teague’s claustrophobic framework extends throughout the film’s construction, and even banal scenes depicting simple family meals are constricted by the palpable tension experienced between characters. Gambin masterfully outlines these moments, weighing every nuance from actors’ body language to minuscule details in the art design, imparting how these touches are paramount to the portrayal of realistic terror on display in the film.
Excerpt from Gambin’s book:
Adultery, domestic violence, familial unrest, childhood anxiety and the lack of communication are the rudimentary evils in the film, but the rabid St. Bernard is the tangible monster – the realized creature that will grab you by your throat and tear you apart. (pp. 109)
Gambin’s career involves insightful coverage of eco-horror in his book Massacred by Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film (Midnight Marquee Press), and is particularly drawn to films depicting cinematic canines – there is likely no one better suited to the task of dissecting a film like Cujo. Unlike many “natural” horror titles like Day of the Animals (1978) that depict man-made destructive environmental effects on animals driven mad (chemical depletion of ozone in the case of Girdler’s film), Cujo – an otherwise good-natured companion – falls victim to the indifferent cruelty of nature itself when he’s bitten by a vampire bat. In early chapters, Gambin traces the history of dogs in film, arguing for Cujo’s placement not only as a superior “animal attack” genre film, but also tiered among treasured dog-centric family films like Old Yeller (1957), Benji (1974), or lesser-known The Biscuit Eater (1940, 1972). Cujo is imbued with pathos, and its easy to identify the parallels Gambin makes between these beloved movie mutts and sympathetic, doomed monsters like King Kong and Frankenstein’s monster.
Cujo is a major player in the history of the cinematic dog, and his place in film history as a dog that wanted to be good but who was caught in an unfortunate circumstance is a tale of reckoning, torment, relentless torture, harrowing desperation and oppressive isolation. (pp. 20)
Gambin’s enthusiasm for the subject in no way detracts from his thorough academic approach. His presentation to the reader is multifaceted: a chapter-by-chapter, scene-by-scene breakdown dissecting the thematic and aesthetic qualities of the film, offering illuminating analytical interpretations, historical context, and, when appropriate, examined against King’s original text. Supplementing the analysis is Gambin’s staggering assortment of candid interviews and over two hundred never-before-seen production stills, giving the reader astounding access to very personal details and intimate moments on set. Other additions to this staggeringly complete work include excerpts from King’s original unused screenplay, sheet music from composer Charles Bernstein, and even a production newsletter courtesy of sound recordist Patrushkha Mierzwa, published at the time of the production. These artifacts are wonderful extras for fans, and invaluable additions for researchers and historians in which to delve completely.
Gambin’s book provides a platform for the talented artists involved in Cujo’s creation to disclose intimate details about their time on set, but in no way glosses over the controversial aspects, including the firing of original director Peter Medak (The Changeling) by producer Daniel Blatt, contentious script rewrites of screenwriter Barbara Turner’s version, as well as her decision to use her pen name Lauren Currier as a means of expressing dissatisfaction with the process. Gambin interviews stars Dee Wallace, Daniel Hugh Kelly, Danny Pintauro, director Teague, composer Charles Bernstein, as well as Gary Morgan, the stuntman who periodically filled in for the dogs playing Cujo in a custom-made Saint Bernard suit. Their revealing anecdotes provide a snapshot of the difficulties managing personalities and conflicting interests on a high pressure film set. Some interviewees like Christopher Medak (son of Peter Medak) do not mince words when airing personal grievances about the handling of personnel, especially the firing of his father, despite staying involved with the production.
The book’s title (a clever reference) is a fitting tribute to both the film’s fictional events, as well as the real life circumstances behind-the-scenes. Cujo exposes raw, deep-seated secrets in its characters, and in the process, uncovers the dark underbelly of an entire community. The same sentiment can be applied to Gambin’s journey though the troubled production, where raw emotions remain despite the passing of decades. Teague’s intention was never to punish his characters for their transgressions, but to demonstrate how a parent’s refusal to yield to fear helps her overcome the frightening circumstances in which she and her child have been thrust, reclaiming herself in the process. Similarly, Gambin’s tome exhibits the tremendous perseverance embodied by the cast and crew in delivering a savage, cathartic, and moving experience the audience deserved.
Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo is essential reading for discerning fans, academics, and cinema history enthusiasts. Gambin’s scope of coverage and grasp of thematic components is truly astounding, a monster-sized compilation worthy of one of the genre’s most affecting monsters. It’s more than a tribute to a killer canine; it’s more than a “making of” expose; it’s a full-scale celebration of unbridled fearlessness in movie magic.