Cujo (1983)


Bad Dog!

Main Cast: Dee Wallace, Danny Pintauro

Director: Lewis Teague

Back in the 80s it seemed you couldn’t check the movie listings without at least one Stephen King adaptation playing that weekend. There was CREEPSHOW, CHRISTINE, FIRESTARTER, THE DEAD ZONE, CHILDREN OF THE CORN, and CUJO. Just to name a few. It’s this last we’ll be focusing on today.

CUJO was written for the screen by Don Carlos Dunaway (who, for the most part, was a TV writer, on Baretta, The Rockford Files) and directed by Lewis Teague, who also directed another King movie two years later, CAT’S EYE. It isn’t a bad adaptation, but I think it was held back by the source material.

No one will ever accuse Cujo the novel of being a literary masterpiece. It’s basically the story of a woman and her son who are trapped in their car by a rabid dog. This is the conflict, and until we reach that point in the novel and the movie, it’s pretty much just a series of events that leads up to that situation. No real in-depth character study or social commentary in this one.

Vic and Donna Trenton (played by Daniel Hugh-Kelly of Hardcastle and McCormick, and Dee Wallace of THE HOWLING, E.T. and THE FRIGHTENERS) are having a slew of problems all at once. One of the clients Vic’s company does ad campaigns for is having some trouble and Vic is called away on business. Just before he goes he discovers Donna is having an affair (with Steve Kemp, played by Wallace’s real-life husband Christopher Stone), and her car needs work done.

cujo poster 2

She assures him the affair is over, and she plans to take her car to Joe Camber, who’s done some auto work for them before in the past. Meanwhile, Charity Camber and her son Brett are leaving for a week to visit her sister in Connecticut. Just before they go, Brett starts to think maybe Cujo, the family St. Bernard, might be getting sick.

Afraid her husband Joe will use that as a reason for them to stay, she says they’ll worry about that later. But later is TOO late. While they’re gone, Cujo–who contracted rabies when he chased a rabbit into a cave and was bitten by the bats residing there–chases down a neighbor, and then Joe Camber himself.

When Donna and her son Tad (Danny Pintauro, Who’s the Boss?) roll into the Camber yard, Donna’s car gasps its final goodbye. Before Donna can see if anyone’s home, however, Cujo attacks. She and Tad are then trapped in their Pinto, in the middle of summer, with no way out as Cujo stands guard, attacking every time the phone in the Camber house begins to ring.

The gist of the story is the same as the novel, obviously, but for the sake of keeping things simpler for the movie, some of the details and subplots have been changed.

For one, the relationship with Steve Kemp. In the novel, it’s mentioned Vic and Kemp have played tennis together, but that’s about it. In the movie, he’s doing some work for them–he’s a furniture stripper–and comes by the house often, even has a nickname for Tad–Tadpole.

In the novel, we’ve got an entire subplot of Charity and Brett Camber at the sister’s house and Charity’s worries that Brett is too much like his father (Ed Lauter plays Joe Camber who turned out to be less of a dirt bag in the movie than he was in the book) while Brett worries about Cujo and can’t get hold of anyone at home to check on him. But in the movie, once Charity and Brett put their suitcases in the car, they drive right out of the plot.

I was glad the secondary Kemp plot was kept in. While Donna and Tad are stranded at the Cambers’, Steve Kemp comes to the house, disgruntled because Donna ended their affair, and tears the house to pieces. When Vic comes home early and sees what he’s done, the police begin to search for Kemp, assuming that’s where Donna and Tad have been taken. It’s not much, but it draws out the suspense a little.

CUJO is like a prime example of Murphy’s Law: anything that can go wrong will. It’s just a series of one thing after another that all leads up to this moment – Donna and Tad, in the broken-down car, while the 200-pound rabid dog wants in.

cujo poster 3

Lewis Teague is a competent director, nothing flashy. He’s got a few good shots thrown in here. There was a misdirection that caught me off guard, and that rarely happens anymore. I think the beginning of the movie was a little too much misdirection as the flowers and the field and the harp playing in the background makes the viewer think they’re watching an old Little House on the Prairie episode. And even a little later when we’re supposed to be unsure what’s gonna happen next, the harp is still playing. Harp’s not an ominous sound. Who’s going to be frightened when the harp music starts?

The effects are pretty good, considering it was 1983. Cujo is played by five different dogs, one mechanical head, and even a guy in a dog suit (according to the IMDb).

Cinematography is by Jan de Bont who’s done some good work in that area including CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR, DIE HARD, and THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER. Unfortunately he also worked as cinematographer on WHO’S THAT GIRL? and LEONARD, PART 6, but there’s no accounting for taste. In the end, de Bont is still a good cinematographer.

CUJO is not a great movie, but it wasn’t exactly a great book, either, so what can you expect? I believe everyone did their best with what they had to work from. Dee Wallace is great as the confused suburban housewife, then later as the desperate mother trying to save her son. Pintauro has his moments when I’d have gladly slapped him and told him to shut the hell up, but overall I think he is pretty good too, considering he was only 7 at the time.

The dogs are the real stars here, however, and whoever was working with them deserves any credit doled out for making CUJO successful. The old saying in Hollywood is, what, never to work with animals or children? The makers of CUJO disregarded both those rules and still managed to come out with something worthwhile.

King on Film

Carrie (1976)

‘Salem’s Lot (1979)

The Shining (1980)

Creepshow (1982)

Disciples of the Crow (1983)

The Woman in the Room (1983)

The Dark Half (1993)

The Tommyknockers (1993)

Needful Things (1993)

The Stand (1994)

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (1995)

The Mangler (1995)

Dolores Claiborne (1995)

The Langoliers (1995)

Sometimes They Comes Back … Again (1996)

Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering (1996)

Thinner (1996)

The Shining (1997)

Ghosts (1997)

Chattery Teeth (1997)

The Revelations of ‘Becka Paulson (1997)

Trucks (1997)

The Night Flier (1997)

Chinga (1997)

Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror (1998)

Gerald’s Game (2017)

1922 (2017)

The Stand (2021)

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