Cujo (US - BD)
Gabe revisits a rabid dog in HD, and explores the intricacies of foamy drool
Donna Trenton (Dee Wallace Stone), a frustrated suburban housewife, is caught cheating with a local tennis player. Donna’s husband Vic (Daniel Hugh Kelly) takes a business trip, and uses the time to think about his marital troubles. While Vic is away Donna takes her five-year-old son Tad (Danny Pintauro) to a local mechanic to fix their broken Pinto. When they get to the mechanic’s farm it appears that his dog, Cujo, has come down with a mean case of rabies.
Part of reviewing DVDs and Blu-rays instead of first run theatrical releases is reviewing entirely irrelevant movies, because they have been reissued in a special anniversary edition. This isn’t to say that all, or even most re-released films are irrelevant, and I also don’t mean to imply that irrelevant films are necessarily bad, but it’s really hard to find something intelligent to say about a movie as unimportant as Cujo. Cujo isn’t an unintelligent film, or even a flat film—on the contrary, it’s actually a layered, tight knit monster movie, with rather deep emotional allegories. Unfortunately, most of the allegories speak specifically to the 1980s. Before and since Cujo other monster movie allegories have spoken for their eras, and these films cast long shadows over Cujo’s minor accomplishments, not to mention the fact that many other non-horror films said the same thing with more conviction ( E.T. being a particularly potent instance). We’re left with an entertaining little movie that looks great, and has more than scares on its mind, but little staying power, plus or minus a few good scares.
Contextually speaking Cujo is one of the better Stephen King adaptations. The ‘80s in general were a good time for Stephen King adaptations, from The Shining to The Dead Zone, all the way to Pet Cemetery. The ‘90s were pretty awful, at least for straight horror work, and the ‘00s are spotty at best, featuring The Mist atop a pretty dire little stack (though I do have a slightly stupid soft spot for Dreamcatcher). Perhaps King’s storytelling style was simply made for the ‘80s. Unfortunately, going this route just puts me back where I started, remembering how irrelevant the film is, because calling anything ‘one of the better Stephen King adaptations’ ends up being the nicest thing I can say about it concerning the greater movie lexicon.
Ok, let me try again. I hadn't seen Cujo in (wait for it) a dog's age. I hadn't remembered how much an eyeball appetizer it was, due in no small part to the presence of cinematographer extraordinaire Jon De Bont. De Bont’s work here is occasionally flat-out brilliant, though much credit must also go to director Lewis Teague, who thought up most of the film’s bravura camera moves. The energy isn’t quite cranked up to Sam Raimi levels, and the overuse of soft focus is a little annoying (and cheap looking), but the visuals cover the lack of overall plot rather well, and keep what could have been a stagnant narrative moving. There are only so many ways to shoot a Pinto, and this director/DP team juices the possibilities to the rind.
Lewis Teague was the guy behind the camera on Alligator, which thanks to the efforts of John Sayles and a smashing cast, was more tongue-in-cheek funny than horrifying, but there were plenty of genuinely frightening images to go around. Legend states that Stephen King himself suggested Teague for Cujo when the time came, based on the director’s work on Alligator. Alligator is the better film (mostly because of its script alone), but Cujo is the more frightening. As an adult the film didn’t wrack my nerves like it did when I was a kid (I was coincidentally afraid of dogs for most of my childhood), but I can still recognize a good scare when I see one. For seat jumping alone Cujo may be the scariest King film on record, except for, of course, those shots you can see the dog’s tail wagging in. Those kind of spoil the terror. And hey, let’s give a hand to Dee Wallace. I know the woman is notorious for her destructively emotional method acting, but this performance makes the film. Without her melodramatic every-mom this would just be a good looking thriller. With her it’s an occasionally brilliant pity piece.
The DVD version of this 25th Anniversary release already looked pretty good considering the film’s vintage and modest price tag. This high definition version is a solid upgrade, but not altogether perfect. Jon De Bont’s innovative and acrobatic camera work benefits from the increase in clarity, though his use of soft and shallow focus means the film a lightly less ideal Blu-ray subject. The print looks best when sunlight is concerned, but on the whole the grain and occasional artefacts like dust and grain. The bigger issue is the occasional digital noise during the busiest shots, like the opening of the film, where Cujo chases a rabbit. Notice that the green grass is a bit blocky. The colours aren’t particularly vibrant, but they never were when it came to the film. The green hues are lusher, and the reds poke out a bit, but overall Cujo is a brownish yellow film, and it uses this look to its advantage during the hotter scenes. Still, the Lionsgate people avoid the temptation of DNR, and thank goodness for small favours.
Unlike most of the recent Lionsgate catalogue Blu-rays, Cujo has been updated rather heftily in the sound department—at least in theory. The DVD release was presented in an ordinary, original release 2.0, but this Blu-ray features a 5.1 remix, and the usual DTS-HD Master Audio upgrade. The stereo channels see quite a bit of incidental sound, and even a few directional effects, usually those of a revving motor or a barking dog. The 5.1 does allow for a wider field during the musical score’s more lively moments, but for the most part this is still a pretty centric and relatively flat affair. In fact, the more spacious music acts as a bit of a counter point to the rest of the audio. The dialogue and incidental set noise is mostly clean, but does feature a little snap and crackle. Still missing from the mix is a ballsy LFE track, though between the two releases this Blu-ray is definitely stronger.
The Blu-ray features the same two extras that were featured on the DVD release. Things start with director Lewis Teague’s solo commentary track, which is still a solid effort. Teague is well prepared, and knows specifically what he wants to talk about. Unlike many commentators, Teague assumes (rightfully) that we’ve already seen the film, so when he’s nearing a shot he wants to talk about he sets himself up several minutes before the shot arrives. Too many commentary tracks involve commentators pointing out a sequence or shot as it appears, rather than preparing us for what to look for. Teague rarely lets up, and is consistently engaging.
This anniversary release is filled out with a three-part featurette entitled ‘Dog Days: The Making of Cujo’ (43:00, SD). It’s no fluff piece, and covers most of the creative process, from Stephen King’s original book, to the various stages of film production (I did not know that the original book was a semi-sequel to The Dead Zone), all set to behind the scenes photos, film footage, and interviews with the guilty parties. Teague reiterates everything he already said on the commentary track, but repetition aside I can’t think of anything more I’d like to know about the film’s production, and the bulk of the interviews are thoughtful and engaging.
So if you’re looking for a great monster movie with more on its mind than just scares, watch Jaws, or maybe even director Lewis Teague’s own Alligator. If you’re looking for a great Stephen King adaptation watch Carrie or The Dead Zone. If you’re looking for a great Dee Wallace film I’d suggest E.T or The Howling. If you want to watch Cujo, just watch Cujo. I’ve got no better reason for you. Not a super-duper, ultra-great, must-see feature, but an entertaining horror/drama. This Blu-ray version of the special edition release features a fine audio commentary with Teague and a solid making-of featurette, a slight video upgrade, and a major audio upgrade.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 24th November 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spansih
Extras: Director Commentary, Behind the Scenes, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Lewis Teague
Cast: Dee Walace Stone, Robert Behling, Danny Pintauro, Terence Donovan
Genre: Drama and Horror
Length: 95 minutes
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