Cujo (1983) / Horror-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for strong bloody violence, sexual themes and language
Running time: 93 min.
Cast: Dee Wallace, Danny Pintauro, Daniel Hugh Kelly, Christopher Stone, Ed Lauter
Director: Lewis Teague
Screenplay: Don Carlos Dunaway, Lauren Currier
Review published March 9, 2011
Cujo is a simple story, adapted from the 1981 Stephen King novel of the same name, about a St. Bernard who becomes a bloodthirsty monster once he goes rabid following a bite from a bat. Dee Wallace (ET, 10) plays Donna Trenton, the philandering wife of ad-man Vic (Kelly, The Good Son) and mother of precociously squirrely Tad (Pintauro, "Who's the Boss"). Donna and Tad find themselves stuck in their car on the middle-of-nowhere farm property of the Cambers, the owners of Cujo, with no easy means of escape. Cujo has killed before and is dead-set on killing again.
Predictability is the biggest hurdle for this story to overcome, as once you hear the premise you can readily guess that people will die. The only question at hand isn't much of one, as we wait to see how the mother and son manage to break out of their predicament through a final showdown to answer the question about whether Angry Mom will win out against Angry Dog. Is there any doubt what the answer is?
Of course, a dog chomping on people isn't enough to make a major motion picture release around, so there are some side stories, mostly contrived in order to keep the husband away. First, there's the guilt of Donna's affair, which involves her trying to turn away the town stud (Stone, Dee Wallace's real-life husband) , but he won't go away easily, and soon the hubby finds it more than fishy. The second involves major problems with a product recall of the cereal Vic's ad firm has been mounting a major campaign for. None of this really has anything to do with Cujo's main plot other than to get vulnerable mother and son alone in an old Pinto, but it is in keeping with the horror films of its era, which tended to showcase the monster in the movie as the embodiment of retribution for sins committed.
For all of its inherent story tells, Cujo remains one of the most underrated of the King adaptations to film, opening mostly to derision from fans (too much changed or left out from the book) and critics (too simpleminded an idea) alike. Over the years, it has fared much better, and as King adaptations have gotten far worse, thanks to the snappy direction by last-minute replacement director Teague (The Jewel of the Nile, Navy Seals), whose background working for Roger Corman helps him do a lot with a little, and a quality performance by Dee Wallace at the heart of the film. It's not nearly the animal-monster suspenser that Jaws had been, but taken as a nifty low-reaching horror film, it's a respectable equivalent, offering up enough jolts, scares, and moments of tension to justify its existence as a canine exploitation flick. Teague does manage to infuse some nifty camera angles, working with skilled cinematographer (and future thriller director) Jan de Bont (Private Lessons, Die Hard), from the dog's eye view chase scenes to the claustrophobic 360-degree pan around of the inside of the Pinto. A scene set in the thick fog perfectly captures the ominous mood to come.
In the end, it isn't much different than Jaws or The Birds in terms of its style, and without as much substance, Cujo comes across as a well-known B-movie with some good production value. If you see it as such, you'll get more enjoyment out of the effective shocker, which excels when employing in its tight editing and lastingly conjuring up nailbiting menace and terror from an otherwise loveable breed of dog.
- Teague would go on to direct a collection of Stephen King stories with 1985's Cat's Eye.
©2011 Vince Leo