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ON DVD & BLU-RAY

Cujo (1983) dir: Lewis Teague Blu Ray (Eureka!)

A beloved dog turns rabid

The titular Cujo in this adaptation of Stephen King’s novel is a St. Bernard dog who belongs to a redneck car mechanic named Joe Camber (Ed Lauter) and his family. He contracts rabies after getting bitten on the nose by an infected bat.

The story takes place largely from the point-of-view of the Trenton family, who consist of Vic (Daniel Hugh-Kelly), an advertising executive working for a breakfast cereal company, his wife Donna (Dee Wallace) and their nightmare-prone son Tad (Danny Pintauro). This seemingly perfect middle-class American family unit hits a rough patch when Vic has to fight a metaphorical fire after one of their products causes customers to become ill. To make matters worse, he also discovers that Donna has been conducting an affair with his best buddy Steve (Christopher Stone).

He drives off on a business trip in a huff, leaving Donna to take their defective family car to Joe’s with only Tad in tow. Unfortunately, it breaks down just as they arrive, leaving them in the company of a now-rabid dog who proves to be a terrifying and relentless threat.

Watch a trailer:

This Stephen King adaptation picks up during its tense second half

To date, writer Stephen King has received more screen adaptations any other author alive today. It’s a trend that continues apace even now via a slew of remakes - the latest, at the time of writing, being the second version feature film version of Pet Semetary. Needless to say, this overall body of cinematic output has landed all over the map quality-wise. On one hand, it has given us a few bona fide classics such as Carrie (1976), The Shining (1980), Misery (1990) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994). On the other hand, we have also been subjected to some outright duds, examples of which have included Maximum Overdrive (1986) and Sleepwalkers (1992). There are also many that have fallen into a nebulous “okay to pretty good, albeit with some caveats” category. Cujo fits snugly into the last of the three, albeit veering towards the more positive “pretty good, albeit with some caveats” side of things.

Its main shortcoming is that it attempts to (if you’ll excuse the pun) bite off more than it can chew during the first half of its runtime. The section boils down to a so-so, overpopulated domestic drama which plays out in a contrived soap opera-style. It largely centres around two families of indifferently-written characters. The first of these families, the middle-class Trentons, takes up the lion’s share of screen time during this section via a major sub-plot revolving around wife and mother Donna’s affair with Steve and its inevitable repercussions. There’s also another sub-plot involving a media backlash over a defective breakfast ceral which Vic finds himself embroiled in. The second of the families, the lower-class Cambers, appear to herald yet another sub-plot - this time revolving around father Joe’s drunken, slobbish behaviour. However, this barely goes anywhere and renders them as little more than accessories to Cujo’s ensuing violent frenzy.

I haven’t read King’s book but I suspect that writers Don Carlos Dunaway and Lauren Currier attempted to shoehorn far too much of it into 45 or so minutes. While there’s a clear underlying message re: Cujo being a metaphor for the breakdown of the idyll of family life, it could all have been handled in a considerably more effective manner. King is well-known for being critical of screen adaptations of his novels when they make dramatic changes to the source material, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining being a classic example. However, written word and cinema are two very different beasts and, as such, when screenwriters and directors impose alterations and simplifications during the transition from the former to the latter it is often done for valid reasons.

Cujo the killer St. Bernard in action

Luckily, Cujo’s tight second half makes up for the cluttered nature of the first. It revolves around a superbly-sustained suspense piece as Donna and Tad find themselves trapped in their broken-down car at the mercy of this huge, foaming, blood-soaked monstrosity of a canine who stirs into action at the slightest provocation. Dee Wallace and Danny Pintauro give excellent, believable performances. Director Teague and cinematographer Jan de Bont make great use of POV shots, close-ups, long shots, shaky-cam and even an ever-accelerating 360-degree camera spin within the car in order to get maximum capital out of the in-the-moment terror of it all. Charles Bernstein’s rousing score and Neil Travis’s pin-sharp editing also add a lot of impact to the dog’s sudden and vicious attacks. While the ending is a little too hackneyed and predictable (and softens one or two of the more unpleasant details of the novel), it is forgivable in the light of the well-orchestrated tension leading up to then.

Despite its faults, Cujo is a decent enough 1980s horror film which, unlike many from the same decade, relies on aspects other than gruesome effects for its impact.

Runtime: 93 mins

Dir: Lewis Teague

Script: Don Carlos Dunaway, Barbara Turner (credited as Lauren Currier), based on a novel by Stephen King

Starring: Dee Wallace, Danny Pintauro, Daniel Hugh-Kelly, Christopher Stone, Ed Lauter, Kaiulani Lee, Billy Jayne

Blu Ray Audio-Visual

The image here is disappointingly soft and the colours are somewhat washed out, making it look more like an old DVD version of the film than a brand new Blu Ray release. The audio quality is generally fine bar a bit of distortion in the music during at least one particularly dramatic moment.

Extras

An incredible wealth of extras is spread across this two-disc set.

Audio Commentary

Lee Gambin, author of Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo provides this excellent gab track. He has plenty to say here about actress Dee Wallace, the process of creating the terrifying titular dog, the numerous script rewrites and a few scenes that were dropped from the final cut.

The screen incarnation of Cujo used a mix of several different St. Bernard dogs, an animatronic puppet and a stuntman in a suit, switching between these depending on the requirements of each given shot. The dogs were trained by the veteran movie animal trainer Karl Lewis Miller (The Pack, White Dog), as were the rabbit and bats seen in the opening sequence.

The film’s original director was Peter Medak who, at that time, came off the back of the well-received supernatural thriller The Changeling. He was working from a script written by Barbara Turner. Interestingly, Turner’s version posited that Cujo was a reincarnation of the serial killer Frank Dodd from The Dead Zone (also turned into a movie adaptation directed by David Cronenberg which was released during the same year). However, when Medak was fired due to creative differences and replaced by Lewis Teague, that idea was dropped. While a number of bits and pieces from Turner’s screenplay were still used, she so upset at Medak’s departure from the project that she decided to hide behind the pseudonym “Lauren Currier” on the credits. Stephen King himself also wrote an earlier, rejected draft of the screenplay.

While the film is set in Stephen King’s go-to fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine during a sweltering hot summer, it was mostly shot in California during a cool winter. The farm location used for the tense second half was allegedly the site of a previous real-life suicide.

Interviews

We get a hefty series of lengthy interviews here with actress Dee Wallace, composer Charles Bernstein, stunt performers Gary Morgan and Jean Coulter, casting director Marcia Ross, visual effects assistants Kathie Lawrence and Robert Clark, and animal trainer Karl Lewis Miller’s daughter Teresa (her father sadly passed away in 2008).

Dee Wallace

The film’s leading actress gets the longest of the interviews, clocking in at 41 minutes. She reveals that she didn’t read the novel before finish work on the film because she didn’t want to inadvertently fill in too many blanks for the audience. At this time, she was a big name actress after her performances in The Howling and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and was clearly given a significant amount of creative input. For instance, when the original director Peter Medak wanted her to appear onscreen in a see-through blouse without a bra, she disagreed because she wanted her role to be all about motherhood rather than sexuality. Her creative differences with Medak were one contributing factor in him being fired from the production. Barbara Turner’s draft of the script also had more dialogue but Wallace preferred to use facial expressions and other actions to tell the story.

She also goes into a lot of detail about working with the film’s cast and the performing dogs. The most interesting moments come when she talks about her then-real-life-husband, the now-deceased Christopher Stone, who played her paramour in the film. Despite their real-life offscreen relationship, an onscreen sex scene between them proved to be one of the more awkward parts of the film for her. It was also originally written to feature explicit nudity, something which she contractually refused to do.

Charles Bernstein

It’s another long one which clocks in at nearly 35 minutes. Composer Bernstein discusses the film’s various musical pieces, his choices of instrumentation, how he worked around the sound effects, his techniques for evoking certain emotions in the audience and so on. Near the end, he plays a few of the core musical cues on his synthesiser. If you are into film music theory, then this interview is certainly worth a watch. As a non-buff, however, I found it to be rather dry and overlong.

Gary Morgan

Playing animals is one of stuntman and performer Gary Morgan’s main specialties. He comes across as an incredibly lively and spirited eccentric here as gabbles on enthusiastically about his family background (his mother and father were circus acrobats), his years as a child actor on television and Broadway and, of course, his role in the dog suit in Cujo. He stood in for the real thing in shots where it is shown attacking the actors. He also performed the stunt where the titular canine is shown propelling itself into a car door. While he wore a hockey helmet under the costume for his own protection, he still admits that was “one of the crazier things I’ve done during my career”.

Here, he also takes time to show us a fearsome-looking St. Bernard skull and discuss his longtime friendship with actor Daniel Hugh-Kelly, who subsequently stayed at his guest house for three years while acting in the TV series Hardcastle and McCormick.

Jean Coulter

Coulter doubled for Dee Wallace during some of the stunt scenes with the dogs. She remembers five St. Bernards being used on the film but she mostly worked with just one who went by the name of Cubby. While she describes him as being a sweet animal, for the most part, there was one moment when he bit part of her nose off while attempting to go for a toy around her neck. Luckily, the local hospital managed to sew it back on. She also goes on to talk a little about the varied and dangerous types of jobs that stunt-people have to perform (often after being called in at short notice) in order to make a living.

Marcia Ross

Ross talks about her process of casting the film. Amongst other things, she discusses trekking to New York in order to scout for child performers for the parts of Tad and Brett. She describes finding a great child actor as being “like finding a needle in a haystack”. Interestingly, the younger brother of Sarah Jessica Parker was amongst those who auditioned.

Kathie Lawrence

Lawrence was involved in creating the dog effects with her then-husband Robert Clark (who also gets interviewed separately here). She also talks briefly about working on the killer rat flick Deadly Eyes, where she created rat costumes for Dachshunds!

Robert Clark

Mr. Clark elaborates further on the dog effects which included putting a Labrador in a St. Bernard costume (an idea which as ultimately discarded). He also discusses the challenges involved in getting a synthetic fur which looks sufficiently similar to that of a St. Bernard coat. An errand boy had to scour a large number of shops in Los Angeles before one store owner remembered some material that he had sitting in a dusty store room.

Teresa Miller

Animal trainer Karl Lewis Miller’s daughter Teresa was 17 at the time when Cujo was made. She reveals that her earliest memories of her father’s work were of growing up with the dog Scruffy - a Wire Fox Terrier from TV series The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1968). She remembers him training it to put on a show for her birthdays. After leaving college, she aspired to a career in still photography so she decided to help out with her father in the movie business in order to meet other still photographers. Soon, however, the animal training work became more rewarding to her so she ultimately decided to follow in his footsteps.

On the film Cujo itself, she reveals that producer Daniel Blatt suggested changing the dog breed into a Dobermann because he didn’t believe that a St. Bernard would be so effectively scary on screen. However, Karl Lewis Miller certainly proved him wrong. Later on, her father “redeemed the breed”, as Teresa puts it, by performing the training duties on the more heartwarming and family-friendly Beethoven (1992).

Dog Days: The Making of Cujo

This superb three-part archive documentary from 2007 features interviews with many people involved with production along with stills and footage. The interviewees include Stephen King biographer Douglas E. Winter, director Lewis Teague, actors Dee Wallace and Danny Pintauro, producers Daniel Blatt and Robert Singer, cinematographer Jan de Bont and editor Neil Travis.

We learn that Stephen King got the original idea for his novel when he took his motorbike to a backwoods mechanic for repairs and had an uncomfortable encounter with his mean dog. Director Lewis Teague was King’s original choice to direct the film adaptation after he saw his work on Alligator (1980). However, the original production company insisted on Peter Medak. His fortunes turned when the production changed hands and Medak didn’t work out.

The documentary also takes an extensive look at the various technical complexities and challenges in making the film - from making a winter’s day look like a hot summer, to putting together sequences involving shots of multiple real and fake dogs. Curiously, several of the interviewees give conflicting answers when asked how many dogs were actually used in the film!

Dee Wallace Q&A (Cinemaniacs & Monster Fest 2015)

Lee Gambin hosted this lengthy (100-minute) Q&A with the film’s leading actress. She talks about her acting career from her first role (as a baby Jesus in a nativity play) through to her better-known parts in the films The Stepford Wives, The Hills Have Eyes, 10, The Howling, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Cujo, Critters and The Frighteners. She openly confesses to having a particularly dark family background (her father was an alcoholic who committed suicide after several attempts - one of which even included slitting his wrists on her bed). This really comes across in her plucky nature both here and in her other interviews.

Kim Newman on Cujo

Newman is as lively, genre-savvy and authoritative as ever. He spends a large part of this 27-minute interview discussing the lengthy history of Stephen King screen adaptations - especially the 1980s “conveyor belt” of films. He remarks “If Dino De Laurentiis could get the rights to Stephen King’s laundry list, he probably would have done”.

He then takes a look at the film Cujo as well as providing a quick overview of the careers of both director Lewis Teague and actress Dee Wallace.

The extras here are rounded out by some trailers and a collector’s booklet.

Overall:

Cujo is one of the better Stephen King adaptations. This restoration has so-so audio-visual qualities but it is made up for via an enviable weight of extras spread across two discs.

Movie: ☆☆☆1/2

Video: ☆☆

Audio: ☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆☆1/2

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