I love horror movies. I love books by Stephen King. But movies based on King’s stories? Not so much.
And that’s because for the most part film adaptations of King’s work have been less than stellar. There are the obvious exceptions- Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980) of course, and I’ve always liked SALEM’S LOT (1979), although it is nowhere near as effective as the novel. There are others as well, but the point is in general, I don’t have a lot of favorite horror movies that are based on King’s stories, which is rather weird when you think about it.
Take CUJO (1983) for example. The best thing about this movie is its name. Say “Cujo” and you instantly picture a ferocious rabid dog. The word is almost synonymous with monster dog, which is pretty cool, from a horror writer’s standpoint.
But the actual movie? It’s a mixed bag of doggie treats.
For the most part, this tale of a family in a small town in Maine who crosses paths with a rabid dog is lame and dull, but once the film gets to the sequence where Cujo attacks the mother and child in their stalled car, things change for the better. Way better. Things get so intense you might forget you are watching CUJO and think you’re watching JAWS (1975) instead. It’s as frightening a sequence as you’ll find in a horror movie.
CUJO is one of those movies where you almost don’t need to watch the story unfold – just skip to the final third of the movie and watch Cujo do his stuff.
The plot is about a married couple, Donna Trenton (Dee Wallace) and her husband Vic (Daniel Hugh Kelly) and their young son Tad (Danny Pintauro). All is not well in the Trenton household, and Donna is having an affair, which Vic discovers. Uh oh. Not to worry though, because Vic is the self-reflective type, and his way of dealing with the problem is to go off on a business trip to give his wife some space.
And if marital problems weren’t enough, the Trentons are also having car trouble, and so Donna and Tad drive to their local mechanic so he can fix their car.
The big lovable St. Bernard Cujo was introduced earlier in the movie. He belongs to mechanic Joe Camber (Ed Lauter) and he’s friendly, but that was before he was bit by a rabid bat, and right on the nose, no less!
Yup, Cujo is now rabid, and he’s none too happy about it. When Donna and Tad arrive at the repair shop, Cujo attacks, and as their car dies just as they arrive, they find themselves trapped inside the dead car with Cujo trying to smash his way in.
Up until this point, the story is rather lame, but once Cujo attacks Donna and Tad, things intensify. And it’s not a brief scene. It goes on for nearly the final third of the movie, which makes the second half of CUJO a heck of a lot better than the first half.
The script by Don Carlos Dunaway and Lauren Currier, based on Stephen King’s novel, is pretty mediocre and plays like a standard soap opera vehicle until Cujo tastes blood.
The acting is pretty dreadful. Dee Wallace is less than inspiring as Donna Trenton. Like the rest of the movie, she gets better once the Cujo attack sequence begins, as she gets to scream a lot and act terrified. With a ton of credits, Wallace is no stranger to genre films, having appeared in a bunch of them, including THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977) and of course E.T.THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982).
Daniel Hugh Kelly isn’t any better as hubby Vic. He’s about as interesting as a slice of white bread. And young Danny Pintauro is supposed to be cute and cuddly as Tad, but I found him terribly annoying throughout this movie. Pintauro would go on to star in the Tony Danza sitcom WHO’S THE BOSS? (1984-1992).
The rest of the acting here is just as unimpressive. Cujo the dog easily delivers the best performance in the movie. Actually, there were several dogs used as Cujo, so I guess it was a group effort.
Director Lewis Teague does little with the first half of the film, but he more than makes up for this with the frightening second half. And a lot of the suspense comes from some nifty editing in these pre-CGI days.
CUJO gets off to a slow start, but be patient. The payoff is well worth the wait.
Statistics say that there are about 1,000 cases of people bitten by dogs every day in the United States. Hopefully none of them look like Cujo.
Sit, Cujo, sit.