Lionsgate // 1983 // 95 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // November 24th, 2009
Unleash the terror.
With its mix of New England setting, animal-gone-haywire horror, and marital infidelity melodrama, Stephen King's novel Cujo read's like homage to (or rip-off of) Peter Benchley's Jaws. It's a lesser King work despite a cleverly claustrophobic setting, a brutally emotional finale, and its having coined a name that has become synonymous with intimidating canines. Like the book, the movie centers on the Trentons, a young family recently moved to Castle Rock, Maine from New York. Fissures appear in the Trentons' façade of a perfect marriage when Vic (Daniel Hugh Kelly, Star Trek: Insurrection), an advertising agent, first loses one of his firm's major accounts and then discovers that Donna (Dee Wallace, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial) is having an affair with family friend Steve Kemp (Christopher Stone, The Howling). These problems become trivial, however, when Donna and the Trentons' five-year-old son Tad (Danny Pintauro, Who's the Boss? take the family's dying Ford Pinto to a white trash mechanic, Joe Camber (Ed Lauter, The Longest Yard), who lives on the outskirts of town. Camber's family, it turns out, is on vacation, splurging with $5,000 won in the state lottery. Camber is dead, mauled by the family dog, a massive Saint Bernard named Cujo, infected with rabies. The Pinto stalled in the Camber driveway, Donna and Tad are trapped by the ill-tempered dog in stifling heat without food or water.
Cujo is a solidly constructed little horror movie, even if most of the plot feels like a too convenient answer to the question of how to get a woman and young child trapped in a car by a rabid dog without a rescuer in sight (since it was made in 1983, at least they didn't have to play the old "Hey, my cell phone has no signal out here" trick). Director Lewis Teague (The Jewel of the Nile) proves himself the sort of pragmatically artful filmmaker who can deliver attractive compositions and effective in-camera effects on a budget. His work here reminds me of Bob Clark's in Black Christmas -- not because of any overt visual similarities, but because both display such a firm and clever grasp of filmmaking fundamentals. There's nothing slick or glossy about Cujo, but it's practically a clinic in quietly inventive, budget-conscious moviemaking. There's little in the way of blood or gore, but plenty of suspense delivered mostly through careful framing, precise editing, and Teague's paying close attention to the set-up/pay-off rhythms of good, cathartic horror. The canine wrangling is entirely effective as the half-dozen or so dogs who played Cujo deliver a lumbering menace born of a combination of training, carefully planned set pieces, and tight editing.
Teague's craftsmanship would be for naught without solid performances from his cast. Wallace and Pentauro are the movie's emotional core, and both deliver the goods. Wallace essentially reprises her suburban, middle-class mother role from E.T. throughout the film's first half but gets to stretch her thespian wings once she and the boy are trapped inside the car. Pintauro is quite impressive considering he was six years old at the time of the shoot. His hysterical reactions to Cujo's attacks on the Pinto are realistic enough to churn the stomach of any parent with young children.
Cujo's craftsmanship and performances would have been more than enough to make the movie a cult hit if it weren't for a limp finale that flies in the face of King's novel and panders to the worst of Hollywood horror movie conventions. According to Teague, King specifically suggested the new ending, saying that if he could write the novel a second time he would change the ending. King must have been smoking crack. The novel's ending (which I won't give away here) is a perfect expression of the themes of family dissolution that King explored throughout the book. The movie's finale is a weak-kneed, saccharine cop-out that significantly undermines all of the flick's best qualities.
This Blu-ray edition of Cujo is a high-definition port of the 25th Anniversary DVD released in 2007. The transfer on that DVD was surprisingly good, considering the film's age, budget, and reputation. The Blu-ray looks even better. The 1080p transfer delivers accurate colors, solid black levels, and reasonable detail. The image isn't razor sharp, but its tight grain structure lends it a celluloid appearance that probably indicates it didn't look much better when projected in theaters over two decades ago.
On the audio front, we get a two-channel presentation of the original analog mono track, as well as a DTS-HD 5.1 lossless expansion. The DTS-HD mix is surprisingly good, considering it was produced from a mono source. Dialogue and effects are somewhat pinched, but Charles Bernstein's (April Fool's Day) score sounds terrific.
The disc contains the same extras as the 25th Anniversary Edition DVD. Teague delivers a personable and informative audio commentary. Dog Days: The Making of Cujo is a 42-minute documentary in three parts. The first part is a general making-of piece that provides background on King's book, introductions to the cast and crew, and anecdotes about the shoot. Part two is about the dogs that played Cujo, the animal make-up effects, and Teague's clever methods of shooting gentle, well-trained canines so that they look like a menacing, rabid killer. The third part covers the editing and sound design of the film.
Cujo is a solid little horror flick, undone by its final five minutes. Still, it's worth a rental for Teague's solid direction and fine performances by Dee Wallace and Danny Pintauro.
Review content copyright © 2009 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1983
MPAA Rating: Rated R