Release Date: August 12th, 1983 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Lewis Teague Actors: Dee Wallace, Danny Pintauro, Daniel Hugh-Kelly, Christopher Stone, Ed Lauter, Kaiulani Lee
ntent with creating instant contrast, a cute little rabbit’s peaceful stroll through the woods is interrupted by a large dog’s thundering chase. It leads to the hare hiding in a fallen tree stump, while angered bats bite the snooping St. Bernard – setting up the not-so-secret premise of a rabid animal’s reign of terror on a small town in Maine. Later, a brief clip of Scooby-Doo and stuffed animals further visually opposes his impending hostility. Cujo is the anti-Old Yeller and the following filmic shocks are certainly more ominous than anything in the golden mongrel’s history – which can be, of course, attributed to the basis on author Stephen King’s award-winning novel.
Young Tad Trenton (Danny Pintauro) is awakened in the night by his fear of monsters and the dark, and must be consoled by his mother Donna (Dee Wallace) and father Vic (Daniel Hugh-Kelly). While Tad’s problems reside in imagined notions of things that go bump in the night, Donna’s issues involve boredom with her life and an ongoing affair with family friend Steve Kemp (Christopher Stone). When Vic finds out, tensions increase and he leaves for ten days to concentrate on his work.
Meanwhile, fixing Vic’s car introduces mechanic Joe Camber (Ed Lauter), whose son Brett owns Cujo, a gentle but massive St. Bernard. Presumably having contracted rabies, Cujo’s behavior begins to change and he eventually lashes out at Joe’s friend Gary (Mills Watson) – before attacking Camber as well. When Donna brings her vehicle to the machinist, the heavily salivating canine essentially lays siege to the stalled transport, stranding Donna and Tad inside without food or means of calling for help, while their water supply dwindles and the sun mercilessly beats down upon them.
While it plays on the classic fright of monsters, aiming the antagonist role toward a very believable creature (proving that monsters can, in fact, exist), as well as pushing that viewers not be afraid of the dark, it also mixes in the visceral scares of bloodshed and the fear of the unknown (primarily in Cujo’s actions). “Jaws” clearly had an influence on the filmmakers, not only with a brief reference but also with the music, editing, camera angles (peering at appendages), and eerie sets (here, dense fog and gnarled tree branches in boundless thickets replace endless ocean waters). It’s likely that, for a time, St. Bernards became as unpopular as sharks. The gruesome dog makeup effects, including oodles of gooey frothing, definitely make the typically lovable animal an alarming menace to behold.
Like the book, “Cujo” employs several subplots that eat up screen time (despite a seemingly swift 90-minute window), including Donna’s cheating, Camber’s abusiveness and his wife’s lottery winnings, Vic’s advertising job, and more significantly, Kemp’s displeasure with Donna – all distancing the horror aspects from focusing on the revenge of mistreated beasts or the theme of nature run amok. At certain moments, it’s as if flawed individuals are met with toothy reprisal in a twisted form of justice – where survival defines worth. The film follows the novel very closely, though for commercial reasons, the conclusion is slightly changed and the underlying ideas of disconnected stories, the unpredictability of life, and random solutions not ascribed to purposeful action, are clearly not translated to the big screen. But Danny Pintauro’s performance is of such a convincing nature that it would seem the little boy was genuinely traumatized for the sake of capturing real terror on film, while Wallace emotes nicely believable dread and panic herself. But in the end, despite several effective scenes, “Cujo” isn’t nearly as hair-raising as it should be, it isn’t as multi-layered or deep, and it’s bested by most other killer animal movies of the time.
– Mike Massie