The piece below was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn’t exist.
At 25, Stephen King was a little-known regional writer of horror, thriller, and suspense stories. A year later, his first novel, Carrie, debuted, but it took a combination of then unheard of paperback sales and the release of Brian DePalma’s adaptation in 1976 to turn King’s novel into a bestseller and his name into a household brand. Within the next decade, adaptations of King’s longer works, both on film (e.g., Stanley Kubrick’s take on The Shining) and on network television (notably Tobe Hooper’s superlative two-part adaptation of Salem’s Lot), had solidified King’s reputation as a modern master of the horror genre.
Nineteen eighty-three was something of a watershed for adaptations of King’s work into other media, as three big-screen adaptations, the Lewis Teague-directed Cujo in August, David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone in October, and John Carpenter’s Christine in December, followed each other in rapid succession. Of the three, Cujo’s status remains unchanged (i.e., first, but least), while both The Dead Zone and Christine are considered among the best in terms of storytelling, craft, and fidelity to their respective sources. Cujo pales in comparison to the other 1983 releases, but that’s in part due to the source material (far from King’s best or worst) and the equally middling result on-screen courtesy of journeyman director Lewis Teague and an adaptation that feels overly padded despite a welcome 93-minute run time.
As the opening credits unspool, the title character, Cujo, a 200-pound St. Bernard, makes his first appearance, chasing a random rabbit into a hole inhabited not by other rabbits, but by rabid bats. He’s bitten almost immediately, setting the stage for very bad, no-good, terrible things to come. It takes almost 45 minutes, though, before a fully rabid, gore, blood, and slime-covered Cujo goes on a not quite righteous rampage of revenge, biting through two secondary characters before the lead character, Donna Trenton (Dee Wallace), and her preteen son, Tad (Danny Pintauro), trapped in a broken-down car, become the objects of interest to the furious canine. A competently executed exercise in survival horror immediately follows.
Before we get to the inflection point, however, Cujo: The Movie, focuses on the trials and tribulations of the Trenton clan: Donna, a bored, disinterested housewife, engaged in a casual affair with the local handyman, Steve Kemp (Christopher Stone), Donna’s clueless ad-man husband, Vic (Daniel Hugh-Kelly). The script takes great pains to make us sympathetic to Donna’s materially comfortable, spiritually deadening plight, though more often than not, it feels like padding or wheel-spinning added into the script to hit a predetermined running time. Vic isn’t entirely unsympathetic, but his cluelessness indicates a vapidity or superficiality typical of early ‘80s Reagan-Era America.
Cujo contrasts the Trentons’ material comforts – based, it should be added, on Vic’s ad-man acuity selling subpar products to unsuspecting consumers – with the rural poverty surrounding their property. When Vic’s sports car breaks down, he takes it to a local mechanic, Joe Camber (Ed Lauter), who works out of a rundown home. Deliberately oblivious to the resentment and Joe’s abusive nature (a subplot involves Joe’s wife and son leaving for an extended, open-ended “vacation”), Vic doesn’t think twice about exploiting Ed’s services, likely underpaying him in the process.
Hewing closely to King’s novel, Cujo makes the title character the Camber family dog, suggesting Cujo’s violent outbursts might be a combination of the rabies destroying his brain and the abusive treatment he’s both witnessed and probably suffered at the elder Camber’s hands. Whatever the rationale – the novel added a supernatural layer, suggesting evil, literal and not figurative, has infected Cujo – it makes what’s left of the running time into a harrowing, nerve-shredding experience as Donna, facing not just Cujo’s rage, but a hot, searing sun and potentially life-threatening dehydration too.
Unsurprisingly, the adaptation swaps out King’s uncompromisingly bleak, downbeat ending for a more uplifting one. Fidelity to the source novel aside, though, that’s less an issue than the script’s initially slow, stop-start pace or Teague’s competently anonymous direction. A late addition to the production, Teague might not be totally at fault, but he’s still the named direction and thus bears the greatest responsibility for the final product. While more than passably entertaining and fitfully watchable, it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that a stronger script and a more visually oriented director could have elevated Cujo: The Movie into the upper tier of King’s adaptations.
Brand New HD Master – From a 4K Scan of the 35mm Original Camera Negative
2007 Audio Commentary by Director Lewis Teague
2013 Audio Commentary by Director Lewis Teague
2019 Audio Commentary by Lee Gambin, Author of Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of CUJO
CUJO Revisited: Never-Before-Seen 2014 Roundtable with Stars Dee Wallace, Danny Pintauro, Daniel Hugh Kelly; and Director Lewis Teague (21:39)
Dog Days: The Making of CUJO (42:48)
Interview with Dee Wallace (41:34)
Interview with Composer Charles Bernstein (35:37)
Interview with Stuntman Gary Morgan (26:10)
Interview with Stuntwoman Jean Coulter (21:09)
Interview with Casting Director Marcia Ross (20:03)
Interview with Visual Effects Artist Kathie Lawrence (13:55)
Interview with Special Effects Designer Robert Clark (12:50)
Interview with Dog Trainer Teresa Miller (28:14)
3 TV Spots
3 Radio Spots
5.1 Surround and 2.0 Lossless Audio
Dual-Layered BD50 Disc
Optional English Subtitles
Cujo: 40th Anniversary Blu-Ray is now available for purchase via the usual online and offline retailers.
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