Written by: Don Carlos Dunaway and Lauren Currier (screenplay), Stephen King (novel)
Directed by: Lewis Teague
Starring: Dee Wallace, Daniel Hugh Kelly, and Danny Pintauro
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"There are no real monsters."
"Except for the one in my closet."
"Except for the one in my closet."
While Stephen King usually conjures up unfathomable, unnerving Lovecraftian horrors, he’ll occasionally find terror in the mundane, revealing how ordinary lives can be upended by the nature that lay before us. Such was the case with Cujo, a nasty, straightforward tale that goes right for the throat: what if a big fucking rabid dog were let loose to terrorize a mother and her son? King’s stories rarely come this lean and straightforward, though it’s no less iconic. To this day, the name Cujo is synonymous with “nightmare dog”—I don’t care what breed, what color, what actual size: if I spy a particularly vicious canine, it’s a damn Cujo. I suspect it’s the same for anyone else who encountered this traumatizing movie at way too young an age, leaving them with long memories of a the ghastly, slobbering title creature. But what happens when you—in that great King tradition—re-confront this childhood monster? Can Cujo possibly be as terrifying as an adult, or does the conceit seem sillier now?
As it turns out, Cujo still works, albeit for different reasons. When you’re seven years old, you’re mostly here to see a giant St. Bernard rip shit up, even if it does leave you jumpy at the sight of huge dogs. To be honest, it’s a wonder that any kid would be captivated by the movie at all, since the first half is almost exclusively dedicated to various familial drama. Sure, we see Cujo attacked by a bat in the opening sequence, but the next 45 minutes hover around the dog’s owners—the rural Camber family lorded over by an abusive, beer-swilling mechanic patriarch (Ed Lauter)—and the Trentons, a set of middle-class suburbanites whose seemingly perfect existence is a sham. It turns out Donna (Dee Wallace) is fooling around with a family acquaintance (Christopher Stone), while her husband (Daniel Hugh-Kelly) stresses out over a work-related snafu. Meanwhile, their young son Tad (Danny Pintauro) carries on rather obliviously, as he’s much too preoccupied with the monsters that supposedly haunt his closet.
His fear of monsters is well-founded—somewhat. Obviously, they don’t emerge from his closet but rather at the Clamber household when he and his mother have to take their car to be fixed. Well, eventually, anyway, as that turn of events might as well qualify as the film’s extended climax. Given the film’s reputation (and the way memory tends to become distorted), it’s easy to forget that Cujo isn’t just 90 minutes of the title character going wild and turning victims into human mincemeat. Instead, it takes a while for the film to come around to that: we’re reminded of Cujo’s deteriorating condition and menacing presence as the Clambers go on about their lives, but he doesn’t snap and embark on a rampage until the last 30 minutes or so, at which point a copious amount of blood is shed.
But until that point, Cujo is kind of a grungy, low-key domestic melodrama, one that doesn’t exactly teem with King’s most memorable characters, at least as they’re depicted here. They’re all fine, brought to life by more than adequate performances from a solid cast, but they’re pretty trite, thinly-sketched caricatures by King standards. In retrospect, there’s something retroactively—and likely unintendedly—interesting about Dee Wallace playing an adulterous, something that must have felt positively traumatic coming off of her motherly role in E.T. Of all the characters here, she certainly is the most interesting, and there’s a nuance to her performance that gives Donna Trenton the slightest amount of dimension. Just the way her body language tenses up when her secret lover walks into the room communicates so much of her apprehension and regret about her affair, and watching her navigate this particular minefield provides some natural intrigue to the early proceedings. It’s the trashy intrigue of grocery store romance novels, but it’s intrigue nonetheless, not to mention much more engaging than watching her husband worry over an ad campaign for a cereal company.
Of course, all this drama is meant to heighten the stakes and the symbolism of the plight the Trentons encounter in the form of Cujo. The deranged pup isn’t just a monstrous force of nature, but also representative of the forces tearing the Trenton household apart, I suppose. Speaking of E.T., there’s something vaguely Spielbergian about a nuclear family coming apart at the seams confronting something horrible before it can remain intact, a notion here that certainly doesn’t derive from the original novel. King has candidly revealed that he barely remembers writing Cujo due to a heavy drinking problem, which perhaps explains the bleak ending that sees Tad die while his mom is infected by rabies. Supposedly one of King’s biggest regrets, it’s rectified here with a more pleasing resolution that sees the child survive just as his dad arrives to reform the family unit.
And thank goodness for that. That ending is obviously what a young kid needs to see—I say this as someone still traumatized by that scene in Pet Sematary—and, while twentysomething me might have made the argument that this is watered down, compromising junk, I have to say with some candor: fuck twentysomething me. This is what I meant by Cujo still being effective for various other reasons these days: when you’re a kid, Tad’s ordeal makes you scared for yourself. As an adult, you’re scared for Tad because you realize just how helpless he is, and Pintauro gives an anxiety-ridden performance that must be a nightmare for a parent to endure. Since finding out that I am actually going to be a parent in about two months, I have a heightened awareness for this sort of thing that adds another horrifying dimension to kids in peril. I’m not going to become one of those lame folks that swears off horror now that I’ll have a kid, but there’s no way to look at this stuff the same way again. Cujo is a damn nightmare all over again (and I’m surely not too eager to revisit Pet Sematary as often now).
Much of its effectiveness rests in director Lewis Teague’s gritty, claustrophobic direction during the extended Cujo siege. King’s personal choice to helm the film after seeing Alligator (how great is it that King is one of us?), Teague carries over the gnarled nastiness of that film to capture the harrowing nature of the Trentons’ encounter with the beast. Not only is the beast—which was realized via five actual dogs, an animatronic stand-in, and a man-in-suit effect—completely believable, but his carnage is ruggedly grisly. He messily tears into various victims, spilling chunks of flesh, oozing menace with every appearance. Even his movements—despite his size, he’s capable of darting around like a missile—are jarring, especially when he terrorizes Donna and Tad, who are stuck in a car during a sweltering summer day. The giant nightmare dog is only one factor here, as dehydration sets in, compounding the utter suffocation. There’s just something brutally raw about the entirety of this sequence, with the heat and dirt working in concert with Cujo’s rotting visage to create an unfiltered viciousness.
Cujo might not be among King’s most deep and cerebral stories, but it is one of his more guttural works. Teague at least retains that, especially during those last, distressing 30 minutes. Not that Cujo is worthless beyond its visceral schlock, as it’s also a masterclass in generating tension from dramatic irony: this is the platonic ideal of a horror film where an audience is practically invited to yell at the screen while the oblivious characters futz about. A mailman that could save Donna and Tad is reminded his usual route isn’t necessary today; a cop investigates the Clamber abode, completely unaware that the mother and son are cowering in fear from the dog that will soon attack him; Vic Trenton frustratingly barks up the completely wrong tree when he suspects Donna’s lover has abducted her and his son.
Something about this randomness does channel that sort of cosmic-karmic-terror King has curated over the years, as it reminds us that we’re at the whims of a cruel universe that puts us in the wrong place at the wrong time. If not for a particularly elusive rabbit darting in a specific direction, Cujo would have never stumbled onto a den of rabid bats in the first place, thus sparing the Clambers and Trentons of this horrifying ordeal. This is one of the many essences of King’s work, and it’s distilled to its utter rawness in Cujo, a film that relentlessly works to remind you that even man’s best friend can become its most bitter enemy on such a whim.
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