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Face-Off: Pet Sematary vs. Cujo

Nice to see you again, fans of the cinema! This is the Face-Off, where two movies enter and both movies leave, but one leaves in a slightly better light. Yes, here we take two competitors and compare their key elements and see who comes out the champion. It's a fierce competition that results in blood, tears, and online arguments, but the more brutal the battle, the sweeter the victory.

The holiday hits of 2018 are still playing strong into January, so this week we will yet again only get a small batch of new releases, including Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston's THE UPSIDE and the latest entry in the puppy-driven cash grab, A DOG'S WAY HOME. The latter, of course, is a movie that tells the tale of an adorable puppy growing up with her owner, only to get lost as an adult. It's probably very adorable in parts and is all about the bonds of man and animal and yes it's all very sweet. But, sometimes, animals aren't always in the licking mood, and in some cases across movie history, are actually more prone to rip your face off than give it kisses. That's why we will be digging into the darker side of animal ownership this week, which also doubles as a Stephen King showdown: It's PET SEMATARY vs. CUJO.

Both adapted from classic King tales, both are staples in the canon of 80s movies based on his works. The former was the more successful of the duo, making a good chunk of change at the time and inspiring a best-left-forgotten sequel. The ball gets rolling when a family man revives his daughter's dead pet, becoming a twisted tale of the folly of not accepting when a loved one has passed on. Next is CUJO, the more straightforward of the two, focusing on a family in an emotional crisis, which is made all the worse when a mother and her son are locked in a car, with a rabid, monstrous dog lying in wait right outside. While a dog's way home will make any young whipper-snapper want a doe-eyed pet, these two movies suggest fish are the better option. 

The Ensemble

Dale Midkiff as Louis Creed
Denise Crosby as Rachel Creed
Blaze Berdahl as Ellie Creed
Miko Hughes as Gage Creed
Brad Greenquist as Victor Pascow
Andrew Hubatsek as Zelda 
and Fred Gwynne as Jud Crandall

Dee Wallace as Donna Trenton
Daniel Hugh Kelly as Vic Trenton
Danny Pintauro as Tad Trenton
Ed Lauter as Joe Camber
Kaiulani Lee as Charity Camber
Billy Jayne as Brett Camber
Christopher Stone as Steve Kemp
with Moe as Cujo

Direction

Mary Lampert, known for her work in the music video industry at the time, demonstrates a strong knack for atmospheric visuals. She sets the mood early on with the opening credits, panning over countless pet graves with an eerie music track behind it. As the movie progresses, she puts a strong emphasis on the more twisted, haunting visuals, whether it be a wide shot showing off the burial ground, or tight focus on the creepy, nightmarish faces of Zelda and Zombie Gage. More importantly, she understood what movie she was making. Some Stephen King adaptations don't know how to play it. They go serious when they should be silly, or vice versa. But PET SEMATARY is one of the stronger King entries of the era because Lampert got that the premise is farfetched and silly, and leans into it the terror and gore as far as she can go. She doesn't leave any room for nuance, which is a fault, and remove some of the suspense as the movie progresses, but she knows how to make the freaky scenes work and stay with you, which is what this movie should do.

Lewis Teague had a bit more experience in the movie business than Lampert did at the time of making CUJO, working on small budget horror flicks that made him a perfect candidate for a movie about a rabid dog killing people. Where Teague deserves the most credit is his work with the big, bad dog himself, always making him seem menacing and larger than life thanks to some clever camera work and forced perspective. Though there's notable cheapness in some of the carnage, most of the doggie terror actually holds up. Cujo ripping into some poor soul looks about as realistic as it can, and for that Teague deserve props for taking advantage of a low budget and making it come off as effective genre thrills. Where he stalls is in the human drama that takes up the first half of the movie. In the build-up to the bloody bits there's a lot of melodrama that feels rote and a chore to get through, even with bits with the deteriorating Cujo spliced in every now and again. I know he's just adapting a King tale - and faithfully - but there's little pulse or energy in much of the first half, and you can tell that sort of stuff is not his strong suit.

Script

Look, PET SEMATARY is not a smart movie. Why the hell is Crandall showing Louis the burial ground when he knows exactly what powers it has? So Louis can get the family cat back? Who gives a shit! That soil makes zombie pets AND zombie people. Ugh. That's the big problem with Stephen King's script, adapted from his own book: There aren't clear motivations beyond surface-level goals, no matter how terrifying the actions. Still, despite some dumb choices, this script has King as a bright spot, which means you get the flourishes that come with him. That means his penchant for memorable dialogue, some incredibly colorful horror and an overall strange premise that hooks you in. Where Lampert beat Teague in the battle above is the same reason King's script wins here. Where Lampert brought her flair for visuals to the table, King brought his personality, for better or worse, telling a story that always has something entertaining or eerie going on, which a big reason why this movie has aged better than some of the other King adaptations.

What comes to mind when you think of CUJO? Probably a monstrous dog ripping people to shreds, right? Yes, that is a fair, logical place to go when thinking about this classic King tale. But do you remember the movie's entire first half, which is mostly marital problems? No? Perhaps that's because none of that is what you turn on this movie to watch, and isn't really engaging to sit through until the juicy bits kick in. Look, CUJO's script by Don Carlos Dunaway and Lauren Currier is faithful to the book, trimming down the fat where it was needed on focusing on the two families, soon to literally be ripped apart by a rabid dog. It's stripped down to the essentials, even if most of the story hasn't aged well outside the survival story of a mother and her son. That bit is written as an excellent genre thriller and could've even worked on its own as a whole movie. But thanks to a lackluster ending nothing about the other half of this movie - the drama - feels wrapped up, making all of that melodrama seem like nothing but build-up. That makes this script is two halves of two very different movies pushed together.

Best Bits & Lines

Bits:

The Graves
Meet Mr. Crandall
Pet Sematary
Ghost of Victor
Indian Burial Ground
Church is Back!
Rachel's Secret
Death in the Family
Crandall Shares a Story
Digging Up the Corpse
Rachel’s Nightmare
Gage Is Back!
Hide n' Seek!
Gage Feasts on Jud
Rachel’s Discovery
Louis vs. Gage
Didn't Learn His Lesson!

Lines:

Jud: "Sometimes, dead is better."

--

Jud: "The person you put up there ain't the person that comes back. It may look like that person, but it ain't that person. 'Cause... whatever lives in the ground beyond the Pet Sematary ain't human at all."

--

Gage: "I'm at Jud's daddy. Will you come over and play with me? First I play with Jud. Then mommy came, and I played with mommy. We play, daddy? We had an awful good time Now, I want to play with you."

--

Louis: "Fuck off, hairball."

--

Gage: "No Fair. No Fair, No Fair."

--

Louis: "My father used to have a saying, Jud. God sees the truth... But waits."

--

Jud: "The soil of a man's heart is stonier, Louis. A man grows what he can, and he tends it. Because what you buy is what you own. And what you own... always comes home to you."

 

 

Bits:

Cujo Goes Hunting/Once Bitten
Something in the Closet
Cujo the Friendly Dog
The Monster Dog Emerges
Cujo’s First Attack!
And Once More, With (Rapid) Feeling!
Stranded
Phone Ringing Make Dog Mad
Attack in the Car
Attacking the Police Officer
One on One
Cujo Down

Lines:

Donna: “Fuck you, dog.”

--

Steve: "“I don’t give a shit! Ya hear me, I don’t give a shit!”

--

Joe: "Oh my God... you're rabid!

--

Tad: "Who let the monster out of my closet? Who let the monster out of my closet?"
Donna: "It's not a monster. It's not a monster. It's just a doggy."

 

 

Terror/Gore

SEMATARY doesn't shy away from the gore. Early on we see that sick head wound that kills Victor, as well as some other twisted scenes with Zelda and resurrectees of the burial ground. That final third act is suitably gory, calling to mind the cheap effects of something like EVIL DEAD. It's silly in some of the same ways too, like poor Jud being murdered by an infant, who proceeds to bite his throat out. There's a variety of gore, from slashing to ripping and biting, on top of some freaky makeup. The terror and suspense aren't quite up to snuff, sometimes losing the genuine scares among the odd story and some downright illogical moves. But when Lampert gets a chance she goes all in, and she gets a lot out of the aura of the pet sematary, the whole final sequence in the house, and letting Fred Gwynne be ominous as fuck.

When CUJO is finally let off the leash it makes up for a pretty unterrifying first half with constant dog-centric maulings of unsuspecting victims. Before then there's some tension to be had thanks to the occasional return to the deteriorating dog, whose coat starts to become soaked in this sort of sweat/goo that makes him look utterly monstrous. When he gets to chomping the blood really flows, and mixed with the incredibly tense setting of Donna and her son being trapped in the car, the final portion is an excellent showcase of genre thrills...even if it takes a while to get there.

Nasty Pets & Characters

Until the very end (aside from the flashback with Zelda) we don't get all that much in the way of effective, creepy characters or beasts. Church the cat is surprisingly normal for a cat brought back from the dead, and there' the visions of the dead Victor, which have more of AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON camp to them. The end makes up for a bit, throwing at us Gage the mad zombie baby and some more Zelda, visuals of both can burn themselves deep into the psyche. I saw glimpses of this as a kid, and it explains so much.

Ah, CUJO the St. Bernard; what a transformation you go through, and what an iconic beast you became. The big dog is terrifying enough to have cemented himself in movie monster lore for all time, and big props go to the makeup team for making him look so malicious. What's also impressive is the focus on making him a thinking, reacting creature and not just some mindless beast throwing himself at a car. Sure, it's more realistic if he WAS just throwing himself at the car, rather than plotting his moves, but come on, that's not near as entertaining. This is a rabid, man-killing dog who sees a cop car coming, runs off to hide, only to pop out later like it hatched a plan. How awesome is that? Very. Very awesome. He's such a good boy. Well, no he's a bad boy. But he's such a good bad boy.

Legacy

PET SEMATARY holds up much better than other King adaptations of the period, being not as smart as the best horror entries, like CARRIE, THE SHINING and MISERY, and not as bad as some of the worst, like THINNER and RIDING THE BULLET. In fact, there's a lot about this movie that has made its way into pop culture - from the premise of burying someone/thing, only to have it come back and kill you, to the lines of one Jud Crandall (Sometimes, dead is better) and the creepy zombie toddler. The show SOUTH PARK has even had some fun with the memorable bits of the movie, bringing in Crandall to tell Butters' father not to bury him at the nearby burial ground (only to tell him exactly where it is in the same instance). No, it's not the best King adaptation, but there's plenty about it that horror fans will remember for years to come and that even regular movie watchers may have picked up on in pop culture.

What do you call a dog that's acting crazy? Cujo. Horror fans know why, and non-horror fans know why. You don't need to see CUJO to know what the premise is and why it's famous: Killer dog attacking people. The name has become part of the lexicon, and imagery attached to it - even if people haven't seen the movie. That's a level of notoriety any piece of media hopes to achieve. CUJO doesn't need to be remade or reintroduced; everyone is fascinated by dogs, even when they go crazy.

Awards, Praise & Money

Awards:

Nothing Fancy

*1 Win and 5 Nominations* (Per IMDb)

 

Praise:

Rotten Tomatoes: 50% (59% Audience)

IMDb: 6.6

Metacritic: 38 (7.3 Audience)

 

Money:

$57 million domestic

Awards:

Nothing Fancy

*1 Win and 3 Nominations* (Per IMDb)

 

Praise:

Rotten Tomatoes: 60% (45% Audience Score)

IMDb: 6.0

Metacritic: 57 (6.4 Audience)

 

Money

$21 million domestic

Pet Sematary

Upon rewatching CUJO, I was reminded that what I find memorable and great about it is only the final chunk of the movie, which is filled with well-crafted thrills and a notable amount of gore. Everything else about it, though, especially the main story about the struggling family, has not aged as well, and coupled with a head-scratching ending can't help but feel like anything more than a distraction from the best bits. Then there's SEMATARY, which is far from an intelligent outing but wins over this bout thanks to an abundance of kooky, unsettling personality and more than enough weird, campy horror to go around. Not to mention, Fred Gwynne is fantastic as Jud Crandall and makes the movie worth staying invested in when the other lead performance from Dale Midkiff is the exact opposite. I have more fun watching PET SEMATARY over the years, and some of that imagery still freaks me out all these years later. In short, I would rather fight through an angry dog scenario any day of the week than being locked in a room with a zombie toddler. 

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