The impact of Stephen King on the literary horror scene in the mid-seventies cannot be underestimated, with each of his novels adapted for film or television adaptation before readers had even had the chance to dive into them, Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand (lost in development hell for the longest time), The Dead Zone and Firestarter, so it was not surprising when 1981’s Cujo was swiftly optioned.
Developed by Daniel H Blatt, a producer on The Howling, the original script written by King himself departed significantly from the novel, with two further drafts by Don Carlos Dunaway and Lauren Currier bringing it back to the text then streamlining the action, King’s vast novels often requiring a format more akin to a three-hour miniseries and unwieldy as a single feature film.
The novel released in late 1981, like much of King’s work it was set in Maine, the town of Castle Rock, where the Trenton family live, mother Donna, father Vic and their young son Tad who suffers from recurring nightmares which are as nothing compared to what he and his mother must face when Vic leaves town for a few days on business.
Her car in need of urgent repairs, Donna and Tad drive to Joe Camber’s isolated farmhouse for assistance, but Joe and his neighbour are both dead, killed by the Camber family’s normally friendly St Bernard; infected by rabies after been bitten by a bat while chasing rabbits, Cujo traps Donna and Tad in their broken-down car miles out of town.
Originally released in the summer of 1983 and now remastered for Blu-ray by Eureka and released as a limited edition two-disc box with a sixty-page booklet and crammed with new interviews, Cujo was originally to have been directed by The Changeling’s Peter Medak who left two days into filming along with the original director of photography.
Replacing them at short notice were Roger Corman’s protégé Lewis Teague, whom King had originally suggested for the project, and cinematographer Jan de Bont, later a director in his own right, and with only two days of shutdown filming continued in northern California, standing in for Maine for budgetary reasons.
The plot originally inspired by an incident when King was growled at by the dog belonging to the owner of a garage where his motorcycle was in for repair and written during a periods of which he has little recollection due to his heavy drug intake, like all his novels it features a web of character and incident, and for the most part the cast inherited by Teague manage to convey this depth and complexity.
With E. T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Dee Wallace had been established as America’s most dependable mom; for The Hills Have Eyes and The Howling she was recognised as resolute and strong, and in Donna Trenton she gave what she has described as her best performance as a flawed woman doing her best to hold her marriage together and protect her son in unthinkable circumstances.
In his first major film role, Daniel Hugh Kelly is the devoted but disillusioned Vic while Wallace’s real-life husband Christopher Stone with whom she had previously starred alongside in The Howling is the abrasive family friend Steve Kemp with whom she is having an affair, and character actor Ed Lauter is Joe Camber while six-year old Danny Pintauro plays Tad.
“The most incredible child actor I’ve ever worked with,” in the words of Wallace in the 2007 “making of” documentary included on Eureka’s disc, it was a brutal shoot in cold weather rather than the scripted heatwave with multiple dogs playing Cujo, the shoot dependent on their cooperation with the comfort of the human performers secondary.
The reputation of the film resting on that extended siege sequence where the canine participants would lick off the whipped egg-white decoration as fast as it was applied, the strength of the film lies in the characters and King’s insight into small town life, and in many ways the screaming child inside the car is scarier than the rabid dog outside.
The supernatural elements of the novel excised in the adaptation, the film version of Cujo is the first King where the threat is entirely based in reality but that was not the only significant change, the ending altered to a less harrowing conclusion though with the blessing of the author who has indicated that if he were ever to revise the book he might make the same change.