Cujo’s Bite Almost Matches Its Bark

Just days away from Pet Sematary’s opening, I continue my ‘Stephen King’ week with another ‘smaller’ film adaptation. Though it was only a modest box office and critical success, Cujo has built a cult following. Mention the word ‘Cujo’ and even non-horror fans know what you mean. But how well does this low-budget ‘Killer St Bernard’ movie hold up after over 30 years?

Synopsis

Giant St. Bernard, Cujo, is a docile and lovable dog. But after a rabid bat inadvertently bites the St. Bernard, the ‘gentle giant’ slowly descends into a foam-fueled rage. When Donna Trenton, along with her young son, arrive at the Camber house to have her car fixed, they find themselves under siege by a relentless Cujo. Trapped in her car with the temperature rise, Donna finds herself in a battle to save her son.

Cujo Is Two Movies in One, But Only One Works

Cujo closely follows King’s source material, but the result is mixed. Director Lewis Teague doesn’t quite mesh the novel’s parallel plots together and, as a result, Cujo feels disjointed. What we end up with are two different movies, with one of those movies being much better than the other. On the one hand, Cujo is a family melodrama with an infidelity subplot. Don Carlos Dunaway and Lauren Currier’s screenplay also retains another subplot about Vic Trenton’s advertising firm and a cereal commercial snafu. A novel can balance and develop multiple subplots. But a 90-minute movie can only fit in so much while maintaining a focused, tense pace.

In its last 20 minutes, Cujo delivers some taut suspense and a couple of good jumps.

When it’s not a family drama, Cujo is monster movie. And it’s a pretty good one, too. Some of the early horror elements feel a little standard. Teague’s execution of the ‘stalk and attack’ scenes feel generic and somewhat underwhelming. In spite of these limitations, Cujo really picks up once ‘mother and son’ are stranded in their car on the Camber farm. Then things become almost unbearably tense with a sense of desperation hanging over the proceedings. In its last 20 minutes, Cujo delivers some taut suspense and a couple of good jumps.

Decent Effects Still Hold Up

Killer animal movies are a mixed bag for a reason. Prior to the age of CGI effects, filmmakers had to rely on a combination of live footage, animatronics, costumed actors, and deft editing. For every Jaws that did it well, there’s a Grizzly or Tentacles that’s more likely to prompt groans than screams. By and large, Cujo’s creators get it right, making its adorable St Bernard into a believable monster. Everything is played straight and it works, particularly Cujo’s siege on the Trenton family car. What’s committed to the screen is as harrowing as anything I’ve recently seen. It’s too bad more of the movie wasn’t focused on these scenes.

…what could have been a rousing finale feels a little flat.

Some limitations of the effects pop up here and there. Donna Trenton’s climatic stand-off with Cujo, for instance, is constrained by the practical effects. As a result, what could have been a rousing finale feels a little flat. In addition, Teague’s ‘happy ending’ revision and final jump scare feel forced. Nevertheless, you’ll rarely doubt that you’re actually watching a rabid dog.

Cujo Benefits From Two Strong Performances

Only two performances in Cujo really matter – Dee Wallace Stone and Danny Pintauro. Outside of Spielberg’s E.T., Dee Wallace Stone has built a nice career as a horror ‘Scream Queen’. From The Hills Have Eyes in the ‘70’s and The Howling in the ‘80’s to smaller roles in Rob Zombie movies, Stone has amassed a decent B-movie filmography. And she delivers a truly heart-wrenching performance here in Cujo as a desperate mother. If the movie ever threatens to verve off into the ridiculous, Stone keeps things grounded.

Better known as Jonathan Bower from TV’s Who The Boss, Danny Pintauro also impresses in spite of his young age. One has to wonder what Teague exposed the 7-year-old actor to in production. Regardless of the technique, it’s Pintauro’s performance that makes some of Cujo’s more intense moments almost unwatchable. What the child actor commits to the screen feels so believable.

Cujo is a Minor, But Watchable, King Adaptation

No, Cujo is never going to be mentioned alongside The Shining, Misery, or The Shawshank Redemption. Likewise, it never reaches the zany heights of a Creepshow or Carrie. But it does just enough to keep your attention until its canine siege, which is more than worth the wait. Cujo is a minor King adaption, but still watchable after all these years.

THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: B-

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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