Starring: Dee Wallace, Daniel Hugh-Kelly, Danny Pintauro, Christopher Stone, Ed Lauter.
Donna Trenton is a frustrated suburban housewife whose life is a turmoil after her husband learns about her having an affair. Brett Camber is a young boy whose only companion is a Saint-Bernard named "Cujo", who in turn is bitten by a rabid bat. Whilst Vic, Donna's husband is away on business, and thinking over his marital troubles, Donna and her 5-year-old son Tad take her Pinto to Brett Cambers' dad's car shop... the car fails, and "Cujo" is very, very sick...
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As far as Stephen King’s novels go, “Cujo” is rather underrated. That might be because it isn’t really rooted in the supernatural, as other critics have suggested. The monster is just a dog with rabies, menacing a woman and her child. As a premise, it just doesn’t pack the same punch, does it? Not until you consider that most of us have yet to see a vampire, ghost, or killer clown, while a great many more have been bitten or otherwise menaced by dogs.
Leave it to Stephen King to take a beloved pet and turn it into a bloodthirsty killing-machine. The name “Cujo” supposedly means “unstoppable force,” and it only takes one bite from a rabid bat to turn a sweet St. Bernard into something straight out of a nightmare. He’s a huge dog, fast and powerful, and to top it all off, his bite is toxic. Now how does this movie’s premise sound?
Adapted from King’s book by Don Carlos Dunaway and Lauren Currier, “Cujo” is so effective because it plays on real-world fears: fear of big dogs, isolation, disease, claustrophobia, and dying of dehydration. It also uses our feelings about dogs to tug at our heartstrings. Even if you don’t own a dog or even particularly like them, most people wouldn’t actually wish harm against a dog. Of course, by the end of this film, that will change, but that’s part of what makes it so effective. Cujo, big lovable beast that he is, never wanted to hurt anyone. His murderous rage is just the result of a fevered brain. When we first meet Cujo, he’s a very gentle animal despite his intimidating size. He’s so sweet with our heroine’s four-year-old son that it’s hard to imagine him trying to devour that little boy. Yet, fifty minutes later, that is exactly what’s happening. A dog’s love is supposed to be unconditional, so when Cujo turns ferocious, it’s unsettling. It’s also painful to see the dog degenerate into this monster, corrupted by an incurable disease.
Part of what makes this all work is that the actors really sell it. Dee Wallace is excellent as Donna, making us care about an admittedly very flawed character. Her progression from adulterous housewife to fierce defender is believable. Donna becomes a strong character not because she’s fearless, but because if she doesn’t, her son will die. As Vic, Daniel Hugh-Kelly is stuck with the unenviable task of keeping our interest when we’d frankly rather see how the whole dog situation is going. But we care about Vic, and his reaction to Donna’s infidelity is admirably nuanced. He doesn’t berate her for what she’s done; his hardened expression is all we need to understand his pain. Danny Pintauro is very natural as Tad, and although some viewers have described him as “irritating,” why wouldn’t a four-year-old boy scream and carry on if a giant dog was bearing down on him? In the role of Donna’s lover, Christopher Stone looks like the kind of man who loves himself best of all. Ed Lauter is entertaining as Cujo’s owner, whose final words make you wonder why it took him so long to notice what should’ve been so obvious. The rest of the cast play their parts well, grounding the movie in reality.
Director Lewis Teague builds the tension by showing us Cujo’s declining health, preparing us for the moment when the dog will finally snap. Once Donna and Tad are trapped in the car, Teague still keeps the audience on edge and wondering if Cujo will actually break in. Although all this tension is derived from wondering what Cujo will do, that doesn’t mean it’s all build-up and no payoff. While this isn’t a very gory movie, the dog gets in a few kills before the final showdown with Donna.
Tense and brutal, “Cujo” is an underrated gem of a film, reminding us that horror can – and often does – come in the most familiar, innocent forms.