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.