Killer dogs: Cujo, Dogs, White Dog

Killer dogs: Cujo, Dogs, White Dog

Sometimes movies are about the big picture. Triple Feature traces a common theme or element through three movies to see what they have to say about each other, and to us.

“It would perhaps not be amiss to point out that he had always tried to be a good dog,” Stephen King notes in his 1981 novel Cujo. Arriving near the end of the book, that observation comes after Cujo has killed three men and trapped a mother and son in a car for days. But King isn’t being ironic. Cujo was a good dog. More specifically, he was what one character described as “one of your old-fashioned, dyed-in-the-wool good dogs.” He tried to do as he was told until he contracted rabies from an infected bat (and/or, as King keeps teasing, he was gripped by the spirit of the serial killer from King’s previous novel, The Dead Zone). At some point, Cujo fell under the grip of forces beyond his control. He meant well. His scrambled brain made him a danger, but he still tried to be the best dog he could under the circumstances.

Horror comes from two places. There’s the horror of the unknown, the unfathomable. Then there’s horror caused when the familiar stops being familiar. One doesn’t preclude the other. King traffics in both sorts, but Cujo puts the emphasis on the latter. What, after all, what could be safer and more comforting than the family dog? Part of what makes Cujo one of King’s best books, or at least one of the best I’ve read, is the way King digs into the instincts that make dogs such a comfort—their familiarity, their protectiveness, their simplicity—and shows how easily the same instincts can make dogs dangerous. The elements that made the species successful as pets entwine with those that made them successful as predators. 

Lewis Teague’s 1983 film version of Cujo offers a faithful, though streamlined, adaptation of King’s novel, one that has a lot going for it beyond strong source material, yet ultimately doesn’t live up to it. Teague looked like the right man for the job. He already had one successful horror movie under his belt—one with a rampaging animal in it, no less—1980’s Alligator. He cast Cujo well, too, bringing in Dee Wallace—the concerned ’80s mom par excellence, thanks to E.T.—and Danny Pintauro, a preternaturally gifted child actor before Who’s The Boss? made him just another TV moppet. Even more crucially, Teague hired Jan De Bont as his director of photography. A veteran of Paul Verhoeven’s films, De Bont worked for years as a brilliant cinematographer before he traded in that career to become a merely adequate director. (With the notable exception of Speed.) The film looks great, faking a magic-hour New England twilight on the California coast, and it moves beautifully. No one’s half-stepping here. 

So why doesn’t it work? The problem with Cujo is Cujo. While the idea of a killer dog—to say nothing of a killer St. Bernard—is scary, and the actuality of a killer dog is doubtlessly terrifying, the sight of a killer dog is tough for movies to fake for three reasons: 

1) Dogs aren’t good actors. Dogs have only a handful of motivations, most of them tied to food. Dog trainers use food to coax performances from dogs, so viewers who’ve spent any time with dogs recognize that most of the expressions that make it on camera combine curiosity, hunger, and a touch of impatience. Whether a dog’s rushing to hit a mark on cue or gazing adoringly at an owner, there’s almost certainly a treat just offscreen. 

2) It’s tough to stage a dog attack. On camera, dog attacks rarely look plausible. Cujo does a better job than most films when it comes to faking an attack, but ultimately, it resorts to frenetically edited scenes involving a stuntman and a lot of padding. The most chilling image of the movie shows Cujo’s tail wagging as he hunches over a victim’s body, a shot that leaves the grisly details outside the frame, where the dog was no doubt enjoying a plate of hamburger or suchlike.

3) Our sympathies as viewers naturally go to dogs before humans. This is the crucial one. Mary Harron’s clever adaptation of American Psycho starts to fall apart toward the end, but its finale contains a brilliant moment where Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman threatens first a wealthy dowager type at an ATM, then her tiny dog. The first moment is tense, the second horrifying. This last problem ultimately derails Cujo. Cujo grows more rabid without growing more threatening. He looks like a dog who’s been wetted down and covered in mud and synthetic phlegm. It’s pitiable, but not particularly scary. 

Even less scary: the 1976 film Dogs, though the mere thought of it terrified me as a child. I was only 3 when the movie came out, but I vividly remember the TV ads, which featured a few terrifying flashes of rampaging dogs and the same stern, deep-voiced narrator who showed up in seemingly every horror trailer from the ’70s. Looking at it now, it doesn’t look nearly as terrifying. 

So why did it scare me so thoroughly that I remember it decades later? Well, I was 3, but I also think the idea of Dogs, in which previously friendly pets turn on their owners and run amok, taps into the same fear King exploited with Cujo, this idea that something safe and familiar could go bad. But it’s one thing to tap into a fear, and another to mine it. Though a much less polished piece of work than Cujo—I suspect much of the budget went to hiring former Man From U.N.C.L.E./future NCIS star David McCallum—Dogs comes up dry for many of the same reasons.

Part of the nature-gone-awry cycle of films that began with Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds in 1963, then escalated with the success of Jaws in 1975, Dogs offers a fairly half-assed reason for the dog revolt—something about a science experiment gone awry—and an even more half-assed depiction of the revolt itself. In one scene, a dog show involving kids parading their animals on a football field turns chaotic as the beasts turn against their pint-sized owners. But where I think we’re supposed to see a lot of imperiled, terrified children fleeing vicious beasts, I see a bunch of dogs having the time of their lives. No language ever produced a word that describes something that’s simultaneously cute and terrifying, and there’s good reason for that.

You might have sensed a pro-dog slant to this piece. At this point, I should probably come forward as a dog owner and all-around dog enthusiast. Five years ago, my wife and I adopted a German shepherd/who-knows-what mix from a local shelter, and it’s been one of the most rewarding choices we’ve ever made. Our dog is a demanding source of love and affection. She’s also, I’m reminded frequently, an animal, and it’s best never to forget that. Like most dogs, she’s extremely sensitive, but not particularly sophisticated. She reads fear as aggression, and responds with snarls and barks. As she’s gotten older, she’s gotten more protective. On walks, she tends to treat most other dogs as potential threats. (And to my embarrassment, she’s far more protective of me than my wife.) She’s a tame beast, but a beast nonetheless.

But sometimes it’s the taming that makes an animal monstrous. The only killer-dog film I know that works, the Sam Fuller-directed 1982 film White Dog, features a white German shepherd driven mad by the way human conditioning has channeled his bestial instincts. The title refers not to the color of the dog’s coat but to his status as a “white dog,” a dog trained to attack black people. After hitting him with her car, then adopting him, new owner Kristy McNichol learns of this conditioning the hard way when the dog attacks one of her friends on the movie set. Told she has no choice but to put the dog down, McNichol turns instead to an animal-training facility run by Burl Ives and Paul Winfield, the latter of whom takes on the task of deprogramming the dog’s racism with the intensity of a sacred cause.

White Dog was adapted from a Romain Gary novel by writer-director Curtis Hanson and conceived as a project for Roman Polanski. Polanski might have pulled it off, but for White Dog to live up to its potential, it required a director who could mix political commentary with B-movie thrills, a trick Fuller perfected over a long career that included stints as a teenage crime reporter, infantryman, and pulp novelist before he segued into directing. (If you’re looking for a book that’s as punchy and exciting in its own way as Fuller films like Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, look no further than his autobiography, A Third Face: My Tale Of Writing, Fighting And Filmmaking.) It would be a struggle to create a character as vivid as Fuller, a larger-than-life offscreen personality whose films wrapped smart, two-fisted humanism around a visceral, cut-to-the-bone visual style. My favorite Fuller story, and one that explains a lot about the man, comes from his days as a script doctor and his suggestion for how to convey that the hero of The Sun Also Rises has been left impotent by a war wound while staying within the limits of the production code. Fuller’s idea: Show him in surgery, and include the sound effect of two testicles dropping into a metal tray. (They didn’t use it.)

Fuller also made film after film attacking racism, which made it all the more absurd that rumors he’d made a racist film helped sink White Dog’s U.S. release and send Fuller into exile in France for the rest of the decade. It is fiercely anti-racist, using the dog to illustrate that, in Hanson’s words, “racism is not a natural thing, but a taught thing.” And, to continue that thought, that it’s a tough thing to unlearn. Trained by white supremacists to hate African-Americans—whom his trainers hired to beat him as a puppy—the dog struggles with his learned, hateful instincts on a physical level, guided by Winfield, who gives a performance in line with past tough-minded, idealist Fuller heroes like Gene Evans in The Steel Helmet and Lee Marvin in The Big Red One. The metaphor gets overextended at times, particularly once the film has Winfield, McNichol, and Ives covering up a murder after the dog escapes, but it remains potent even once the plot starts to strain credulity.

This time, I think it’s the dog that makes it work. Or technically, the dogs. Fuller used several different animals for the film, depending on what a given situation needed. In the one-on-one scenes the dog shares with McNichol, the crucial moments that make the rest of the movie so heartbreaking, Fuller lets the dog be a dog. He frolics gratefully with McNichol, then lets his enthusiasm get the better of him and knocks her down. He doesn’t know better. He’s just being a dog.

The tragedy of White Dog is, that’s also true when he’s worked into a murderous lather. He’s being a good dog based on the sick system that produced him, which makes the film both a sharp commentary on how racism gets passed down from one generation to the next—and has the awful habit of affecting even those who think they’re beyond it—and on how we imprint the best and worst of humanity on animals that don’t really understand why they act the way they do.

There are people (Werner Herzog, for instance) who view the tendency to see humanity in animals as misplaced vanity. I can only agree with them up to a point when it comes to dogs. Humanity has invested so much of itself in dogs over the centuries, it would be a mistake not to see a bit of ourselves in them. It’s little wonder we sympathize with them, onscreen and elsewhere, and part of the brilliance of White Dog comes from the way Fuller works those sympathies even as its canine protagonist turns into a killer. We feel for its simplicity and imagine the creature it might have become instead, even as we look in horror at a monster of our own creation.

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