Face-Off: Cujo vs. Pet Sematary

This weekend will see the release of THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS, an animated film that is sure to be one of the cutest and most family friendly movies of the year. The antics the animals get up to there probably won't be anything like the things literary master of horror Stephen King wrote about cats and dogs doing in his novels CUJO and PET SEMATARY, which were given cinematic adaptations by directors Lewis Teague and Mary Lambert, respectively. In anticipation of the cuteness, let's take a look at King's much more twisted versions of the secret lives of pets and see which earns the prize of Best in Show.
St. Bernard Cujo is turned into a vicious killer not by any kind of supernatural force but by a terrible real world affliction: rabies. While out chasing a rabbit one day, as dogs are wont to do, Cujo happens to stick his head into a bat cave. A bite on his nose from a rabies-carrying bat is the cause of all the horror that is to come. It's an effective set-up because it has a basis in reality.
Deep in the wilderness, beyond the local pet cemetery (or "sematary", as the sign made by a child reads) there lies an old Indian burial ground where the soil is said to have gone sour. Anything buried there, be it a domesticated animal or otherwise, will soon rise from the dead. But when they come back, they're not the same as they were before. "Indian burial ground" is a cliché, but it works for this story.
Before the rabies kicks in, Cujo is a big, friendly giant who's especially fond of children. A dog I would happily be the owner of. Once the disease has taken over his mind, though, this dog becomes a relentless killing machine. No human can stand up to the power of this beast. Set aside the fact that the rabies would eventually kill him anyway, and there's just no way you could continue keeping Cujo around as a pet.
I'm an animal person, I've had dogs and cats and various other critters all my life, but if it came down to a choice, I'm more of a dog person than anything. That said, the re-animated Church the cat wouldn't be the worst pet to have. So it hisses and scratches. I've been around cats that did that even without having risen from the dead with an Indian curse upon them. Just let him hang around outside and keep your distance.
King was certainly thinking outside the box when he decided to make one of his main characters an ad man who has to deal with the fact that the cereal he's working on an ad campaign for is feared to cause internal bleeding. This guy is having marital trouble, as his wife is cheating on him with the town stud and... can the dog just start attacking people already? The most interesting character in this film is the couple's son Tad, who lives in constant fear that his bedroom is inhabited by monsters.
The Creed family - Louis, his wife Rachel, their children Ellie and Gage - are a nice bunch. Louis is a medical doctor and a loving father, but his father-in-law still doesn't approve of him, for reasons I don't really understand. Sure, he tends to deliver overwritten, unnatural-sounding dialogue, but that's no reason to hate him. Thanks to the performance of Fred Gwynne, their neighbor Jud Crandall is my favorite character in the film; a very nice, endearing guy who makes some bad choices
Cujo is on a violent rampage for a fifty minute span of this film, tearing multiple people to pieces and trapping Tad and his mother Donna in their broken down little car. Most of the running time consists of Donna trying desperately to figure out how to protect Tad and get him out of this horrible situation while Cujo stands guard outside, ready to snap at them anytime a body part is exposed to him. As far as killer animals go, this dog is up there with Bruce the shark from JAWS.
As noted above, the animals that return from the Micmac burial ground really aren't that much of a threat. They're not so friendly anymore, but they're no Cujo, either. The resurrected dead that you really have to watch out for are the people who get buried in that sour soil. Regardless of age or what they were like in life, they come back as bloodthirsty, completely insane murderers. While it deals with zombie animals, PET SEMATARY really isn't a killer animal movie.
Watching Cujo try to sink his teeth into human flesh can make you a bit uneasy, make you a flinch a bit, especially when you have the thought in mind that anyone he bites is going to be infected with rabies... if they're lucky enough to escape from him at all. But I don't find CUJO to be scary, and that's not a failure on the director's part. It would just be impossible for any filmmaker to make me scared of a dog. I'm more sorry for Cujo than I am afraid of him.
In my book, PET SEMATARY is one of the creepiest, most disturbing movies ever made, and watching it as a child seriously traumatized me. The atmosphere is thick with dread and the subject matter is just awful. Dead pets, a sister ravaged by disease, an adorable toddler who can barely walk or talk killed in a tragic accident, then resurrected as the world's tiniest serial killer. King was going all-out to mess with your mind with this one. This movie hurts.
CUJO and PET SEMATARY are both great films, but I have to give the edge to PET SEMATARY. Its pets may not be as impressive as Cujo, but it is packed full of the stuff of nightmares, and has better characters to deal with the horrors that Stephen King throws at them.

Do you agree with the outcome of this Face-Off, or do you prefer CUJO? Share your thoughts on these films in the comments section below. If you have suggestions for future Face-Off pairings, you can send them to [email protected] and I would be glad to read them.



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