Scene analysed: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VIPoynzBKhE&feature=youtu.be
93 Minutes runtime, rated R, Release date 12 August 1983. Production companies: Sunn Classic Pictures, TAFT Entertainment Pictures Country: USA
Cujo is a classic Stephen King horror film from 1983. The films rating on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes sits at 6/10 and 59% respectively.
Cujo is a family pet who, after chasing a rabbit into a cave, was bitten by a bat on the nose and has now become rabid. There are three main protagonists, a wife, her child, and her husband. Leading up to the scene, the Husband has cheated on his wife and has left home. The wife’s car has serious issues and she is taking it to the mechanics house, 7 miles out of town for repair.
Cujo, becoming rabid, has recently killed two people, and is now waiting at the property for the wife and child to arrive.
Mise En Scene
The scene shows the characters in an old looking car driving along a country road and pulling off up a long dirt road into a dilapidated homestead which appears to be far from any neighbours or other people. The director establishes that the car is having trouble by showing it about to stall, and reinforces this with the alternator and engine warning lights flashing on the dashboard. The colours are that of late afternoon which gives the feeling that it’s about to get dark (and therefore scarier), and the sky is cloudy – giving an impression that there is something sinister in the air or a storm could materialise.
The actors are dressed conservatively, with pastel colours and what could be a school uniform on the boy and the long dress of the mother makes you feel that these people are good citizens, possibly quite passive and certainly innocent.
The director further illustrates how unreliable the car is by trapping the child in the seat with his seatbelt, and by having previously established that the characters are supposedly alone (by the mother calling out for anybody present) chooses not to show anything other than the parking lot, the car, a few distant dilapidated barn-yard type structures and some broken down cars. The mother with her back turned to the open car door – giving the feeling of vulnerability and that ‘something’ is approaching.
During the attack scene, only the immediate surroundings of the car are shown making heavy use of off-screen space to keep the viewers on edge. The mud and dirt that the dog leaves on the car window also repels the viewer and adds to the viciousness of the enemy, cementing the idea that this dog is rabid, and dangerous.
Desaturated colours, lots of browns and red / oranges make the scene feel dark and as if night-time is imminent, with low key lighting. A closeup of Cujo showing pus coming out of one eye, covered in mud and dirt, growling, again puts the viewer on edge, removing the sense of calm that slightly comes back after the initial ‘attack’ scene has passed.
The sunset ends the scene with the feeling that the situation is hopeless, and without some external help the actors will surely be attacked sooner or later.
The scene has realistic function, showing how the protagonists may act if this were a real life situation. It has dramatic function, In that the plot moves forward during the scene, also has lyrical function in that the child and mother’s conversation are about their feelings of hopelessness and fear. And finally, the scene also demonstrates comic function where the mother says “fuck you dog”.
The establishing shots as the scene opens give you the impression that the location is far away from any other houses – or help. The camera pans to the side and shows the car jumping around and lurching forward and backward, which, doubled with the sound of the engine knocking and sounding rough, gives the impression the car is about to die.
A medium close up framing the actress and the window of the car looking out into remote countryside, with the actress being thrown around in her seat looks like the car will about to stall.
As the camera pans up and left on a crane shot, showing the car driving off down a dirt road to the house in the distance, this feels like all outside help is left behind.
A handheld shot of the car pulling up and appearing in the crack of the barnyard door, panning down and framed under the door gives an eerie feeling and the impression that something is watching them. The following MCU of through the actresses’ window shows they are unaware of the danger outside (as it reinforces the use of off-screen space to make you feel vulnerable)
There is a 180 degree crane shot when the camera moves around the rear of the car as the actress is calling out to see if anyone is present, that still stays relatively close and keeps the suspense of the off screen space, intact. The following shot from under the door reinforces the ‘something’s out there’ feeling again in case it was lost.
In all of the attack scenes, the camera is kept close to the actors or the immediate space around them to make the viewer anxious that they don’t know where the dog is.
A crane shot pulls back from the car, over the roof of the barn and to the porch where the dog is sitting there waiting, watching, and reminding you that danger is imminent.
The next cut shows the child doing homework, with a closeup of the page, pen and the child follow by a shot of the mother stroking her keys grants the viewer a short reprieve from the stress, followed by a closeup of the key turning and smoke blowing from the exhaust.
The car starts, and a wide shot of the dog running up after hearing the noise, followed by a wide shot of the car driving, failing, followed by a MCU of the car window and subsequently a wide shot of the dog walking off again gives you more of a situation hopeless feel.
The scene closes with a MCU of the car at sunset, followed by a wide shot to show they are still there, with the dog closing in and sitting at the edge of the frame.
an close up of the mother’s head looking over the dashboard is the last camera shot.
As the scene opens, the editing shots are primarily long, with long scenes of the car driving on the freeway, with short contextual shots of the car warning lights as they pull into the property.
The editing sets up an element of surprise by showing long scenes of the car driving up, the characters looking around and, initially, only short scenes of under the barn door, and shots from far away making good use of offscreen space.
The camera coming up from behind the open door is quite a long, slow approach making it feel like something is approaching, then the audience is surprised by the dog jumping up at the window. When the dog attacks, the cuts are short, switching between handheld shaky shots of the dog attempting to get them through the window, and the mother protecting her child and trying to wind up the window – making the viewer panic.
The editing style is continuous, in that it transmits the narrative information smoothly and over a series of shots. The overall tonality and lighting remains constant and believable, with the exception of the sunset, and the main action mostly occupies the centre of the frame.
The scene opens with the mother and child singing, with Foley of a sick sounding car engine, and the mother making a barking sound to her son inferring that everything is fine, the car has a problem, and the barking sound that the mother adds comical function.
Further Foley of the car engine sounding sick, With the mother saying “come on baby, just a little more to go” demonstrates the car is about to die at any moment. The string music which follows gives an uncertain feeling, But also a feeling that they are on a journey and the journey is about to begin.
The scene contains all three types of sound, speech, music, and sound effects.
The speech has a fairly even, with the mother sometimes cutting off her son or speaking slightly out of rhythm, which asserts her authority.
The music instills a sense of fear to the viewer, with strings and piano, and all sound is diegetic with the exception of the music.
When the dog first jumps up at the window, sound is used to overload the senses along with increasing the rhythm of the editing by creating a wall of sound-the dog growing, The child screaming, the sound of the scratching at the window, the mother desperately trying to calm her child. Throughout the attack there is fast paced music which has about the same tempo as a fast beating heart.
The rhythm and volume of the actresses’ lines change over the course of the clip – at the start when she’s attempting to calm her child, her volume and tempo is even. After the car stalls the second time, it’s the actress who becomes hysterical and the child who attempts to calm her.
Overall the volume is kept high during moments of stress, and low, peaceful rhythm during moments of calm.