Noteworthy Heroines of Horror is a recurring segment on Wicked Horror where we shine the spotlight on a female character from the annals of horror history that has made a significant contribution to the genre. The characters we select may not be the obvious final girls that regularly grace top ten lists, but their contributions to the genre are meaningful and worthy of note.
The horror heroines we talk about on this feature come from all walks of life and represent all different kinds of women. So, it seems almost wrong that we haven’t featured one very important type of woman–a mother. When a mother and her child are put into a horrific situation, it definitely seems to make for a much more compelling story, because there is a lot more at stake for the characters, and the audience. In the 1983 film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Cujo, Donna Trenton shows us that she is a Noteworthy Heroine of Horror when she and her young son Tad are trapped in a hot car with a rabid dog outside, preventing them from easy escape. Donna is portrayed by horror queen Dee Wallace.
Donna doesn’t begin her encounter with Cujo until about 45 minutes into the film. The whole setup in the first half is very crucial, not only in developing the plausibility of the situation, but also in developing Donna’s character and her motivations. There’s nothing all that remarkable or interesting about Donna Trenton when the audience first meets her. She is a normal housewife and mother, often very quiet and unobtrusive. But there’s definitely something going on beneath the surface. Donna doesn’t seem depressed or unhappy, but rather just bored and directionless with the life she has built with her husband Victor (Daniel Hugh-Kelly). This is why she has been having an affair with the “local stud,” Steve Kemp (Christopher Stone); however, even this doesn’t really fulfill her. It only leaves her with feelings of guilt.
The audience needs all this backstory to understand the biggest part of Donna’s character arc–her realization that she has been taking her family for granted. Though their life is simple, there’s definite love there, as several scenes show. Tad notices the strain between his parents, and he’s the one to lighten the mood during a virtually silent dinner. There’s a great moment between Donna and Vic where she admires how good he is with their son, comforting the boy’s fears of monsters in the closet with “The Monster Words.” Donna also seems to realize how good she has it when the family makes their first visit to the Cambers’, and Donna sees Charity, Joe’s wife, plucking a chicken on the front lawn. Charity is a woman who has been cowed and trapped by her husband, living an isolated life where she can’t make decisions on her own (as is demonstrated by the way she has to bribe him to allow her to take a trip to see her own family). Of course, Donna doesn’t know all this, but I think seeing how this other wife lives is just another thing that makes her realize that her life with Vic is not as bad as it could be. She finally does end the affair with Steve, but Vic is still able to conclude that it happened after seeing an awkward exchange between them at their home. Though Donna assures him that it is over, Vic still leaves town with the fate of their relationship up in the air-while Donna leaves to have her three-day ordeal with Cujo.
The setup of Donna and Tad being trapped in the broken down Pinto with Cujo outside is a tricky one, and Donna is smart enough to realize this. It’s a situation where she would probably do anything and risk herself to save her son, but she has to be careful. If something were to happen to her, then Tad would be all alone and end up dying anyway. So Donna plays it smart for a while, and waits things out. She waits for the car to start again. She waits for Cujo to die from his sickness. But it’s blazingly hot outside, and even hotter inside the car, and their food and drink supply is minimal at best. The first time Donna attempts to step outside the car, when it looks like things are quiet and safe, Cujo demonstrates his viciousness by brutally attacking her, and biting her leg. From then on, the dog is relentless at keeping watch over the car, ready to strike the moment either of them dares venture outside again. The severity of the situation is thus made real to Donna, and every action she takes has to be well-thought out.
But Donna’s instinct as a mother is so strong that none of these things seem to matter when her son is in danger. The next morning, Tad has his first episode where he has trouble breathing. She completely forgets her situation for a second and is only focused on getting to the front door of the house–there are close-up shots to enhance this–where she can get to a phone and get help for Tad. She opens the door without hesitation, but Cujo is right there waiting to stop her. Later, Tad has another quick breathing fit and starts crying for his daddy. This is the only time where Donna really loses her cool and yells at Tad, but it’s certainly understandable. She’s just watched Cujo kill Sheriff Bannerman before he could call for help, and all hope seems lost. The third time Tad is in trouble, Donna can’t wake him up at all. Things are really dire now, and she’s finally ready to end all this. She gets out of the car and marches straight for the front door. Cujo appears from under the house, but instead of running back to the safety of the car again, Donna decides to go one-on-one. She stops him (for the time being) with a baseball bat. The rest of this scene is incredibly suspenseful, as she has several moments of panic when she can’t get back into the car to get Tad, and then, as she is trying to revive him with CPR. Everything becomes worth it when he finally starts to breathe again, and the relief, joy, and love that washes over her when that happens is one of the best moments in the movie. When Cujo crashes through the door for one last stand, Donna immediately grabs the gun and puts him down for good.
Donna’s encounter with Cujo could be seen as both a punishment and a test. Maybe a part of her feels like she deserved to have this happen because of her wrongdoings; yet at the same time, everything she has been through has solidified the love and loyalty she has for her family. When Donna and Vic are reunited again for that final shot of the film, they don’t say anything, but they don’t have to. Having almost lost each other and their child, it’s not hard to imagine that all the problems in their relationship can now be forgiven, and it is earned. The incredible fight that Donna shows to save herself and protect her son in Cujo is very admirable, and something that her character needed to go through in order for her to reassess and appreciate how she felt about her life. Therefore, we are more than happy to bestow upon her the title of Noteworthy Heroine of Horror.