There are no such things as monsters, according to Vic Trenton, father of Tad and husband to Donna. It’s the kind of confident, intentionally comforting if unintentionally patronizing pronouncement a dad makes to a small son who is terrified of the shadows that creep across his bedroom floor at night, and Vic delivers it as such. It’s also the kind of pronouncement that horror fans immediately expect to be either unfortunately misguided or flat-out wrong in a horror movie with Stephen King’s name attached to it.
Vic Trenton isn’t wrong, though. Not this time. Not really. This time there truly are no such things as monsters. There’s only the monstrous weight of guilt and uncertainty as a middle-class American family stands at the precipice of being ripped apart by a sexual affair on one side and a doting father but distant husband on the other. There’s the monstrous anxiety that aging, life changes, and cultural shifts thrust upon adults trying to make their marks on the world. There’s also a very sick St. Bernard named Cujo.
Stephen King famously remarked that, thanks to substance abuse at the time, he doesn’t remember writing his bestselling 1981 novel Cujo. That’s a damn shame because it’s one of his most tightly developed and endearing tales. If you’ve never shed tears at the end of a Stephen King novel, you’ve never read Cujo. Moreover, this novel produced one of the best—if not the best—film adaptations of his work in the Lewis Teague-directed 1983 film of the same name. On April 15, Eureka Entertainment will release a two-disc Blu-ray limited edition of that adaptation in the UK. That edition includes a hardbound slipcase and more than seven hours of bonus content.
The first King-based horror film to not feature a strong supernatural element, Cujo threatens the viewer on more than the visceral level of watching a mother and her young son trapped in a dead car as they attempt to survive an attack by a rabid dog. Both the novel and the film are products of a time in American culture when the children of Baby Boomers would often lie awake at night in fear, listening to their parents argue in hushed but angry tones from a distant room, fearing that something might happen to the safety they enjoyed as children in a family unit. Divorce was on the rise in the United States, and people worried about it. The statistics on the nightly news crept ever closer to the 50 percent mark. This figure was often reported in a talismanic, point-of-no-return way, as if surpassing that percentage meant a shift in family dynamics and relationships for the culture at large that verged on apocalyptic. Some commentators at the time even called the trend a crisis.
Teague’s film successfully plays on threats to that tenuous thread of wedded happiness as the viewer learns that Donna (Dee Wallace) is feeling unfulfilled in marriage and motherhood and has as a result taken a lover. Throughout the first half of the film Wallace, with just a few facial expressions and perfectly understated delivery of her lines, portrays Donna as sad, nervous, and guilt-ridden over the affair. She deserves every pixel of the pre-title billing she gets in this film. Meanwhile, Vic (Daniel Hugh Kelly) senses that something is wrong with his marriage, but confronts it in passive ways, as if he’s afraid of what he might learn by asking his wife questions outright. He chooses instead to throw himself into his work and is given the perfect excuse to do so when a cereal company for whom he created a marketing campaign ends up in a publicity nightmare.
Child Tad, played by a very young Danny Pintauro, is the quintessential offspring of Baby Boomers. He is stuck in the middle of his parents’ faltering relationship. Like his father, Tad senses that something is wrong. He also senses that the problem is not to be confronted, and therefore makes efforts to distract his parents with humor when things get awkward. Psychologically, it’s plausible that the monsters Tad thinks haunt his bedroom are a manifestation of his sense that his family unit is in trouble. At first, Tad requires comfort and proof from both his parents that the monsters are not real. Later, when Vic develops a magical set of “Monster Words For Tad” to keep the imagined creatures at bay, the child begins to distance himself from Donna and cling more and more to his father. Thus, the real rending of the family fabric begins.
It isn’t until Tad’s monsters spring to life in the form of a St. Bernard with the world’s most epic case of misophonia that mother and child are forced to bond again. Donna and Tad drive the family Pinto to Castle Rock mechanic Joe Camber’s house to have it fixed. The car’s been misbehaving for a while, and Vic just never found the time or tools to fix it himself. With Vic out of town trying to save his company’s cereal company contract, mother and son arrive at the Camber house just in time for the car to finally die. There they find the Cambers apparently not home. It is then that they are confronted by the rabid and rapidly descending into madness Cujo.
However, that alone is not enough to salvage the relationship. On some level, the terrified Tad doesn’t trust his mother to protect him from the dog. He wants his daddy, has even brought along a copy of the “Monster Words” that his father had written down for him before he left on the 10-day business trip. Add to that the fact that his mother is unable to get the car running in order to escape the dog, and Tad’s anxieties escalate to the point of severely affecting his physical health. Donna, alone, afraid, and with a young son to protect, is then thrust into the traditional father role of protector as she fights to keep her child alive as well as escape the rabid jaws of Cujo.
Cujo is a very nearly perfect horror movie in terms of its story and plot. There’s danger, suspense, violence, some gore, some sex, and, most of all, characters with whom the viewer can empathize. There are no perfect people in this film, but neither are their perfect people in real life. This movie is also perfectly cast. Wallace (who had starred as Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore’s mother in E.T. the previous year) was already a celebrity when she was cast in Cujo, but this film showcases her abilities far beyond her previous work. I also don’t know of another child actor besides Pintauro who could have been cast as Tad. Watching that youngster on screen, you really believe that he believes Wallace is his mother and Kelly is his father. Speaking of fathers, Kelly nails the role of the 1980s beleaguered middle class ad man struggling to relate at home.
There are no such things as monsters in Castle Rock. Not this time. Not really. There’s only the monstrous effort of living, of surviving, of facing another day, of maintaining a relationship with those you love. There’s all that, and there’s a very sick St. Bernard named Cujo who only wants some quiet.
The Eureka Entertainment two-disc Blu-ray release features all of the following:
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]