No. 34: Cujo

Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

We arrive at the final and probably best-known Stephen King adaptation on our countdown, Cujo. While Cujo was only slightly more successful financially than The Dead Zone and Christine, I think it’s fair to say that it’s the most recognizable title of the three amongst the general population in 2010. It’s almost become a ubiquitous reference point in American popular culture. Mention Cujo and everyone, whether they’ve seen the film or not, knows that you’re talking about an evil dog.

Cujo did for dogs what Jaws did for sharks. It put an image in the minds of moviegoers that stuck with them, an idea which probably wouldn’t have been there otherwise. I confess that after watching Cujo, my next encounter with my uncle’s usually lovable golden retriever was just a tiny bit more nerve-racking than usual.

Having a lasting effect on the popular culture in a way that almost influences our basic fear responses over 25 years later has to be a sign of a successful horror film. But Cujo certainly wasn’t viewed that way at the time of its release. Roger Ebert was mercilessly critical of the film (he even mentions it derogatorily in his reviews for the other two 1983 King adaptations) and even the kindest major critics of the time called it mediocre and bland. Why then does the film hold such a strong place in the memories of viewers today and stand as an almost universally recognized horror classic?

I think the discrepancy comes from the film’s very unconventional approach to the horror genre. Like a conventional horror film of its time, say a typical slasher film like Halloween, the first half of the film is spent meticulously setting up the perfect scenario, leaving no holes that could distract the audience from simply experiencing the terrifying situation. King, who was perhaps more involved in this film’s production than any other adaptation of his work to date at the time, knew that in order for the audience to remain focused on what was happening later in the film, he would have to anticipate all the proposed solutions the audience would have to the heroine’s problem. Every possibility for salvation, right down to the mail man, is accounted for and neatly (though not unreasonably) taken care of.

But King’s hour-long setup does more than just tie up potential loose ends. It also creates a carefully crafted emotional subplot that gives our heroine’s plight later in the film an additional level of tension.

I won’t re-create the entire setup for you here but here’s a quick summary: Our main character is Donna, a suburban housewife who has revealed to her loving and devoted husband that she has been cheating on him with a local scumbag. The husband, despite his overwhelming love for their son, has decided that he needs a few days to work things out and heads out of town for an indefinite vacation.

Unfortunately for Donna, her car needs fixing so she decides to take it up to a local handyman just outside of town to see if he can fix it. The handyman and his family are unfortunately out of town and Donna’s car won’t start back up once she realizes this.

Now comes the film’s namesake: Cujo, the dog belonging to the handyman, has been bitten by a bat and has been infected with rabies. Cujo is a Saint Bernard, a formidable and intimidating dog, and is already covered in slime and blood from the first person who realized (too late) that he was rabid by the time Donna sees him.

I won’t reveals what happens beyond that but as you can see, our scenario finds Donna trapped in her broken down car with her small child with no hope of anyone turning up to help her for the next several days. Dee Wallace (The Howling, E.T.) is phenomenal as Donna, a fact that even the film’s harshest critics in 1983 were able to admit. The shift in her attitude as time goes by in the car is captivating to watch. We see everything in her face and reactions, from the sheer visceral terror she feels for her life and the life of her child to the guilt she feels about how her actions have in part created the situation she’s in.

Almost equally impressive is the heartbreaking performance by Danny Pintauro as Tad, Donna’s young son. Pintauro, who would later star in the long-running sitcom “Who’s The Boss?”, made his screen debut in Cujo and gives what is in my opinion one of the best performances ever by a child in a horror film. The film establishes early on that Tad has a fear of monsters in his closet that can only be soothed by the voice of his father saying one of those special little routine poems that all parents make up for their children. Donna, of course, doesn’t know the poem and is unable to soothe Tad’s terror when they are beset by what Tad believes to be a real monster. Pintauro’s screams and cries seem truly genuine and however director Lewis Teague was able to coax this out of him, it was incredibly effective. As a parent, watching a terrified child scream and not knowing how to calm him down has to be one of the most harrowing situations I can think of.

(SPOILER ALERT) According to a number of interviews and stories about the making of Cujo, King’s close involvement with the film stems in part from a desire to correct some mistakes he felt he made when writing the novel. King wrote Cujo at the peak of his alcoholism and while the plot and characters are among the most honest and believable of his career, the plot (particularly the ending) plays out in a way that is perhaps a bit too brutal for movie audiences. King has said that he regrets ending the novel the way he did and wanted to correct that error when writing the screenplay for Cujo. (END SPOILER)

Regardless of the film’s resolution, it’s the setup that makes Cujo effective and thus memorable as a horror film and to me this marks some of the best true horror writing of King’s career. Add to that an excellent pair of performances and some stunning (if occasionally overwrought) cinematography by Jan de Bont (who would eventually earn a reputation as one of the best action cinematographers of the 1980s) and you’ve got a horror film that holds up very well to scrutiny over a quarter of a century later.

Next Up: The quintessential space race classic The Right Stuff starring Ed Harris.