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13 Rabid Facts About Cujo

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It may have temporarily given Saint Bernards a bad name, but this 1983 thriller is still fondly remembered by many horror fans for its relentless suspense and impressively trained stunt dogs. Here are 13 facts about Cujo that you can really sink your teeth into.

1. STEPHEN KING CAN BARELY REMEMBER WRITING THE ORIGINAL NOVEL.

The story of Cujo began in the summer of 1977. At the time, King was living in Bridgton, Maine with his wife, Tabitha. When his motorcycle broke down one day, he took it to a backwoods mechanic who owned what King calls “the biggest Saint Bernard I ever saw in my life.” Four years later, the master of horror published Cujo. A grim masterpiece, the book was written during a tumultuous chapter in its author’s life. During the 1980s, King struggled with alcohol and drug addictions—which spiraled out of control until his family staged an intervention.

In the year 2000, he opened up about the ordeal in his now-classic memoir On Writing. Before his loved ones confronted him, King admitted, he was “drinking a case of sixteen-ounce tallboys a night.” That experience robbed the novelist of some memories he’d like to have back. “[There’s] one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing at all. I don’t say that with pride or shame, only with a vague sense of sorrow and loss,” King revealed. “I like that book. I wish I could remember enjoying the good parts as I put them down on the page.”

2. DOG TRAINER KARL MILLER BEGGED A PRODUCER TO CHANGE CUJO’S BREED.

“There are no Saint Bernards who are trained,” Miller noted during pre-production. In the DVD documentary Dog Days: The Making of Cujo, producer Daniel H. Blatt reveals that Miller was hesitant about the prospect of working with this difficult breed in the film. In a conversation with Blatt, the animal handler asked “Why don’t you use a different kind of dog? I have lots of Dobermans and things like that that are trained.” Obviously, the producer wasn’t sold.

3. KING LOBBIED TO HAVE LEWIS TEAGUE DIRECT THE MOVIE.

As a horror movie buff, King really appreciated the unique directing style Teague exhibited in the 1980 creature feature Alligator. So when Taft International picked up the film rights to Cujo, he suggested that they hire Teague to take the helm. Instead, the studio chose veteran director Peter Medak. However, a few days after principal photography started, Medak left the project due to creative differences with Blatt. Teague was then brought in as a replacement.  

4. THE TITLE CHARACTER WAS PLAYED BY MULTIPLE CANINES (AND SOME MAN-MADE STUNT DOUBLES).

How many live Saint Bernards were used in the filming of Cujo? “Everybody says a different number,” observes Dee Wallace, who portrayed Donna Trenton. In various interviews, members of the cast and crew have claimed that Cujo relied on the services of anywhere from five to 13 individual dogs that all received specialized training.

“Each dog had a different talent,” Teague said at the 2014 Monster Mania Convention in southern New Jersey. For example, one pooch would bark on command in front of the camera. Another was taught to run along pre-determined routes. There were also certain moments—such as the shot where Cujo rams his head into a car door—that called for a synthetic canine. “We had a man in a dog suit, we had a mechanical dog, and we had as a backup a dog suit we could put on a Labrador retriever, which we never actually used,” Teague says.

5. TEAGUE CHOSE TO OMIT THE BOOK’S SUPERNATURAL UNDERTONES.

The novel implies that Cujo himself might be the reincarnation of a human serial killer. It also hints at the possibility of an otherworldly force lurking in Tad’s closet, which would help explain his recurring nightmares. During the DVD commentary, Teague says that he’d toyed with the latter concept. “We actually experimented with having special effects that showed something did exist… in the closet and Tad wasn’t just imagining things,” reveals the director. Specifically, in this deleted footage, the boy’s toys and coat hangers merge together into a frightening, monster-like shape. “But it didn’t work, on film it was hokey,” Teague claims.

6. CHILLY TEMPERATURES MADE FOR AN UNCOMFORTABLE SHOOT.

Although the story takes place in coastal Maine during an oppressively hot summer, Cujo was shot in northern California over the months of October, November, and December, 1982. Of course, this part of the country isn’t noted for its balmy winters. Wallace says that in many scenes, she and Danny Pintauro (Tad Trenton) “were freezing to death… They had to put a heater in the car for us during the production because we were freezing.”

This discomfort was exacerbated by the fact that the script called for both actors to wear very little clothing in all of the Pinto sequences. Low temperatures even marred some of the indoor scenes. Case in point: During the climax, Donna douses Tad with what appears to be cold tap water. But actually, Wallace used warm water to keep her young co-star from getting too chilly. 

7. ONE DOG HOSPITALIZED WALLACE’S STUNTWOMAN.  

In a discussion panel at the Monster Mania con, Teague and Wallace discussed a gruesome on-set injury. The incident occurred during the big attack scene that sees Cujo tackling Donna. When certain shots were deemed too dangerous for Wallace, the decision was made to intercut footage of her stuntwoman, Jean Coulter. Acting alongside the double was a trained dog named Cubby, who’d been taught to lurch forward whenever Coulter lunged towards him. Together, the two nailed an important shot on the very first take. Unfortunately, though, the situation was about to go downhill in a hurry.

“We [heard] ‘Cut! We got it!’” Wallace remembered. At that point, Coulter shouted “Yeah!” In her excitement, she suddenly jerked forward. Big mistake. “The dog lunged… and bit off the end of her nose,” Wallace said. Coulter was rushed to a hospital, where doctors reattached the lobbed-off nasal flesh. By the way, this wasn’t the first time she’d been injured or otherwise harmed during a shoot: On the set of Jaws 2 (1978), Coulter lost her eyelashes and brows when a flare gun mishap set her wig ablaze.  

8. THE SAINT BERNARDS WERE CONSTANTLY WAGGING THEIR TAILS.

Don’t let their big proportions scare you: In real life, Saint Bernards are famously friendly dogs—and the ones that appeared in Cujo were no different. “We had to literally tie their tails down [with fishing wire] because they would wag them,” Wallace remembers. “It was a big game for them!”

9. WALLACE FOUGHT TO KEEP A POWERFUL LINE OF DIALOGUE.  

Late in the film, an inconsolable Tad starts hollering for his father until Donna finally snaps and screams “Alright, I’ll get your daddy!” at the top of her lungs. The take that we see in the movie almost ended up on the cutting room floor. When Dan Blatt saw this footage, he approached Wallace and wondered aloud if the actress’ tone might cause the audience to turn against her character. “Every parent everywhere in the world will identify with that reaction,” Wallace countered. “Let’s have the balls to go with it.” Hearing this, Blatt relented and the take was incorporated into the final version of the film.  

10. KING APPROVED OF THE MOVIE’S HAPPY ENDING.

SPOILER ALERT: The Cujo novel ends with a devastating twist. In the book, an anguished Donna kills her canine oppressor moments before she’s rescued by her husband, Vic. Only then does she learn that little Tad—having succumbed to prolonged trauma and dehydration—has perished in the back seat of their Pinto. But in the movie version, Tad lives. It was a change that Taft International insisted upon, and King completely understood the studio’s rationale. As the novelist told Cinefantastique magazine, “Films exist on a much more emotional level. It’s all happening right in front of you.” Negative reactions to the final pages of his novel might also help explain why he was so willing to let the filmmakers cook up a happier ending. When the Cujo novel was released, King informed the cast and crew that he’d “never gotten more hate mail” than he did after killing off Tad Trenton.

11. AFTER PRODUCTION ENDED, WALLACE WAS TREATED FOR EXHAUSTION.

It’s no secret that King was greatly disappointed by Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic take on his classic novel, The Shining. On the other hand, he very much enjoyed what Teague and company did with Cujo. The author’s even written that Dee Wallace deserved an Oscar nomination for her “absolutely terrific” performance as Donna. For the record, Wallace cites Cujo as her favorite of all the movies she’s worked on. Yet, the lead role took a massive toll on her health.

“I don’t think I’ve ever done anything as emotionally and physically taxing as that film,” she says. “On the set… they picked me up at 5 AM every morning and I was lucky to get home by 8 PM,” Wallace explains. And as if this wasn’t fatiguing enough, the intense nature of her scenes sent a near-constant supply of adrenaline coursing through the actress’s body. Consequently, Wallace spent three weeks being treated for exhaustion after Cujo wrapped.

12. CUJO AND BEETHOVEN (1992) EMPLOYED THE SAME DOG TRAINER.  

“When Cujo came out, I wasn’t exactly the most popular dog trainer in the world among Saint Bernard owners,” Miller told the Los Angeles Times. In 1992 however, he redeemed himself in their eyes by lending his talents to a more upbeat Saint Bernard flick called Beethoven. To find the perfect dog for that anarchic family comedy, Lewis auditioned roughly two dozen different specimens before selecting a big male named Kris, who ended up starring in both Beethoven and its 1993 sequel, Beethoven’s 2nd.

13. CUJO’S DIRECTOR DIDN’T GRADUATE FROM FILM SCHOOL UNTIL 2016.

Teague had dropped out of New York University in 1963. “At the end of my second year at NYU… I accidentally took a film production class, loved it, got hit by a bolt of lightning,” he explains in the above clip. “I knew [that was] what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.” Eager to pursue his newfound passion, Teague put together a short film titled It’s About This Carpenter. In turn, that little picture earned him a scholarship at Universal Studios, along with a director’s contract.

Upon arriving at their Los Angeles facility, he dropped out of NYU altogether and started executing various jobs in the film industry. By the early 2000s, Teague had directed several films, including The Jewel of the Nile, Cat’s Eye, and—of course—Cujo. The filmmaker recently went back to NYU, where he finally earned his bachelor’s degree in 2016 at the age of 78.

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Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
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15 Must-See Holiday Horror Movies
Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
Echo Bridge Home Entertainment

Families often use the holidays as an excuse to indulge in repeat viewings of Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Elf. But for a certain section of the population, the yuletide is all about horror. Although it didn’t truly emerge until the mid-1970s, “holiday horror” is a thriving subgenre that often combines comedy to tell stories of demented Saint Nicks and lethal gingerbread men. If you’ve never seen Santa slash someone, here are 15 movies to get you started.

1. THANKSKILLING (2009)

Most holiday horror movies concern Christmas, so ThanksKilling is a bit of an anomaly. Another reason it’s an anomaly? It opens in 1621, with an axe-wielding turkey murdering a topless pilgrim woman. The movie continues on to the present-day, where a group of college friends are terrorized by that same demon bird during Thanksgiving break. It’s pretty schlocky, but if Turkey Day-themed terror is your bag, make sure to check out the sequel: ThanksKilling 3. (No one really knows what happened to ThanksKilling 2.)

2. BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)

Fittingly, the same man who brought us A Christmas Story also brought us its twisted cousin. Before Bob Clark co-wrote and directed the 1983 saga of Ralphie Parker, he helmed Black Christmas. It concerns a group of sorority sisters who are systematically picked off by a man who keeps making threatening phone calls to their house. Oh, and it all happens during the holidays. Black Christmas is often considered the godfather of holiday horror, but it was also pretty early on the slasher scene, too. It opened the same year as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and beat Halloween by a full four years.

3. SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984)

This movie isn’t about Santa Claus himself going berserk and slaughtering a bunch of people. But it is about a troubled teen who does just that in a Santa suit. Billy Chapman starts Silent Night, Deadly Night as a happy little kid, only to witness a man dressed as St. Nick murder his parents in cold blood. Years later, after he has grown up and gotten a job at a toy store, he conducts a killing spree in his own red-and-white suit. The PTA and plenty of critics condemned the film for demonizing a kiddie icon, but it turned into a bona fide franchise with four sequels and a 2012 remake.

4. RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE (2010)

This Finnish flick dismantles Santa lore in truly bizarre fashion, and it’s not easy to explain in a quick plot summary. But Rare Exports involves a small community living at the base of Korvatunturi mountain, a major excavation project, a bunch of dead reindeer, and a creepy old naked dude who may or may not be Santa Claus. Thanks to its snowy backdrop, the movie scored some comparisons to The Thing, but the hero here isn’t some Kurt Russell clone with equally feathered hair. It’s a bunch of earnest kids and their skeptical dads, who all want to survive the holidays in one piece.

5. TO ALL A GOODNIGHT (1980)

To All a Goodnight follows a by-now familiar recipe: Add a bunch of young women to one psycho dressed as Santa Claus and you get a healthy dose of murder and this 1980 slasher flick. Only this one takes place at a finishing school. So it’s fancier.

6. KRAMPUS (2015)

Although many Americans are blissfully unaware of him, Krampus has terrorized German-speaking kids for centuries. According to folklore, he’s a yuletide demon who punishes naughty children. (He’s also part-goat.) That’s some solid horror movie material, so naturally Krampus earned his own feature film. In the movie, he’s summoned because a large suburban family loses its Christmas cheer. That family has an Austrian grandma who had encounters with Krampus as a kid, so he returns to punish her descendants. He also animates one truly awful Jack-in-the-Box.

7. THE GINGERDEAD MAN (2005)

“Eat me, you punk b*tch!” That’s one of the many corny catchphrases spouted by the Gingerdead Man, an evil cookie possessed by the spirit of a convicted killer (played by Gary Busey). The lesson here, obviously, is to never bake.

8. JACK FROST (1997)

No, this isn’t the Michael Keaton snowman movie. It’s actually a holiday horror movie that beat that family film by a year. In this version, Jack Frost is a serial killer on death row who escapes prison and then, through a freak accident, becomes a snowman. He embarks on a murder spree that’s often played for laughs—for instance, the cops threaten him with hairdryers. But the comedy is pretty questionable in the infamous, and quite controversial, Shannon Elizabeth shower scene.

9. ELVES (1989)

Based on the tagline—“They’re not working for Santa anymore”—you’d assume this is your standard evil elves movie. But Elves weaves Nazis, bathtub electrocutions, and a solitary, super grotesque elf into its utterly absurd plot. Watch at your own risk.

10. SINT (2010)

The Dutch have their own take on Santa, and his name is Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas travels to the Netherlands via steamship each year with his racist sidekick Zwarte Piet. But otherwise, he’s pretty similar to Santa. And if Santa can be evil, so can Sinterklaas. According to the backstory in Sint (or Saint), the townspeople burned their malevolent bishop alive on December 5, 1492. But Sinterklaas returns from the grave on that date whenever there’s a full moon to continue dropping bodies. In keeping with his olden origins, he rides around on a white horse wielding a golden staff … that he can use to murder you.

11. SANTA’S SLAY (2005)

Ever wonder where Santa came from? This horror-comedy claims he comes from the worst possible person: Satan. The devil’s kid lost a bet many years ago and had to pretend to be a jolly gift-giver. But now the terms of the bet are up and he’s out to act like a true demon. That includes killing Fran Drescher and James Caan, obviously.

12. ALL THROUGH THE HOUSE (2015)

Another Santa slasher is on the loose in All Through the House, but the big mystery here is who it is. This villain dons a mask during his/her streak through suburbia—and, as the genre dictates, offs a bunch of promiscuous young couples along the way. The riddle is all tied up in the disappearance of a little girl, who vanished several years earlier.

13. CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980)

Several years before Silent Night, Deadly Night garnered protests for its anti-Kringle stance, Christmas Evil put a radicalized Santa at the center of its story. The movie’s protagonist, Harry Stadling, first starts to get weird thoughts in his head as a kid when he sees “Santa” (really his dad in the costume) groping his mom. Then, he becomes unhealthily obsessed with the holiday season, deludes himself into thinking he’s Santa, and goes on a rampage. The movie is mostly notable for its superfan John Waters, who lent commentary to the DVD and gave Christmas Evil some serious cult cred.

14. SANTA CLAWS (1996)

If you thought this was the holiday version of Pet Sematary, guess again. The culprit here isn’t a demon cat in a Santa hat, but a creepy next-door neighbor. Santa Claws stars B-movie icon Debbie Rochon as Raven Quinn, an actress going through a divorce right in the middle of the holidays. She needs some help caring for her two girls, so she seeks out Wayne, her neighbor who has an obsessive crush on her. He eventually snaps and dresses up as Santa Claus in a ski mask. Mayhem ensues.

15. NEW YEAR’S EVIL (1980)

Because the holidays aren’t over until everyone’s sung “Auld Lang Syne,” we can’t count out New Year’s Eve horror. In New Year’s Evil, lady rocker Blaze is hosting a live NYE show. Everything is going well, until a man calls in promising to kill at midnight. The cops write it off as a prank call, but soon, Blaze’s friends start dropping like flies. Just to tie it all together, the mysterious murderer refers to himself as … “EVIL.”

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10 Surprising Ways Senses Shape Perception
The American Museum of Natural History
The American Museum of Natural History

Every bit of information we know about the world we gathered with one of our five senses. But even with perfect pitch or 20/20 vision, our perceptions don’t always reflect an accurate picture of our surroundings. Our brain is constantly filling in gaps and taking shortcuts, which can result in some pretty wild illusions.

That’s the subject of “Our Senses: An Immersive Experience,” a new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Mental Floss recently took a tour of the sensory funhouse to learn more about how the brain and the senses interact.

1. LIGHTING REVEALS HIDDEN IMAGES.

Woman and child looking at pictures on a wall

Under normal lighting, the walls of the first room of “Our Senses” look like abstract art. But when the lights change color, hidden illustrations are revealed. The three lights—blue, red, and green—used in the room activate the three cone cells in our eyes, and each color highlights a different set of animal illustrations, giving the viewers the impression of switching between three separate rooms while standing still.

2. CERTAIN SOUNDS TAKE PRIORITY ...

We can “hear” many different sounds at once, but we can only listen to a couple at a time. The AMNH exhibit demonstrates this with an audio collage of competing recordings. Our ears automatically pick out noises we’re conditioned to react to, like an ambulance siren or a baby’s cry. Other sounds, like individual voices and musical instruments, require more effort to detect.

3. ... AS DO CERTAIN IMAGES.

When looking at a painting, most people’s eyes are drawn to the same spots. The first things we look for in an image are human faces. So after staring at an artwork for five seconds, you may be able to say how many people are in it and what they look like, but would likely come up short when asked to list the inanimate object in the scene.

4. PAST IMAGES AFFECT PRESENT PERCEPTION.

Our senses often are more suggestible than we would like. Check out the video above. After seeing the first sequence of animal drawings, do you see a rat or a man’s face in the last image? The answer is likely a rat. Now watch the next round—after being shown pictures of faces, you might see a man’s face instead even though the final image hasn’t changed.

5. COLOR INFLUENCES TASTE ...

Every cooking show you’ve watched is right—presentation really is important. One look at something can dictate your expectations for how it should taste. Researchers have found that we perceive red food and drinks to taste sweeter and green food and drinks to taste less sweet regardless of chemical composition. Even the color of the cup we drink from can influence our perception of taste.

6. ... AND SO DOES SOUND

Sight isn’t the only sense that plays a part in how we taste. According to one study, listening to crunching noises while snacking on chips makes them taste fresher. Remember that trick before tossing out a bag of stale junk food.

7. BEING HYPER-FOCUSED HAS DRAWBACKS.

Have you ever been so focused on something that the world around you seemed to disappear? If you can’t recall the feeling, watch the video above. The instructions say to keep track of every time a ball is passed. If you’re totally absorbed, you may not notice anything peculiar, but watch it a second time without paying attention to anything in particular and you’ll see a person in a gorilla suit walk into the middle of the screen. The phenomenon that allows us to tune out big details like this is called selective attention. If you devote all your mental energy to one task, your brain puts up blinders that block out irrelevant information without you realizing it.

8. THINGS GET WEIRD WHEN SENSES CONTRADICT EACH OTHER.

Girl standing in optical illusion room.

The most mind-bending room in the "Our Senses" exhibit is practically empty. The illusion comes from the black grid pattern painted onto the white wall in such a way that straight planes appear to curve. The shapes tell our eyes we’re walking on uneven ground while our inner ear tells us the floor is stable. It’s like getting seasick in reverse: This conflicting sensory information can make us feel dizzy and even nauseous.

9. WE SEE SHADOWS THAT AREN’T THERE.

If our brains didn’t know how to adjust for lighting, we’d see every shadow as part of the object it falls on. But we can recognize that the half of a street that’s covered in shade isn’t actually darker in color than the half that sits in the sun. It’s a pretty useful adaptation—except when it’s hijacked for optical illusions. Look at the image above: The squares marked A and B are actually the same shade of gray. Because the pillar appears to cast a shadow over square B, our brain assumes it’s really lighter in color than what we’re shown.

10. WE SEE FACES EVERYWHERE.

The human brain is really good at recognizing human faces—so good it can make us see things that aren’t there. This is apparent in the Einstein hollow head illusion. When looking at the mold of Albert Einstein’s face straight on, the features appear to pop out rather than sink in. Our brain knows we’re looking at something similar to a human face, and it knows what human faces are shaped like, so it automatically corrects the image that it’s given.

All images courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History unless otherwise noted.

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