Friday, July 3, 2009

DVD Views: Cujo (1983)

Cujo ** (1983)
Directed by:
Lewis Teague.
Written By: Don Carlos Dunaway and Lauren Currier based on the novel by Stephen King.
Starring: Dee Wallace (Donna Trenton), Danny Pintauro (Tad Trenton), Daniel Hugh Kelly (Vic Trenton), Christopher Stone (Steve Kemp), Ed Lauter (Joe Camber), Kaiulani Lee (Charity Camber), Billy Jayne (Brett Camber), Mills Watson (Gary Pervier), Sandy Ward (Bannerman), Jerry Hardin (Masen), Merritt Olsen (Professor), Arthur Rosenberg (Roger Breakstone).

Stephen King’s book Cujo is an almost unbearably suspenseful read. It takes its time setting up its characters and their problems, immersing us in their contrasting worlds – between the working class and the upper middle class, the white collar workers and the blue collar workers, before immersing us into a struggle for life and death when an innocent woman and her three year old son are trapped in their car over the course of several scorching hot days, unable to get out because a rabid St. Bernard is outside waiting for them. What happens is next is incredibly suspenseful.

The movie based on the book just fails to have the same impact. Part of the reason is that they have to cut out so much stuff to keep the movie to a 95 minute running time that it’s impossible to pay the same attention to detail as the novel did. The lower class family who owns the dog are pretty much shunted to the background – the mother and son go off on a trip early, and are not heard from again, and the crude father is rapidly dispatched by the rabid dog. Likewise, the woman’s lover, also lower class, is shunted to the side as well, becoming a standard issue loser. The details that they do keep – that of her husband’s struggle with his latest ad campaign seems downright silly divorced from all the details that were left out of the movie.

But perhaps all of these flaws could be forgiven had director Lewis Teague at least gotten the feeling of being inside that car right. In the novel, you get claustrophobic right alongside the woman her son, you can feel the unbearable heat, the long slow hours that stretch into days, the constant fear and panic of what the dog is capable of. Unfortunately, Teague is incapable of providing the same feelings in his movie. The scenes in the car are so hurried that suspense is never given time to build. We do not really feel like they are trapped in there for a very long time, and he fails to make us feel the heat.

Cujo is not all bad. It is a fairly well made, and the dog attacks themselves are appropriately scary. Dee Wallace does as good a job as she can as the woman trapped in the car, and young Danny Pinauro, in his pre Who’s the Boss days, is just the right amount of cute and annoying for a child actor. The rest of the cast is not as good, but then they are not really given much to do. Perhaps Cujo is just the type of story that works better as a book than it does as a movie. Perhaps I just enjoyed it more because King followed his story to its obvious conclusion, whereas the movie cops out in the end. But whatever the reason, I was disappointed in Cujo. I was expecting more given the caliber of the book.

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