Saturday 18 May 2019

CUJO (1983)

Directed by: Lewis Teague, Starring: Dee Wallace, Daniel Hugh-Kelly, Danny Pintauro, Christopher Stone, Ed Lauter. Horror, US 1983, 93mins, Cert 18.

In his memoir ‘On Writing’, author Stephen King confesses he barely remembers writing his JAWS-with-claws novel ‘Cujo’; such was his raging alcoholism at the time. This saddens him as whilst he liked the book, he wishes he “...could remember enjoying the good parts as I put them down on the page”. However, by the time he sat down to write the screenplay (which would ultimately be rejected for straying too far from his own source material) he was clearly troubled with one part - namely the novel’s bleak ending – so he recommended a revision. The filmmakers were on the same page as King on this matter and so the 1983 film version duly delivered a more upbeat conclusion.

Taking over from original director Peter Medak, Lewis Teague was only gifted two days of prep time. Still, he came by virtue of a recommendation by King himself who had been impressed by Teague’s previous giant scaly monster mash ALLIGATOR. Enlisting Jan de Bont (SPEED) as his director of photography proved an inspired choice. Whilst the final product is still hampered by its lumbering premise, the film is at least infused with visually innovative story-telling.

Cujo, a loveable gentle-giant family pet St. Bernard chases a rabbit into a cave in an opening sequence more akin to a BENJI movie. However, as de Bont’s steadicam enthusiastically tracks Cujo through an idyllic meadow, things are about to take a decided turn for the worst for the slobbering pooch when he thrusts his snout into what turns out to be a nest of rabies-infected bats and is promptly bitten on his nose by one of the fanged creatures. This ignites the slow-burning fuse which will eventually bring about Cujo’s descent into infection and deadly menace, setting up the film’s third act set-piece.
But before arriving there, we have to wade through a soap-opera-ish subplot concerning housewife Donna Trenton’s (Dee Wallace) extra-marital affair with ‘local stud’ Steve (played by Wallace’s real-life husband Christopher Stone – reuniting them on screen again after Joe Dante’s THE HOWLING). Meanwhile, Donna’s young son Tad (Danny Pintauro) is convinced there’s a growling monster with glowing eyes and big sharp teeth lurking in his closet. Cuckold husband Vic tries to reassure his son by reciting a monster banishing mantra but the audience is already way ahead with this telegraphed foreshadowing. Vic on the other hand is too preoccupied with his disastrous marketing campaign for a children’s cereal to see what’s going on right under his nose with his wife and Steve. Meanwhile, Cujo’s nose is looking increasingly infected... 

Eventually, through a series of rusty plot contrivances, Donna and son Tad end up stranded in their broken down Ford Pinto in the baking heat at the deserted farmstead of car mechanic and Cujo’s neglectful owner Joe Camber (Ed Lauter). Unbeknown to Donna, Cujo had already chowed down on his former master, as he lays siege to the car trapping mother and son in a dehydrating stand-off.

The close-up shots of Cujo’s slobbering pus and gore smeared visage in the latter stages of his rabies metamorphosis look impressively repulsive in HD. Teague and de Bont employ a visual bag of tricks in staging Cujo’s attacks, but it’s a tall order to nail a jump scare when you’re working with such large good-natured tail-wagging cumbersome co-stars. Between 5-10 different St. Bernard’s were ultimately employed during filming, and there’s a noticeable inconsistency in the size-differences between the various trained pooches onscreen.

I did however admire the false slasher-like ending set-up which pays off with a suddenly revived Cujo bursting through the window like a canine Jason Voorhees from FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2.

As for the humans, Dee Wallace delivers an unflinching portrayal of a woman initially wrestling with the guilt of her infidelity who is then propelled by her ferocious maternal instinct to defend her child Tad by violently confronting a monstrous force of nature. Is she somehow being punished, albeit unjustifiably, for the affair? Possibly, but the softened on screen resolution seems less judgemental than the novel’s. 6 year old Danny Pintauro gives an extraordinary performance as the terrified seizure-prone youngster – “Can he eat his way in here?” he panics, as his imaginary monster in the closet fears are realised despite his mother’s attempt at rationalisation: “It’s not a monster, it’s just a doggy”.

Cujo is one humongous metaphor for the force of nature – and how mistreatment and callous disregard can lead to nature coming back to bite you (quite literally in this case). The rabid doggy acts as a catalyst for change for all the characters; liberation for Joe Camber’s wife and her son – finally free from their abusive patriarch – and ultimately reconciliation for the Trenton’s, the nuclear family dynamic seemingly restored, the monster bested and the temptation of infidelity sated.

Plot holes abound larger than the cave Cujo snuffles down into. Why doesn’t Donna phone ahead to make sure Joe Camber is there before driving all the way out to his deserted farm with a knowingly unreliable car? Why doesn’t anyone think to lock their front doors, and why would you trust a flimsy porch screen when a rabid St. Bernard is charging towards you full (matted) pelt? But despite these misgivings the film is far from a dog’s breakfast. Rewarding compensations include inventive camera work infused with a pleasing layer of nostalgia-inducing 80’s hue, and Charles Bernstein’s lush evocative score provides a rich treacly syrup of both melody and menace. There’s also real pathos in Cujo’s forlorn eyes. In a prelude to the mayhem yet to be unleashed, Cujo, sentient to what he is becoming, rejects his young master’s calls and retreats into the fog. A pivotal and quietly heartbreaking moment.

**** (out of 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was first published by FrightFest.