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cujo

For many of us (I hesitate to say “most of us,” since I would hate to put words in your mouth), our pets aren’t just animals that get to hang around in the house, eat food and act like idiots when the vacuum is on: they’re part of our families, to a greater or lesser extent, and many of us become quite attached to them. As with anything that we hold dear to our hearts (love, freedom, alien invasions and super heroes), pets make great fodder for popular entertainment. In most cases, this is a case of tugging at the heart-strings: after all, what childhood could possibly be complete without at least one tearful viewing of Old Yeller (1957), The Incredible Journey (1968) or The Neverending Story (1984)?

If we hate to see our beloved pets die, however, we’re also not particularly fond of seeing them turn into merciless killers. While there are plenty of “killer animal” movies out there (the list is way too long to bother with here but suffice to say that I can guarantee that at least 90% of the film-watching public have seen at least one killer animal flick, even if it was only Jaws (1975) or Anaconda (1997)), the number of “killer pet” films is decidedly smaller, possibly in the single digits. To be honest, only two of them come readily to mind: George Romero’s Monkey Shines (1988) and Lewis Teague’s Cujo (1983). While Romero’s film has its charms, Teague’s adaptation of the Stephen King bestseller is the Citizen Kane (1941) of wacko pet flicks, if you will, and still manages to hold up fairly well some 30 years after its initial theatrical release.

There are two questions one must ask regarding any movie adaptation of a Stephen King story: how closely does the film follow the book and is it actually any good? Since King adaptations are notoriously hit-or-miss, almost to the point of urban legend, the second question ends up being particularly valid. In both regards, Teague’s adaptation scores fairly high marks: Cujo is a pretty close translation of the book and is, for at least half its running time, a tense, genuinely frightening film. In a decade exemplified by its excesses, Teague’s “less is more” approach ends up suiting the story remarkably well.

Plot-wise, Cujo is a marvel of simplicity. Our protagonist is Donna Trenton (Dee Wallace), married to ad exec Vic (Daniel Hugh Kelly) and raising a precocious son, Tad (Danny Pintauro, better known as Tony Danza’s young charge on Who’s the Boss?). Donna is also having an affair with Steve (Christopher Stone), a local carpenter who makes stuff for the family and plays tennis with Vic, in between schtupping his missus. Donna ends up breaking off the affair at roughly the same time that Vic realizes something is going on, making her revelation a bit of a wash. Vic needs to take a business trip to shore up a failing account, leaving Donna and Tad back at home with their increasingly broken-down car.

When the car seems ready to give up the ghost, Donna and Tad take it to local hardass/amateur mechanic Joe Camber (Ed Lauter, playing one of his patented shithead characters). Joe’s a real jerk who recreational past times appear to be berating his wife, Charity (Kaiulani Lee) and son, Brett (Billy Jacoby), getting soused with his equally sleazy buddy, Gary (Mills Watson) and bullying his customers. He’s also got an isolated farmhouse, which makes the perfect locale for a horror film. And, of course, his son’s got a big, friendly St. Bernard named Cujo.

As we see from the opening moments of the film, Cujo is the typical happy-go-lucky pooch, chasing rabbits through sun-dappled fields of flowers and living the life o’ Reilly. Dark skies appear, as it were, when Cujo chases the rabbit into a hole in the ground, which is revealed to be the opening to a pretty creepy, bat-filled cave. One of the bats chomps down on poor Cujo’s nose, leaving a nasty bite mark. The bat, of course, has rabies: our lovably gentle giant is now a ticking time-bomb.

By the time Donna and Tad’s junker gives up the ghost in Joe Camber’s dusty front yard, Cujo’s reign of terror has already been in full-swing, as we witness him (literally) tear Joe and Gary to shreds. When Cujo jumps at Tad’s car-door, in a heart-stopping scene that must stand as one of the greatest “monster” reveals in cinematic history, Donna quickly locks them in the vehicle. At this point, the film, essentially, becomes “Jaws with paws,” as the terrifying Cujo traps Donna and Tad in the car, cut-off from friends, Vic and the outside world. As Donna must desperately try to keep the car from falling apart against the increasingly violent attacks by the rabid dog, Vic tries to call his family but gets no answer and decides to hurry home. As time ticks down, Donna is locked in a desperate life-or-death struggle against a ferocious beast that used to be a dewy-eyed, beloved family pet. Will she succeed in keeping her family together or will she end up graphically proving Jack Handey’s old adage: nothing tears apart a family like wild dogs.

As director of the classic “killer animal” flick, Alligator (1980), Lewis Teague certainly knows a thing or two about this type of film and Cujo’s second-half is absolutely thrilling: claustrophobic, vicious, bloody and merciless, the film’s final 45 minutes are solid-gold horror and just about as good as it gets. There’s a heartbreaking dichotomy between Cujo’s initially gentle demeanor and his increasingly erratic, violent actions. Once the fluffy dog’s face is smeared in blood from his kills, this schism becomes even more extreme: it’s no hyperbole to say that Teague’s version of Cujo’s titular “monster” is every bit as scary as a handful of Jasons, Freddys or Predators. There’s nothing goofy about Donna’s mano-a-mano combat with Cujo: the film constantly feels high-stakes and we never get the impression that she’s swatting a fly with a Buick, as it were.

The biggest problem with the film ends up being the largely uninvolving first half, in particular the tedious infidelity angle. Unlike the similar storyline in the novel, this particular story arc is never fully developed and feels like something tacked on to pad the running time. I wholeheartedly appreciate and endorse the character building moments, especially with Cujo and the Cambers and have no problem with the film taking its time to stretch into the horror elements. As previously mentioned, the affair subplot makes more sense and bears more emotional fruit on the page than on the screen: perhaps it was one more bit of “real” emotion that Teague couldn’t be bothered with but I found myself checking my watch more than once during this time. Once we get to Donna and Tad in that broken-down car, however, the film really comes to life and becomes a pretty much non-stop thrill ride all the way up to the closing credits.

Dee Wallace gives an assured, emotional performance as Donna and acquits herself quite handily as a badass, when need-be. One of my favorite beats here involves the bit where Donna snaps back at Tad after he repeatedly whines about his father coming back: it’s an intensely real moment that feels both painful and completely honest. For his part, Pintauro walks a good balance with Tad: the character could have come across as obnoxious, especially in such a confined space but is rarely eye-rolling. The rest of the cast is decent, with Lauter and Watson having a blast as the loutish friends but Daniel Hugh Kelly is largely a non-entity in the role of Donna’s largely absentee husband. The character ends up being a bit thin, on paper, and Kelly does nothing whatsoever to add substance to the role.

For the most part, Cujo works quite well, especially for a King adaptation. The editing in the dog attack scenes is pitch-perfect (modern action films could learn a thing or two from this film’s sense of space and blocking) and the cinematography, in general, is quite nice. Astute viewers might recognize DP Jan de Bont as the camera-man behind such iconic films as The Jewel of the Nile (1985), Die Hard (1988) and The Hunt For Red October (1990), although he might be better known as the director of such box-office grand-slams as Speed (1994) and Twister (1996).

Despite a few handicaps (the aforementioned first half and a little too much reliance on slo-mo and overly sentimental schmaltz), Cujo ends up being a pretty ferocious, mean little film. Dog lovers may find this to be rather tough going, although certainly no more so than anyone who harbors an innate fear of dogs. As someone who’s always loved cats and been a little apprehensive about “man’s best friend,” there was plenty about Cujo that made my blood run cold. If you’re keeping score at home, put a checkmark in the “Successful King Adaptation” column and wait for the inevitable remake.

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