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CUJO (1983): Retro Review…Subtext If You Want It, Terror Either Way

Cujo – 1983

It’s hard to be a horror fan and not be familiar with the works of Stephen King; hell, it’s all but impossible.  Being the most popular and prolific of horror writers of the twentieth (and so far, the twenty-first) century, it’s inevitable that film adaptations of his works are equally prevalent in the chosen genre of we Fellow Fans.  As with any transition from print to celluloid, the movies made from his books have been largely hit-and-miss, ranging from downright sad (The Lawnmower Man, Maximum Overdrive), to some that are now considered classics (Carrie, The Shining, etc.).

One of these films that I feel doesn’t get the respect it deserves is Lewis Teague’s 1983 adaptation of King’s rabid-dog chiller, Cujo.

The Trentons are a young family having old problems; Vic is a devoted father to their son, Tad, and dedicated to his job as a partner in an independent advertising firm, but his wife, Donna, feels like there’s not much of him left for her.  She takes her frustrations to the bed of the local handyman, Steve Kemp.  Vic is pretty oblivious to Donna’s extra-curricular agenda; Tad’s fear of monsters in the closet and one of his firm’s biggest accounts having problems dominates his thinking, as well as both family vehicles having serious issues.  Taking a tip from the postman, he has his car repaired by a local shade-tree mechanic named Joe Camber, and the two families are introduced, including young Brett Camber’s massive St. Bernard, Cujo, whom unbeknownst to all has run afoul of some rabid bats while chasing a rabbit through the hills.  After the car is fixed, the family faces another problem when Vic discovers Donna’s infidelities, even though she herself had earlier that very day ended the affair.  Having to travel out-of-town for his work, Vic decides to think over his marriage while he’s gone rather than make a snap decision; he leaves instructions for Donna to take her car (the crown jewel of pieces o’ shit, a Pinto) to Camber to have it fixed, and they’ll figure out what they will do when he returns.

Dee Wallace as Donna Trenton

Fraught with guilt, Donna follows her husband’s wishes, taking the hoopdie to Camber’s; by this time, however, Cujo’s illness has gotten the better of him, and ol’ Joe isn’t going to be fixing any more cars.  What’s more, the two-hundred pound dog isn’t happy about visitors, but unfortunately for Donna and her young son, the junker car finally gives up the ghost under the shade tree of his isolated farm…

Having read the novel first, I found that I still very much enjoyed this film; granted, a lot of the elements were trimmed (most notably the supernatural connotations that the dog was possessed by a long-dead child murderer), but the general feeling of the novel was preserved.  Although I’ve heard people bitch and moan about the “soap-opera” elements of the first half of the flick, I found that it was integral to the underlying theme that sins must be paid for.  Donna, despite having brought her philandering to an end, is still responsible for her actions, and her ordeal could be seen as a metaphor for contrition.  Character development was paramount for the true emotional impact of the film to be effective.

After the script got us to know and have some investment in its characters, the flick becomes a one-set play of sheer terror; the sweltering heat of the day with the mother and son trapped in the little car is personal, intimate, and claustrophobic.

Donna and Tad huddle in terror in the heat of the car

Although the movie has a lot of impressive shots, this third-act setting called for some seriously creative camerawork, and my hat’s off to Teague and his cinematographer for putting me IN that goddamn car…watch for the “spinning” scene during a tense moment, and remember, it’s all inside a little Pinto.  The performances were very good across the board, with some familiar faces (Ed Lauter as Joe Camber, Christopher Stone as Steve Kemp) and some faces that would become familiar (Daniel Hugh Kelly as Vic Trenton), but the real standouts were genre icon Dee Wallace as Donna Trenton and (at the time) six-year-old Danny Pintauro as Tad.  Wallace’s performance as first a faithless yet repentant wife came across brilliantly, played out with body language and nuance rather than vocalized dialogue.  Her transition to first hysterical terror and finally determined mother in the final act was natural and wonderfully realized.  Pintauro, young though he was, showed acting chops far beyond his age; one particular scene where he’s having a seizure is a serious gut-wrencher, especially so if you have kids of your own.  Of course, Cujo himself is also a star; the stunt dogs and effects puppets are used to marvelous effect, making the originally jovial and pleasant pet into a drooling, horrifying monster with great realism.   There’s not an overt amount of gore, but the blood-caked and frothing beast is still an impressive work (especially since the mixture used to create this, egg whites and sugar, was considered a treat by the stunt dogs; they regularly licked it all off before filming). The movie has quite a few startling pucker moments in the last reel, along with being a grueling exercise in isolated suspense, as we the audience sit trapped in that little car in the heat with the characters.


As I said, folks, I’m a fan of this one.  It’s a competently and realistically done film that showcases a believable horror, and has a pertinent and valid subtext for you if you want it.

If you haven’t already, I recommend you check this one out.

That’s my spin on this one; two cents gone.



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Andrew Thompson

Editor-In-Chief at LeglessCorpse
The Mouse...VP/co-owner of LC Films, Editor-In-Chief of your average guy with what is most likely an unhealthy affinity for horror movies, sci-fi, superheroes, bacon, old cartoons and horror movies. Oh, I almost forgot, I really dig horror movies; new ones, old ones, it matters not; I love 'em. Husband, father, veteran and scribbler. I like bacon as well. The Mouse abides 😉