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Rules of Disengagement November 30, 2009

Posted by monty in movies.
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Cujo (1983) is an important movie in the Stephen King canon, mainly because it’s the first of his film adaptations to kind of suck.  His first three films (not counting the TV miniseries ‘Salem’s Lot) were directed by Brian de Palma, Stanley Kubrick, and George Romero.  For Cujo, the producers enlisted a guy named Lewis Teague, whose only claim to fame at that point was a horror spoof named Alligator (notable mainly for the fact that it was scripted by indie phenom John Sayles).  Post-Cujo, Teague went on to direct one more King adaptation (Cat’s Eye),  Jewel of the Nile (the crappy sequel to Romancing the Stone) and Navy Seals (starring Charlie Sheen and Michael Biehn!), and then found himself relegated to episodic television.  Long story short: for the first time, King’s work was being directed by a guy who didn’t have an impressive track record, and whose name wouldn’t eventually be remembered as one of the leading lights of cinema.

Despite that, though, the movie isn’t entirely terrible.  I said it kind of sucks, and it kind of does.  But some of it is pretty great.  It stars Dee Wallace (fresh off her starring role in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestial) as Donna Trenton, a housewife married to Vic (an ad executive), and mother to 6-year-old Tad (a shockingly believable Danny Pintauro, who’d go on to play adorable moppet Jonathan in Who’s the Boss?).  Unbeknownst to Vic, Donna is having an affair with the local carpenter, and this rot at the center of their marriage is what takes up most of the first half of the movie.  The hook of the film (and King’s book), of course, is that it’s about a killer St. Bernard, but one of the weird flaws of the movie is that the horror and suspense essentially play second fiddle to this domestic drama.

So where does the dog come in?  The titular St. Bernard is out frolicking at the start of the film, chasing a rabbit into a cave (but not rescuing a stranded skiier with the keg around his neck, which is what I was hoping he’d be doing ).  He barks, the bats living in the cave get angry, one scratches him across the snout, et voila! Rabies.  Cujo belongs to a mechanic who lives, conveniently enough, way the hell out in the middle of nowhere.  VIc Trenton leaves on a business trip (apparently a cereal for which he designed the ad campaign has started killing kids – which sounds like a pretty good horror movie by itself), and while he’s gone, Donna and Tad drive out to the mechanic’s home to try and get their car fixed.  Little do they know, the mechanic and his family are gone – but Cujo is very much there and very much foaming at the mouth.

The rest of the movie focuses on Donna and Tad, who are now trapped in the car.  Every time they try and set foot outside, Cujo comes barking, smashes himself against the door, nearly shatters the windshield, etc.  It’s all very tense.  And of course no one comes to their rescue because Vic is out of town and the mechanic put his mail on hold before leaving.  There’s a wholly unnecessary subplot wherein Donna’s jilted paramour (she decided to dump him shortly before Vic left town) decides he’s going to take a pair of scissors to every piece of upholstery in the Trentons’ home, and Vic, who has returned from his business trip, thinks the carpenter has abducted Donna and Tad.  Imagine if George Lucas had tried to insert a detective story in Star Wars – it works about as well here as it would there.

The movie works best when it remains on the drama unfolding for the trapped and increasingly desperate Donna and Tad.  One of Cujo‘s strengths is that Teague was working with cinematographer Jan de Bont (who would, of course, be the DP on Die Hard, and go on to direct, among other things, Speed and Twister), and he makes the most of the claustrophobic setting, shooting mother and son in a way that amplifies the cramped isolation of the car.  Mid-summer, windows rolled up, attacked by a vicious, blood-streaked dog – it’s pretty visceral, and both Wallace and Pintauro pull out all the stops in portraying their terror.  To their credit, neither actor plays it tongue in cheek, and one of the most effective parts of the movie is seeing Donna devolve to the point where she single-mindedly and animalistically protects her son.

The movie doesn’t entirely work for a couple reasons.  One is the uneasy balance between the two stories it seems to want to tell: 1) how a seemingly happy domestic family can rapidly disintegrate, and 2) how a rabid dog can terrorize a couple in a Datsun.  The two halves just don’t mesh.  The other problem, I think, is that King’s novel essentially takes the story in a different, much more interesting, direction, implying that Cujo is possessed by, or the reincarnation of, a murderer from his novel The Dead Zone. Teague, on the other hand, plays it as a straight case of rabies, like he wishes Tim Johnson (the rabid dog from To Kill a Mockingbird) had ripped out Atticus Finch’s throat instead of being shot dead in the street.  There just isn’t enough plot in the rabid dog story to warrant a feature-length film, and as a result we get the boring domestic stuff at the beginning, and a movie whose 91 minute running time feels longer than Roots.

I think it’s great that Teague didn’t shy away from the darker aspects of the book (although the Hollywood ending feels like a cop-out after the truly pitch-black conclusion of the novel), and it’s undeniably terrifying to see Cujo – fully gored up by the effects crew – attacking the mother and her son.  But the movie as a whole is strictly C-grade stuff, and marks the first (but definitely not the last) time when Stephen King’s work failed to make a smooth transition to the big screen.

Read my other Stephen King reviews here:

Carrie, 1976 (11/14/09)

The Shining, 1980 (11/18/09)

Creepshow, 1982 (11/24/09)

Coming next: The Dead Zone (1983)

Current listening:

Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More (2009)



1. thoreauly77 - December 1, 2009

oh man, youre correct, sir. however, i do have to say that as a child who was (and as a grown ass man who genuinely is) terrified of dogs, this movie left a mark on me as a kid. at the time, i think i must have blocked out the domestic squabble because i didnt understand it at the time.

also, dont you think that cujo was also a metaphor for the destruction inherent in infidelity? to me it seems like king was saying that if you cheat, horrifying things will happen to you and you will lose your family.

2. Fred M - January 4, 2010

That’s clearly a man in a “Cujo” suit.

3. Peter Knight - October 12, 2010

and… the car is a Ford Pinto – not a Datsun – I just saw the movie on Friday night, Oct 9 and laughed when I saw the “Pinto” – what a crappy car – lol

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