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Based on Stephen King's novel about a new England family beset by a murderous terror: the family dog.
For more about Cujo and the Cujo Blu-ray release, see Cujo Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on January 17, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.0 out of 5.
Starring: Dee Wallace, Danny Pintauro, Daniel Hugh Kelly, Christopher Stone, Ed Lauter, Kaiulani Lee
Director: Lewis Teague
» See full cast & crew
Cujo Blu-ray Review
We all might want to rethink our criticism of the Ford Pinto's safety record.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, January 17, 2013
Pantheism is the belief that a divine spirit inhabits all of creation, from the lowliest amoeba to inanimate objects like rocks to the supposed crowning glory of humanity and beyond. Though it's probably not an "official" belief system, some might accuse Stephen King of being a pandemonist, for the ubiquitous author has built one of the modern publishing era's most fortuitous careers out of seeing evil in just about any and every object, living or otherwise, imaginable. We've had haunted and/or nefarious vacation lodges, towns, diseases, cars, clowns, disaffected youths— need we continue? Well, let's add just one more: man's best friend, the erstwhile dog. King is an expert in making the reader (and by extension the viewer of the many film adaptations based upon his works) fear the everyday, those mundane little things that drift in and out of most of our lives without a second thought. Cujo was perhaps a more rational approach to horror than some of King's more supernaturally themed opuses, for there's a more or less mundane cause to the rampaging titular dog's evil behavior: rabies. That is a surprisingly concrete raison d'être for nastiness in King's oeuvre, as the author frequently likes to traffic in the opaque miasma of the collective unconscious' most deep seated terrors. But if the cause is at least a little less inchoate than in a lot of King's pieces, that doesn't mean the horrifying effect is any less pronounced. Cujo is one of the most claustrophobic film adaptations of any King work (quite remarkable given such confined efforts as The Shawshank Redemption), and if it's not the most successful King adaptation out there, it still has its share of thrills and chills, especially for dog lovers who look at canines and automatically think that snuggling into their warm furry bodies is a natural thing to do.
As surreptitiously undermining as evil usually is in Stephen King fare, there's another encroaching nemesis that quite frequently afflicts the author's characters, namely the much more pedestrian issue of family dysfunction. Over and over in King's stories and novels, we have various family members more or less at war with each other, creating a roiling emotional atmosphere in which evil seems to thrive. Cujo is certainly no exception to that general rule. In fact one of the major detriments to this film adaptation is that it spends so much time setting up the roiling relationships between the disintegrating family unit at the core of the story that some viewers may in fact lose interest long before the evil rabid dog makes much of an impact.
The soap operatic aspect of Cujo fills up more or less the first half of the 90 minute or so running time of the film. We meet attractive young wife and mother Donna (Dee Wallace-Stone), who is dealing with a lot on her emotional plate. Her husband Vic (Daniel Hugh Kelly) is an ambitious advertising executive who is reeling from having his major account unspool before his very eyes due to an unfounded health scare. Meanwhile their son Tad (Danny Pintauro) is suffering from debilitating fears that there's a monster in his closet, perhaps a psychological projection of the tension he senses between his parents. Donna has been attempting to soothe her troubled psyche in the arms of the local tennis stud, Steve (Wallace-Stone's real life husband Christopher Stone), an affair which Vic stumbles into knowledge of one fateful day. Meanwhile Vic has attempted to get his sporty red convertible fixed at a rural mechanic's home shop, and promises to have Donna's faltering Pinto taken there soon.
The mechanic's family also provides some low level turmoil as well. It's obvious the mechanic is a heavy drinker and probably an abusive husband and father. His wife ends up winning $5,000 in the lottery and asks (begs, really) to be allowed to go visit her sister with their son. Meanwhile, the family's dog Cujo has been exhibiting troubling behavior since having been bitten by a bat, though only the family's son seems to be concerned about the startling transformation of the giant Saint Bernard. All of these plot machinations serve nothing more than to lay the groundwork whereby Donna and Tad can arrive at the mechanic's isolated shop to be attacked by the crazed animal. Vic has taken off due to the affair, the mechanic and his assistant have become the first two of Cujo's victims, the mechanic's wife and son have taken off due to the lottery (and the implied abuse), and so we're left with Donna and Tad in a broken down Pinto being repeatedly terrorized by an increasingly manic dog.
Cujo might have worked better had the terror arrived a lot sooner. As it is, there is so much dysfunctional turmoil to work through to get to the scary bits that the film seems weighed down in "kitchen sink drama" to the point of absolute lethargy. A perhaps more important issue, albeit one that may work more subliminally than the lack of up front scares, is the fact that Cujo is an innocent victim himself. A lot of King's work has Evil (with a capital "E") afflicting various people who really don't deserve to be afflicted (think Carrie), but there's something almost tragic about a sweet dog coming down with rabies and attacking various people (some of whom, like the mechanic and his assistant, seem to warrant some kind of attack).
All of this said, once the "attack dog" scenario finally begins unfolding, there's little question that Cujo does work up some considerably frightening sequences, but there's a certain air of desperation as the film continues trundling down its seemingly interminable path. As Donna and Tad continue to try to exist within the increasingly untenable confines of their Ford Pinto (which actually holds up admirably well under Cujo's ferocious assaults), the film does become almost anger provoking, simply because it's all built on so many patently ridiculous conceits. There's also a rather troubling final showdown between Donna and Cujo that may have ASPCA and PETA members up in arms, though Teague makes it quite clear in his commentary that he purposefully staged the goings on so as not to show anything too graphic or in fact to endanger the dog playing Cujo.
Cujo never really fully integrates its roiling subtext of family dysfunction within the overall genre conventions of a horror thriller, but it's laudable that the film at least tries. What works best in this film is the relationship between Donna and Tad. Cujo may be a "mad dog", but he's no match for a "Mama Grizzly".
Cujo Blu-ray, Video Quality
Cujo is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of Olive Films with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 1.78:1. I haven't been able to confirm whether or not this is a new transfer of Cujo, which was previously released on Blu-ray in a 25th Anniversary Edition. The fact that this release features a 1.78:1 aspect ratio while the previous version featured a 1.85:1 aspect ratio isn't necessarily dispositive, but Olive Films tends not to deal with previously available transfers, so my hunch is this is new. One way or the other, this presentation seems to be very similar in substance and quality to the previous edition, which as my colleague Casey Broadwater mentioned in his review of that edition, shows decent clarity and sharpness within the context that a lot of this film is intentionally diffuse and at times kind of gauzy looking. Colors are nicely saturated and accurate looking, though Wallace-Stone looks kind of wan throughout the film. Director Teague and DP Jan de Bont favor close-ups throughout the bulk of the car attack sequences, and those help to boost fine detail to admirable levels.
Cujo Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Cujo features only a DTS-HD Master Audio Mono track, unlike the 25th Annivesary Edition Blu-ray which offered a repurposed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround audio option. I frankly haven't seen the 25th Anniversary Edition and so can't offer a comparison as to how different the mono track sounds, but I can state that the audio on this Olive Blu-ray offers excellent fidelity and rather wide dynamic range. Cujo's growls and other increasingly throaty sounds are presented with sometimes startling depth and a rather scary gravelly quality. Dialogue is cleanly presented, though Danny Pintaro's nonstop wails inside the car get to be almost intolerable after a while.
Cujo Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Cujo Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Cujo takes its own sweet time setting up its various plot dynamics, and as such it's an awfully slow genre film. It's also problematic that the "evil" in this film is something as real as a rabid dog, especially a dog that seems as sweet as Cujo does in the film's early scenes. That means that some in the audience aren't going to know who to root for, especially when Cujo's first two victims are kind of reprehensible to begin with. So what we have is a sweet dog that's horribly afflicted with a hideous disease, and a mother and son in a car, trying to survive long enough to perhaps patch their faltering family back together again. For some, that will add up to at least a fitfully entertaining thriller. For others, a little winter vacation in an isolated lodge or an unforgettable high school prom may be more enticing. For this film's fans, this Blu-ray looks and sounds just fine and the new commentary by Teague is quite interesting.
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