A few nights ago, I was lucky enough to have caught a film just by chance. The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane is a 1976 thriller/drama starring Jodie Foster. While it can't be called a horror film, there are elements within it that bring to mind a few horror movies, namely Psycho, among others. I'd never seen it, so thought I'd watch a bit of it and see what it was like.
I've always enjoyed Jodie Foster's acting, but for some reason she never comes to mind when people ask me my favorite actors. Maybe she should. Her body of work is so extraordinary, when you think about all roles she has had, from a child television star to films like Taxi Driver, The Accused, The Silence of the Lambs, Nell, Panic Room, The Brave One...heck, even Freaky Friday. And anyone who saw this particular Canadian production back in 1976 should have realized immediately that she was going to be a force to reckon with.
Rynn Jacobs is a wiser-than-her-years thirteen year old who is living in a rented house on the outskirts of a small seaside town. I don't really think it's spoiling anything by mentioning that it's obvious after a few minutes of film that Rynn is living alone in the house. We find out that her father is a poet, and that he's not readily available for receiving guests. They've recently moved over from England and have signed a three year lease on the home.
When we meet Rynn she is celebrating her 13th birthday with a cake and candles on Halloween night.
Her party for one is interrupted by one Frank Hallet, a pedophile disguised as a normal joe - the landlady's son - who uses a ruse about trick or treating to gain access to the house and act entirely creepy towards Rynn. Martin Sheen plays this role to perfection. In fact, he is so lewd and indecent that I was both nervous and pissed just thinking about it. His suggestive manner at first makes you think he's going to take advantage of Rynn being alone, but then we see how tough she is, and how well she can stand on her own. She stands up to his lecherous remarks, knowing just what to say to get him out of the house.
When the bitchy landlady (Alexis Smith) shows up at the house asking to speak with Rynn's father, Rynn bounces back with sarcasm and irritates Mrs. Hallet into claiming she is going to speak to the school board about Rynn's apparent truancy. But Rynn counters, telling Mrs. Hallet about her son's visit to the house, pointing out that it might not be appropriate for him to be stopping by to visit a thirteen year old girl when her father isn't home. Mrs. Hallet is pissed but drops it, asking Rynn to let her into the basement to retrieve some jelly jars. Rynn flat out refuses, causing a bit of a scene. Mrs. Hallet lets it go for the moment, perhaps afraid of Rynn's knowledge of her son's tendencies. The caustic bantering between these two is definitely one of the highlights of the movie, it's fun to watch.
At this point I think the audience knows something untoward is going on. The enigmatic father never does show up at any point to back Rynn's stories of him being out of town. And just why in the hell is Rynn so protective of the basement? And why is she always offering everyone tea? Watching her move about the house like she owns it - baking her cake, serving up tea and cookies, even turning out all the lights before heading off to bed with a book - all acts that seem much too adult for someone so young and innocent.
How she handles herself with Frank Hallet is also indicative of someone who knows a bit too much about the pressures of adulthood and the sometimes difficult experiences in life.
Frank finds Rynn in town the next day, he starts up the creep act again, only to get spooked by the cop pulling up to the curb. Rynn makes a quick friend in Officer Miglioriti, who apparently knows Frank is one fry short of a happy meal. They chat and when Rynn explains that her father is working in his den and can't be disturbed, Officer Miglioriti buys the excuse and is on his way.
Already intrigued enough to continue watching, I was pretty amazed at how believable Rynn's deception is. I can see how it would work for awhile, but as people get more curious, there is bound to be trouble. And that's exactly what happens. Mrs Hallet returns, demanding the jelly jars. Rynn has brought them up from the basement, but when Mrs. Hallet notices the rubber seals are missing, she takes it upon herself to roughly flip open the basement trap door (shades of Evil Dead here) and storm down the steps. When she sees (just her, the audience still doesn't know) something that scares the tar out of her she screams and manages to knock the door down on her head. It's certainly no surprise when Rynn opens the door and finds Mrs. Hallet dead.
When Rynn tries to hide Mrs. Hallet's car outside and can't, a teenage boy (the cop's nephew, Mario, played by "Bad Ronald" himself, Scott Jacoby) sees her plight. Soon, Rynn has him eating out of her hand, and he not only moves the car but begins to develop a relationship with the young girl. He even helps her out with the matter involving the pedophile.
One evening when the two of them are having dinner at Rynn's, Officer Miglioriti stops by to announce that Mrs. Hallet has been reported missing by her son. He all but demands to see Rynn's father, but Mario covers her tracks by eluding to the poet being upstairs in bed. After this act of trust, Rynn decides it's time to show Mario just what IS in the basement. And it isn't what you think.
I have to admit, I was thoroughly entertained by this film. Foster's excellent performance carries the entire movie, and the backup cast is made better because of it. The friendship between Rynn and Mario does become intimate, and while some may turn their noses at a child having a serious relationship, I thought it was handled sweetly and appropriately. After all, it was almost hard not to see her as an adult - or at least an older teen. It fit the storyline and was as plausible as it was gutsy.
Sheen, as the disturbing sexual deviant, seemed like the guy next door - until he opened his mouth and started spouting those distressing and suggestive come-ons....to a CHILD. Gah!
After learning the whole story of what has transpired in the house, and the pain and loss Rynn has been through, you want everything to work out for her. You actually want a thirteen year old to be able to live in a big old farmhouse alone, to not be discovered by the cops or the school board, and you certainly want justice to be served to the resident pervert.
What is most remarkable is how well Foster carries herself and embodies the role. Telling the tale of a little girl who will do pretty much anything to keep her happy home, The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane is a most impressive turn by a child actor who turned out to be one of the finest of our generation. Herein lies the proof of what is to come.
A few weeks ago I was pondering what movie to watch on Halloween night. Now this isn't rocket science, nor is it akin to picking out a good wine or even what color you should paint your bathroom...but it is a difficult decision for someone such as myself that surrounds herself with horror at every turn. It had to be something good, right? It's the big night. Generally I end up with one of my favorite classics, such as Night of the Living Dead or Psycho. But this year I had made some purchases from Amazon right before the holiday and low and behold, I picked Cujo. (Which you already surmised due to the title of this post, duh.)
Cujo, for those who may have been trapped under a rock for thirty years or what have you, is not only a book by the venerable Stephen King as well as an adapted 1983 film, but the moniker of a feisty St. Bernard. Oh wait, did I say feisty? What I really meant was terrifying.
Now, I'm not one to be frightened of dogs, but I will admit to having some reservations when I walk up and down the back alleys behind my house. There are an assortment of scary-looking pooches in some of the yards of the folks in town. Pit Bulls. Dobermans. Rottweilers. Even the occasional nutty poodle. But to my knowledge, there are no St. Bernards.
In nearly every case though, St. Bernards are a fairly docile breed. They were originally bred to be rescue dogs, carrying medicine over mountains to the sick and injured. They also were known to be great livestock guardians and hunting dogs, as well as guard dogs. But they are not known for violence. I'm sure that after Cujo came out there were plenty of St. Bernard lovers who were pissed as all get out to see their breed slandered with the title of "killer". Doesn't it stand to reason that this might indeed be the nudge that screenwriters had to come up with the lovable hulk named Beethoven, who was for all intents and purposes, the exact opposite of King's monster? In any event, a St. Bernard always gives me pause now...if I see one loose in someone's yard or hovering on a porch, I'm sad to admit it still scares the shit out of me.
But hey, isn't that the mark of a good film? One that can still scare you nearly thirty years later? One that has you on the edge of your seat? And one that would have you running and screaming for your life if the damn dog steps off the porch?
One big happy family... Mom, Dad, son...oh, and Mom's boyfriend. Nice.
Cujo, at first, seems a bit melodramatic. What are we watching here, a Lifetime movie of the week? Seems Donna Trenton (the amazing Dee Wallace) is participating in a bit of hanky panky outside the marriage bed. Though her hubby, Vic (Daniel Hugh-Kelly) isn't a bad looking dude, he apparently is about as exciting as a loaf of bread, so Donna sneaks off with Steve the handyman to his sleazy apartment and has some afternoon delight. (May I add that the delight she dishes was her actual husband in real life, Christopher Stone? So she's not really cheating, right?)
Time for the "monster words".
Vic may be dull, but he's not stupid. He soon finds out Donna's running around on him. And so there's all this night-time drama going on, with us as the audience apparently supposed to relate to Donna and her plight. I myself was pissed. Call me moral, but it made me feel dirty just watching her romps with Steve. Throw in their little boy, Tad (Danny Pintauro). Little bugger is so cute, all nervous and scared of the monster under his bed or in the closet. Mom and Dad have even written up a list of "monster words" that they read before tucking him in for the night, you know - to keep the monsters at bay.
But hey, let's not forget the star. Cujo is owned by the local mechanic, Joe Camber, who isn't really much of a nice guy either. He's just hanging around trying to find a way to go gambling while his wife heads off to her sister's. His son Brett is Cujo's best friend, but isn't with him when Cujo sticks his nose into a rabbit hole and gets bit by a rabid bat. (What are those bats doing in that hole, anyway??) At this point, I'm feeling pretty damn bad for the dog. He was just out goofing off, chasing a bunny, and WHAM! Your life is over as you know it.
As the rabies progresses, every little noise like the phone ringing or the car engine revving hurts the poor guy's ears. Add to that the nasty bite on his nose that is obviously infected, and you have one pissed off pooch. His attitude is poor, to say the least. Rabies affects the brain. Horribly. It infiltrates the central nervous system and basically makes your life a living hell. Once the brain is inflamed with the disease, death is almost a 99% certainty.
Cujo starts a downward spiral even before he starts offing the human population. It takes only a few days for him to start becoming mad, and I don't mean angry. His behavior is noticeably erratic and frenzied. Loud noises and bright lights set him off, and before long he is making toast of the likes of his owner and the neighbor next door.
Meanwhile, Donna has decided to end her affair with Steve, which does more than just irk him. He gets pissed off. He trashes their house and leaves some incriminating evidence on the bed, in liquid form if you know what I mean. (I have to admit, this film is full of characters that are pretty damn unlikeable. I'm not sure any of them are truly redeemable, including the annoying kid!)
Vic has already headed off for a business trip but forgets to get Donna's ailing car (a Ford Pinto!!) fixed, so Donna has to make her way out to the Cambers with Tad in tow to drop the bungled auto off.
As most folks know, here is where the heart of the story lies. The beefy part that everybody remembers about the movie. Cujo is there waiting when Donna and Tad arrive, and when the Pinto gives up the ghost in the driveway at Cambers, Cujo is there waiting to inspect the car and its contents. Donna realizes quickly that something isn't quite right with the dog, particularly after he chases her back to within an inch of her life and rams the car with his 200 pound body. When it's obvious Joe Camber isn't at home (or alive, for that matter), Donna quickly deduces that they are trapped in the car. In the raging summer heat. With an insane dog the size of a pony, covered in the blood of his former victims and looking to add to that muzzle of doom.
Again and again the dog attacks, with no thought whatsoever to the pain he inflicts upon himself. He's gone completely mad at this point and is probably in so much discomfort he can't see straight. Just when you think he's gone, or at least napping (no way, Jose!), he attacks.
You wouldn't think a film about a pissed off dog could be that scary, but for all accounts, it's the scariest, most realistic movie about a killer dog I've ever seen. The look in the bleeding dog's eyes is pure hatred, and nothing but the disease can be responsible. A passive and friendly pet, the St. Bernard loves nothing more than pleasing his master. But the entire thought process is gone when you throw rabies into the mix. Each time Donna tries to make a run for it, Cujo comes back harder, with more of a vengeance than the last. It seems he truly just wants to kill them. And you're pretty much thinking he's going to succeed, particularly after an especially horrifying sequence in which the dog actually has most of his body in the car - jaws snapping, saliva flinging, teeth bared over Donna's prone body stretched across the front seat - all the while Tad in the back seat wailing for the "monster" to go away.
I cannot stress enough how paralyzed with fear you can be while revisiting this classic film. If you've read the book, you'll know the ending is even more bleak than the film, but I think they did a good job with the storyline here. Even though it seems a bit implausible that anyone would survive after actually being bit by a rabid dog. I mean, wouldn't you get the virus as well? And the hours and hours that Donna and Tad are stuck in that hot car? Would you really last as long as they did? Seriously? A small child? They say a dog can suffer heat stroke in 15 minutes. That statistic can't just be for animals.
And can I just say - with all that screaming the kid did, I was almost ready for Cujo to have a Tad sandwich, you know?
But the fear that seeps out your pores when Cujo is jumping on that car, snarling and snapping... that is scarier than any vengeful long-haired ghost or hockey-mask donning stalker. At least in my book. Because a rabid dog could happen at any time, anywhere. The sad progression from happy family pet to stark raving mad beast from hell really brings me down. As an animal lover, I doubt I could watch Cujo too many times simply for that reason if nothing else. I always feel bad when the dog or cat dies in a horror movie, and even though this canine was the main attraction, the way in which he is taken out - the slow, cruel death by incurable disease - well that's just not fair. Simply put, there wasn't one person in that whole film that I wanted to survive more than the dog. And you know going in that's just not going to happen, poor thing.
So I think the moral of the story is: get your damn dog vaccinated for Rabies, okay?!
My pal William Malmborg just put a post up on his blog about Stephen King and "the most frightening book he has ever written", and he asked others to weigh in on their favorites. So I was thinking this is the perfect opportunity to ramble on for a few moments about ol' Stevie and his works. This won't be an all-inclusive look at everything he's ever written of course, as I don't have a whole week to sit here....but to mention my favorites won't take too much of my time - or yours.
A little backstory: I've been reading Stephen King since I was ten or eleven. I can't recall how on earth I actually got my hands on a SK book at age ten, it's hard to tell. I've always been someone who is easily swayed by pop culture. Meaning, if someone is reading a popular book, talking incessantly about a certain movie, watching a tv show I haven't yet seen, or listening to trendy new music, I have to read it/watch it/listen to it. It's just in my nature. And though I can't remember, I'm going to assume that way back when, someone was chattering on and on about The Shining and I had to have it. I was also well above my reading level from the time I was small, so I have to say I had already been reading things such as Jaws and Valley of the Dolls (yeah? well my mom shouldn't have left that one under the bed for me to discover!).
Like I said, The Shining was the first SK novel for me. I stayed up late every night for a week, hiding with a flashlight under the covers because I was supposed to be sleeping. Thankfully, my bedroom was upstairs and the folks' down, so I got lucky and read late into the night....a lot. Probably how I ended up the night owl that I am today. The Shining is my favorite SK book, and probably because it was my first. The story always fascinated me - I love a good haunted house story, and this was an entire hotel! When the movie came out I was a bit surprised at the way Jack Torrance shifted over into complete lunatic-mode. Not that I didn't like it, but I will agree with the author when I say the story is not conceived as such. Torrance was more of an alcoholic influenced by the spirits (see what I did there?) of the hotel than simply a straight-forward madman. Jack Torrance's behavior isn't the only thing different in the novel in comparison to the film. The ending is entirely different, with the hotel burning down instead of the frozen conclusion we're used to. Add to that the fact that there were malicious (live) topiary animals outside the hotel instead of the hedge maze...and well, you see what I mean about it being different. But many key frights remain intact, such as the menacing hotel itself. And the entire Room 217 scenario (though in the movie they changed the room number to 237). Every time it was mentioned I knew something awful was going to happen. I was also entirely spooked by Delbert Grady. The Shining remains one of the best of King's stories, in my humble opinion.
Pet Sematary is probably my second favorite. The completely disturbing content of this book just rattled me to the core. I remember when my little brother was born, I implored my mother not to read that book. I also begged her not to see the later film. Little Gage was just a little too close to home, if you know what I mean.
This book is really frightening, perhaps even more than The Shining. In fact, I'm sure of it. So much is going on, from perilous highway that takes the lives of all the local pets... to the death of Victor Pascow... to the family cat getting smooshed on the road... to the Micmac burial ground behind the pet cemetery.. to the truck-creaming demise of young Gage... to zombie Timmy Baterman... to (and this is the real kicker) ZELDA!!
Okay, so maybe I'm just forever scarred by the movie version of Zelda, but hey - she's fucking scary! Pet Sematary has it all going on. So many elements of horror to scare the shit out of you. To me, it's the most shock-loaded book he's written. And I love it.
Soon after reading The Shining, I knew I had to pick up and read absolutely everything King had ever put to paper. In fact, if I could have purchased his shopping list, I would have done so. (Something that is probably possible these days with the advent of eBay!) So being the young OCD that I was, I started from the beginning. Which meant Carrie. Being at the tender age of pre-puberty myself, Carrie affected me wholeheartedly. While I couldn't totally identify with her (my mom was kind enough to explain the facts of life to me prior to my own happy hormonal experience), I could understand her. I felt bad for her. Everyone knew someone like her. Well, not the telekinetic thing, but the unpopular thing. It gave me great pleasure to see those bratty teenagers get what was coming to them at that prom.
I made my way through novel after novel, eventually catching up to King writing them. I've always loved all his early stuff, and though I enjoyed the likes of The Dead Zone and Salem's Lot, I'd have to say my next favorite of his works would have to be Christine. Not because of the name, mind you - but because it was so different. A car that has a mind of its own? Say what? I also remember loving how he used song lyrics from so many of those old 'car tunes' of the 50's and 60's to open each chapter. That translated fairly well to film, also. I was fifteen when the book was published, and was impressed to the hilt if a guy drove a nice car, especially a classic, because that was what was popular back then - unlike today's teens who get an SUV on their 16th birthday whether they deserve it or not. Back in the 80's, most guys worked after school and on weekends to raise up enough money to buy a car to fix up and impress the ladies. Times have changed. Thanks, but I'll take the past.
Anyway, Christine was a damn fun novel....but scary - not exceptionally.
Misery, however? That was scary. Let's face it, at this point everyone probably associates the movie with the characters from the book. And I'm okay with that now. But I read the novel before the film came out. There were changes from book to film, but I have to say it was still quite effective. And the casting was simply brilliant. But let's talk about the book. Misery has this terribly effective way of getting under your skin as you read it. You feel a claustrophobic tension that lasts through every chapter, and if there were such a thing as reading on the edge of your seat, this book would be a prime example. Annie Wilkes is such a terrifying character. You can imagine the headlines in your local paper - this shit could happen. I had trouble imagining that King didn't think of himself as the Paul Sheldon character, because I sure did. The "number one fan" thing was utterly unnerving and you really could feel Paul's fear, no more so than when Annie cuts off his foot with an ax. That's right folks - none of this breaking feet with a sledgehammer stuff....in the book she cuts off his foot with an ax and cauterizes it with a blowtorch. Um, yessiree! And that whole "shooting the sheriff dead in the basement doorway"....didn't happen. She stabbed him then ran him over with a lawnmower. Suppose that would be hard to translate to film. But besides all the obvious gore (did I fail to mention she cuts off Paul's finger with an electric knife?), I really think the effectiveness of the novel comes in the quiet moments of dread, such as when Paul realizes that Annie knows he's been out of his room....
While I profess my love of the likes of Cujo, Danse Macabre, On Writing, Needful Things, etc...I have to say I haven't been quite as keen on King's later novels (i.e. ones written beyond 2000) - they haven't grabbed me like his earlier works. Some are just outrageously long, like Insomnia! Gah! To be honest I've never finished that one. IT is quite extensive as well, but that's one I couldn't stop reading. Having purchased the just-released 850 page historical opus that is 11/22/63, I can see I'll have my work cut out for me. From what I hear, it's a departure from the horror that we are so used to from him. I haven't even started it yet, and it certainly seems like a helluva task. I much prefer a novel around 450-550 pages. That way I don't lose interest and I don't wonder when I'm going to finally finish.
There's a lot more I could ramble on and on about regarding Stephen King's novels but I'll save it for another day.
I've heard a lot of people cut Stephen King up, calling him a hack, a sell-out, untalented, etc. In fact, I'm weary of pretentious assholes that seem to think they are too good for his books. Yes, I like Dickens and Austen too. But I for one, have to defend King adamantly. Anyone who can give me countless hours of entertainment and enjoyment is okay in my book.
Just wanted to say thanks so much to everyone who read and commented on my Halloween Festival of Lists!
It was a fun but exhausting thing to do, hence I need a slight break to catch my breath and catch up on some of the other fantastic posts that I have missed over the last month because I was so busy racking my own brain!
Additionally, my DVR is full of a ton of great horror that I recorded throughout the month of October - so hopefully that will bring me some inspiration for the future.
Fascination with Fear will return on Sunday, Nov. 13th for another dose of Sunday Bloody Sunday.
See you soon :)