Monday, November 21, 2011

Barking Up The Right Tree: CUJO

A few weeks ago I was pondering what movie to watch on Halloween night.  Now this isn't rocket science, nor is it akin to picking out a good wine or even what color you should paint your bathroom...but it is a difficult decision for someone such as myself that surrounds herself with horror at every turn.  It had to be something good, right?  It's the big night.  Generally I end up with one of my favorite classics, such as Night of the Living Dead or Psycho.  But this year I had made some purchases from Amazon right before the holiday and low and behold, I picked Cujo.  (Which you already surmised due to the title of this post, duh.)

Cujo, for those who may have been trapped under a rock for thirty years or what have you, is not only a book by the venerable Stephen King as well as an adapted 1983 film, but the moniker of a feisty St. Bernard. Oh wait, did I say feisty?  What I really meant was terrifying.
Now, I'm not one to be frightened of dogs, but I will admit to having some reservations when I walk up and down the back alleys behind my house.  There are an assortment of scary-looking pooches in some of the yards of the folks in town.  Pit Bulls. Dobermans.  Rottweilers. Even the occasional nutty poodle.  But to my knowledge, there are no St. Bernards. 
In nearly every case though, St. Bernards are a fairly docile breed.  They were originally bred to be rescue dogs, carrying medicine over mountains to the sick and injured.  They also were known to be great livestock guardians and hunting dogs, as well as guard dogs.  But they are not known for violence.  I'm sure that after Cujo came out there were plenty of St. Bernard lovers who were pissed as all get out to see their breed slandered with the title of "killer".  Doesn't it stand to reason that this might indeed be the nudge that screenwriters had to come up with the lovable hulk named Beethoven, who was for all intents and purposes, the exact opposite of King's monster?  In any event, a St. Bernard always gives me pause now...if I see one loose in someone's yard or hovering on a porch, I'm sad to admit it still scares the shit out of me. 
Thanks Steve.

But hey, isn't that the mark of a good film?  One that can still scare you nearly thirty years later?  One that has you on the edge of your seat?  And one that would have you running and screaming for your life if the damn dog steps off the porch? 

One big happy family... Mom, Dad, son...oh, and Mom's boyfriend. Nice.
Cujo, at first, seems a bit melodramatic.  What are we watching here, a Lifetime movie of the week?  Seems Donna Trenton (the amazing Dee Wallace) is participating in a bit of hanky panky outside the marriage bed.  Though her hubby, Vic (Daniel Hugh-Kelly) isn't a bad looking dude, he apparently is about as exciting as a loaf of bread, so Donna sneaks off with Steve the handyman to his sleazy apartment and has some afternoon delight.  (May I add that the delight she dishes was her actual husband in real life, Christopher Stone? So she's not really cheating, right?)

Time for the "monster words".
Vic may be dull, but he's not stupid.  He soon finds out Donna's running around on him. And so there's all this night-time drama going on, with us as the audience apparently supposed to relate to Donna and her plight.  I myself was pissed.  Call me moral, but it made me feel dirty just watching her romps with Steve. Throw in their little boy, Tad (Danny Pintauro). Little bugger is so cute, all nervous and scared of the monster under his bed or in the closet.  Mom and Dad have even written up a list of "monster words" that they read before tucking him in for the night, you know - to keep the monsters at bay. 

But hey, let's not forget the star.  Cujo is owned by the local mechanic, Joe Camber, who isn't really much of a nice guy either.  He's just hanging around trying to find a way to go gambling while his wife heads off to her sister's.  His son Brett is Cujo's best friend, but isn't with him when Cujo sticks his nose into a rabbit hole and gets bit by a rabid bat. (What are those bats doing in that hole, anyway??) At this point, I'm feeling pretty damn bad for the dog.  He was just out goofing off, chasing a bunny, and WHAM!  Your life is over as you know it.

.....and after
As the rabies progresses, every little noise like the phone ringing or the car engine revving hurts the poor guy's ears. Add to that the nasty bite on his nose that is obviously infected, and you have one pissed off pooch.  His attitude is poor, to say the least.  Rabies affects the brain.  Horribly.  It infiltrates the central nervous system and basically makes your life a living hell.  Once the brain is inflamed with the disease, death is almost a 99% certainty. 

Cujo starts a downward spiral even before he starts offing the human population.  It takes only a few days for him to start becoming mad, and I don't mean angry. His behavior is noticeably erratic and frenzied.  Loud noises and bright lights set him off, and before long he is making toast of the likes of his owner and the neighbor next door. 

Meanwhile, Donna has decided to end her affair with Steve, which does more than just irk him.  He gets pissed off.  He trashes their house and leaves some incriminating evidence on the bed, in liquid form if you know what I mean.   (I have to admit, this film is full of characters that are pretty damn unlikeable. I'm not sure any of them are truly redeemable, including the annoying kid!)
Vic has already headed off for a business trip but forgets to get Donna's ailing car (a Ford Pinto!!)  fixed, so Donna has to make her way out to the Cambers with Tad in tow to drop the bungled auto off. 

As most folks know, here is where the heart of the story lies.  The beefy part that everybody remembers about the movie.  Cujo is there waiting when Donna and Tad arrive, and when the Pinto gives up the ghost in the driveway at Cambers, Cujo is there waiting to inspect the car and its contents.  Donna realizes quickly that something isn't quite right with the dog, particularly after he chases her back to within an inch of her life and rams the car with his 200 pound body.  When it's obvious Joe Camber isn't at home (or alive, for that matter), Donna quickly deduces that they are trapped in the car.  In the raging summer heat. With an insane dog the size of a pony, covered in the blood of his former victims and looking to add to that muzzle of doom.

Again and again the dog attacks, with no thought whatsoever to the pain he inflicts upon himself.  He's gone completely mad at this point and is probably in so much discomfort he can't see straight.  Just when you think he's gone, or at least napping (no way, Jose!), he attacks.

You wouldn't think a film about a pissed off dog could be that scary, but for all accounts, it's the scariest, most realistic movie about a killer dog I've ever seen.  The look in the bleeding dog's eyes is pure hatred, and nothing but the disease can be responsible.  A passive and friendly pet, the St. Bernard loves nothing more than pleasing his master.  But the entire thought process is gone when you throw rabies into the mix.  Each time Donna tries to make a run for it, Cujo comes back harder, with more of a vengeance than the last.  It seems he truly just wants to kill them.  And you're pretty much thinking he's going to succeed, particularly after an especially horrifying sequence in which the dog actually has most of his body in the car - jaws snapping, saliva flinging, teeth bared over Donna's prone body stretched across the front seat - all the while Tad in the back seat wailing for the "monster" to go away.

I cannot stress enough how paralyzed with fear you can be while revisiting this classic film.  If you've read the book, you'll know the ending is even more bleak than the film, but I think they did a good job with the storyline here.  Even though it seems a bit implausible that anyone would survive after actually being bit by a rabid dog.  I mean, wouldn't you get the virus as well?  And the hours and hours that Donna and Tad are stuck in that hot car?  Would you really last as long as they did? Seriously?  A small child?  They say a dog can suffer heat stroke in 15 minutes. That statistic can't just be for animals. 
And can I just say - with all that screaming the kid did, I was almost ready for Cujo to have a Tad sandwich, you know?

But the fear that seeps out your pores when Cujo is jumping on that car, snarling and snapping... that is scarier than any vengeful long-haired ghost or hockey-mask donning stalker.  At least in my book.  Because a rabid dog could happen at any time, anywhere.  The sad progression from happy family pet to stark raving mad beast from hell really brings me down.  As an animal lover, I doubt I could watch Cujo too many times simply for that reason if nothing else.  I always feel bad when the dog or cat dies in a horror movie, and even though this canine was the main attraction, the way in which he is taken out - the slow, cruel death by incurable disease - well that's just not fair.  Simply put, there wasn't one person in that whole film that I wanted to survive more than the dog.  And you know going in that's just not going to happen, poor thing.

So I think the moral of the story is:  get your damn dog vaccinated for Rabies, okay?!


Murphy Screams said...

Great write up! I actually won the special edition DVD a couple years ago from Fangoria and have yet to watch it. You've definitely inspired me to revisit Cujo, it's been a long time. Thanks!

AVY said...

It's in a Friends episode, right?

/ Avy

Doug Brunell said...

This was a great movie and book.

JP "Strange and Shocking Turn Of Events" Wendel said...

Great review! I totally agree with you in that Tad is easily one of the most annoying children in a film ever.