I'm a huge fan of Stephen King (at least comparatively early Stephen King before he could literally publish his grocery list), and yet Cujo is the one book I could never bring myself to read twice. It was too close to reality, too achingly painful to really enjoy. Like all great horror stories, we felt not only for the victims – a terrified mother trapped in her car with her dying son – but also for the monster, a rabid St. Bernard transformed into an engine of death. King's knack for characterization made the dog as sympathetic as the hapless humans it menaced... and proved more than a dedicated animal lover like me could bear.
The movie adaptation gets half of that equation right, thanks to an impressive performance from Dee Wallace as the mother. Fresh off of her standout performance in E.T., she embraced the grindhouse grit of the material here, and cemented her status as a grade-A scream queen in the process. Cujo works almost solely because of her, though King’s basic scenario doesn’t hurt the equation either.
It’s a simple conceit, hinging largely on its plausibility to work. Wallace plays a young mother whose husband works too hard, leading her to engage in an affair more to stave off boredom than generate any real passion. Then one day, she takes her car to the local mechanic’s house, unaware that his St. Bernard has been bitten by a rabid bat. The man himself is dead, his family is off on vacation and nobody knows she’s there. The dog traps her and her son in the car, leaving them to face either certain death from his jaws or a more prolonged doom from heat and dehydration.
The repetitive nature of the threat is problematic, and while director Lewis Teague does well enough with mundane scenes of ordinary human interaction, he can’t quite get a handle on the suspenseful parts. Cujo delivers a steady supply of victims for its resident monster, turning the dog into a four-legged version of Jason Voorhees (complete with “he’s not really dead” final shock) rather than the more interesting menace that King created in the book. He really got into that pooch’s head. We feel its pain and confusion, the tragedy of its condition and the sense that it simply can’t understand why this is happening to it. It broke your heart even as you feared for the animal’s victims, and painted the ensuing battle for survival in the starkest possible turns. The movie simply drops all of that, reducing the animal to a simple plot contrivance and draining any terror as a result. The narrative clings too closely to slasher movie conventions, and without more technical expertise at the helm, the story’s original elements get lost.
Teague is clearly more comfortable with his actors, a fact that saves the scenario from total disaster. The strongest elements of the set-up involve how quickly and completely our façade of safety can vanish. The heroine goes through life with all of its petty crises, its First World problems and its day-to-day grind. Then suddenly, in one terrible moment of clarity, that all vanishes, replaced by Locke’s state of nature at its most brutal. Wallace’s character grapples not only with her own death, but that of her son and – in one of those quiet feminist points that King was so good at making – rises to the challenge with a surprising ferocity. The film’s other failings fade away one she has our attention, creating a figure we not only root for but feel for on a very deep level. We need this woman to prevail, in ways that other horror films of the era just couldn’t match. Without her, Cujo would be utterly forgettable. With her, we at least have a reason to tune in.
Had the film done the same with her foe, it could have vaulted into the ranks of first-rate King adaptations. As it is, it can’t quite get there, especially in a year that produced two others, along with a pair of short films (one of which, "The Woman in the Room," was directed by Frank Darabont, who went on to direct the best King adaptation of all time). But Wallace's turn will not be denied, and fans of real horror will recognize the greatness in her work here: the kind of greatness that really should win Oscars in a universe with any justice. With her, Cujo goes farther than it has any right to, turning its comparative lack of ambition into a forgivable oversight rather than an unpardonable sin.