Judge Bill Gibron once asked his mother where babies come from. She thought he said "rabies." Somehow, this decent Stephen King adaptation became part of the conversation. He hasn't been the same since.
Our review of Cujo: 25th Anniversary Edition (Blu-Ray), published November 24th, 2009, is also available.
There's a New Name in Terror
After an errant rabbit avoids his incisors, lumbering St. Bernard Cujo gets his head caught in a bat cave. A single bite to the snout later and he's riddled with rabies. Unaware that the family pet is Hell bent on some people Pupparoni, the clueless Cambers head in different directions. Papa Joe eventually has a run in with the angry mutt, and soon he's pushing up the dirt poor daisies. On the other side of town, the Trenton family car goes kaput, and dad Vic (Daniel Hugh-Kelly, Hardcastle and McCormick) suggests that mom Donna (Dee Wallace, The Frighteners) take the vehicle out to Camber's farm. Seems Joe is a fine mechanic…or at least he used to be. With tiny Tad (Danny Pintauro, Who's The Boss?) in tow, and the couple's complicated relationship in tatters, it seems like this leisurely jalopy jaunt is doomed. Sure enough, the duo runs head long into a supremely psychotic canine. Cujo is raging, and the Trentons are his next target.
Stephen King loves to refer to his books as the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and Fries…fast food for the jaded genre lover. If that's the case, both the novel and cinematic adaptation of his psycho hound howler Cujo is on par with an implausible, indigestible prairie platter from Burger Chef. Conceived during the author's "I guess they'll publish anything of mine" phase (right after the routine thriller Firestarter and the excellent Dead Zone), the story centers on a rabid St. Bernard who goes from cuddly to craven at the drop of some bat guano. Like Jaws without the inconsistent mechanical shark and Robert Shaw's bizarre New England brogue, this motion picture adaptation is as good as can be expected, considering the source. The original novel was overloaded with subplots, supporting characters, and oddball supernatural bull stuff. King actually tried to make his murderous pup some manner of reincarnated evil. Luckily, Lewis Teague had his screenwriters tweak the tale, removing anything remotely resembling the lame and/or ludicrous. The results, while wildly inconsistent and rather dopey, still stands as one of the more faithful…at least in tone…to the often marginalized author's ideas.
Under Teague's competent tutelage, we end up with three divergent narratives more or less fused together. The first is rather anticlimactic. Little Tad believes there are beasties in his closet, and the first few minutes of the movie find the boy battling his phobias. Suddenly, we shift over into kitchen sink territory. Our soon to be heroine, Donna Trenton, is having a seedy affair with a local handyman. All their romantic handwringing and the accompanying marital strife takes center stage as we experience an uninspired soap opera of rather minor proportions. Once mother and child make a beeline to the country, hoping to have the family's faltering Pinto repaired, we finally get the thrill kill chiller we've been longing for. Our confused cur, brain poisoned by a healthy dose of derangement, is all blood and pus, his slaying power proven by a pair of preview nibblings. And this doggy loves the tang of human flesh. The minute he sees the Trentons in their faltering auto, he's foaming at the jowls. This pooch is peckish, and for the final 30 minutes he's going to do anything to get some kindergartner tartar.
While the rest of the film is competently helmed, it's during the last act standoff where Teague really shines. Granted, little Danny Pintauro takes whiny wussiness to levels even fellow five year olds would have a hard time supporting, and Dee Wallace proves she's one high maintenance babe. She goes from good looking to ghoulish all in the span of about 24 hours. The director's inventive use of camera, accompanied by a really superb set of special effects/animal trainer gimmicks, keeps the storyline electric. Even when Tad is having his denouement death throws, the use of compositional invention and novel framing keeps us focused. There will be those who balk at the ending…who see cop out where the creators see compromise…but they do so without the full support of the author himself. King has frequently noted that Cujo remains the one book in his entire canon that he'd love to rewrite. Seems even he feels it's unnecessarily dark and slightly superficial. With its concentration on character to attempt suspense, and the legitimate levels of dread come climax, Teague's take on the book can't be commended. It doesn't make it a scary movie classic. Instead, it remains an adequate entertainment, nothing more.
For the 25th Anniversary of the film's original release, Lionsgate has given this lesser King effort a nice DVD package. The remastered 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks terrific, even though budgetary restraints and unusual camera set-ups occasionally mar the otherwise professional print. Still, the colors are clear, the details dynamic, and the overall image in keeping with Teague's aesthetic approach. On the sound side, there is nothing new. It's all Dolby Digital Mono at its most mundane. It does do Charles Bernstein's TV movie lite score a real disservice, however. As for added content, the genre giant goes all out, giving Teague a chance to defend himself…twice. First up is a full length solo commentary where the director discusses both the production and its behind the scenes problems. It's a pretty praise-oriented discussion, with the filmmaker complimenting his cast, crew, and King himself. As good as the track is, much of the material is unfortunately repeated in the 45 minute Making-Of documentary entitled DOG DAYS. Offered in three parts…or viewable in one continuous sitting via the "Play All" option…we see up to date conversations with Wallace, Pintauro, cinematographer Jan De Bont, and other interested participants. All enjoyed the experience, and make Cujo seem like a solid horror gem. Must have something to do with their overall lack of realistic perspective.
In all fairness, Cujo is yards better than many of the movies crafted out of King's immense catalog. Too bad it's not the terrifying tour de force everybody alleges.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Director Lewis Teague
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