Cujo - King's Corner Review
Welcome to King's Corner. A recurring series of reviews based on the film adaptations of Stephen King's novels, reviewed and released in order of the original source material publishing date.
If there's one thing Stephen King is brilliant at, it's taking a simple premise that on a surface level sounds quite silly and making it terrifying. ‘Christine’ is the story of a haunted car, ‘The Shining’ is about the haunted Overlook hotel and ‘IT’ is about an evil clown. Admittingly this is an oversimplification of these stories but through this simplicity King creates rich characters placing them in evocative settings creating compelling stories. It is a testament to how he has enjoyed a long and illustrious career as he manages to pull off this feat time and time again. His 1981 novel ‘Cujo’ is no exception. It tells the story of man's best friend gone bad when a friendly Saint Bernard is locked in a vicious siege with a mother and son after the titular dog contracts rabies from a bat bite.
Director: Lewis Teague
Starring: Dee Wallace, Christopher Stone, Daniel Hugh Kelly, Danny Pintauro
Written by: Don Carlos Dunaway, Barbara Turner
Produced by: Daniel H. Blatt, Robert Singer
Cinematography by: Jan du Bont
Original Score by: Charles Bernstein
Cujo, a friendly St. Bernard, contracts rabies and conducts a reign of terror on a small American town.
The origins of the Cujo are twofold. In a 1980 interview with Rolling Stone magazine King stated that, "...the real impetus to write Cujo came from reading a story in the paper in Portland, Maine, where this little kid was savaged by a Saint Bernard and killed." The second and more commonly known story comes from a 2006 interview King had with The Paris Review. In the interview he describes an incident in 1977 when he was having trouble with his motorcycle so he took it to a mechanic on the northern outskirts of Bridgton, Maine. Upon arrival the motorcycle died and from the barn next to the farmhouse emerged a Saint Bernard by the name of Buster who approached him growling the entire time. Just as the dog lunged for his hand the mechanic whacked him in the hindlegs with a wrench subduing them and telling King that Buster must not have liked him. It was to leave a permanent mark on King.
At the time of writing the novel King was going through a tumultuous period in his life as he was addicted to alcohol and drugs. In his book ‘On Writing’ he outlines how bad the situation was as he barely remembers writing the book at all even though he likes it a great deal. Warner Bros clearly did too and saw potential in the story as they acquired the rights to the book and hired ‘The Changeling’ director, Peter Medak to be the main man behind the camera. Within two days he left the project and Lewis Teague took the reins. According to the documentary ‘Dog Days: The Making of Cujo’, Teague believed the story had all the ingredients of a good horror film. No stranger to creature features, Teague had previously directed the wildly entertaining ‘Jaws’ ripoff ‘Alligator’ in 1980 making him an ideal choice to helm ‘Cujo’.
The film opens on an idyllic summer's day as the titular dog chases a rabbit through the field. This beautiful imagery coupled with the soft string led melody of Charles Bernstein's score would almost trick you into believing it was a scene lifted from something like ‘Beethoven’ as Cujo chases the rabbit towards its burrow. Here things take a dark turn and so too does the score as it hones in on its brass section to deliver a sense of dread as Cujo disturbs the bats that dwell within the burrow. It's no surprise to hear that Bernstein was influenced by John Williams' score for ‘Jaws’ as it shines through here. One of the bats carrying rabies bites Cujo on the nose, tragically sealing the curious dog's fate.
From here we are introduced to the Trenton family when the young boy, Tad (played by Danny Pintauro) screams in terror believing that there is a monster in his closet prompting his parents Donna and Vic (played by Dee Wallace and Daniel Hugh-Kelly respectively) to run into his room to subdue his fears. This also introduces the family drama at the heart of the film as it is as much a film about the collapse of a marriage as it is about a killer canine.
Although both parents love their son dearly their love for each other is deeply affected by existential fears. Donna is worried that her purpose in life is to be nothing more than a bored housewife in Castle Rock driving her to having an affair with family friend Steve (played by Christopher Stone) whilst Vic fears for the financial future of the family after a disastrous marketing campaign at work. Their turmoil is summed up brilliantly in a scene where they are in bed. Donna turns to Vic to tell him how great he is with Tad to which he replies, "How am I with you?" She answers "wonderful" with a disingenuous tone in her voice followed by a loveless peck on his lips before turning away from him to fall asleep.
With maternal roles in the likes of ‘The Hills Have Eyes’, ‘E.T.’ and ‘Critters’, Dee Wallace has been somewhat typecast as the go to movie mom from the late 70's right up to the early 90's. The most cynical of critics would look down at this but in reality it is a testament to her trademark warmth and naturalism which has shone throughout her career, particularly with this film. Stephen King has gone on record time and time again stating how he believes she gives the best performance by any actor to appear in any adaptation of his work. Recently he reiterated this point in an interview on the Kingcast podcast where he went as far as to claim that she should have won an Oscar. Based on the evidence on screen it is hard to argue against that point. Navigating through her loveless marriage there is a subtle exasperation in her forced smiles and awkward postures but when Cujo begins to attack her car she exudes an extraordinary amount of strength as she does her best to shield her fears whilst protecting her child. It is a perfectly measured performance.
As the film progresses the Trenton's car is in need of repair so they take it to a mechanic by the name of Joe Chamber (played by Ed Lauter) on the outskirts of town. Here they come face to face with the Chamber's family dog Cujo and we first see its transformation from loveable family pet to demonic hound from hell with yellow puss emanating from its eyes and foam (made from egg whites to the performer's delight) dripping from its mouth. When the son of the Chambers family goes to look for the dog he spots him in the fog like a scene from a gothic horror film with a ragged and soaked coat and threatening growl. All trace of the loveable pet he once was is now gone. After this appearance Cujo goes on a murderous rampage killing Joe and his best friend. When Donna and Tad return to the Chambers for further repairs to the car their nightmare begins.
In a 1985 interview with Monsterland Magazine King was asked his thoughts on the transformation of Cujo to which he replied, "It's one of the scariest things you'll ever see. It's terrifying". The initial attack on the Trenton family car proves his point. Donna and Tad arrive at the farmhouse and it's eerily silent. The camera makes slow pans back and forth highlighting the isolation with some point of view shots to show that they aren't alone. Someone or something is watching, waiting. Donna helps her son to remove his seatbelt and out of the blue a rage filled Cujo tries to leap into the car, ferociously barking and terrifying Donna and Tad. Simply put it is one of the most frightening moments in any King adaptation to film. It almost feels like there’s a superpernatural quality to the dog which is close to a dropped plot point from the novel that suggests that Cujo is possessed by the spirit of the killer Frank Dodd from ‘The Dead Zone’. Thankfully Teague dropped this idea maintaining a degree of realism to the film, making it all the more frightening. The way in which Tad clings to his mother screaming that he wants to go home is indicative of how phenomenal Danny Pintauro's performance is. It almost crosses the barrier from acting to reality which is all the more impressive when you consider how he was only six during the film's shoot. Over the years Dee Wallace has been nothing but complimentary of her co-star stating how he showed the maturity of an adult actor, particularly in the scene where his character has a seizure. The entire film hinges on their performances and they both nail it.
From here until the end of the film is a masterclass in tension as it is a battle of wills between Cujo and his Pinto bound captives. There have been disputes over the number of dogs used in the making of the film with some saying six were used and others claiming there were as many as twelve. A mechanical head was also being used in some shots and even a stuntman in a suit (which gave the world one of the greatest behind the scenes pictures with Dee Wallace, the stuntman and Lewis Teague locking arms as they do the can-can). It is a credit to these performers, handlers and the sharp editing of Neil Travis that makes you believe it is all the action of one dog throughout.
Another aspect of the film that stands out during these scenes is the cinematography from future 'Speed' director Jan du Bont. He brilliantly captures the claustrophobia and desperation in Donna and Tad's situation. After one of Cujo's attacks he sits at the porch in the foreground of the shot with Donna and Tad huddled together in the car in the background as the sun is setting. It is a stunning shot signifying how helpless they are and how Cujo is in complete control of the situation. Another brilliant shot comes after Cujo bites Donna. The camera swirls around in the centre of the car as an exasperated Donna clutches to her son as he cries for help showing how increasingly hopeless their situation is becoming.
As the film draws to a close an exhausted Tad stops breathing. In a feat of pure desperation Donna leaves the car and makes a run for the house only to be confronted by Cujo who emerges from underneath the porch. Donna grabs a nearby baseball bat and the two engage in a fight to the death in which Donna emerges the victor after stabbing Cujo with a piece of the broken baseball bat. She manages to resuscitate her son in the Chambers family home but not before one final scare. Just like Jason in ‘Friday the 13th’ and ‘Carrie’ from De Palma's film, Cujo leaps through the window only to be finished off by Donna once and for all despite her exhaustion and injuries. Her husband arrives on the scene shortly after and the film ends with a freeze frame on the Trenton family putting their domestic issues into perspective after their traumatic encounter with the rabid dog.
Grossing $21.2 million off of its $6 million budget the film was a box office success and over the years it has gained a lot of respect from critics and audiences alike. What makes it as good as it is and above your average creature feature is how it embraces the quintessential qualities of what makes King's work so great. Taking believable characters and placing them in peril you can't help but be fixated by their plight as you root for their survival in a compelling contest of man (or in this case woman) versus beast.
- Joseph McElroy