Flickchart Road Trip: Maine
Welcome to the latest installment of Flickchart Road Trip, in which I’m starting in Los Angeles and “driving” across country, watching one movie from each state and posting about it once a week. The new movie I watch will go up against five movies from that state I’ve already seen, chosen from five distinct spots on my own Flickchart. Although I won’t tell you where the new movie actually lands in my chart (I don’t like to add new movies until I’ve had a month to think about them), I’ll let you know how it fared among the five I’ve chosen. Thanks for riding shotgun!
Question: What’s the only state in the country with a one-syllable name?
Er, I mean: Maine.
Actually, Maine used to be a part of Massachusetts back in the day. Did you know that? You might also not know that I went to college in Maine, so I spent the better part of four years here from 1991 to 1995. It may seem like I’ve lived in just about every state I’ve visited recently, but I promise you, this is the last until we end the trip in California. (Frankly, I’m relieved — recounting my personal history is starting to bore even me, so I can’t imagine what it’s doing to you.) Anyway, I went to Bowdoin College, making my residence the town of Brunswick for most of that time, about 40 minutes north of Portland. (I lived in coastal Bath, about 20 minutes off campus, my senior year. What a terrific house that was — we had our own little cove.)
The state of Maine is significant for two other reasons, neither of which has to do with me living there:
1) It marks the halfway point of this trip. That’s right, Maine is the 25th state I’m visiting, which isn’t a big surprise given that I’m almost exactly six months in. Boy, are my arms tired! (Wait, that doesn’t make sense.) So, it’s all downhill here from here. Except the Rockies. I have to go uphill for a little while in the Rockies.
Yes, I do think it’s funny that I hit the exact middle point of the trip in the state that was furthest north and east, leaving me no choice now but to turn around and go west.
2) I’ve got family here. My dad has been living here with his wife for about the past six years in a beautiful section of Portland.
One of the things my dad living in Portland has done has allowed me to become ever more familiar with the Old Port, a charming district with great restaurants and cobblestone streets that I regretted discovering only late in my college career. However, my biggest college regret as it related to the state of Maine was Mt. Katahdin, the terminus of the Appalachian Trial and Maine’s tallest mountain. Classmates of mine would go, but I never went — daunted, I suppose, by the nearly four-hour drive, and maybe by the fact that it was pretty chilly in Northern Maine for much of the school year.
Well, late June is a different story. So I grabbed my dad and spent a night in his tent in Baxter State Park, where Katahdin is located. We hiked some beautiful trails, took more photos of rocks and trees than really necessary, cooked Indian food on his camping stove, built a roaring fire and appreciated the stars. It was the first night on this trip I hadn’t slept under a roof, and it was glorious.
The other thing about Maine is that it tempted me to cheat on my format — or if not on the format itself, than on the spirit of the format. The storytelling of Maine is so identified with author Stephen King that I almost decided to just make all five of my Maine movies King movies. (Coincidentally, I also ended up here the same week that his summer miniseries Under the Dome premiered on CBS. I watched and enjoyed the pilot.) At one point I had read every book in the author’s collection, but since that was about 20 years ago, I’m now probably at least 20 books behind.
Ultimately I decided to acknowledge the man’s significant contributions to the horror genre through this paragraph, through one of my five movies and through my featured movie: Lewis Teague‘s 1983 film Cujo, which clocks in with a global ranking of 2895. It’s one of a number of King adaptations I still hadn’t seen — probably a tacit acknowledgement that outside of a few prominent exceptions, film versions of King’s books tend to be terrible. This week I was determined to find out if Cujo was another one of the exceptions.
What it’s about
Young Tad Trenton (Danny Pintauro) is afraid of monsters in his bedroom, but Tad has no idea that a real monster is about to come into his life. On the heels of learning that his wife has been cheating on him, Tad’s father, Vic (Daniel Hugh-Kelly), leaves on an important business trip that may save his advertising agency from losing a key account. Tad’s mother, Donna (Dee Wallace), is wracked with guilt, and to make matters worse, she’s having serious car troubles. A bad alternator is the least of their worries when Donna and Tad arrive at the remote home of the best (and cheapest) mechanic in this part of Maine. The car barely sputters up the driveway before coughing to a stop and refusing to start again. The problem is, the mechanic is dead inside the house, having been mauled to death by his rabid dog. The dog, Cujo, was bitten on the nose by a rabid bat after chasing a rabbit into a cave, and now the St. Bernard is sick with a brain disease that makes him want to tear limb from limb anyone who crosses his path. Unfortunately for them, Tad and Donna may be his next targets.
How it uses the state
The beauty of coastal Maine is present throughout, but it isn’t until the camera focuses on a package intended for the mechanic that the location is definitively established. The address on the package is Castle Rock, ME — a fictitious town King uses in a number of his stories. It’s also the namesake for the production company Castle Rock Entertainment, founded by Rob Reiner — who directed Stand by Me, based on King’s short story The Body. Ironically, though, that film is set in the fictitious town of Castle Rock, Orgeon (go figure). There are also a couple Maine license plates and a reference to Route 117, which runs from Saco to Turner.
What it’s up against
Before we get to my thoughts on the film, let’s duel it against five other Maine movies I’ve already seen, shall we? As you know if you’ve ever added a film to Flickchart using the “By Title” feature, the new movie goes up first against the movie in the exact middle of your rankings. The outcome of that duel determines whether it faces the film at the 75th percentile or the 25th percentile, and so on, until it reaches its exact right place. With five movies, that means at least two and as many as three duels. Here are the films Cujo will battle:
1) The Iron Giant (1999, Brad Bird). My Flickchart: #25/3552. Global: #666. My top-ranked Maine movie is technically six slots higher with The Shawshank Redemption, but that movie has already received plenty of love in movie circles — and The Iron Giant is famous for how little love it received relative to what it deserved. This wondrous, wonderful family movie, which doubles as a smart satire of Cold War paranoia, was marketed so indifferently by Warner Brothers that it ended up as more of a cult favorite than the instant classic it should have become. The gentle giant of the title is a fortuitous combination of terrific character design and Vin Diesel‘s unforgettable vocal work, and he delivers a warm anti-violence message to the human boy (voice of Eli Marienthal) who knows he’s a lot more than just a weapon. The alien robot crash lands in the ocean off of Rockwell, Maine, where young Hogarth Hughes lives.
2) In the Bedroom (2001, Todd Field). My Flickchart: #463/3552. Global: #1331. Character actor Todd Field surprised everyone by bursting on the scene with this powerhouse drama about recrimination and retribution after a tragedy tears a family asunder. You may already know what that tragedy is, but if you don’t, I’ll just say that Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek play grieving Mainers trying to put their lives back together and figure out how to respond to an incident of violence that has changed their lives forever. Both were nominated for Oscars, as was Marisa Tomei in a supporting turn, and the picture itself. The thing that strikes me as so very Maine (or at least New England) about this movie is that it takes place largely in the summer, and there are a number of scenes that are quiet except for the low hum of a Boston Red Sox game on the radio. Takes me back.
3) The Cider House Rules (1999, Lasse Hallstrom). My Flickchart: #1581/3552. Global: #2720. The Cider House Rules is kind of the quintessential Lasse Hallstrom movie — nice to look at, eager to win awards, and ultimately somewhat bland. Like In the Bedroom, though, it was was nominated for five Oscars, winning two. I have to include it here if for no other reason than this line of dialogue, spoken by orphanage director Michael Caine: “Good night, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.” The film has some high drama to be sure, as it deals with World War II, drug addition and abortion, as Tobey Maguire‘s Homer learns how to administer abortions from Caine. This film is also fitting to include as an adaptation of one of the works of John Irving, whose books are mostly set in New England, which I’ll be leaving behind one state from now. Irving won an Oscar for his adaptation of his own novel.
4) Welcome to Mooseport (2004, Donald Petrie). My Flickchart: #2899/3552. Global: #21518. If you ever thought running for mayor against the former president of the United States was a good strategy for proving to your girlfriend that you’re a responsible adult, Welcome to Mooseport may be the movie for you. That’s the premise for this comedy, which turned out to be Gene Hackman‘s last film before retiring from acting. It’s too bad it’s not a better sendoff. While Mooseport is an absolutely terrific name for a fictional Maine town, and the setup is pretty delicious, the execution just doesn’t measure up — which could be one of the reasons star Ray Romano hasn’t appeared in live action films since then, preferring to stick to his successful Ice Age franchise. Like most movies involving political campaigns, the film has its moments, just not enough to make for a satisfying swan song for Hackman.
5) The Mist (2007, Frank Darabont). My Flickchart: #3531/3552. Global: #1701. Stephen King has two other perfectly awful movies that would qualify as my #5 Maine movie, in the abysmal duo of Graveyard Shift and Dreamcatcher. I decided instead to go with the one that made me the most angry, even if it will ruffle some feathers in the Flickchart community. It turns out Frank Darabont directed both my favorite Maine movie (the aforementioned Shawshank Redemption) and my least favorite. I don’t share the passion other Flickcharters feel toward this frame story about a bunch of local Mainers who get trapped in a grocery store by a malevolent mist that contains… well, they don’t know what it contains, just that it’s bloody gruesome and it’s killing them off. The movie has some seriously uncharitable characterizations (the military men are cowards, the religious woman is reprehensible) and one of the most bogus and just plain illogical gut-punch endings you’ve ever seen. Pass.
First duel: Cujo vs. The Cider House Rules. I guess I’d rather be in the dog house than the cider house. Cujo wins.
Second duel: Cujo vs. In the Bedroom. Sorry, but a killer dog movie can’t touch a tense drama. In the Bedroom wins.
Cujo finishes third out of the six movies.
If I went into Cujo assuming it was going to be bad, based on Stephen King’s track record at the movies, you’d be within your rights to ask me what I assumed would be so bad about it. I would have probably told you that the dog wouldn’t be scary. After all, we’re not talking about a pit bull or a Doberman here. This is a St. Bernard. St. Bernards are big and slobbery and friendly. They’re the dogs that wear those little barrels of brandy around their necks as they go off into the snow to rescue some stranded traveler. Or so those old cartoons always tell us. A St. Bernard as a serial killer might just be downright laughable.
In fact, the single-minded murderous intent of the titular canine may just be the most fearful thing about Cujo. I don’t know whether it was the animal wrangler, or Lewis Teague, or Stephen King himself who came on set to get this performance out of this dog, but the St. Bernard in question spends all his time on camera looking like a sick and delirious psycho, and not just because he’s smeared with gore and other fluids. The camera work during the attack scenes certainly heightens this sense of fear, as the dog digs into his prey with an aggressive, vicious focus that looks particularly nasty. Made today, Cujo would likely feature a digital dog, and perhaps then it really would be silly. Speaking of the camera, this film’s cinematography is its other great strength, as DP and future director Jan de Bont comes up with inventive ways to enliven a dynamic that features two people trapped in a car for most of the movie’s second half. A number of clever crane shots gives us an appreciation of the relative proximity of hunter and hunted, and one dazzling shot swings around vertiginously in a 360-degree arc inside the car, capturing the mounting hysteria of a boy and his frenzied mother as their situation goes from bad to worse.
Let’s talk about that boy and that mother for a moment. Dee Wallace gives her all to this role, which asks of her quite a different brand of motherhood than in E.T. the year before. You could say the film lives or dies by her performance, and that might be true except that it would tend to under-appreciate the work being done by child actor Danny Pintauro. If you know him only as Jonathan from the Tony Danza sitcom Who’s the Boss?, you don’t have a complete sense of just what this kid could do. Terror has rarely played so naturally and so viscerally on a child’s face as it does here, and perhaps that’s one of the things that scared me most, now that I’m a parent. If I were in this situation and my son were having this reaction, what would I do?
I looked into Cujo’s reputation a bit, and was disappointed to learn that it was not well liked. Some of that could have to do with the film’s structure, which features a first half that’s too heavy on melodrama and too light on killer dog, and a second half that’s just the opposite. The film is also emblematic of the era in which it was made, most notably the fact that it ends on a cheesy 1980s freeze frame that’s startling in its abruptness. However, another critic I read noted that Cujo has actually aged well and plays better now than it did at the time. I guess I’m glad, then, that I didn’t see it when it first came out — though I can hardly see the nine-year-old version of me laughing at anything about it.
On to Vermont, home of Ben & Jerry’s, liberals, some great ski resorts… and not a lot of movies. However, one of the state’s most classic films is one I haven’t seen: Frank Capra‘s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, which I’ll be watching after crossing the border. Forgive us as we have to pass through New Hampshire again briefly on our way…