White Dog (1982) was the monster movie that Cujo could have been.
Samuel Fuller developed the screenplay and directed this fascinating film which wrapped up in 1982 but did not see theatrical release in the United States until ten years had passed. Why? Paramount, in its infinite chickenness, was scared to release the movie they themselves had backed. The reason? Race fear.
White Dog, you see, is a movie about a dog that has been trained to attack and kill black people. It is also about the efforts of a man named Keys (Paul Winfield) to deprogram the race hate out of that attack dog.
Certain members of the NAACP objected to the subject matter and Paramount clasped their corporate hands and declared, "Oh my. This is nasty, ain't it?"
The history of German Shepherds and other big dogs being trained to attack African Americans makes some people very uncomfortable. The tradition goes back to pre-Civil War America, when plantation owners would sic their powerful canines on runaway slaves. By the 1940s, the progeny of those dogs were being used to track down runaway convicts. In the early 1960s, their descendants were terrorizing civil rights workers. By the 1980s, the dogs were sold as security specialists who would protect rich homes from black invaders. Look, there's a reason skinheads favor pitbulls, Shepherds and dobies. It's not because of some twisted concept of cuteness. It's because those dogs--perhaps not instinctively but after well-thought-out abuse training--are very effective at killing people.
(I know whereof I speak. I have two dogs, one a German Shepherd-Greyhound mix and the other some type of mongrel Pitbull. The Shepherd was never trained to be anything but sweet. The Pit, however, by the time we got her, had developed a severe distrust and hatred for African Americans, to the extent that black people in our neighborhood could not walk past out gate without fearing that Sarah the dog would leap up and over the gate and disembowel them. We have not been able to completely eradicate this evil impulse, although when she watches us being social with our black friends, she chills out a bit. Before she came to live with us, Sarah had been raised by racist drug dealers who kept her tied to a tree with a two-foot rope so that she could not relieve her bowels without standing up. Just like some people, she let her mind jump from the specific to the general and her fear of abuse became hate.)
White Dog is far from a perfect movie, but what it lacks in panache it more than makes up for in guts. Fuller cast Kristy McNichol and Jameson Parker as leads here, but it's really Paul Winfield and Burl Ives who do the acting. Winfield in particular is just incredible. The camera stays on his face as he discovers that the dog he has been trying to deprogram has killed a black man and left the man's body face down in a Christian Church, with Mother Mary and all the Saints looking on. We never see the man's body and there's no need for us to see it. Winfield's expressions tell us all we can bear.
I wish I could tell you that all the acting here is as great at Paul Winfield's. That would be a lie. Parker and McNichol do what is expected of them. They look wholesome and concerned, the type of liberal hypocrites who are on the side of the dog in good times and who want to have it shot when the going gets rough. Ives is likable, although his performance here is a hell of a long drop from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But what I suspect Fuller was going for here was something similar to what Roger Corman did more successfully with The Intruder. He made a family-oriented film that was almost positively going to freak out the family. I tried--unsuccessfully--to explain this to my roommate. After I had detailed the plot, she said, "This is a family film?" It really isn't, I suppose, that is, unless you're looking to shove a black finger in your family's face or trying to understand how come that stray you picked up off Mulholland is so sweet with you and so angry when the landscaper comes over.