Directed by Lewis Teague (just coming off another rampaging animal movie, Alligator, at the time) Cujo tells the story of a St. Bernard that goes rabid after chasing a rabbit into a cave inhabited by bats. Through a series of unfortunate circumstances, a woman and her six year old son become trapped in their Pinto when they take it to the dog’s owner for repairs. Her husband is away on business, the dog’s owners are out of town, nobody else knows where they are. Nobody is looking for them. It is one of King’s most claustrophobic stories, which makes it ripe for adaptation.
The only issue going into a film of Cujo is that it is much easier to make a St. Bernard scary using language as opposed to film. On film, a St. Bernard is a St. Bernard. But this film is in capable hands, and there are many tricks at work to make the dog terrifying and make sure it does everything it needs to throughout the film. The animal looks believably sick and rabid.
Donna Trenton is cheating on her husband with her ex-boyfriend and family friend Steve Kemp (played by Dee Wallace’s one time husband Christopher Stone) and at first, her onscreen husband is oblivious. Vic Trenton works in advertising and is very busy, although he is great with their young son, Tad. He discovers the affair just before leaving on business. It’s an important plot point in that it adds character motivation and sets up why Vic would be so late to check in on the family and make sure everything is okay. When he does begin to doubt, though, he becomes a traditional hero as he tries to put everything together as quickly as he can.
Vic is not abusive in any of the generic movie trappings. One of the strengths of Cujo is the lack of any straightforward reason behind the affair. It keeps it honest and makes the story feel that much more as though it is about real people in real situations. Because that’s the most important thing about this picture. It has to feel real.
Of course, the movie kicks into high gear when Donna and Tad take their beat-up Pinto to the local mechanic’s house, just after he and his wife have coincidentally won the lottery. Joe Camber, the abusive mechanic and head of the household, is killed by the dog along with his neighbor after his wife leaves to visit her sister.
Much of the movie unfolds with Donna and Tad in the car and the dog waiting hungrily outside. The suspense is easy to create, but it’s difficult to maintain. However, Cujo succeeds. There were cars chopped in half and cars with the tops taken off to get the shots needed in order to keep the cinematography alive, but it turned out to be worth it.
One of the problems Cujo suffers from as an adaptation relates to the novel. It is a sequel-of-sorts to The Dead Zone. The books were released around the same time and are set in the same fictional Maine town of Castle Rock, so Cujo makes frequent references to that film. In fact, serial killer Frank Dodd, who was caught by protagonist Johnny Smith and Sheriff Bannerman in Zone is even hinted to have possessed Cujo in the novel. Of course, with the two adaptations being at different companies, none of the references in Cujo to The Dead Zone could remain in either feature. The only exception is the character of the sheriff, who was played by Tom Skerrit in The Dead Zone and factors heavily into the plot here as well, even though he is played by a different actor.
The major difference from the book, though, is the one everybody talks about. Little Tad, who dies in the novel, does not meet the same fate in the film. And while it’s powerful, even haunting in the novel, having him live serves the film better.
The dog is also an important character and the film used a mix of animal “actors,” animatronics and even a stunt actor in a suit in order to bring the rabid dog to life. The results worked, as the feature and its titular character have become iconic.
Interestingly enough, while everyone involved (especially Stephen King and Dee Wallace) hold this film up high as something they’re proud of, the movie has always received fairly mixed reviews. It wasn’t even a massive success in theaters. Everyone knows of it, everyone is intimately aware of the plot, but the numbers don’t suggest that everyone has seen it.
The only real downside to Cujo is a weak ending. After a great buildup of suspense between the poor people trapped in the car and Vic scrambling to find out what happened to his wife and son, everything just fizzles out five minutes before the end of the film. After that, things just continue until they happen to end. Don’t let that discourage you from seeing the movie, though, as it is an effectively scary and beautifully shot King adaptation.