Stephen King Horror-Thon: Cujo (1983)
By 1983, Stephen King film adaptations covered a coming-of-age revenge story (Carrie), a psychological haunted house/possession story (The Shining), and campy horror anthology (Creepshow). So it made sense for the author’s fourth adaptation to tone down both the budget and sophistication and deliver some simple but effective scares in the form of a huge rabid St Bernard named Cujo.
Cujo opens with a friendly St Bernard named Cujo, who chases a wild rabbit into a small cave where he’s bitten on the nose by a bat with rabbies and turns violent. Meanwhile, a mother and housewife named Donna (played by Dee Wallace) is experiencing marital problems with her husband Vic, who discovers that she has been having an affair. Their sensitive and timid son Tad experiences typical childhood fears of a monster in his closet.
When Vic goes out of town on a business trip, Donna and Tad run errands– one of them to their mechanic, who owns the increasingly violent Cujo. When Vic and Tad arrive at Joe’s house to pick up their car, they are attacked by Cujo and take refuge in their car, which Vic is unable to start up due to a broken alternator.
With a good chunk of the film focusing this singular scenario (mother and child trapped in a car while a rabid killer dog circles their vehicle), you wouldn’t be totally out of line to call Cujo somewhat of a bottle movie– a film that plays out entirely or mostly in a small space. And it lends itself well to the terror of an otherwise dramatic affair.
The acting in Cujo is straight-forward but effective. Scream Queen Dee Wallace, who also starred in other horror classics like The Hills Have Eyes (1977), The Howling (1981), and Critters (1986), is certainly the stand-out. Wallace plays her conflicted character believably– both in the dramatic moments involving her infidelity and resulting straining marriage as well as in the horrific moments as she tries to protect her son from being mauled to death by Cujo.
Moments of tenderness help elevate Cujo at times above its gritty b-movie set-up. At times, it’s easy to imagine director Lewis Teague grasping for those sorts of beautiful human scenes in Jaws, which released eight years prior. This is especially true for moments involving Donna and her vulnerable young son Tad (Danny Pintauro)–
Tad Trenton: [in the car] Can he get us in here?
Donna Trenton: No.
Tad Trenton: Can he eat his way in here? Can he?
Donna Trenton: No.
Tad Trenton: Wish he was dead.
Donna Trenton: Me too.
Of course, Teague never quite reaches the brilliance of those Jaws moments. But that’s okay. Cujo left an impression on audiences, even if the initial reviews weren’t as glowing as King’s earlier cinematic adaptations. The survival horror flick was competent to land Teague the opportunity to direct another pet-themed Stephen King film adaptation two years later in the form of Cat’s Eye.
Since its 1983 release, Cujo has garnered a major cult following. The film’s simplicity deserves much of the credit for that adoration. Cujo is King’s first adaptation that is entirely bereft of any supernatural elements. Of course, the rabid nature of the murderous dog is presented in an exaggerated manner (I hope; I’ve never actually met a rabid dog). But like many classic horror films before and after Cujo, the scares are intensified by subverting some of the core characteristics of man’s best friend.