In which Halloween-related marathoning has resulted in reviews of several spooky movies from the mind of the world's favorite horror author, Stephen King.
Directed by Lewis Teague
Written by Don Carlos Dunaway and Barbara Turner (based on the novel by Stephen King)
Spoiler alert: high
Cujo is less than the sum of its parts, though perhaps that seems opaque, since its reputation is that of a movie with just one part, or, at most, four parts working together: that is, a woman, her child, a rabid dog, and the broken down Ford Pinto the woman and child are trapped in. These, in particular, are exquisite parts—and even then I'm not certain Cujo would equal them, given the precise manner it adds them up. But those definitely aren't the only parts, for, besides the elemental scenario I've described, we must consider also an upper-middle-class domestic drama triggered by one spouse's infidelity; a vengeful lover who takes the end of that infidelity poorly; another domestic drama, enacted on a lower socioeconomic scale; a crisis at an advertising agency that, not terribly plausibly, operates out of Castle Rock, ME; and, finally, a very silly-looking mailman who, in the film's most inexplicable turn of all, is not mauled to death by that dog, though I suppose that's the joke. And so one, uncharitable way of putting it is that Cujo, in the finest horror tradition, spins the living fuck out of its wheels for about three quarters of an hour before it even thinks about considering making a tentative plan to get to the good part, that is, the part where a rabid dog terrorizes a woman and a child in a broken down Ford Pinto. Uncharitable, I said, but maybe not that uncharitable.
In any event, Cujo puts a lot of story out in front of its scenario, and that story involves the Trenton family, possibly the richest people in Maine given their picturesque seaside mansion. There's advertising exec Vic Trenton (Daniel Hugh-Kelly), and sensitive young Tad (Danny Pintauro). Most importantly, there's housewife Donna (Dee Wallace), who's been dissatisfied with her marriage for reasons left unstated (but which are, to her credit, entirely understood through the bored depression that Wallace carries on her shoulders in every early scene). Thus, Donna's been carrying on an affair with a local manly-man, a woodworker named Steve Kemp (Christopher Stone). After a period of time, Vic discovers his wife's unfaithfulness, and storms off in his Jaguar on business, leaving Donna and Tad alone to take her shitty, falling-apart Pinto out into the hills to the house of the abusively alcoholic (but honest) mechanic, Joe Camber (Ed Lauter). That's where a more urgent problem develops, since we know something Donna doesn't: that Camber's dear St. Bernard, Cujo, was bitten by a rabid bat in the very first scene, and various developments in the Camber household have prevented anyone from noticing (or, at least, doing anything about) Cujo's increasingly unhealthy disposition, and so now Camber's dead, his friend's dead, and Donna and Tad, if they set so much as one foot out of that car, are going to get dead too.
Once it gets there, Cujo is a magnificently tight and efficient survival thriller—maybe too tight and efficient, but one thing at a time. It takes the long way to get there, however, and the focus on the family inevitably drags. This is not being too fair to Cujo: it's probably too much to say that Stephen King's novel was a self-conscious fable in modern dress, because King and conscious thought weren't good friends during the period he was writing it, but the phrase gets the point across.
In the process of adapting it, screenwriters Don Carlos Dunaway and Barbara Turner cut texture and softened a hard, uncompromising ending—which King was evidently grateful for, since that hard, uncompromising ending was something he'd regretted ever since he regained his faculties and actually read what he'd written. (I think I'm of two minds about that, personally. I'd have admired the nastier ending more, at least.) As I have not read the novel, I cannot say if part of their process was disconnecting the plot from any impression that Cujo was meant to be a metaphor for the dangers that Donna had herself unleashed. Yet "disconnected" is how their movie feels: the horrors of domesticity (or domestication) gone awry, as represented by poor Cujo, might be blatantly symbolic of Donna's infidelity; but whether it's Dunaway and Turner's screenplay, Lewis Teague's not-unstylish yet somehow-matter-of-fact direction, or King's source material, Cujo never, ever comes off like "Donna must master the monster of a collapsing relationship," as opposed to "a woman and her kid have to fight off a dog, and, coincidentally, she had some amount of extramarital sex beforehand."
On one level, it's an actual strength: Cujo so completely fails to judge her that you're almost happy to see a 1983 film that's this willing to let the whore be the madonna again in the end. (Our Donna even presides over a resurrection, though if that's on purpose, then Cujo is maybe too smart for its own good.) But it's so pointedly devoid of any link—or even a zip code—between the character-based drama of that first act (and second act) and what the film's actually about (survival thrills in a constrained, claustrophobic location) that the character-based drama seems like a waste of time used to pump the survival thriller up to a feature length. (I'm frankly shocked it never occurred to Dunaway and Turner to compress Kemp and Camber into a single character, particularly as Kemp himself demonstrates his own unseen penchant for violence; Cujo could be streamlined without even trying, and it probably wouldn't hurt for Donna or Tad to have had a preexisting relationship with the dog that had lasted longer than twenty seconds.) It's not that the marital drama is exactly bad; but it wouldn't be adequate in a movie that wasn't about a rabid dog, and, given the structure of this particular movie about a rabid dog, it's not much easier to accept it as adequate here.
Which is a shame, because aspects of Cujo work even before it really gets to Cujo. I've already mentioned Wallace's performance, which is genuinely strong even if the material is so straightforward it's hard to maintain an interest in it. I've alluded to Teague's direction, and to the extent Cujo does maintain your interest, I credit that to Teague, who's shaping up to be this Stephen King retrospective's signature talent, with his very next film another King adaptation—this time a collaboration—the superior horror-comedy anthology Cat's Eye. Armed with composer Charles Bernstein and real-deal cinematographer Jan de Bont, Teague finds a remarkably effective register for Cujo's elemental tale: there's something about the soft focus and warm summertime lighting and the part-Williams, part-Carpenter score that enforces a dreamy tone on a story that could have become, in the absence of a mad dog, a neo-noir or lurid erotic thriller. (And this doesn't even take into account the misty morning that Cujo's rabidity first becomes apparent, with the great beast snarling, then looming, somewhat pitifully, back into the fog; Cujo is extravagantly well-photographed, conceivably even de Bont's best work.) I even appreciate Teague's occasional efforts to force the symbolism; Kemp making a mess out of milk and eggs on the floor of the Trenton home is a fun little visual whether or not it ultimately amounts to much. Better yet, though, is the way that dreaminess dissipates, little by little, then all at once, and the comfortable warmth becomes the captive, tormenting heat of a metal box boiling in the summer sun, once Cujo traps Donna and Tad in their car. Likewise, Cujo may be a minor masterpiece of increasingly-filthy, increasingly-bloodstained car windows.
And certainly that's where Cujo gets pretty damned good, and, for fitful moments, truly great. The one part that is never in question is Cujo himself: played by several dogs (including a Labrador-Great Dane in a costume), and trained by Karl Lewis Miller (who'd also return for Cat's Eye), the Cujos must've been exceedingly good boys, and as much as I recognize the craft and skill exercised by Teague and de Bont and editor Neil Travis, especially in the fright sequences, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that their film offers that's ever more effective than just the pure image of this St. Bernard who's become infected with an outright Lovecraftian strain of rabies. Cujo, put simply, is fucking gross, one of the grossest movie monsters I've ever seen, not because he's necessarily an accurate portrayal of rabies—I daresay he is not—but because he's still very plainly a dog. I do not especially care for dogs, so that's in the movie's favor; I don't care for big dogs in particular, and while Cujo cleverly plays with the iconography of the "friendly St. Bernard," big dogs are always inherently dangerous. But more than that, human brains are wired in such a way that, usually, we can see beyond virtually any make-up job, however splendid, if it's on another human. I, at least, could not do that with Cujo. I know, intellectually, that he's just a very good dog who has had goop flung upon him by a team of borderline-abusive effects people—who looks like he's had eggs cracked over his head and then stuck there with some kind of glue, frankly—but deep down in the primitive parts of my brain what I see is the most disgusting, most lethal canine possible, angry and deranged and literally rotting from the inside out, the yellow pus pouring from eyes that look somehow thoughtful while white foam rages from a waiting maw. Cujo is amazing.
So: take that creature, and then fling him at a woman and her child, especially Wallace and perhaps even more especially Pintauro, whose shrieking horror is so naturalistic it caused me involuntary shudders and actual, physical distress? Yes, please. And Cujo's dragged-out "siege" is the stuff the best creature features are made of: ragged emotion, constant threat, and human bodies getting closer and closer to their breaking point. The most obvious thing that Cujo lacks, really, is more human bodies getting broken; though once again the screenplay isn't doing all the work it needs to do, offloading the burden onto Teague and his team, and doing precious little to ever emphasize the specifically-human part of its equation. Two days is a long time to be trapped in a car by a dog, and it's also a long time to think about being trapped in a car by a dog. So while the passage of time is extremely clear in Wallace and Pintauro's increasingly-addled performances, that passage of time is not used by Donna for any onscreen purpose besides screaming and looking like her kidneys might fail. This is one thing I'm very sure the novel is much better on; Cujo, the film, leaves things like "Donna considers running to the door of Calder's house, but if the door is locked, she'll die," to implication and to Teague's visual storytelling, which does what it can but can't do all the things the scenario requires when the scenario is also this spare. Meanwhile, that buffering B-plot with Vic, which removes us from the pressure cooker, probably isn't all that well-judged; the C-plot, with Kemp, is almost totally useless by this point.
But the good news is Donna gets to where she needs to be in the end, and while Cujo may have had a somewhat difficult time starting up, it has no problem whatsoever closing down, with an ending that's not as hard or as uncompromising as King's, but surely can't be considered happy in its own right, leaving us on what I presume is the 1980s' most emotionally-ambivalent freeze-frame. Given its problems as a human drama, and given what a significant proportion of Cujo turns out to be human drama, I almost certainly overrate the film as a whole; but there's something to it anyway, and whether it's the deep undercurrent of fabulistic power it wants to have or just a grody fuckin' dog with corn syrup all over his fur, I very, very slightly love it, even if I'm disappointed in it, too.