Stephen King is usually at his best when he’s working with a stripped-down, killer premise, whether it’s the confinement of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining or the resurrection with strings attached in Pet Sematary. In that vein, King adaptations often strip his longer novels down to that core essence, while somehow extending his short stories to fit a feature running time. Director Lewis Teague’s Cujo is one of the former examples – a simple tale of a mother and daughter under siege by a dangerous animal.
We meet housewife Donna Trenton (Dee Wallace) in the midst of an affair with a “local hunk” while her ad exec husband Vic (Daniel Hugh-Kelly) stresses over a seemingly doomed campaign. When the affair is discovered, Vic takes off leaving Donna and young son Tad (Danny Pintauro) to take their stuttering, decrepit car to nearby mechanic Joe Camber (Ed Lauter). What they don’t know is that the Camber family St Bernard, Cujo, has been bitten by a rabid bat and killed his owners.
With director Lewis Teague at the helm, Cujo is an exercise in carefully measured, sweaty tension. Like the Lone Star State of Tobe Hooper’s iconic Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Teague’s take on one of King’s trademark Maine settings is palpably sweltering, with beads of sweat forming for audience members in tandem to their appearance on Donna and Tad’s skin. Jan de Bont’s inventive camera makes the most of the isolation of the setting, while the animal action is a triumph of effects work, stunts and sound design that could not be more intense. The sight of Cujo’s fur matted with blood and yellow pus leaking from his bloodshot eyes is consistently terrifying, even as there always seems to be a sadness behind his inky black pupils.
Wallace is amazing as a woman turned warrior in the wake of the desperate need to save her offspring. It’s notable that the men of Cujo are worse than useless, leaving Wallace’s flawed woman to put her own struggles aside in order to defend the one thing in her life which is unambiguously untainted and good. There’s also a table set for some interesting class commentary – the Trenton and Camber families sit at very different points of the class spectrum – but it never seems to be quite explored in the way it perhaps should have been.
In a world of new King adaptations, with Doctor Sleep and It: Chapter Two set to arrive before the year is out, Cujo definitely merits another look, especially from those who missed it first time around. As a clear evocation of the battle between mankind and nature, it’s utterly compelling, anchored by a stellar Wallace performance of, if you’ll pardon the pun, sheer dogged determination. It’s a stripped-down nerve-shredder of a movie that has a bite every bit as potent as its bark.
The Blu-ray transfer, courtesy of the always reliable Eureka Video, is very impressive and the film looks wonderful in its 1080p quality. There’s also a bumper crop of special features on offer, with countless new interviews with cast and crew, alongside an archival ‘making of’ doc, a brand new commentary and an insightful chat with critic Kim Newman, who perhaps knows more about horror than anyone else alive. This is an excellent film, which has been given the respect it deserves on its new format.
Dir: Lewis Teague
Scr: Don Carlos Dunaway, Lauren Currier
Cast: Dee Wallace, Danny Pintauro, Daniel Hugh-Kelly, Christopher Stone, Ed Lauter, Kaiulani Lee
Prd: Daniel H. Blatt, Robert Singer
DOP: Jan de Bont
Music: Charles Bernstein
Run time: 93 mins
Cujo is arriving on UK Blu-ray in a Special Limited Two-Disc Edition via Eureka Video on 29th April.