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Entries in Cujo [1983] (1)

Saturday
Oct302010

Cujo (1983) Home Video Review

Bitchin'

Sitting down to watch Cujo, I imagined the worst kind of campy, early-80s thriller; probably something with laughable dog puppets and a high body count.  To my delight, I discovered a captivating family drama that stays on the rails despite sidestepping into the pitfalls of most Stephen King adaptations.

For those not in the know, I’ve compiled a brief list of King’s most well-worn tropes.  I’ve only listed the ones that show up in Cujo, but there aren’t many that didn’t make the cut:

 

  • Takes place in Maine
  • Animals used as vessels for punishment
  • Features colorful local low-lives who meet bloody ends
  • Features colorful local regulars who talk like cartoon lobster fishermen
  • Centers on a married couple with problems (most notably, an affair)
  • Features a little boy who sees monsters that no one else can
  • Plot divides up main cast, allowing for mother and son to be stranded with evil force
  • Climax sees mother protecting son from a crazed killer

 

Unlike other King-inspired films—like ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, or Pet Sematary—I didn’t catch on to these devices until the movie was almost over.  This is mostly due to the un-King-like nature of the way the story unfolds.  Sure, we begin with a beastly St. Bernard getting attacked by rabid bats while chasing a rabbit through a field; but he doesn’t re-appear for nearly twenty minutes.

In the meantime, we meet the Trentons, Donna and Vic (Dee Wallace and Daniel Hugh Kelly, respectively), and their young son, Tad (Danny Pintauro).  Vic is an ad exec who gets in a world of trouble when one of his clients’ cereals is revealed to cause vomiting and bowel problems in children (I’m not sure why the guy who created the commercial would be taken to task instead of the boys in the lab, but I’ll let that one slide).  Tension is not new in the Trenton house, as evidenced by Donna’s affair with “local stud” Steve Kemp (Christopher Stone).  Vic discovers the affair and abruptly leaves on a ten day trip to New York.

I was so caught up in the unraveling of this family that I forgot I was watching a horror movie.  Wallace and Kelly play every scene with a legitimacy that neither condescends to the genre nor tries to elevate the material to melodrama.  By the time Cujo the rabid dog shows back up, I half wanted to just fast-forward to see if Donna and Steve managed to work things out in the end.

But we must deal with Cujo (his name’s on the marquee, after all), and I’m happy to report that, as a movie monster, he’s sufficiently scary.  When Donna takes Tad to a local mechanic’s house to get the family El Camino repaired, they find a slobbering, bloody, vicious dog in the yard.  They don’t know that Cujo has already dispatched his master and his master’s disgusting drinking buddy; but they know the dog is powerful and pissed-off, as it rams the car and nearly shatters the passenger-side window.

Nearly half the film takes place in that car, over the course of two hot summer days. Director Lewis Teague ratchets up the terror by exploring elements that don’t directly involve the dog; such as dehydration, the need to pee, a hysterical seven-year-old, and just how far away a front door can be when a galloping monster is watching one’s every move.  Not having read King’s novel, I don’t know how many of these ideas came from Teague, but the presentation is top-notch.   As the story cuts between the car and Vic’s business trip, the film itself alternates between suffocating panic and brief bursts of open air.

Despite Wallace and Pintauro’s utterly believable reactions to an unbelievable situation, Cujo wouldn’t be as effective as it is if the dog- monster had been mishandled.  I’d expected to be hyper-critical of the effects, but damn it, I couldn’t see the seams.  Even scenes where Cujo mauls people to death are pulled off so well that I felt duped.  I’m sure the tricks boil down to clever camera angles and a series of shots showing Cujo’s gradual unraveling (by applying gruesome makeup effects to an actual St. Bernard), but I fell for the movie magic every time.

The film falters a bit towards the end, when Steve Kemp goes psycho and trashes the Trenton house.  It’s a lazy plot bridge to get Vic to talk to the cops; to get the cops to send a patrol car; to get Cujo to rack up another body for the horror fans; and for Vic to race out to the mechanic’s house after the cop turns up missing.  On top of this breathtakingly hackneyed device, there’s the Friday the 13th Part Two false-climax and the most awkward closing freeze-frame I’ve ever seen.  In fact, it’s these problems that got me thinking about the Stephen King Tropes List in the first place.

In the end, though, that eleventh-hour silliness isn’t enough to ruin Cujo.  This is a tight, effective horror film with a great slow-burn and characters to both root for and despise.  It’s also the only Stephen King horror movie I can think of where the threat is completely natural.  There are no space aliens, ancient Indian curses, or wily demons scurrying about to instill fear—only a blood-thirsty dog and nowhere to hide.