Thursday, September 22, 2011

Cujo

"The challenge was to make a St. Bernard scary." - Lewis Teague-

Stephen King's Cujo [1981] made my suitcase to Florida when I was a child. I remember reading it in that humid-soaked tropical climate. It was the classic book with the black cover and fangs. I remember it vividly. It was a frighteningly dark read really. I read it months after its release. Ironically, it was the dog days of summer to say the least.

A few short years later, the novel was quickly turned around and adapted for film by director Lewis Teague. The modest 5 million dollar film arrived amidst a flurry of Stephen King adaptations that took place back when the popular writer was more prolific than two rabbits in heat.

Cujo [1983] was released the same year as The Dead Zone
[1983] starring Christopher Walken and directed by David Cronenberg for double the cost at 10 million. The Dead Zone doubled its gross revenue while Cujo tripled. Christine [1983], Creepshow [1982], Children Of The Corn [1984] and Firestarter [1984] also arrived within that orbit.

Most notable is the fact that both Cujo and The Dead Zone made strikingly impressive and memorable pictures with very little backing. Both films are quiet, powerful pictures, the latter arguably more so in the steady hand of its auteur. There are no big special effects, goofy gimmicks or even big stars. They are just great stories taken from great source material and while they may have ventured away from the written pages of King's original works to a degree as films do, they were entirely successful and still stand the test of time nearly thirty years later as I rediscovered.

Into The Mist. Cronenberg's The Dead Zone is indeed the work of a master and it's easy to argue for it as the superior of the two films having seen it recently, but Cujo, for me, still holds up well. It's surprising just how impressive the quality of the work is in its own right from the inferior Teague. Given the obstacles involved, namely a St. Bernard, the creators pulled off quite a feat with traditional effects. In fact, if the film had been made with CGI, like so many forgettable pictures today, it most assuredly would not have had the lasting power it retains today. Think of any early CGI disaster.

Now, I'm probably going against the accepted conventional wisdom here. I'm going against the grain on Cujo as an advocate for this minor horror classic. I have a twelve year old to vouch for the film along with Fire In The Sky [1993]. What greater evidence do we need right?

Rotten Tomatoes levied a tomato splat at roughly 59%. One writer professed the film to be one of King's better adaptations to which I concur. It may not be the world's most terrifying picture, but it more than successfully builds effective tension and drama. The fine performances by Dee Wallace and Danny Pintauro carry the day and are largely responsible for selling the film's credibility, but then there's the dog. You really cannot discount the casting of that damn dog or dogs.

Blu-Ray.com, which is a site I have a good degree of respect for generally because I often concur with some of their fine writing assessments, did not speak kindly enough of the film. Casey Broadwater calls it a "mid-tier" film. Well, if the budget and director speak to that fact so be it, but it doesn't reduce the film's merits. It's one of Teague's biggest successes because the simplicity of the material and the selection of principals works. Broadwater calls it "pedestrian" and points to the poor casting of a St. Bernard rather than a German Shephard inspiring "more pity than terror."

Well, blame King. The fact of the matter is that's precisely what works so well about the King book and its adaptation here. If it's a German Shepherd it ain't Cujo. It's K-9 with rabies. Mind you a killer Jack Russell Terrier might not be the most intimidating. It might even be more Monty Python. I mean Cujo is big. The idea that such a beloved family dog could turn unspeakably evil speaks to the illogical motivations of evil as a random force.

Fortunately, Teague and his canine star capture both the horror of an event like the rabid bat attack and the effect of evil on an unsuspecting, beloved household pet and the sympathy we have for it spiralling to its inevitable doom. As a child we were instilled with such fear of rabies the film worked particularly well for me. My mother would torment me with images of stomach shots if I tried to feed a passing squirrel. I was essentially built for this book and film.

The St. Bernard here actually has us rooting for him along with our victims and throughout the film we're entirely uncomfortable for it. Teague and company really put us in a strange place. While it may not be straight horror, the events that unfold are entirely grounded giving it a troubling reality.

What is most inspired is the use of make-up and other production materials that transform Cujo from a warm and friendly oaf to a large, involuntarily troubled, physically-affected, easy-to-anger beast of unpredictability. Apart from the occasional mis-edit of the St. Bernard wagging his tail when allegedly in attack mode, Cujo is an effective small town thriller like Fire In The Sky. It's easy for people to cast aspersions on the film and label Cujo as merely a St. Bernard splashed with blood-red jelly, but the transformation is far more gradual and startling. From the painful, cringe-inducing bat bite to the slow process of Cujo sliding away into an abyss of madness, Cujo is an unsettling torment of that which we hold dear. Modest films like Fire In The Sky and Cujo take us into those places that plumb great depths of emotion concentrating on small locations and finite characters. So Cujo may be modest, but Teague generates a surprisingly effective tale whereby the villain, evil embodied in the form of a family pet, creates an astonishing amount of unease and sympathy.

A great portion of the film takes place on Cujo's property while Dee Wallace and her son are trapped in their broken down vehicle. How effective is that? It's tremendously so as it remains the most unforgettable portion of the film.

Apart from the physical transformation of Cujo, there is indeed a smart, believable psychological component as well. At one point, Cujo emerges from the classic Stephen King mists prepared to maul the son of his owner. The boy speaks to Cujo. His voice somehow registers with Cujo who is clearly changing. With faculties still intact Cujo manages to break from the stranglehold of evil long enough to remember. He's changing and it is in this moment we last recognize Cujo before being lost forever. Not quite the monster Cujo walks away into the murky distance. It is a surprisingly affecting moment.


The dog's eye view camera approach generally builds a connection between Cujo and the audience that compounds the sympathetic connection.

An analog phone rings and rings and continues ringing and Cujo is enraged and filled with anxiety and so is the audience. Remember, no voicemail or cell phones. Even the Boy Wonder couldn't believe it.

It wasn't long ago I wrote a brief homage to my favorite cartoon of the 1970s, Battle Of The Planets and an episode called Orion Wonderdog Of Space about a heroic St. Bernard named Orion who aids the fearless G-Force or Science Ninja Team Gatchaman in Japan. Here, our St. Bernard friend takes a decidedly different path through no fault of its own, but rather the unmerciful natural selection of evil to its host. Cujo genuinely captures the mood of malevolence and the supernatural, psychological connection King feeds through his unintended victim.

The sound effects and the score by Charles Bernstein coupled with the intimate camera work bring this unnerving tale to life. It may be more overtly sad than terrifying, but Cujo has bite decades after it was infected not because of the blood and gore popular with today's horror, but because of the dramatic tension and the situational terror delivered by its inhuman and human cast of the film and the effective siege story by man's best friend. And of course, like Spielberg, King does for dogs with the fiction of Cujo what the former did for sharks and the ocean with Jaws. Cujo is a name instantly recognizable with dog violence and canine terror just as Jaws is instantly recalled whenever we wade into water. If that isn't effective material I don't know what is.

Documentary data: Dog Days: The Making Of Cujo. The producer, Daniel Blatt, and Stephen King both had Lewis Teague in mind to direct, but he was not chosen first due to studio pressures. Teague, with the re-writes, made every effort to make an abridged version of the novel. Of course, the ending of the book is far darker. King has said he would have preferred an ending like the one found in the film here. He said that about Frank Darabont's The Mist too. King's biographer points out, with the book and the film, that he is able to "have it both ways." King conveyed his feeling about the ending in the book to Teague before filming.

The number of Cujos utilized for the film seems to differ depending on who answers too. It ranged anywhere from five to seven dogs [Moe was the most popular]. Fortunately, again, there was no CGI, but there was a man with a St. Bernard suit and a mechanical St. Bernard head. Of course, I love Godzilla too. It all makes complete sense.

4 comments:

le0pard13 said...

As I would have expected, a fine review of this underrated SK adaptation, SFF. I read this novel when it came out long ago. King using the rabies vector and the St. Bernard was an unexpectedly great idea. That viral disease is particularly mean and treacherous in its manifestations for animal and humans alike. Since it's rare these days, and the term thrown about rather loosely, the populace doesn't give it much thought, or dread. This story certainly reverses that for viewers. It's one of the horrendous things out there.

Tie that with a friendly face of the St. Bernard breed, and you have one nasty (in a good, horrifying way) combination. This film creeps up on you and really bites (please excuse the pun ;-). Director Teague and actress Dee Wallace really standout, as well, in the adaptation. Now [spoiler alert], I must ask you about your feelings toward the change in ending from the novel. King's original story does seem to more realistic (concerning the boy). However, the optimist in me enjoys the film's outcome.

Great to see you back, SFF. Many thanks.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Hey L13. Gosh, it has been awhile hasnt it? I have been jammed.

Great points about Rabies. It's relatively off the radar, but you are so right about it. Lyme disease gets much more press as an example.

Dee Wallace was great.

About the ending. The book is damn good. It's dark though. I'm fairly open to the film's ending. It works well enough for me and isn't outside the realm of possibility. So a little joy goes a long way after this tremendous siege. I love te exclusive farmhuse setting of the film as well.

CHeers and thanks for the welcoming words my friend. sff

Sean Gill said...

Excellent review, SFF! I rewatched this recently, but I too read the novel as a kid one summer. Lewis Teague certainly knew how to make creature flicks– and I must say that between Cujo in CUJO and The General in CAT'S EYE, he also coaxed out some of the better animal performances in memory!

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Thanks Sean.

No doubt our lives have similar mirrored moments then I'm sure.

Yes, this is one of those 80s classics. I really think Cujo was very well done.

Thank you for writing.
sff