||In 1983, there were three adaptations of Stephen King novels you could have gone to see at your local picture palace: The Dead Zone, Christine and Cujo. Of that trio, Cujo was the odd one out since it was not based on a supernatural premise, there had been some moves towards linking the menace in it to The Dead Zone's serial killer in the book, but on film anything extraneous had been pared away, and that included the spooky stuff. This left a story of two halves, the first where the characters deal with what might be termed "real world" issues, and the second where a terror strikes that places such problems in a stark perspective.
The Stephen King movie juggernaut was well underway in the eighties, after a major boost of having his first hit book turned into the equally successful blockbuster Carrie, all part of the nineteen-seventies horror boom which had audiences thirsting after as much scary and gruesome material as they could. This was an apparent reaction to the times, where such ideals as The American Dream were under perceived threat - not anything really new if you took a look at the melodramas of, say, the fifties, but somehow crystallising around the fantastical concepts of chillers and science fiction, sometimes both at once in the same production.
One strain was the increased awareness of the environment, giving rise to a series of films patterned after Alfred Hitchcock's classic The Birds where nature took its revenge on humanity for its hubris as being top of the food chain. Therefore before long you had critters and creepy-crawlies exacting vengeance in such diverse projects as Frogs (where it was not merely the amphibians attacking), Grizzly (a rampaging bear; see also Claws), Day of the Animals (with the entire animal kingdom bearing a grudge), and the big daddy of them all that proved there were massive profits to be made in frightening viewers this way, Steven Spielberg's Jaws.
That had combined the day to day life of a normal American town with a threat that should be random, yet has an apparent intelligence, enough to make the hero's quest to vanquish it seem personal. In the way that Spielberg established himself as Hollywood's premier populist director, King had been establishing himself as a brand for the page, with many following after, yet it was significant that while the majority of those had fallen away or changed tack, King was still The Master of Horror well into the twenty-first century, picking up countless new fans to replace the ones who gave up on him, while retaining a large core of faithful "Constant Readers".
The King films (and one miniseries for television) before Cujo had been major cultural events, even the comparatively smaller Creepshow, which had an original screenplay by him, was a must-see for his new legion of aficionados. But the 1983 efforts were more pitched towards the middle, not the result of one of the greatest directors in the world, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, nor a television appointment view, Tobe Hooper's Salem's Lot, though Cujo had more in common with the latter as it was directed, as were The Dead Zone and Christine, by talents now well known for their endeavours in the horror genre. But Lewis Teague was the least famous.
Teague seemed to be making his name in horror in the first half of the eighties: his film before this had been spoofy animal attack effort Alligator, which had secured him the job on Cujo, presumably because the producers thought he could do for a St Bernard dog what he did for alligators, albeit the pooch was not giant-sized. There was also a sense that the titular hound was not necessarily scary, as a big, floppy, friendly breed, and the film had a bit of a climb to make it a convincing threat; British viewers would have thought of comedian Bernie Winters and his pet Schnorbitz before they thought of anything by King, especially when it was not his most famous effort.
Yet the book was more or less an examination of how the things in life you believe you can - or should - rely upon can turn around and bite you. The father (Daniel Hugh Kelly just before TV fame on Hardcastle and McCormick) of the three-person household we see is struggling with a problem at his advertising agency when the breakfast cereal contract they have has gone horribly wrong in a health scare, for example. But the mother (Dee Wallace, fresh from E.T. - The Extraterrestrial) has made a mistake that could cost her that supposedly cosy nuclear family, as she is having an affair with friend Christopher Stone which she realises she doesn't need in her life.
Meanwhile, little Tad (Danny Pintauro, right before sitcom Who's the Boss? gave him fame) is channelling the family tensions into a night terror where he believes there's a monster in his bedroom closet, all of this chipping away at an American institution which needs reasserting, and the rabid Cujo is the creature to do it. This was one ninety-minute example of the Chekov's Gun rule, as everything we see in Don Carlos Dunaway and Lauren Currier's screenplay was in the service of first, getting the mother and son trapped in the broken down car with the killer dog outside, and second, offering her a solution to the crisis, though not before she has suffered immensely.
And of course, Tad suffers immensely as well, though famously (or notoriously), his ultimate fate in the book is different to that in the movie, probably because no matter how often King is adapted, there are different conventions to reading a horror novel than watching a horror film: see Frank Darabont's revised ending to The Mist to understand why King's work is so finely balanced, and how easy it is to lose an audience. Though this could be regarded as arriving at tail end (hah!) of the revenge of nature cycle of the seventies (the eighties were not quite so hippy-dippy) Cujo turned the fear of fauna into a savage attack on America's Reagan era complacency.
After all, the apparently idyllic opening sequence with the bunny rabbit is quite content to end with the family dog bitten by a bat and infected with rabies, one of the potential panics (such as financial collapse) of the previous decade lasting into the next - we well note early the class difference between the main characters and Cujo's owners. Teague and his crew, including Jan de Bont, future director of Speed, on camera duties, were not afraid to go as intense as possible during the attack sequences, and Pintauro looks genuinely terrified, not to mention Wallace in probably her best performance in the lead. Cujo is not often brought up in discussions of superior King films, but it's certainly in the top half and should be given its due, with its deliberate build-up paying off with real tension. We lost Teague to underwhelming television in the nineties, but this is proof he could have been on John Carpenter's level, it's at least as good and underrated as Christine.
[Cujo has been released in a Blu-ray format by Eureka, a must for fans and newcomers alike. Those features in full:
SPECIAL LIMITED EDITION [4000 UNITS] CONTAINS
Hardbound Slipcase, featuring newly commissioned artwork by iconic British illustrator Graham Humphreys
Reversible sleeve featuring artwork by Justin Osbourn and original poster artwork
PLUS: A LIMITED EDITION 60-PAGE Collector's booklet featuring new writing on the film by Lee Gambin, author Scott Harrison, and Craig Ian Mann; illustrated with archival imagery from the film's production.
1080p presentation of the film, on Blu-ray for the first time ever in the UK
Uncompressed LPCM mono soundtrack
Optional English SDH subtitles
New and exclusive feature length audio commentary by Lee Gambin, author of Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo
New interview with Dee Wallace [40 mins]
New interview with composer Charles Bernstein [35 mins]
New interview with stuntman Gary Morgan [25 mins]
New interview with stuntwoman Jean Coulter [21 mins]
New interview with casting director Marcia Ross. [20 mins]
New interview with visual effects artist Kathie Lawrence [13 mins]
New interview with special effects designer Robert Clark [12 mins]
New interview with dog trainer Teresa Miller [28 mins]
Dog Days: The Making of Cujo archival documentary on the film's production [42 mins]
DISC TWO [Limited Edition Only]
Q&A with Dee Wallace from Cinemaniacs & Monster Fest 2015, moderated by Lee Gambin [96 mins]
New interview with critic and author Kim Newman [25 mins].]