While showing little sign of losing their appeal to contemporary audiences, Stephen King film adaptations undeniably had their heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, with a string of movies whose cult appeal has barely wavered in the decades since. While films like Salem’s Lot (1979), Christine (1983), Firestarter (1984) Children of the Corn (1984) Cat’s Eye (1985), Maximum Overdrive (1986), Stand By Me (1986), and Pet Sematary (1989) were genre staples, it was the magical auteurist touch of Brian De Palma and Stanley Kubrick respectively that made Carrie (1976) and The Shining (1980) the most revered of King’s page-to-screen translations.
The critical privileging of Carrie and The Shining in particular has often rendered other King films from this era as little more than curious retro footnotes. It is in this context, Melbourne author, curator and film critic Lee Gambin’s exhaustive new book Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo—on Lewis Teague’s 1983 adaptation of King’s novel of the same name—is a timely delight. On the surface, the eponymous St. Bernard’s rabid reign of terror over philandering wife Donna Trenton (E.T. mum Dee Wallace) and her delicate son Tad (Who’s the Boss? brat Danny Pintauro) is a story that somehow captured all the hysteria, moral panic and sensationalism of Reagan’s America. But as Gambin notes, it also is a revealing, honest and fundamentally kind film, baring a capacity for deep humanity—both in terms of the film’s characters and for the audience ourselves—through its intense, earnest parable about a foamed-mouth dog-gone-wrong.
Gambin is a familiar name on the international horror film criticism circuit through his writing for publications including Fangoria and Shock Till You Drop, a key figure behind the scenes of the Melbourne repertory cult cinema collective Cinemaniacs, and has also published two previous books, Massacred by Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film (2012) and We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals from the 1970s (2015). With his latest book, Gambin digs deep into Cujo’s production history through a broad and candid engagement with an impressive number of figures associated with the making of the film, including Teague, Wallace and many others. Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo also includes a lengthy close analysis of the film, unpicking it strand by strand to reveal precisely how this powerful story of love and terror came to the screen, and why it should be remembered as one of King’s best film adaptations, worthy of the same reputation—if not greater—than Carrie and The Shining.
So why Cujo? What lead you to pour so much time, thought and passion into this one particular film?
Cujo always resonated with me, as an adult as well as a youngster, for a number of reasons and there are five core elements that come to mind. The film is incredibly tight, well-structured and comes from that wonderful cinematic place of saying so much and yet presenting a deceptively “simple story”. This is all to do with the fact that the film uses the concept of the “horror of circumstance” as its skeletal construct in that everything falls into place effortlessly, which in turn leads into the siege on the Pinto—which is what most audiences primarily remember about the film.
Cujo is also a perfect example of the “woman in the storm” story trope that I have always been thoroughly interested in. Horror does this trope extremely well—sending a very “human” woman, with all of her strengths, weaknesses, triumphs and flaws explored, into a dire, hellish situation that she needs to break out of—with something morally “questionable” leading her to such nightmarish desolation. In Cujo’s case, it is adultery.
The film really dissects and scrutinizes the sanctity of the familial and the domestic. It really does say a lot about martial unrest and delivers its monster—that of a 200-pound rabid St. Bernard—as a relentless, unstoppable force of nature that acts as some kind of “punishment” which I find fascinating. The film also plays with the concept of fear, both imagined and realised, which is an attribute that I admire.
Cujo is both an ecological horror film and yet comes out of ’80s sensibilities, bringing the subversive messages “home”. Eco-horror, or the natural horror film, for the most part is a subgenre vastly invested in social and political subtext—most notably during its heyday of the ’70s whereas here in Cujo, the lesson or the point made is driven right into the familial and made personal;mostly about Donna Trenton. This makes the film very different to previous animal-centric horror movies that delve into the repercussions of environmental destruction, neglect, pollution and so forth.
Finally, I have always loved movies about dogs—which is possibly the most primal of reasons!
And the most important one! I understand that alongside this exhaustive book on Cujo you have also been working on a similar book on Joe Dante’s The Howling. Aside from both being cult horror films, they are both of course stories centred around animals. Your first book Massacred by Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film obviously flags that this “nature attacks!” motif is something that holds real fascination for you—so why these two films in particular, why the doggies?
I love dogs. I have always loved dogs. They’re my “people”. I grew up obsessed with dog-centric movies from Benji to Won Ton Ton, The Dog That Saved Hollywood to Mooch Goes to Hollywood to all the Lassie movies. I could watch dog films all day. Of course, in the horror realm, I adore really incredible movies such as The Pack and Dogs, which are both very smart and complex films. If you look at something like The Pack, which also featured amazing animal action from Cujo trainer Karl Lewis Miller, you will see a film fundamentally all about man vs. nature at its most primitive and basic. It also juxtaposes the idea of self-made packs—the dogs and the blended family headed by Joe Don Baker—pitted against each other in a means of survival. It says a lot about man’s neglect and disrespect of nature—which is something I write on in Massacred by Mother Nature.
As far as Joe Dante’s superb film The Howling goes, I saw that on Channel 9 as a child and fell in love. My god: a film about a community of werewolves! Not just one rogue werewolf, which I was so used to seeing, but a whole community—in therapy nonetheless! Amazing. So, yes, there was always a connection between dogs and wolves and how they work and live together as a pack/company that always appealed to me. Dogs are the descendants of wolves, so when you watch something like The Howling, and you see the Marsha character who is purely elemental and hypersexual and violent, and the Erle Kenton character who is senior and weatherworn, you can see that reflected in wolf/dog culture. It’s simple: werewolves are possibly my favourite movie monster and dogs are my favourite stars of animal-centric cinema.
This idea of human ‘animailty’ and how it works in supposedly more ‘civilised’ societies also plays into Cujo in a really fundamental way, particularly in relation to the film’s protagonist, Donna Trenton. It is of course impossible to talk about the film of Cujo and not talk about Dee Wallace, an actor you very much champion in your book as just as much a creative force on the project as director Lewis Teague and even Stephen King himself. What does Wallace bring to this film?
Dee Wallace is phenomenal in this film—it is truly one of the greatest American film performances of the ’80s, even beyond concerns of genre and gender. Dee is an intuitive actress who understands the human condition extraordinarily well, and this is something that Stephen King also excels at with his writing. King knows people—and therefore knows how to create complex, interesting and dynamic characters, and Donna Trenton is one of those. She is an outstanding gift for an actress as gifted as Dee.
I’ve known Dee for a long while now and talking to her about her process, how she goes in for the “moment”, works from her intuition, her dedication to the truth of the character and everything that she candidly explains in her approach to creations as rich as Donna Trenton in Cujo, is just amazing to hear.
It’s always bothered me that Wallace is so often dismissed with that awfully patronising title “scream queen” —she is a great horror performer, sure, but she is so much more than that.
I totally agree with you there about the label “scream queen”—it is so obnoxious and undermining. Horror has always given women (of all ages), teen girls and young girls fantastic roles that are multi-dimensional and memorable. Simplifying an amazing performance and trivialising its depth and calling someone a “scream queen” leaves a dirty taste in my mouth. These morons who throw that term around would probably never dream of undermining some forgettable performance from the likes of Cate Blanchett or whoever. Horror is a woman’s domain—and an actress like Dee Wallace who has performed in many superb films totally justifies this.
You mentioned above how Stephen King’s insight into people is also really crucial to the film. Are you a fan of Stephen King as a writer and how did that connect to your inspiration to write the book? I know that you have also done a lot of research on a project related to Carrie…
He is such an important figure and a fantastic writer. I have been a fan since I was a child: I found a copy of Salem’s Lot in an abandoned house in the western suburbs of Melbourne. However, I did see a lot of the film adaptations before reading his novels including that stunning novel which was a beautiful hybrid of Peyton Place and Dracula! Salem’s Lot is my favourite of his novels.
I had seen Carrie when I was like five years old or even younger and became obsessed. I watched other films around the same time—like many horror fans, my viewing of all this stuff happened very, very early in childhood. I was hooked from the beginning. As far as reading his novels, I read most of them throughout my very early teens—Cujo was one of those. I read it when I was 13 and loved it. I loved how much attention was given to Donna’s loneliness and that beautiful monologue that King wrote that I liked to dub “The White Noise” soliloquy where she talks about why she had the affair with local furniture stripper Steve Kemp.
Is it this smaller detail to more everyday human experience, rather than the ‘out there’ supernatural fantasy stuff, that has made King’s work so enduring for audiences?
He creates wonderful characters and worlds, and he can turn the innocuous into something horrific and terrifying—the prom becomes hell on earth in Carrie, small town working class people slowly turn into vampires in Salem’s Lot, America’s love affair with automobiles turns sick and twisted in Christine, etc.
But he has a lot of heart and there is real love embedded in his writing—you care about his creations. Think of the father/daughter loyalty as presented in Firestarter, the tenderness shared between the Loser’s Club in It. It’s all beautiful stuff.
Speaking of passionate writing: I’m really fascinated by how beautifully you balance your own critical analysis of the film with a very rigorous engagement with the nuts-and-bolts making of the movie through interviews with such a huge number of people involved with the original production. How do you see these two aspects as working together, not only in your own work but in film criticism more generally?
I think it’s essential to balance idiosyncratic analytical thought and film criticism with a heavy emphasis on production history. I will always champion the voice of people who worked on these films: they deserve to be heard. As a film historian and devotee to cinema, I always approach the artists who were involved—and that is part of the fun! With Cujo, I exhaustively reached out to everyone I could to do an interview with—I ended up with over 30! These stories add to your own personal writing.
One major regret is that screenwriter Barbara Turner passed away the month before I started work on the book—and her contributions to the film are invaluable. But there is a lot of love for her mostly found in the voice of originally assigned—and eventually fired— director Peter Medak. Also, if you look at smart, methodical thinkers like the film’s eventual director Lewis Teague, who gives very astute reasoning to his artistic choices, it runs beautifully alongside your own analysis.
But as an aside, I absolutely resent people who think film analysis and film criticism is a wank—I really hate that kind of thinking. The reason writers like you and I write about these movies is because we love them and want to bring something new to reading into them. If someone groans at me when I talk about the role of motherhood in a film like Prophecy, or masculinity deconstructed in Raggedy Ann and Andy: A Musical Adventure, or the politics and pop-psychology in The Howling, I ignore them. Seriously— production details and providing a voice for the artists who worked on these masterpieces is absolutely essential and important. As is your own analysis and critique: it’s is absolutely essential.
I guess another important question in terms of your own practice as a film critic who focuses on long-form monograph writing is how these two books on The Howling and Cujo can be distinguished from Massacred by Mother Nature and We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals from the 1970s. While the latter two are quite exhaustive overviews or surveys of a whole category of films, your two most recent books are almost the opposite in that they drill down into a single text. What are the pros and cons of each?
Such a good question. My approach with both The Howling and with Cujo is a scene-by-scene breakdown and analysis and then of course the detailed interviews integrated within the analysis and reading of the film. With the book on eco-horror films and ’70s movie musicals, they were structured in an either thematic manner—a chapter on underwater animal movies, a chapter on killer dog movies—or in the case of the musicals book, by year. The musicals book was a clean, easy structure, going from 1970 to 1980. That book featured over 50 interviews covering a range of films from Fiddler on the Roof to Fame so there was a lot in there, writing on nearly 200 works! But with The Howling and Cujo, these interviews are about the one film. and the analysis is more singular and concentrated.
As someone who straddles both long and short form film writing—books, of course, but you were a long-time contributor to the iconic Fangoria magazine and contribute regularly to publications like Shock Till You Drop and the UK print magazine Scream—what kind of film writing do you take the most out of? Do you have a preference for long or short form film criticism? With the internet, the latter certainly seems the predominant form these days…
Working on a book eventually becomes something that you get a lot out of. There is a lot of hard work, research and interviewing that goes into it and it takes a long time; therefore it can lose momentum, but then quickly regain it, much like any kind of creative process—film, theatre etc. Writing for places such as Fangoria offers far more instant satisfaction: your piece is published and you’re done! But honestly, I don’t write for satisfaction, I really don’t think any writer should. It’s not about you, it’s about the work. I cringe at people who write from a self-centred and egotistical stance.
In saying that, I feel that when a piece of mine is up quickly—as you mention, online being a major force of that kind of exposure and fast coverage—it is easier to feel ‘proud’ of it more immediately. There is an urgency that comes out of writing in the short-term for print mags and websites, and as your career builds and you have more skills to showcase it is satisfying because you almost feel like you’ve played a tiny part documenting film history, giving a new voice in critical terms for a film that might be overlooked or discussed from a different perspective.
But when you accomplish a massive task like writing an entire book, you have the right to be that prick that goes, “I wrote the book on that.”