|Review||Cujo (1983)||Director||Lewis Teague|
|Writers||Don Carlos Dunaway and Lauren Currier. Based on the novel by Stephen King|
|Cast||Dee Wallace, Danny Pintauro, Daniel Hugh Kelly, Christopher Stone and Ed Lauter|
“Fuck you, dog” – Donna Trenton
I’m not the biggest reader of novels but “Cujo” is among those I’ve read. Beforehand I didn’t think it was possible to take such a small story and stretch it to more than 400 pages and keep the reader interested. I was wrong. Stephen King is such a gifted storyteller and while the duel between Cujo and Donna takes up roughly one third of the novel (and less than half the movie) there’s so much groundwork King has laid down that gets the reader so invested in the characters and completely drawn in. The novel is very dark but the characters and their situations are always intriguing (the dog itself is a very well written character as well) and King’s descriptions are so expertly well delivered that the world the author creates comes very much alive. In this respect King’s novels haven’t always translated as well to the big screen (although I find the vast majority of films based on his work quite good) as they need to be trimmed and watered down King isn’t as effective.
“Cujo” the novel has so many rich characters and their plights, a mini subplot about a deceased serial killer policeman’s possible ghost (that nicely ties in with King’s earlier “The Dead Zone”), the inner goings on in Cujo himself and of course the explosive fight between Donna and the rabid dog. “Cujo” the movie has one rich character in Donna. It touches on her failing marriage to Vic (Kelly) and her extramarital affair to Steve (Stone). It only superficially introduces characters like Cujo’s owners and Vic’s career which play a huge part in the novel. And then it has the epic battle between Donna and Cujo. And that’s all it needs.
“Cujo” is one hell of a ride. It takes it’s time with Donna and Tad and shows well the gradual acceleration of Cujo’s disease taking control. Then midway through it’s a tension filled survival game as the rabid dog is out for Donna’s and Tad’s blood and it’s extremely well played out. Stuck in a small car in smoldering heat; Donna and Tad are fighting dehydration and exhaustion as Cujo has them trapped with no help in sight.
Dee Wallace is absolutely fantastic as Donna and displays a wide range of emotions with gusto. She’s always believable as her situation goes from bad to worse and hysteria and hopelessness take over. Young Danny Pintauro is also alarmingly good in the role of Tad and this child actor had some very difficult scenes to pull off. And finally; the dog handlers and canine performers produced something of a minor miracle in making Cujo one scary and extremely menacing foe. A huge St. Bernard may automatically send shivers down some spines but Cujo’s physical appearance and actions (in all six dogs were used for different purposes along with a man in a dog suit) are so well executed that the scenes involving the dog attacks are extremely unsettling and powerful.
Through the years “Cujo” has had some unfair criticism directed at it. Some have pointed to the fact that it uses a number of convenient coincidences to place Donna and Tad in this peculiar situation and refer to it as lazy writing. I don’t agree with it and while the novel can take it’s sweet time setting things up the movie has to speed through it a bit. Everything here is plausible which makes the terror that more unsettling and gut wrenching. I mentioned the darkness of the novel and…
…the fact that Tad dies in the end was always the biggest problem everyone had with it (that is thankfully changed in the movie). Donna’s ordeal was seen as a form of punishment for her infidelity and Cujo as the instrument of such behavior (as his other victims are no decent citizens too – excluding the extremely unlucky sheriff) and the material therefore seen as sexist.
-- No spoiler here --
In the end; “Cujo” is a magnificently crafted picture that has good characters, a sad villain and a number of truly effective scenes of suspense and brutality.