Written By; Angela DiLella
Edited By: Grave Reviews Staff
Director: Lewis Teague
Producers: Robert Singer and Daniel H. Blatt
Screenwriters: Don Carlos Dunaway and Barbara Turner
Based on the novel Cujo by Stephen King
Date Released: August 12, 1983
Dee Wallace as Donna Trenton
Danny Pintauro as Tad Trenton
Daniel Hugh-Kelly as Vic Trenton
Christopher Stone as Steve Kamp
Rating: 3/5 Graves
***May contain some spoilers***
Donna Trenton (played by Dee Wallace) is having a boring summer just like any other, and her car is having trouble just like any other. With her young son, Tad, she manages to get her car to the mechanic’s house before it breaks down for good. Unbeknownst to her, the mechanic’s normally genial St. Bernard has had quite a change of personality after getting a bite from a rabies-infected bat…
This movie has some gore; in particular, Dee gets a nasty gash from an attack by Cujo. There’s a focus on realistic rather than exploitive violence, gore, and scares, and what little is there is effective.
The Grave Review
Cujo (1983), like many of Stephen King’s properties, has a firm rooting in pop culture and is familiar to even those who are unfamiliar with the actual book or movie. So, it was a bit strange returning to what is more or less the source material to the larger eye of pop culture.
Many of the strengths of Cujo are the strengths I notice in many of the early movies based on Stephen King’s works. For example, the beginning of Cujo is shot in a certain way—I think it’s something with the film quality or grain itself, since scenes of excitement look much sharper—that make everything look soft and give the events a dreamlike quality. The score at these moments lends to that overall feeling, which I think works especially well for this movie so anchored in reality, albeit a reality that is about to become very nightmarish.
Another major strength is how the events and characters are simply presented. There’s not a lot of exposition, Donna is having an affair, her husband has suspicions, and there’s a nasty man who owns a dog. It’s kind of nice to just be put into the situation without too much exposition. Granted, this is a movie about a killer dog, so the director was probably well aware that people weren’t going to sit through too much run time that wasn’t a killer dog killing people (the movie is split almost perfectly in half between relatively normal time outside of Donna’s car and time trapped in the car by Cujo), but it also speaks to the strength of many of Stephen King’s works. These are unusual, horrifying events—but they could happen anywhere and, in a time when an effective rabies vaccine had only just been developed and was not made compulsory yet, probably did. The completely average backdrop makes the horror of a sweet dog gone unspeakably wrong even more effective.
That said, sometimes these scenes of normalcy do feel like padding, as sparse as they are. Someone knowing what Cujo is about—so, basically everyone—will most likely get antsy waiting for the last half of the movie, when Cujo has Donna and her young son trapped in Donna’s broken-down car. And although these scenes of normalcy work while they’re running and positively affect the overall film, they’re utterly forgettable after a screening.
Outside of the car scene, the movie is fairly unremarkable and because of a sudden end—a potential savior reunites with Donna and the movie ends before they can even fully embrace, much less parse out what has happened or reconcile in any way—there’s no reason to really remember anything outside of the extended time spent trapped in the car. There’s not even an attempt to tie loose ends up, which emphasizes the idea that those small dramas didn’t really matter at all and they’re not worth remembering. But the truncated end also robs the viewer of any emotional catharsis, so you don’t really leave Cujo feeling much of anything—not even relief that Donna has survived, really, more confusion at the fact that the story has suddenly ended.
Well, all of that is outside of the car, but what about inside the car and the small part of the movie where Cujo is rampaging but hasn’t turned his attention to Donna yet? The dreamlike score gives way to electronic beats which thankfully do not follow common horror tropes at the time and give way perfectly to the sounds of attack. The dog attacks are surprisingly well done, and a use of quick cuts and clever shots (such as a duel between Dee and Cujo that is shot from Cujo’s point of view, avoiding the use of awkward practical effects and the unpleasant image of a woman beating a dog, no matter how obvious a fake it would have been) ramp up the tension and fear well and make it look like a real attack. Another important part of this is the fact that the team used several different dogs depending on what was needed, as well as clever ways to excite the dog, such as hiding toys and treats in the car to get the dog actor so desperate to get in. Dee Wallace’s and Danny Pintauro’s acting is incredible as well; Wallace’s desperation sells everything and Pintauro gives a frighteningly real depiction of a seizure far beyond what one would expect of a six-year-old.
Ultimately, Cujo (1983) is a very strong movie in that final half, but getting there can feel overlong, even though the movie and that first, mostly placid half, aren’t that long at all, and the total run time barely crests an hour and a half. This is a movie that has aged well even in effects and in regards to the way the world has changed since it came on the scene. Although rabies vaccinations are mandatory for dogs now (Cujo is often credited with the mandate of this in the US), the thought hardly occurs to the viewer that this is shouldn’t have happened—the point is, we can believe it did.
Do you agree with our review of the film, Cujo (1983)? Comment below.