Amongst the slew of Stephen King film adaptations that were released in the 80s was the film version of his fantastic 1981 novel, Cujo.
Cujo is the St Bernard dog who is bit by a rabid bat whilst he chases a rabbit. Slowly but surely he transforms from a loveable family dog into a slobbering, rabid killer.
There’s so much to love about the 1983 film that was based on one of King’s best books. Firstly, if Dee Wallace Stone is starring in a film, in my book, it instantly gets an extra star as her acting chops are superb. Her use of method acting especially within the horror movies she has starred in works very well indeed, even if the boring film purists would say that such a technique wouldn’t work with such a genre. As someone on the set of The Howling said ‘She actually believed that werewolves existed for the duration of her working on the movie!’ Which is exactly why she’s such a kick-ass actress. And her turn within Cujo is no different. Here she plays Donna Trenton, a woman who is having an affair with her high school old flame behind her advertising husband’s back.
Which brings us onto another reason why Cujo works so well. The film is faithful to the book (except for one MASSIVE plot point and I won’t be saying what it is. You need to watch this movie and read the book. You’ll thank me for this) and so King’s fantastic character arcs and the turmoil of their lives aren’t smoothed over or written out completely for this screen adaptation. And so we get adultery, domestic violence, alcoholism and someone’s career dying a death (in stark contrast to the 80’s Yuppie dream depicted in the adverts of the time).
We also get an extraordinary sequence involving Donna’s son going to bed and the nightmarish circumstances that surround such an event. This sequence is like a Siouxsie and the Banshees song made flesh. It’s exquisite. Kudos to director Lewis Teague, although the entire film is testament to his directorial genius.
And then we get the sequence based solely in their malfunctioning car as Donna and her son are held under siege in their vehicle by the rabid dog. Not since The Texas Chain Saw Massacre have we as an audience experienced the sticky, clammy suffocation of such stifling weather conditions as Donna has to think of how to get out of this situation as her son starts to experience the effects of dehydration. These scenes are worth the price of admission alone. We see Donna go from rationally trying to get out of this nightmare to becoming a fearless warrior as her maternal instincts kick in and she is prepared to do anything to save her son.
In fact, one of the things that amazes me the most about Cujo is how Wallace Stone didn’t get at least an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal. Yes, her performance is that good. In fact, I feel that within the sub-genre of Stephen Kind adaptations, Cujo is criminally underrated. It’s time for a proper reappraisal.
Adapted from Stephen King’s best-selling novel, Cujo tells the story of a rabid St Bernard dog terrorising and besieging a mother and her son in their broken down car.
This is a wonderful film, not just because of the car/dog storyline but also because of the rich characterisation (a trademark of King’s) which builds up to this scenario. Thank God for horror films that feature characters that are fully fleshed out, realistic and relatable to the audience. And an audience that the filmmakers warrant with having a modicum of intelligence. Thankfully the filmmakers had the good sense to carry over the nuance and eye for detail contained in the film’s source material and not dilute or erase it upon it’s transfer to the big screen.
The movie is invested in portraying realistically flawed and multi-faceted characters and showing just how dark and dysfunctional life is for these players. Just as Donna’s husband Vic has created the advertising campaign for a cereal that is later found to have made several young children up and down the country vomit profusely, this is a perceptive peek into the whole ethos of the film. The professor in the commercial eats some of the cereal before showing the bowl’s contents to the audience and exclaiming ‘Nothing wrong here!’ This is a sarcastic and caustic comment on the artificial and ‘too good to be true’ world portrayed in the media (and particularly advertising) and the reality of the characters in the movie.
If the characters in the movie existed within the unreality of a commercial, Donna Trenton (the ever brilliant Dee Wallace-Stone) would be happily married, Charity Camber wouldn’t be in a violent relationship with her garage owner husband Joe and Vic’s advertising campaign would be a roaring success for a cereal that was rigourously tested before it went on sale.
But the film is only interested in depicting the reality for these characters without the sugar coating. Therefore, Donna’s marriage seems completely loveless to her to such an extent that she is having an affair with her high school ex-boyfriend Steve, Charity is trapped in an abusive marriage to her pig of a husband and Vic’s career might be in pieces after such an epic (and very public) fail regarding the cereal hes created a nationwide campaign for.
But the movie is also about escape. Charity announces to Joe that she has won the lottery and wants to use the $5k prize to go away with their son to visit her sister. We see her taking clothes and photos for her trip and it’s suggested that this will be a permanent departure rather than just a week away. She seems to pack in a hurry so that her escape isn’t discovered by Joe.
Donna comes to the realisation that she wants to work at her marriage and goes to break the news to Steve that she intends on not continuing with their affair. It’s when Steve races outside to try to talk Donna round that Vic rides by and sees the two of them together. Steve then goes full-on Cluster B throughout the rest of the movie, firstly seemingly trying to violently sexually assault Donna in her kitchen (thankfully Vic comes in at that moment whereby Donna confirms that she has been having an affair to him) and then trashing her family home whilst she is at the garage being held hostage by Cujo.
I love that Donna is shown to have some kind of psychic ability or finely tuned intuition. When she first sees Charity sat performing chores in the foreground of the garage her heart goes out to her as if she feels some of the pain that she experiences in her everyday life and purposely goes out of her way to speak to her. Likewise, when Donna sees Cujo for the first time before he’s turned into a rabid killer and is still a lovable St Bernard (albeit with a bite on his nose) shes still unsure and weary of him as if she foresees the horror to come.
Cujo the dog could be seen as a Return of the Repressed, a reminder of the brutal reality of life, a hurdle for Donna to overcome so that she can truly cherish the great things that make up her life and work on the areas (e.g. her marriage) which require more work. In fact, it’s when her son Tad is in a critical condition that her fighting spirit couples with her strong maternal instinct and she decides to become proactive even if it means risking her own life. It’s at this point that she leaves the car, grabs the baseball bat that shes noticed is on the ground and fights back. Cujo being a domestic animal turned rabid could be seen as a manifestation of Donna’s domestic sphere that has been turned upside down by her affair and that she now has to fight to mend and resolve her own situation.
Up until the book and movie of Cujo came out the St Bernard dog was either seen as cuddly or as a dog traditionally utilised as a helper (they are well known for their strong sense of smell and brute force which made them perfect for finding and rescuing those stranded in snowbound conditions) only makes it’s transformation even more extreme and subversive. Sharks were seen as killing machines and predators even before the novel and movie of Jaws were released.
The book differs from the novel is some key ways. I’m not going to go into the main way that they are different as I don’t want to ruin either experience for horror fans but I can understand why the filmmakers chose to conclude the film differently. If the film was ended the same way as the book the entire audience would have been alienated. Thats not to diss the conclusion of the book in any way. But seeing certain events unfurl before your eyes is very different to reading them off the page. Apparently King agreed and said that if he could rewrite any ending to one of his novels it would be Cujo and that it would resemble the film’s ending.
I find Cujo to be a terrific work. Whenever Dee Wallace-Stone is in a film you know it’s going to be something special. She gives one of her best performances in this film and exhibits a range that is nothing less than astonishing. Her transition from mother and wife into a survivor who is literally fighting for her life and the life of her child is utterly believable and exquisitely acted. It’s another example of the reality portrayed in the film that a character who is seen as flawed and human can also be the main character and ultimately the hero of the piece.
It’s also worth noting that the film portrays the heat and airless conditions in the car in which they are stranded in perfectly and yet apparently the film was shot in winter and it was freezing!
There are uniformly brilliant performances in the film. There needs to be special mentions to Danny Pintauro as Tad and Kaiulani Lee as Charity. Also, it’s great to see Dee’s late husband Christopher Stone as a such a dark character.
Lewis Teague’s direction is kinetic rather than static which helps the film move along greatly especially with the storyline that involves the dog keeping Donna and Tad in the car. It would have been very easy to have this sequence make the film drag through flat, uninspired direction in a scenario that revolves around one setting. Instead, Teague keeps the camera moving especially in an extraordinary scene whereby Donna ventures out of the car and is promptly attacked. To show her mental state after her attack the camera starts to move in 360 degree arcs. An ambitious idea in a cramped environment like the inside of a car. It works beautifully.
Donna really suffers in this film which is another nod to the reality of the movie as opposed to other more glossy motion pictures. There is much in common with Donna’s character at the end of the movie and Marilyn Burns at the end of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Both have been thoroughly bloodied, battered and bruised on their individual trips to hell in their respective journeys. TCM and Cujo would make a great double-bill with both being claustrophobic horror films depicting mid-summer madness.
Yet another recommendation for the film was that good ol’ Siskel and Ebert hated it! The kings of the backhanded compliment called the film ‘dumb’, ‘flimsy’ and ‘dreadful’. However, King himself called the movie ‘terrific’. High praise indeed.
I think Cujo is massively underrated and one of the best horror movies of the 80’s.