Dir:- Lewis Teague
Starr:- Dee Wallace, Danny Pintauro, Daniel Hugh Kelly, Christopher Stone
Based on one of the best of Stephen King’s early novels Cujo is a creature-feature with a compelling difference. Whereas movies like Jaws, The Thing, or director Lewis Teague’s absurdist horror Alligator, find sources of fear in the fairly exotic, or downright bizarre, forms of great-white sharks, giant alligators and shape-shifting alien lifeforms, Cujo discovers demonic potential in a rabid St. Bernard dog.
One of the stranger byproducts of modern cinema’s obsession with the smooth surfaces and steely veneers of CGI technology, is that the increasingly implausible action sequences within big-budget blockbusters have made otherwise dated films like Cujo appear far more visceral and ‘real’ than they perhaps had on their original release. It has to be wondered how Teague managed to actually produce much of this movie, as the seemingly docile, family St. Bernard is daubed in evermore layers of mud, blood and pus, until he resembles a Sphinx-like sandstone statue. Disturbingly, very little of the film’s violent action setpieces appear to feature a mechanical model of the St. Bernard (as with the shark in Jaws), with Teague choosing to employ numerous camera tricks to emphasise the realistic nature of the rabid dog’s crazed assaults. From the opening sequence in which Teague buries Cujo’s head in a tight cave opening, as the dog chases a rabbit, the film is startling for the way in which it deploys well-trained animals rather than puppets, or mock-ups. The medium shot of the cave, with a number of disturbed bats flying about it and Cujo still barking at a startled and recuperating rabbit, simply would not be filmed in this live-action manner any longer. Unlike in Alligator, Teague plays absolutely nothing for laughs in Cujo, making the film all the more unsettling and uncompromising.
Cujo’s deceptively simple premise – a rabid dog on the loose in smalltown America – belies the fact that the novel is an emotionally complex affair, primarily concerned with the destruction of family units and the resultant loss of innocence. Much of these plot and character subtleties are eliminated from the movie, in favour of a terse and lean narrative economy. Yet this focus on the fundamentals of the novel’s plot actually works really well, particularly in terms of creating unbearable dread and tension.
The Trenton family are under increasing external pressures at the start of the movie. Young Tad Trenton (Danny Pintauro) is plagued by a fear that monsters lurk in the dark, which can be read as a psychological manifestation of an intuited understanding of the marital difficulties between his mother and father. Donna Trenton (Dee Wallace) has been sleeping around with a man who is known to the family, called Steve Kemp (Christopher Stone). Her husband Vic (Daniel Hugh Kelly) has been trying to establish his own advertising agency and has thus been pouring most of his time into work. The few free moments Vic gets he spends with Tad, which is an unspoken source of tension between himself and Donna. Tad’s relationship with his father appears much stronger than with his mother, despite the fact that it is his mother that is always at home. At a late point in the movie Tad, desperately ill and trapped in the sweltering heat of his mother’s car, cries out for his absent father’s assistance, rather than the comfort of his mother (who is likewise trapped in the vehicle).
The other family that features fairly prominently in the movie are the Cambers, who are a rural group who have just struck it lucky on the lottery. Joe Camber (given the familiar features of Ed Lauter) is a surly motor-mechanic and farmer, who drinks too much and tends to take out his frustrations on his wife Charity (Kaiulani Lee). Their adolescent son Brett (Billy Jayne) has a free-roaming St. Bernard, the eponymous Cujo, who is kept out in the yard and seems to be somewhat neglected by both Brett and his father (who is oddly affectionate of the animal). It is this neglect, as a result of the various tensions within the Camber’s domestic lives that allows Cujo’s bat-bite to go unnoticed. Before long Cujo has developed a hatred of loud noises (impressively rendered through an amplification of certain sounds on the soundtrack) and is looking increasingly bedraggled and bewildered.
The Cambers and the Trentons are brought together by a quirk of fate. In need of a place to get Donna’s car fixed, Vic takes the advice of the local postman and heads out to the Cambers farmstead to see whether Joe can do the necessary repairs. Joe agrees to work on the car for the Trentons and asks Donna to return with the vehicle the following day. Later that day, Charity and Brett head off to visit family leaving Joe to party-hearty with his nasty drinking buddy Gary (Mills Watson), whilst all the time Cujo becomes increasingly demented.
Despite being a slickly constructed minimalist horror film, Cujo manages to avoid any deaths for the entire first half of it’s ninety minute running time. This does not stop Teague from creating some atmospheric sequences, such as the opening closet sequence involving young Tad and his invisible ‘boogeyman’ and the astonishingly effective fog sequence in which Brett strays from his house in the middle of the night and discovers a growling Cujo, appearing like a low-rent Hound of the Baskervilles. The slow, almost imperceptible, transformation of the dog from family pet to rabidly unpredictable predator adds a further patina of realism to proceedings, that makes the eventual descent of the dog into a murderous rampage all the more frightening. Teague here seems a master of the bizarrely threatening camera angle, finding obscure vantage points from which to view the dogs assaults, that simply heightens the extreme viciousness of these sequences. As Cujo is about to attack Gary in his home, the camera pulls upwards to an overhead shot looking down through the perfect framing of the stairwell. Likewise during one of the many attempts by the dog to get into Donna’s car, the camera positions itself at a low angle looking up, through the steering wheel, at a terrified Donna. Generally Teague utilises a number of low-to-the-ground POV shots that alternate between Cujo’s perspective and, potentially, that of young Tad.
Dee Wallace and the shrill child-star Danny Pintauro inhabit the entire second half of the film, with only minor cutaways to Vic’s gradual realisation that his family might be in danger. Isolated in the yard of the Cambers farmhouse, trapped within the hothouse prison of the car by the unremitting vigilance of the mad hound, Tad and Donna dehydrate, weaken and eventually fall dangerously ill. It is Tad’s lapse into a coma-state that prompts Donna to try and confront the desperately ill dog, determined, as only a mother can be, to rescue her child. The novel has perhaps one of the bleakest endings imaginable, that doesn’t allow the reader to forget that Cujo was a loyal member of a family also, whilst at the same time refusing to let the Trenton family off the hook. In the film a gimmicky, back-from-the-dead Halloween ending, is supplemented by a slightly incongruous upbeat closing image, that manages to unravel much of the excellent work of the preceding 85 minutes. As a result, Cujo goes from being one of the most convincing and effective adaptations of a King novel, to being simply a grossly underrated horror movie with obvious flaws and limitations.
The true mystery of Cujo is, whatever happened to Lewis Teague’s career in the 1990’s? A director with such bravura technical skills, that enabled the construction of truly unique shots, such as the ever-quicker rotational pan of the inside of the car after Cujo’s most savage attack, has disappeared from Hollywood seemingly without a trace. May it be hoped thats some produer, out there, see fit to bring him in from the cold.