Welcome to Shadowvision, a regular column in which Fangoria.com revisits modern horror films in black and white. The purpose is to analyze these films through a new lens, seeing if the classically informed viewing experience will give a new angle to familiar images. If you’d like to watch along at home, it’s simple: go into your TV settings and desaturate the picture completely, then adjust the contrast and brightness to fit either standard or high definition.
Any horror fan well-versed in the origins of the genre know that many of the first horror stories were, in essence, cautionary tales. While the genre has evolved from that approach into nightmares of the visceral and surreal, these allegorical warnings have returned time and time again, perhaps most prominently in the ‘50s and ‘60s. At the time, threats to the nuclear family were the basis for countless horror films. Physical monsters stepped in for communism, moral “degradation” or even substance abuse.
Perhaps it’s the cautionary nature of CUJO that makes the film such a prime candidate for a re-examination via Shadowvision. After all, the victims of Cujo, who only becomes monstrous as a result of his curious nature, are those directly affected by immorality and adultery. The physical manifestation of guilt in the form of a giant dog—a creature meant to protect families, but here looking to destroy one—is more than fitting for the era of black-and-white horror.
Now, for CUJO, the contrast shouldn’t be increased much; after all, most of the terrifying moments of the film take place in the ever-so-bright daytime. Brightness doesn’t need to be increased at all, as the contrast adjustment and natural picture should do the trick.
For those unfamiliar, CUJO follows a suburban family rocked by infidelity and professional woes, who find themselves face to face with a living nightmare: a rabid St. Bernard who has cornered them in their broken down pinto. As the distraught father races to find his family, the mother must find a way to reach shelter to prevent herself and her son from succumbing to the unbearable heat.
In black-and-white, CUJO feels quite different than its color counterpart. While the story beats and tension remain, the visual interpretation matches the morally-driven mechanisms of the story. In this way, the monochrome CUJO feels more like an episode of THE OUTER LIMITS than a King story, despite the family dynamic so indicative of the writer. In a way, the monstrous nature of Cujo is heightened by the black-and-white presentation, transferring the horror back to the creature rather than the consequences of the heat.
There’s almost a complete tonal overhaul in CUJO when viewed in black-and-white. While the warm, summer color scheme of the film helps sell the excruciating heat and location, the black-and-white version feels more universal in atmosphere, lending further to it’s voyeuristic dread . Furthermore, the tragic plight of Cujo himself, which often makes the antagonist as empathetic as the protagonist, is toned down rather significantly when robbed of color; the disgusting bodily fluids and reddened skin are stripped of their power, providing a more ominous menace in black-and-white.
Of course, without director Lewis Teague and cinematographer Jan de Bont’s emphasis on such a powerful visual structure, CUJO would be far less effective in black-and-white. Teague’s ever-moving camera and lack of subtlety suit the black-and-white interpretation, especially when considering the film’s frenetic pacing and editing during its most chaotic moments. In addition, de Bont captures the distressing nature of CUJO’s latter half with remarkable success, as every piece of cracked skin and every bead of sweat is glaringly apparent in black-and-white.
The cast of the film, albeit unintentionally, also contributes to CUJO’s success in black-and-white. As the familial drama is presented side by side with looming terror, there’s a melodramatic tone to the actors throughout the first half. Likewise, Ed Lauter and Mills Watson’s characters seem directly out of a ‘50s horror film, considering how overtly foolish and abusive their behavior towards Cujo is portrayed. And while Dee Wallace delivers a truly exceptional performance, there are moments absolutely reminiscent of female leads in monster movies, particularly during the scene when the police officer comes under attack.
While CUJO in color is still the better and more emotionally satisfying version, the film does take a fascinating turn when presented in black-and-white. Teague’s direction and the nature of the story makes the black-and-white presentation tonally appropriate, and the performances feel evocative of the golden era of cautionary horror as well. However, I would still only recommend the experience to fans of the film who are curious, as there’s as much to gain as there is to lose from the lack of atmospherically beneficial color.
Recommended for Black and White Consumption?: Maybe.