Friday, 5 October 2007
Cujo (1983) dir. Lewis Teague
Starring: Dee Wallace, Danny Pintauro, Daniel Hugh-Kelly
"Cujo's" reputation is preceded by it's pop culture significance as a synonym for a terryfing rabid mangler dog. Though I had never seen the film till now, I did hear that it was a let down from that hype. So my expectations were low. The story itself is terrific, a classic Stephen King concept that reuses themes and situations from his other stories – “The Shining”, “Misery”, “Gerald’s Game”. In short, it’s potentially a great film, unfortunately hampered by an extremely uninteresting set up.
The Trenton family Vic (Daniel Hugh-Kelly) and Donna (Dee Wallace) are the typical married couple with a myriad of domestic troubles. Vic, an ad exec, is about to lose his biggest account, Donna is a bored homemaker who has recently taken up an affair with a local furniture maker. And their sole child Tad (“Who’s the Boss’” Danny Pintauro) is socially stunted and has sought companionship with a local rapid dog. That rapid dog is a lovable Saint Bernard named Cujo, owned by the local car mechanic.
When Vic takes an emergency trip to salvage his fleeing advertising clients, he leaves Donna to take care for their faulty Ford Pinto. When the car put-puts up to the mechanic’s isolated ranch, they discover the mechanic has been mauled to death by Cujo. The dog, still looking for blood, attacks Donna and Tad forcing them to seek refuge in their car. The second half of the film is a cleverly staged three hander siege on the car (if you count Cujo as a character). Every attempt of Donna to leave the car to find help is met by the awesome rabid power of the 200lb mangler. It’s a battle of attrition and wits between animal and man.
Lewis Teague, a not untalented director of action television, stages the first half of the film like a TV movie. The film is chiefly a domestic drama between Vic and Donna as we get to know the foibles of their declining relationship. The characters are well cast. Dee Wallace is the star based on her recent fame from “E.T.” and she is surprisingly good as an ordinary mom who feels guilty for cheating on her husband. Daniel Hugh-Kelly is a good ol’ 80’s hunk – with the Hasselhoff locks and manly chest rug. And of course, he has a cool red convertible car – that’s a given. Danny Pintauro is cute and lovable and adequate as the token child in distress with a convenient asthma affliction.
Many horror films work best in the set up stages but can’t pay off the goods (ie. “Bug”), but Teague actually screws up the set up and nails the pay off. There’s absolutely no tension before the 45min mark. He tries to tease us with longing closeups of Cujo’s eyes – but the dog is just too lovable to be scary at that point. The secondary characters, the mechanic and his wife, are time fillers, and their plot lines are quickly discarded once the dog starts killing people.
When Cujo finally gets violent, that’s when things get good. The lengthy stand off sequence between Donna, Tad and Cujo is Stephen King at his best. Like “Misery” or “The Shining” – it’s a close-quarters battle with nowhere to flee. Thematically the fight is a test for redemption for Donna’s infidelities against Tad and Vic. She eventually turns into a warrior willing to sacrifice herself for her son.
Warning: SPOILERS ahead...The climax moment in the kitchen after Donna and Tad escape Cujo’s attack is well dramatized. Donna’s trying to save her son who’s gasping for air from an asthma attack of some sort. At this point the film had me in its artificial grip of reality. So when Cujo makes another attack jumping through the window, I gripped the seat with surprise. I can’t discount this visceral cinematic moment.
The film was shot expertly by the master Dutch lensman, Jan De Bont. His mobile camera is very fluid and natural. I didn’t so much like the brown tint to the film, but Teague’s editing (he was a former editor too) of the dog attacks are well cut together and successfully put you into the melee.
“Cujo” is not the horror film you think it is, or even remember from a nostalgia point of view. You may be disappointed, and it certainly isn’t as scary as the book, but there’s a terrific second half waiting, if you can get past the MOW at the beginning. Enjoy.
P.S. The film ends with one of the all time worst freeze frames. You have to check it out.