Stephen King, I think it is fair to say, is one of the undisputed masters of the Horror and Supernatural genres. Sales of his 70 books top the 300 million mark, and if something odd is happening in the state of Maine, then Stephen King is probably the author. Cinematically, however, adaptations of Stephen King stories have been of variable quality. For my money, The Shining (Kubrick, 1980) is by far the best, although King was famously not pleased with the interpretation. Other notables are Carrie (De Palma, 1976), Misery (Reiner, 1990) and The Green Mile (Darabont, 1999). The rebooted IT (Muschietti, 2017) had a solid volume 1, but we will need to wait until later this year to see if the complete work matches the popularity and critical acclaim of the 1990 TV Movie.
By the release of Cujo (Teague, 1983), only the aforementioned Carrie, The Shining, and the anthology film Creepshow (Romero, 1982) had hit cinemas, to both popular and critical positivity. King’s branding as Master of Horror, coupled with some big name directors and Hollywood names attached probably set the box office cash registers alight with possibility. However, Cujo is something different. For starters, it veers from the traditional supernatural fayre of King’s work. The eponymous, and for the most part, fairly lovable St Bernard is no hellhound, or possessed creature. Bitten by a bat during a quest to chase a rabbit, this bouncy ball of fur is bitten on the nose by a bat. This causes the dog to contract rabies, and then goes on a brief, but ferocious attack spree.
However, apart from the opening scene, showing the fateful pursuit of the rabbit, and a couple of foreshadowing scenes where loud noises seem to be irritating Cujo in a manner similar to your grandad grumbling about “that bloody noise you young folk call music nowadays”, all but about 15- 20 minutes of this films plot focuses on the subtext.
Donna Trenton, played by Dee Wallace (The Howling, E.T), husband Vic, played by Daniel Hugh Kelly (Star Trek:Insurrection, Someone to Watch Over Me) and son Tad, ably portrayed by newcomer Danny Pintauro (Timestalkers, The Still Life), have moved to Castle Rock recently from New York. Vic is an advertising executive; whose chief client is a cereal company that a facing a PR nightmare as some of their products have caused hospitalisations. Donna, the housewife and stay at home mum has been having an affair with the local lothario, Steve Kemp, a strangely possessive playboy played by Christopher Stone (The Howling, Alone in the Dark).
This is where the true horror of this film lies. Tad is a bright, lively kid, who doesn’t deserve to be raised by such vacuous self-obsessed parents. Frankly, in the pivotal Cujo attack sequence, the rabid canine would have done the kid a favour by finishing off his mum. Wallace turns in a sterling performance her, it should be said, simultaneously playing cheating wife, loving mother, and terrified victim of a rabid dog attack. However, the rest of the cast (apart from Pintauro, who similarly plays his part with conviction), and the production values of this film, make it feel more like the TV Movie of the Week, than a full-blown theatrical release. This remastered Blu-ray release does nothing to mask that.
The dog itself is owned by the Cambers, with patriarch Joe – Ed Lauter (French Connection II, The Artist) – running an auto shop from their out-of-town farm. The film hints at, but thankfully, given the soap-opera attention given to the Trentons’ family dramas, doesn’t dwell on the fact that Joe is abusive to both wife Charity, and son Brett. However, a subtle performance from Kaiulani Lee (World According to Garp, A Sense of Wonder) does wonders at portraying the stoic yet resentful woman who has a plan for freedom based around a lottery win. Brett, played by Billy Jayne (The Beastmaster, Demonwarp) – although credited as Billy Jacoby – just seems to be largely ignored. Even when he raises concerns about Cujo’s health, no-one really pays any heed.
The direction is capable, taking a few cues from The Shining to use low camera angles – this time emulating Cujo’s points of view. The tension to Cujo’s first few attacks is built well, and the dizzying camera work in the main attack sequence is genuinely effective in giving the air of confusion and panic that Donna Trenton must be experiencing.
Beyond that, however, Teague doesn’t really have the material to lift the direction much beyond the level of a family drama, which is a shame. Teague’s next foray into King’s body of work, Cat’s Eye (1985) would give him much more scope. Teague is not necessarily at fault for this, his appointment to the project was last-minute. He replaced Peter Medak (The Changelng, Species II), and in a masterstroke, brought with him cinematographer Jan De Bont (Flesh + Blood, Basic Instinct) and it is De Bont’s inventive approach to camera work Teague acknowledges as key to the success of the film.
With a runtime of 93 minutes, Cujo doesn’t drag – unless, of course, you’re expecting a fright-filled horror fest. It is not, quintessentially, a bad film, however it could be argued that it has got its “A” and “B” plots a little confused. Looking at the artwork, and all the imagery for Cujo, you expect the focus of the film to be the dog. Yet it feels more like a family drama, for which the dog attacking is just another trauma in the lives of the Trentons. Detractors of the film on its release complained about the fact that it changed the ending of the story. Whilst I am not one to defend wholesale deviations from source material, we have to face facts here. In a Hollywood movie, letting the kid die would be box office suicide.
The press release for this 2 disk release boasts 7 hours of extras, however, 3 hours of this are the audio commentary by Lee Gambin (Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo), and a convention Q&A with Dee Wallace. Highlights of the extras are the always insightful Kim Newman giving his take on Cujo, and Dog Days: The Making of Cujo, a 42 minute documentary split into 3 parts. Cujo sees its first UK Blu-ray release, and is a film adaptation from the Master of Horror, where the horror is dialled back. One for the King completists, I would suggest, and probably due a glossy remake in the not-too-distant future.
CUJO is out on April 29th from Eureka! Classics
4000 copies come in a limited edition Hardbound Slip Case, with collectors booklet and bonus disc.