STUDIO: Lionsgate
MSRP: $19.98
RUNNING TIME: 95 Minutes
• Making of ‘Cujo’

The Pitch

Demon Dog Defiles Damsel in Distress! Damaged Datsun Daubed with Doggy Drool!

The Humans

Dee Wallace, Danny Pintauro, Daniel Hugh Kelly, Christopher Stone, Ed Lauter, Billy Jayne

Claude seduced his women by serenading them with the smooth, cool sounds of John Sousa.

The Nutshell

On the surface, the Trentons seem like an ideal family: Little Taddie is cute and precocious, papa Vic is a successful Advertising Exec, and mother Donna recently starred in E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial. But all is not well in the Trenton household! Donna’s having an affair, Vic might lose his business, and little Tad thinks that his closet is a den of evil. Their fears and insecurities cause a rift in the family, which ends up separating Vic from Donna and Tad as they travel to the Maine countryside for auto repairs at a backwoods auto shop. Unfortunately for Tad and Donna, the mechanic isn’t around to help them when they arrive. Even more unfortunately for Tad and Donna, the mechanic’s hulking, rabid, demonically possessed Saint Bernard named Cujo is around to help them when they arrive. What follows is a horrific days-long siege, forcing mother and child to face a real, physical manifestation of fear. As it turns out, facing a rabid hellbeast is way scarier than the thought of losing your job.

George took flak from his golfing buddies for perming both his head hair and his chest hair, but he didn’t care. That’s just how George rolls.

The Lowdown

Earlier this year, the CHUBB insurance group commissioned a formal ranking of the major Stephen King film adaptations, the results of which are displayed in Figure 1:

Fig 1:  I like graphs.

As you can see, early adaptations were much more quality-consistent. In the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s, a King adaptation typically meant at least an above average film, and it usually meant a great horror film, but as we move further along into the mid to late ‘90’s, we see both high peaks (Shawshank) and devastating valleys (Sleepwalkers), and the less said about The Tommyknockers, the better.

Thankfully, CHUBB’s assessment of Cujo is right on the money. It’s a solid, well-made example of why early King adaptations were consistently entertaining. It begins as a slow-burning family drama- we witness the fracturing of the Trentons, and how consumed they are by their fears and insecurities; Vic becomes consumed with his concerns over financial ruin, Donna becomes consumed by an extramarital affair, and Tad is consumed by his childhood fears. These mostly irrational fears are nicely contrasted with the real fear of getting actually consumed by a monster, and they set the stage nicely for the standoff between man and beast. Since it’s nearly an hour before Donna and Tad get besieged by Cujo, it’s a good thing that this half of the film works, since character setup is crucial for creating tension and making us care about Donna and her family. Dee Wallace does great work as the guilty wife, and Danny Pintauro is incredibly believable as the Trenton child. It seems like good child actors are always a rare find, so Pintauro’s success goes a long way to show either how hard they must have worked to cast that character, or how much better the kiddie-acting-pool was in the early ’80’s. The late Christopher Stone plays the villain of the first act, and is both charming and menacing as Donna’s jilted lover. It’s always great to see the grim, stone-faced Ed Lauter, who plays the drunken, wife-suppressing, ill-fated owner of Cujo. Although he’s one of Cujo’s first snacks, his presence adds a palpably dirty texture to the first act. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Moe the Saint Bernard, whose great work throughout Cujo makes Beethoven look like a pile of dung.  He’s the real star of the film, and although there were nine other dogs playing the Cujo role, I’ve singled out Moe as my favorite.

When Buddy rams your car at 30 mph, it’s just his way of showing how much he likes you!

The character-building first act leads nicely into the second, where we find Donna and Tad trapped in their car and facing down an enormous, ravenous dog. At this point, the film shifts from family drama to intimate, claustrophobic nightmare-siege. Prior to the siege, Cujo’s first two kills are nearly comical- Cujo attacks his owner and his owner’s drinking buddy, but Cujo is still so damn cute that it’s almost hard to take the danger seriously. Sure, he’s got some whipped egg white on his jowls and some yellow goo dripping from his eyes, but he’s such an adorable dog that it’s difficult to generate any fear since we know he’s probably wagging his tail and lapping his “victims’” faces between takes. There’s a big transition between these kills and his siege of the Trenton car, though. By the time he encounters the Trentons, he’s covered in blood, his eyes are red and infected, and his fur is crusted with dirt and slime. The editors, makeup artists, and trainers did a spectacular job of bringing the evil out of a sweet, mild-mannered Saint Bernard, and it really shows during this last act. They used a man-in-suit for some of Cujo’s more violent scenes, but it’s not too easy to spot. Not enough can be said for the way the trainers and dogs were able to convince me of Cujo’s insane desperation to end lives.

Unfortunately, there are a few things that don’t work well. While the last act is a wonderful payoff, some subplots could have easily been trimmed. We spend a good deal of time dealing with Vic’s work troubles, which prove ancillary to the film. It’s important that we know how much he’s worried about being able to support his family, but we spend far too much time hearing him talk to his family and his coworkers about a disastrous ad campaign that threatens to end his career. We really get into the minutiae of Vic’s job issues, which could have easily been omitted since they don’t really factor into the Donna/Tad/Cujo relationship. It doesn’t help that Vic has a full-on 1981 man-perm, but what can you do. Also, like I mentioned earlier, Cujo is almost too cute to be menacing, especially before the car siege. While the dog does amazing work, there are moments where you just want to leap into the scene, hose the poor critter down, and give him a hug.

The other thing that bugged me wasn’t so much an ‘issue’ as it was an observation of child behavior. When Cujo terrorizes the Trentons, Danny Pintauro’s Tad shrieks so realistically that I couldn’t figure out which would be more irritating: getting mauled by Cujo, or being stuck in a car with a screaming child. Maybe it just means that I’m not ready to be a Dad yet, because if I were Donna, I’d want to punt this little screambag out the window and run the other way. Childsqueal turns my blood to ice.

In all, the 25th anniversary Cujo is worth a buy for any King fan. Cujo gets a great, Jaws-y tuba theme, and the rest of the score is dated but effective. The cast is uniformly solid, and the dog is phenomenal. The film makes me want to own a Saint Bernard, even if it means being trapped in a car for the weekend.

Almost weekly, T.J. would get ‘lost’ in Willie Nelson’s backyard.  Some suspected that it was intentional.

The Package

The transfer’s great, but the DD monaural audio track requires some tweaking. I wish they’d put more effort into the audio. We get a very decent ‘Making Of’ documentary, the most interesting part being the “Dog Days” section where we learn the various ways trainers and filmmakers brought the dog to life onscreen. The cover art is reminiscent of the book’s first edition, and features a drooling set of canine choppers. Gross! I love it.

8 out of 10