Editors Note: 2 Pack DVD set not available through our Amazon.com links, this review serves as review for both Cujo and Pet Semetary, as well as discussing aspects of both these films as Stephen King adaptations.
Cujo 25th Anniversary Edition/ Pet Sematary Special Collector’s Edition
In the1980s, Stephen King was on a tear. It seemed he was cranking out 400-page novels at a pace of one book every 3 to 4 minutes. His works were flying off the shelves, keeping his publishers rolling in greenbacks and his name perpetually on the New York Times bestseller list. Tinseltown took notice and, before long, started churning out a slew of movies based on his works. King’s works seemed a hot commodity for adaptation, and though many of them failed to meet the success of his novels, with either critics or fans, movie studios were still lining up to make movies based on his titles. Two of these movies were Cujo and Pet Sematary. And though they appeared at opposite ends of the decade, from different studios and directors, they have more than a little in common.
The novel Cujo will always have a special place in my life. It’s the first long adult novel I ever read; and although it doesn’t hold up as a great read, it kept my pre-teen interest enough to make it through to the end, and inspired me to read more. So when the movie came out, I was eager to see it. Unfortunately, my mom wasn’t going to take me to an R-rated horror movie. So I had to wait for it to hit cable. When it did, I was rather disappointed. I now understand that I made this judgment because it lacked the depth of the book. Certain character details were eliminated, some events compressed or deleted entirely. When I saw Cujo again years later, I was able to see it on its own terms. That said, Cujo still is not a great movie, but it does offer some decent scares.
Lewis Teague’s version of Cujo introduces us to a 200 lb. dog, chasing a rabbit across a field. In a demented twist on Alice in Wonderland, the rabbit leaps down a hole, and Cujo jams his head in. The actions stirs up a group of bats, one of which bites the St. Bernard on the nose. That small bite causes big problems for the townsfolk of Castle Rock, Maine. Played against this is the family drama of the Trentons. Donna, bored with living in rural Maine, has engaged in an affair with the local tennis bum (okay, so how many local tennis bums do you find in rural Maine???); husband Vic’s position as man of the house is threatened not only by the affair, but a disastrous turn of events at his job in advertising; son Tad is afraid of the bogeyman… and played by Danny Pintauro! When car troubles also plague the family, Donna and Tad find themselves in a broken down Pinto besieged by Cujo!
One benefit of the movie is that it streamlines the action. The book bounces between three different storylines, and there are long spans where nothing really happens; when the movie gets to the siege, the cutaways are short. The attack scenes are intense and cut together nicely, considering the number of dogs used in each. And the camera work, done by Jan de Bont is better than it has any right to be for a low budget horror flick. Check out the artistry of the scene where Tad runs to his bed in slow motion and the camera flips upside down to capture his leap in dreamlike motion; or the scene where Cujo appears out of the mist, an impressive reveal. Sadly, all these elements fail to make Cujo a thrilling flick. The setup before the siege takes way too long (you can blame King for this; he’s not one to cut to the quick). But the biggest flaw is the acting. Instead of a horror movie, it felt as if I were watching a Lifetime movie of the week. Despite the presence of stalwart horror vet Dee Wallace, the family dynamic never panned out. Having the guy from Hardcastle and McCormick bring his flat acting did little to help the situation. And as much as I hate to, I have to give Pintauro a pass, because he was only 6 at the time. Finally, I must address the movie’s ending. This is a Hollywood ending if I ever saw one. It veers way off course from the way King completed the novel, but apparently King wanted a happier ending with a final, tacked on jolt. I loathe Hollywood endings in general, and this one in particular. The final freeze frame offers little closure for the Trenton family. I sincerely wonder how audiences reacted to this ending in theatres in 1983. It made roughly four times its $5 million budget, so I guess they enjoyed it. But I still think it’s a cop out.
If I were grading Cujo, I’d probably give it an 80. It’s a modest success with some flaws, but it satisfies as decent entertainment. If I were grading Mary Lambert’s take on King, she’d fail miserably with a 50.
By the end of the 1980s, I had read a number of King’s novels, including Pet Sematary. I remember liking Pet Sematary much better than Cujo as a novel, and also that I wanted to see the movie for it. Somehow, my plans for a big screen outing were again thwarted, and I saw Pet Sematary for the first time on VHS. As with the movie for Cujo, I was vastly disappointed. Unlike my feelings on Cujo, however, when I watched Pet Sematary on DVD last week, I still found it to be a disaster on film.
Pet Sematary starts off with a view of one of the phoniest looking graveyards I’ve ever seen committed to film. This cemetery was a sign of many lousy things to follow. Lousy acting ensues as The Creed family pulls up to their new house in… you guessed it!… rural Maine. With Louis Creed set to become the new physician at the local college (a local college in rural Maine???), his attractive wife trying to keep the childhood horrors of her decrepit sister buried, and the two kids ready to swing from tires and fly kites, the family moves into a house that resides on a very bad street, one that has claimed the life of many a pet. When daughter Ellie Creed’s cat aptly named cat Church succumbs to the road and dies, elderly neighbor Jud Crandall shows Louis that the little pet cemetery down the path has a trick or two. When toddler son Gage succumbs to the road and dies, things begin to get ugly.
Pet Sematary shares a lot with Cujo. The isolated setting in Maine; the family dynamic; an animal that was once kindly family pet, but is now more than a little off. Also like Cujo, Pet Sematary was one of King’s more entertaining novels, and as with Teague’s work the movie sticks closely to its source. So how did the movie fail so miserably? Production value. If some of the acting in Cujo felt as if it were meant for a Lifetime movie of the week, all of Pet Sematary felt as if it actually were a movie of the week. The stale settings and the actual look produced by the film stock are right off one of the TV networks. The direction was static and bland. But the acting… by God, this tops all. Dale Midkiff and Denise Crosby perform as if they’re in the high school play version of Pet Sematary. Blaze Berdahl’s turn as Ellie is worthy of a slot on Full House. The actor who plays Crosby’s father should have had his acting rights revoked. Miko Hughes gets the same pass that Pintauro got, because he was actually younger than Pintauro. His stand-in puppet, on the other hand, should have demanded a better payday and second billing. The only actor who acquits himself admirably and leaves the film with any self-respect is Fred Gwynne. The veteran actor, so beloved as Herman Munster, does a fine job as Jud, emoting properly amidst a sea of terrible performers.
Unfortunately, the atmosphere buries this movie like the neighborhood cat. The best horror films, and even some lesser efforts, establish a mood and tone that horrify the viewer. The mood of Pet Sematary is as flat as the acting. It does not set the stage for chills at all. So when Victor Pascow, the student who dies under Louis’ care his first day at work, comes to visit his doctor at home late one night, I didn’t so much as flinch. Whereas when King presented this scenario in the novel, I felt fright traveling up my spine. The atmosphere of a film is a direct product of the director, and Lambert fails to do anything but bore me with her project.
As with Cujo, I wonder how audiences treated Pet Sematary in theatres. It cost about $11 million, and brought in nearly seven times that, so many people must have liked it. I just wonder how many of those dollars we can attribute to King’s name attached to the title.
Oddly, the extras for the DVD’s of both films are also similar. Though they were released by different studios, each has a director’s commentary and a documentary broken into three parts. In fact, both the documentaries include comments from King’s biographer Douglas E. Winter. But then, both are also produced by Laurent Bozreau, so this all makes sense. Please allow me to handle the movies separately.
Cujo’s documentary is both entertaining and informative. It includes interviews with Teague and de Bont, producer Daniel H. Blatt, actors Dee Wallace and Danny Pintauro, and a few others. It tracks the genesis of the project, how it changed studios, and how Teague almost didn’t get the directing gig. It takes the audience through production, and discusses the end results of Cujo, both as an artistic endeavor and at the box office. The players here are all enthused to be discussing the movie, and for a piece that runs 38 minutes or so, it’s more probably more in-depth than it has any right to be. I enjoyed the insights it presented.
Too bad Teague’s commentary is such a dud. Left to his own devices, the director drones on and on, often repeating himself. He rarely discusses the action on film, instead following tangents that not only repeat some of the information from the documentary, but bored me. After watching the documentary, I expected more. NOTE: One factor that exceeded my expectations was the aspect ratio. For the first time in my life, I was able to see Cujo in 1:85 to 1, the way it was on the silver screen 25 years ago. I hate seeing 2/3 or a movie, and it’s nice to see Lionsgate respected the ratio. Bravo to them.
Pet Sematary’s documentary is also informative, and follows the exact pattern of Cujo’s. This one actually included retro footage of King, who demanded the film be shot in Maine, and has a cameo as a priest. Mary Lambert and Dale Midkiff, though, are not nearly as entertaining as Teague and company. Lambert gives insight into some odd choices she made, and Midkiff offers some memories from the set. Lamentably, Fred Gwynne died many years ago; it would have been nice to have some of his memories on the film. As he did with Cujo, Winter provides some background for why King wrote the novel, and comments on some of its specifics. One thing missing from this commentary, something I would have found interesting indeed, was a discussion about how George Romero was supposed to direct this film. I wonder what the god of zombie cinema would have done with little Gage and the cat. Alas, the documentary offers us no answers.
After watching the movie again, I thought Pet Sematary couldn’t get any worse. And then I suffered through it with commentary. Mary Lambert is an odd woman. There’s no other way to put it. She talks of a tree, the house and a truck as characters. She seems generally impressed with the movie, which can and should be used against her in a court of law. I thought maybe I was going into this commentary with an attitude, but when I jumped around the disc one more time, I realized it’s just too oddball for me. NOTE #2: Ditto for the aspect ratio on this film. Now you can see every inch of this pungent trash in the luxury of your own home.
Cujo and Pet Sematary are strikingly similar in some ways, but the movies differ drastically in quality. The big dog still provides some decent scares, and wins paws down over the school play turned monster movie with the undead cat. And as a dog lover, I have to dig that.