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Conflict, Dissension, and Collaboration – Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo, Written and Edited by Lee Gambin

Cujo 01

A Book Review by Tony Williams.

This book is an excellent addition to the Bear Manor Media repertoire. Written by an independent film historian as a tribute to a film he finds of exceptional value, the book’s subtitle could also be renamed “Everything You Need to Know about Cujo – and more besides!” This 486-page study contains not only a detailed analysis of each segment of the film but also contributions by surviving key members of the production such as director Lewis Teague, stars Dee Wallace and Daniel Hugh Kelly, production personnel, and even its former director Peter Medak who was fired from the film after a few days shooting and who, amazingly, bears no grudges in terms of his co-operation with the book’s author. Gambin’s is a very unusual book, in the best sense of the word. Rather than a study devoted to adaptation or one exclusively based on interviews, it combines the best of both worlds being a critical study allowing articulation of different perspectives from key personnel. Conflict, dissension, and, sometimes, unified collaboration are not unknown to those who have worked on any film set. Gambin weaves several disparate factors together in a book that breaks all the rules of normal publishing rules. Bear Manor Media again deserves praise for bringing this work to light.

NopeNothingCujo-500x500To the best of my knowledge, the only early critical in-depth study of this film was written by Robin Wood in an insightful article that has since been anthologized. (1) This book is the most comprehensive study of the film containing background information on other canine films such as Old Yeller (1957) and The Proud Rebel (1958) as well as Nana in Disney’s Peter Pan (1953) and references to Stephen King’s unwieldy screenplay draft. If anything, these references reveal how inadequate King is as scenarist (and director as well) to say nothing about his critical blindness in refusing to recognize Stanley Kubrick’s different cinematic conception of The Shining (1980). As the first director Peter Medak comments, King’s original script “was not very good” (59), a sentiment shared by his replacement Teague (207; see also 311) and other workers (see 148) so producer Dan Blatt recommended Barbara Turner (ex-wife of Vic Morrow, a former actress, and mother of Jennifer Jason Leigh) to do another version. Gambin knows his subject in great detail as well as citing relevant cinematic references that place the film in a broader context that are never irrelevant to his critical design. He weaves them superbly in a study that has every claim to be regarded as the definitive one  of this particular film version.

Following a masterly description of the film’s opening scene, Gambin cites the initial pages of King’s original screenplay to focus upon the particular emphasis inherent in Teague’s particular conception in contrast to his predecessor Medak:

However, director Lewis Teague’s final choice for the opener would remove any suggestion of supernatural activity and ground the horror in a sturdy commonplace realism. It is also an astounding technical achievement and as previously stated, a beautifully condensed three-act mini-feature. (20)

Cujo 02As well as realizing the necessity of condensing the original novel, Teague appears to have recognized that the important element in any King novel is its social context, one akin to the American naturalist tradition as astute King critics have also noticed. Hence he aimed at removing the supernatural that would detract from the more realistic and relevant aspects of the original. Teague describes himself as belonging “more of the school of classicist realism which is why I didn’t mind losing the supernatural element” (63). Teague’s vision was not achieved without some form of film production bloodletting. Peter Medak was fired from the film after a few days by producer Dan Blatt, “the only movie that I have ever been fired from in my career of fifty years” (36), while his son Christopher remained on the set as production assistant. Despite this humiliation, Peter Medak contributes generous insights, bearing no grudge (209-210). His son Christopher treated the whole incident philosophically. While recognizing that an important source of inspiration had gone and production people did not have the same attitude as before, he comments, “I mean on one hand, it was my very own old man getting fired, on the other hand you stay behind and do the job” (227). Scenarist Barbara Turner, a friend of Medak, saw her version altered and used a pseudonym for final credit in protest (35). Yet, devastating though these changes were, for the people involved, it resulted in a better film though one would have loved to see the other version directed by someone known for The Ruling Class (1972) and later for The Krays (1990). Teague’s involvement led to a film that ideally fitted into the contours of the important subgenre of family horror. (2)

In his detailed descriptions of each sequence in the film, Gambin draws attention to the meticulous work of director, cinematographer, actors, and production personnel as well as one scene that took its inspiration from Mikhail Kalatazov’s The Cranes Are Flying (1947), one well known to director and cinematographer (47). The filming was not easy as one person notes (248-249), and another remains skeptical about the firing of Medak in terms of the vision he was bringing into the film (331), but Dee Wallace (201-204), Daniel High Kelly, and Ed Lauter contributed exceptional performances, the last gaining praise form crew members (261-262).

Cujo 03This is a book that I would have no hesitation in recommending 100% were it not for a production problem often associated with print-on-demand books. Many of the reproduced stills and other images appear blurry and washed out (3) and the reproduced production newsletter created by sound recordist/boom operator Patrushka Mierzwa is virtually unreadable (149-152) as is an original production call sheet for a deleted sequence (177).

These reproductions distract from the book’s otherwise valuable aspects, and I hope Bear Manor Media will look into this problem and correct it as soon as possible (as their printing process can allow). The book does not really need illustrations, and if they are used they should be of the highest quality so as not to mar this company’s reputation. Nope, Nothing Wrong Here is a very important critical and archrival study by a writer fully aware of its dysfunctional family features that Lewis Teague conveys more cinematically than King’s initial screenplay could ever do. While mourning the reproductive faults in this book, I will conclude by quoting a section that fully explains both the film’s importance as well as the valuable critical study that Bear Manor has chosen to produce:

Cujo is ultimately an intimate chamber horror film in that it utilizes a small number of principles and binds them together by circumstance and incidental crossovers. The film – both its structure as a chamber horror piece and with its theme of class resentment – bears a similarity to Peter Weir’s psychological horror film The Plumber (1979)…But what makes Cujo distinct…is the fact that it doesn’t dwell on the monstrousness of societal trappings, instead it drives it to the background keeping it cemented as the basis of the physiological terror that unfolds. (425-426)

Quoting the author is the best tribute I can give this book, but publisher, please deal with the stills problem.

Notes

  1. Robin Wood, “Cat and Dog: Lewis Teague’s Stephen King Movies,” cineACTION! A Magazine of Radical Film Criticism and Theory 2 (1985): 39-45; Gender, Language and Myths: Essays and Popular Narrative. Ed. Glenwood Irons. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992, 303-318.
  2. For the American family horror film in general and Cujo specifically see Tony Williams, Hearths of Darkness: The Family in the American Horror film. Updated Edition. Jackson: The University of Mississippi Press, 2014, 243-244.
  3. See especially pp. 11, 33, 39, 50, 51, 521, 54, 67, 73, 76, 78, 85, 89, 97, 101, 108, 111, 112, 119, 123, 137, 161, 166, 174, 178, 185, 214, 225, 235, 244, 247, 259, 279, 281, 286, 289, 307, 320, 321, 323, 324, 333, 335, 338, 343, 347, 350, 352, 354, 369, 370, 377, 381, 385, 386 , 393, 397, 405, 409, 421, 431, 435, 443, 446, 447, 449, 452, 454, 461, 464, with 470-477 being the worst examples.

Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He is also a Contributing Editor to Film international.

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