Tuesday, February 2, 2016

A Review of "Cujo" (2016 Intrada release of the Charles Bernstein score)

Heads up, King fans who double as film-score fans: Intrada recently released Charles Bernstein's score for the 1983 film adaptation of Cujo.
It's the first time Bernstein's score has ever been released commercially (excluding a promotional CD that paired Cujo with The Covenant that occasionally pops up on eBay for outrageous prices despite not being licensed for sale).  EVER.  It took 33 years, y'all.
Bernstein's score clocked in at #16 on my Worst To Best list of King-film scores a couple of years ago, which is a respectable placement considering the fact that King's movies have actually had a fairly decent history of film music.  One could probably make the argument that none of the movies based on his works have yielded an A-#1 all-time classic score (in the sense of classics like Star Wars or Psycho or Out of Africa or stuff like that); but one could just as easily make the argument that while there may not be any A++ scores in the King canon, there are a whole bunch of scores that fall somewhere in the A- or B+ range, and quite a few more in the B or B- range.  In other words, there are plenty of bad King movies with good scores, and (I would argue) no good King movies with bad scores.
Overall, it's a very strong body of work that comes from the combined efforts of a remarkably talented group of composers.  It's an aspect of the Wide World Of Stephen King that isn't acknowledged very often.  I'd like to do my part to try and change at least a handful of minds about that; I've written a few other soundtracks reviews, so this isn't exactly a first step, but I think it might be the first time I've been conscious of the need to carve out that territory.
In any case, Cujo is finally on disc thanks to the good folks at Intrada.  If you've got a $20 bill lying around that you're not sure how to spend, you could do worse than to go give them a bit of custom.

Bernstein himself is a composer who has been working for nearly half a century, and has won a handful of Emmys during that time.  He studied at Julliard, and his first film score was for a documentary (Czechoslovakia 1968) that won an Oscar for Best Short Subject Documentary.  Not a bad start, guy.
During the seventies and early eighties, he scored a number of notable exploitation films: 
  • The Man From O.R.G.Y. (based on the novel by Ted Mark)
  • Sweet Kill (the first movie directed by Curtis Hanson, who would later make L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys, and 8 Mile)
  • Invasion of the Bee Girls (the first film written by Wrath of Khan director Nicholas Meyer)
  • White Lightning (a Joseph Sargent film starring Burt Reynolds)
  • That Man Bolt (an action film starring Fred Williamson)
  • Mr. Majestyk (an action film starring Charles Bronson)
  • Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby (a presumably-ill-advised made-for-television sequel)
  • Gator (a sequel to White Lightning directed -- ! -- by Burt Reynolds)
  • Viva Knievel! (an action movie starring -- ! -- Evel Knievel)
  • Outlaw Blues (a Peter Fonda film)
  • Love At First Bite (a vampire comedy starring George Hamilton)
  • The Entity (a horror flick starring Barbara Hershey)
And so forth.  These days, he's perhaps best known for a couple of things, the first being Quentin Tarantino's excellent use of his scores for White Lightning and Gator in Inglourious Basterds and Kill Bill.
The second: his best-known work, the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, which was his next assignment after the release of Cujo.  I think most fans of horror cinema would probably rank that film quite highly on the list of all-time scary-movie classics, so Bernstein's name goes into the record books if only for that one high-water mark.  
He's arguably fallen off the radar somewhat since then, but spent the next three-plus decades working quite regularly in television, including scoring the eleven-times-Emmy-nominated HBO feature Miss Evers' Boys, which starred Alfre Woodard, Laurence Fishburne, and Joe Morton, amongst others (including King-movie alumnuses Ossie David and E.G. Marshall).
In other words, he's had a very solid career.
Cujo is probably one of the most notable titles in his filmography.  It certainly is for our purposes, so what I'd like to do now is listen to the soundtrack and write my reactions to each track.  I'll then maybe supplement them with quotes from the Intrada release's liner notes.
01 "Main Title & Rabbit Chase":  This track begins very ominously, building with percussion and a warning horn-based theme until it releases into a piano theme that soon turns into wistful Americana-style music.  The ominous notes recur ever so often, though, letting us know that the danger is still present.  The main theme plays as Cujo, a big and playful dog, chases a rabbit through a field.  Little does poor Cujo know that this playfulness is going to spell his doom.
02 "Bedroom":  This music is mostly tentative and unsure of where to go, mirroring the emotional state of young Tad Trenton, who has what you might call a bit of a fear of the dark.  Specifically, he's afraid of the monster in his closet.  This is one of the more memorable scenes of the film, involving Tad getting out of bed and running across the room to deal with the closet and then hop back into bed before anything can get him.  Bernstein's music is alternately sweet and creepy.
03 "Kemp to Dinner Table":  This short cue helps to establish the emotional stakes between Donna Trenton and Steve Kemp, who have been committing a bit of adultery.  If you've ever seen the film and thought that the two actors had a bit of heat in their scenes together, it's not for nothing: Dee Wallace and Christopher Stone were married in real life.  Hence, Dee Wallace Stone.
04  "Cujo's Entrance" (Revised):  The longest track on the album, this music carries perhaps the sweetest and most mournful statement of the main theme.
05 "Hoist Delivery and Spilt Milk":  This track (like a couple of others on the disc) suffers a bit from some mild distortion in the audio.  I'd describe it as a sort of warbling variance in the volume.  That is not a technically-accurate description, so don't hold me to it too strictly.  The cue itself serves to link the Camber family with the Trenton family, which makes sense given how inextricable their fates will be from one another.  That aspect of the novel has given some readers fits over the years; to me, it's one of the novel's more successful aspects, and the movie gets it right too.
06 "Monster Words Wall & Cujo In Fog":  This cue scores the scene in which Tad's father gives him the "monster words" to ward off fear while he's away on business; and the one in which Brett Camber sees that his poor dog, Cujo, isn't feeling very well.  The music is very tender, and relies strongly on the piano to communicate the delicate nature of Tad's fears.  Then, the pulsing percussive motif comes back as Cujo's illness becomes evident.  The dog seemingly considers attacking his beloved owner, but is able to restrain himself in what is arguably the final moments of sanity of his four-legged life.
07 "Brett and Charity":  This cue lasts less than a minute, and uses somewhat Herrmannesque strings, as well as piano, to create a bit of emotion between mother and son.
08 "Cujo Kills Gary":  Percussion (especially percussive piano notes) and high strings help communicate the sad demise of Gary Pervier at the teeth of a man-sized St. Bernard.  You don't your death to have a score like this; it means nothing peaceful has befallen you in your final moments.
09 "Cujo Kills Camber":  A piano motif vaguely reminiscent of John Williams' Jaws theme helps to communicate the tension of this scene, in which Joe finds his friend Gary's dead body and knows that something very bad is nearby, probably VERY nearby.  He turns out to be right about that.  A pulsing synthesizer note helps to make this one of the tensest tracks of the score.
10 "Drive to Siege":  The pulsing synthesizer notes return in this track after a bit of more placid music, telling us that Donna and Tad have arrived at a place of potential death.
11 "Crane to Cujo & Car Stalls":  Strings gives way to synthesizer, which in turn gives way to worried-sounding piano and strings.  I believe the phrase "crane to Cujo" refers to the filming technique involved in capturing a specific shot; "Car Stalls" is a more obvious reference to the Trentons' becoming stuck on this isolated farm, with only a 200-pound rabid dog to keep them company.
12 "Pee-Em Phone & Sunrise":  Thudding piano and quavering (is that the word?) strings have a bit of a back-and-forth during the first part of this cue.  Tinkly piano music that recalls the opening-title sequence heralds (I think) the rising sun and the promise/threat of a new day for the Trentons.  More audio problems in the second part of this track.  My guess is that the source elements for the score were perhaps not as well-maintained as they could have been over the previous 33 years; we're probably lucky to be able to hear this music at all.
13 "Cujo Attacks Car":  This intense music is probably the finest bit of horror scoring in the film.  The rhythmic thudding of the attack is heavily reminiscent of Jaws not in terms of melody or even orchestration, but in terms of impact.  The pounding of the music suggests Cujo's focus: he's lost his mind, but he's kind of aware that he's lost his mind, and he's focused on the Trentons as the source of his problems.  He's got one purpose now: to kill them, and thereby to kill the pain in his head.
14 "Cujo Attacks Donna & 360 In Car" (Revised):  More scary music, this time accompanying Donna's near death.  The final part of the cue represents (and is titled after) the incredibly effective shot of the camera turning a full 360 degrees inside the car, and whipping around and around as Donna passes out from her exertions.  It's interesting to see Bernstein placing so much emphasis on the cinematography in his track titles; I don't believe I've ever seen a composer do that.
15 "Cujo On Hood to Sunrise II" (Revised Alternate #2):  You don't ever want to be trapped in a car and have a rabid St. Bernard standing on your car's hood.  That's bad medicine, kemo sabe.
16 "Final Confrontation":  The title of this cue makes me chuckle, because composer Danny Elfman has titled many, many cues "Final Confrontation" in what is obviously an act of self-amusement.  One doesn't suppose he borrowed the idea from Charles Bernstein; but one does not know that for certain.
17 "Revive Tad":  I'll be honest, I was doing some Danny Elfman / "Final Confrontation" research while this cue played, and I forgot to pay attention to it in search for something to say.  Instead, I'll tell you that my research shows that Danny Elfman has titled a minimum of half a dozen movies' climactic cues either "Final Confrontation" or "The Final Confrontation."  Eventually, I suoppose one of them actually will be the final one.
18 "End Credits":  A new theme seemingly begins this track, leading into a restatement of the main theme.  It's not entirely happy music (how could it be?), but it's happier music than it would have been if the filmmakers had kept the novel's ending intact.  It would be interesting to ask Bernstein how he might have scored the end of the film if Tad had died.
19 "Cujo's Entrance" (Original):  I'm always appreciative when the specialty-label soundtrack releases include some alternate takes and whatnot.  However, I can't always tell exactly what a revised take consists of compared to an original one, and I certainly can't here.
20 "Cujo Attacks Donna & 360 In Car" (Original):  I think maybe this version is more intense toward the beginning, but apart from that, I am not certain what distinguishes the original and revised versions of the cue.
21 "Cujo On Hood to Sunrise II" (Original):  I bet if I listened to the various versions side-to-side (or whatever the aural equivalent of that is), I could hear some differences.
22 "Cujo On Hood to Sunrise II" (Revised):  I think the cello (if it is in fact a cello) at the top here is new.  I should be better at this game.
23 "Cujo On Hood to Sunrise II" (Revised Alternate #1):  I'm not, though!
And that's that, folks.  The set is rounded out by insightful liner notes by Daniel Schweiger; I always enjoy reading about the music to these films, and if I were inclined to do so, I bet I could go back in, read them a bit more closely, and poach them for bits that would make me sound a lot smarter when discussing the music.
But that's not how I roll, guys.  I'll leave it to the liner notes to make sense; me, I'll just muddle through.
An album like this one won't have universal appeal, but certain subsets of King fans and certain subsets of film-music fans will enjoy it.  Hopefully, this review will have helped you figure out if you are the section of the VENN diagram where those two things overlap.


  1. In terms of the score for King films, I'll admit I'm perhaps not the most attentive (and this from a guy who became aware of film soundtracks courtesy of Spielberg and the late Jame Horner on "An American Tail").

    For some reason, I can't say anything about them ever stood out to me. Granted, there were some great singles in a few of them ("Pet Sematery", "Who made who") but other ways it seems to have been just literal background noise to me. I still can't say I'll object if a film can give me a good score. My main concentration is on the narrative, but if its got a good beat you can dance to (i.e. Forrest Gump) then I consider that a bonus.

    In terms of "Cujo" the one musical moment I can remember is the "Death of Gary Pervier". However, for me, the impact of that scene always comes less from the music, and not even as much from the dog as from the utter not-caring attitude on display by the character. In fact, it's one of the few scenes in a horror film that I can remember where the horror comes less from the killer and more from the victim. How warped is that?!


    1. I suspect you are by far in the majority when it comes to not actually paying much attention to the music in movies. I've heard it said that a composer's job in film scores is to be felt moreso than heard. Makes sense.

  2. I missed this one - how careless of me! Though I have regrettably little to add to the discussion. Excellent overview, and I enjoyed reading the song-by-song breakdown. I listened to the main title again and it's a fine little tune indeed.

    "Cujo" is the most-read of my King's Highway blogs. I'm not sure why, but it makes me feel a little guilty for only having seen it once and not knowing it better than I should.

    I haven't thought of "Love at First Bite" in a good long while. I used to love that movie back in the early 80s - I can't recall watching it a single time after then, though.

    I do like the "Nightmare on Elm Street" theme, for sure, but now I just want to listen to "Dream Warriors" by Dokken, for having brought it up. DON'T WANT TO DREAM NO MORE...!

    1. Good old Dokken.

      I'm not sure I ever actually saw "Love at First Bite." I don't think I ever did. I remember ads for it being omnipresent, though.

  3. "Final Confrontation" is still generic enough a title that I doubt Elfman snagged the idea from Bernstein (I wouldn't be surprised if that piece never had a title beyond "3m11" or whatever and was only given the name much more recently by the Intrada hamsters).

    Now if there had been a cue called "Weepy Donuts", that would have raised some eyebrows. ;)

    1. "Final Confrontation" is about as generic as it gets, for sure. "The End" might have it beat, I guess, but not by much.