During the six years between 1976 and 1982, five works by Stephen King were adapted into film or TV productions; during the two years between 1983 and 1985, nine more popped up on the big screen and idiot box, signaling what became a long flood of King-derived productions primarily aimed at making money, with quality becoming increasingly rare among the crop, though some did settle around the B-movie mark.
The first wave, which included Carrie, Salem's Lot, and The Shining were high-profile works adapted and directed by a disparate group of iconic filmmakers, whereas the second wave felt more like an oppressive flood; most of them were from veteran producer Dino De Laurentiis, and lost among cash-in titles like Children of the Corn, Firestarter, and Silver Bullet was Cujo a neo-realist shocker about a mother and son tormented by a rabid Saint Bernard.
As detailed in the excellent three-part making-of featurettes and Lewis Teague's own director's commentary track, King himself took the first crack at adapting the novel, and while his decision to alter the book's downbeat ending was retained in the finished film, the succeeding writers went back to the book and streamlined the story, with the supernatural element affecting the dog completely removed from the shooting script.
Whereas some may have preferred King's original finale which the film seems to steer towards until it switches to an audience-pleasing finale jettisoning the supernatural gimmick grounds the film, and makes the threat more realistic and terrifying: with the massive dog shown in worse stages of drool, puss, rage, and rhino-like determination, it's a classic battle between two domesticated forces reverting to their feral, self-protective origins a predatory dog, and a mother doing anything to save her son when it's clear no phone, no cop, no husband will save them.
Teague, hand-picked by King after the novelist was impressed with the director's tongue-in-cheek shocker Alligator, describes Cujo as his most accomplished film, and he's dead-on in recognizing something just clicked with the project: his instincts were spot-on, and his decision to engage Neil Travis (The Edge) as editor ensured the dog attacks would become truly nail-biting experiences, and pay off with one shock guaranteed to make audiences jump.
Teague also benefited from a dynamic collaboration with Jan De Bont, the inventive Dutch cinematographer who had recently moved to the U.S. after a long association with Paul Verhoeven. De Bont crafted some jaw-dropping shots a 360 degree pivot within a Pinto is still a marvel and his long ordeal shooting Tippi Hedren's lion epic Roar (1981) meant he knew how to shoot animals and deliver enough footage for the editor to craft killer montages.
The most striking aspect for current audiences will be the film's pacing, which forces long sections of character bits before the mother and son are threatened by the once child-friendly pooch. A good third is character stuff, and like Alien, it's aimed at a more adult audience, establishing relationships, character flaws, and personal demons. Teague points out that when shorn of these indulgences, test audiences had far less sympathy for the characters, and when reinstated, audiences really identified with the trauma a mother faces when her child is near death.
Just a vital to the film's success are the performances by Dee Wallace Stone and Danny Pintauro, who at the age of six delivers gut-wrenching moments of utter terror when the dog lunges and climbs onto the car. Stone gives some great background into on her own handling of Faustino in his first film role, and makes it clear his performance wasn't wrought out by a director trying to scare the crap out of a child before the cameras rolled.
Also given a decent nod is composer David Newman, who wrote an affective theme for the dog, fusing synth and orchestral elements. The DVD comes with the film's original mono mix, and though not stated on the package, a pseudo-stereo track that's well-balanced with aggressive bass, and offers the end titles music in true stereo.
Like Teague's commentary track for Cat's Eye, his second King film (and first for producer De Laurentiis), there's lots of production and bio material, and Teague provides an engaging narrative.
Like disparate cult titles such as The Monster Squad and The Nightcomers, Lionsgate is taking advantage of their back catalogue and crafting some excellent special editions, making this a mandatory addition to one's horror library.
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan