When it comes to horror movies based on Stephen King books the audience often is treated to a mediocre or bad movie. The love for several movies or mini-series everybody tends to come from nostalgia rather than a timeless quality product. Like the 1990 IT mini-series adaptation for instance. Only a few adaptations are regarded as actual good movies. Think of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and Misery. The 80s was King’s heyday with movies based on his books and short stories coming out at a constant rate. Movies like Pet Sematary, Maximum Overdrive, Silver Bullet, Firestarter, Children of the Corn and Christine just to name a few. One of the more prolific movies from this era was 1983’s Cujo.
Cujo stands out because of its simple and down to earth premise. A rabid Saint Bernard terrorizes a mother and her young child trapped on a remote farm. 40 years later I still read a lot of positive feedback on how Cujo is one of the better Stephen King adaptations and it is generally regarded as a good movie. I personally always found Cujo to be embodiment of a mediocre Stephen King movie. Perfectly average at best.
The concept is solid; Cujo, a large Saint Bernard, is bitten by a bat and develops rabies. Once rabid he murders a neighbor as well as his owner who is a local mechanic. Having problems her car, young mother Donna (Dee Wallace) and her six year old son Tad (Danny Pintauro) end up at the mechanic’s farm. With a car that won’t start any more they are trapped as Cujo is out for their blood.
Cujo is a simple concept for an 80 minute movie featuring a mother who goes to great lengths to save herself and her kid. There is a large farm for the writers to utilize and find multiple interesting ways to pit the dog against the two. Much in the vein of a slasher or zombie movie, where there’s a constant threat, but the people have some freedom to move and the option of finding new ways to overcome the threat.
Sadly Cujo doesn’t do that. What could be a simple set-up with the kid and the mother ending up at the farm at the end of the first act takes up almost two thirds of the movie. Cujo himself is a secondary character in the first two acts of the movie as he’s often in the background while his festering wound grows gradually worse. Nobody in the family seems to notice how their beloved pet has a gaping puss filled wound on his nose. Having been around dogs my entire life, a wound like this is something you certainly pay attention to.
But the first 50 minutes or so mostly revolves around the family dynamic of Donna. Donna is unhappy in her marriage and has an affair with her husband’s best friend. Her husband isn’t aware of the affair, but there is a lot of tension between them. Their son Tad is seeing monsters in his closet, possibly the result of his parent’s strained relationship. Not helping is the fact that the father has work related stress concerning an important client having a public relations crisis. At one point the father does find out about the affair which makes the decision to go away on business a lot easier.
Meanwhile the mechanic’s family apparently made a small sum of money in a lottery. The wife and kid use this money for a small vacation leaving the mechanic alone with a dog that nobody seems to notice is going rabid.
The fact that I need two paragraphs to explain everything that is going is Cujo’s biggest flaw. The movie is more like a marriage story than a tense story about a giant dog terrorizing a small farm. It isn’t until 50 minutes into the movie that Donna and Tad drive up to the farm and are attacked by Cujo. From that point on the movie is mostly about Donna and her kid being trapped in the car as each attempt they make to get out is answered by a raging Cujo against or on top of the car. Even a police car doesn’t change this dynamic, as it only provides Cujo with another victim before returning his focus on Donna and Tad.
The final act is by far the strongest part of the movie. There is some incredible animal training involved in the entire movie and the dogs portraying Cujo deliver a performance up to par with the human actors. There are only a handful of scenes in which the dog lovers among us can tell that the Saint Bernards aren’t really the blood thirsty monsters the movie tries them to be. In one scene you can even see one wagging his tail happily. In other scenes their tales are obviously tied between their legs as an angry and furious dog would never put his tail between his legs.
Also delivering strong performances are Dee Wallace and Danny Pintauro as mother and son. Wallace has the whole mom thing nailed by now, but her screams during the final act as she fears for her kid’s life are harrowing. Even more so is Pintauro, who is possibly the most traumatized kid ever seen on screen. The scenes in which he cries and screams as his mother is being mauled by Cujo is truly bone-chilling. He’s delegated to the token whiny kid in the first two acts, but really comes into his own during the final act.
But these performances can’t save the movie from feeling like a bloated piece. I’m not familiar with the source material, but the whole affair element does feel like the writers put in it because it was in the book. This could have been a lean movie about a single mom and her kid ending up on a remote farm where they have to outsmart the rabid dog in several ingenious ways. Instead we got a movie that doesn’t have the bite a movie about a killer dog deserves.