Sit Cujo, sit! Good dog.
Today we look at yet another Dee Wallace horror film. Honestly, I did not plan this. Aside from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Cujo may be the other film she’s most remembered for.
I think that everyone is aware of what this film is about, but the trailer makes it abundantly clear that terror has a new name. Terror often got a new name multiple times a year in the 80s, as that was a popular marketing line, but in this case, it’s pretty appropriate. The trailer makes sure to tell you the film is from the book by Stephen King, and is sure to namecheck Carrie and The Shining as two predecessors. A family pet, a St. Bernard named Cujo, goes crazy and attacks the mother and her young boy, terrorizing the town of Castle Rock, ME.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
In the sunny, idyllic summer of Castle Rock, Maine, a St. Bernard named Cujo gets bit on the nose by a rabid bat. Elsewhere Donna and Vic Trenton (Dee Wallace-Stone & Daniel Hugh Kelly) are having a marital crisis due to Donna’s extramarital affair with local handyman Steve Kemp (Christopher Stone). Vic has his own challenges with work, as a cereal he created the advertising account for is getting lots of negative press. And then their 6 year-old son, Tad (Danny Pintauro), is being six. He’s afraid of monsters under the bed and in his closet, and needs constant reassurance from his parents.
When Vic begins having trouble with his car he checks out Joe Camber’s (Ed Lauter) automotive shop, which also happens to be Cujo’s home. Joe is not what you’d call a touchy-feely human, and is often brusk with his wife and son. They leave for a week to visit her sister in Connecticut (but really she’s leaving forever), so Joe and his buddy Gary decide to visit Boston for a guys-weekend. Before they can leave, Cujo goes berserk and kills both men.
Donna calls off her affair with Steve, who doesn’t take it well. Vic goes out of town for a business meeting in order to save his cereal account, and leaves Donna with a car that is not working. She and Tad drive the Ford Pinto to Camber’s. It breaks down just as they reach his barn, which she thinks is fortunate. It’s not until a rabid, slobbering Cujo attacks the car that she sees the potential horror. She and Tad are trapped in the car overnight.
The next day Donna tries to get some assistance but is attacked and bit in the leg by the mangy dog. The temperatures rise that day and Tad, who has finished the available water, has a seizure. Later that night Cujo camps out on the hood of the car, just to keep an eye on the family. The following day Sheriff Bannerman (Sandy Ward) drives by to check on a report of Donna missing. He is attacked and killed by Cujo, dropping his gun in the process.
This distraction is enough for Donna to run for the house, as Tad is in horrible shape, and not breathing – suffering from dehydration and exhaustion. She manages to grab a baseball bat lying around as Cujo leaps on her. Swinging with all her might she puts the dog down several times, but it keeps getting up. Breaking the bat on a final swing, the dog leaps impaling itself on the jagged stump. She grabs the sheriff’s gun and drags Tad inside to give him some water. Cujo, back for one last fright, busts through the window and is shot by Donna. She exits to see Vic driving up. The family is reunited!
“There are no real monsters.” – Vic
Of the various Stephen King adaptations, Cujo is one of the strongest. That is probably due to the lack of supernatural elements in the story. Arguably King’s novels and stories that deal with the evil that men do are much more engaging. Horror films like The Shining (even with the little bit of supernatural elements) and Misery, and other films like The Shawshank Redemption or Stand By Me serve as better, more engaging films than The Tommyknockers or Dreamcatcher. I believe this is due to the realism and immediate recognition of the threats audiences can have with familiar everyday objects and situations. What if a beloved pet were to suddenly become dangerous? It’s a premise that viewers can relate to.
King’s story, which was adapted here by Don Carlos Dunaway and Lauren Currier, also compares the infection that Cujo receives, with the festering relationship between Vic and Donna. The first 45 minutes of the film are spent setting up the dynamic of the family, showing Donna and her affair with Steve, and Vic’s sense that something is awry, contrasted with the de-evolution of Cujo, as he slowly gets sicker. Cujo becomes sensitive to loud noises which a scene with Joe and Gary demonstrates. He begins hiding in the dark area under the porch. And his fur starts to become a nasty mess. Alternately Donna tries to break off her affair with Steve when Vic sees her in front of his place. Later Steve stops by and attempts to reconcile with her by force, breaking a bottle of milk, which Vic finds curious. The discomfort that audiences feel at this relationship, and the knowledge of what’s happening to the dog sets up the tension in the first half of the film, for Cujo’s attacks which sustains the second half.
The film succeeds in no small part to wonderful casting of Danny Pintauro as the adorable Tad. Placing this lovely little boy at the center of such tension and violence really helps to draw the audience into the scenes. While researching this film, I discovered that King actually kills off this character in the book. The film decides to allow Donna to save Tad, which is probably the best decision. The happier ending of the film allows audiences to leave, having had a roller-coaster ride for 90 minutes, and then get off without any lingering effects. Overall, Cujo holds up remarkably well and is able to hold a place in the top five films made from Stephen King’s work.
- The quote above by the father echoes Newt’s statement from James Cameron’s 1986 action/horror film Aliens. “My mommy always said there were no monsters – no real ones – but there are.”
- One of three King adaptations from 1983 also including The Dead Zone and Christine.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.