The Summer of '83: Cujo -

The Summer of '83

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  • Starring: Dee Wallace, Danny Pintauro, Daniel Hugh Kelly, Christopher Stone, Ed Lauter and Billy Jacoby
  • Written by: Don Carlos Dunaway and Lauren Currier
  • Directed by: Lewis Teague
  • Studio: Warner Bros.
  • Rating: R
  • Run Time: 93 minutes
  • Series:

The Summer of '83: Cujo

"Please God get me out of here."

By Rob Vaux     August 12, 2013

 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.


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Dodgyb2001 8/12/2013 12:50:52 AM

I remember starting to watch this when I was 12 or 13 on a little portable tv set in my bedroom. I just could not finish, the whole scenario scaring me so much I didn't want to see the end. He just kept battering and battering at the car till it was coming apart at the seams.

karas1 8/12/2013 4:08:19 AM

I've tried to watch this movie several times, mostly because my mom is a huge King fan and keeps recommending it.  I can't get past my anger at the owners of this poor dog.  Rabies vaccinations are available at every vet's office, not that expensive and are mandated by law.  Rather than feeling horror that the dog killed it's owners, I can't help feeling that justice was done on those cheap bastards.  As for the woman and her son, their plight just doesn't interest me that much. 

DarkXid 8/12/2013 8:37:58 AM

 Karas, I would just root for the puppy! Of course the dog doesn’t get his justice. . .Shoot if anything this movie should serve as a reminder of why people NEED to get their dogs vaccinated! Not that it is a terribly accurate movie! But whatever it takes to ease the pain and suffering of animals.

I remember King writing about Cujo in his book ‘On Writing’ and how he was drinking a case of beer a night –sixteen ounce tallboys he said. He says he can barely remember writing it at all and experiences a vague sense of sorrow and loss and wishes he could remember the joy of putting the good parts down. He liked the book evidently.

I think it is the point in his life where he gave up drinking.

aegrant 8/12/2013 9:08:26 AM

 Damn I amazed at how many movies came out when i was 12... I love the eighties

Cimmerian666 8/12/2013 11:08:37 AM

 Uhm, when did Stephen King ever "literally publish his grocery list"? Maybe he did and I missed it, Rob. If by grocery list you mean things like the last 4 volumes of the Dark tower, Under the Dome, Lisey's Story, Duma Key, numerous short story collections etc, then ok. If you didn't like his later work for whatever reason then fine. But, "grocery list"? This is why you are viewed as a lazy, hack critic who goes along with whatever Rotten Tomatoes aggregates are saying when you write your movie reviews.

DarkXid 8/12/2013 11:33:04 AM

 People have no sense of humor these days.  Sheesh.

Rob, if you're a hack, you're in good company.  Stephen King is considered "a hack" by many.

In fairness I would have dropped the word 'literally,' but hey personal choice eh?  

Stephen King's books get published and are instant sellers because he has a rather large following.  Most authors don't have that.  Mr. King is in the 1%,   He no doubt can clear advances and make money with his following, who will buy it within a week of release.

I hope Rob wasn't passivley-aggressivley calling King a hack, a fact of which Stephen King isn't and honestly, what is a hack other than a deragatory term assigned to people who pump out work on a regular basis.  Work of dubios quality.  Hacked together.  Sloppy work.

The market tends to wash people who just do it for the money and hack things together because their stuff sucks and eventually readers catch on.

I like Rob's reviews, I don't always agree with his analysis but they are done reasonablly well and I hope he keeps pumping these things out, because I'll keep reading them unless he starts sucking, then screw him I'll find something else to read.  But a hack he isn't.  Unless he's copying and pasting his reviews from other people, in which case we should CRUCIFUY HIM!!


karas1 8/12/2013 1:15:31 PM

I think King ran out of good ideas a while ago.  The last book I read of his was Under The Dome which I thought was highly derivative of his earlier, and much better The Mist.  Also much longer and more bloated with a trite ending straight from ST:TOS tacked on.

I haven't read ALL Kings works but I've read a number of them and my favorite is still The Dead Zone, one of his earliest books.

As for the grocery list crack, I took that as a metaphor.  An entirely appropriate metaphor.  Anybody who didn't recognize it as a metaphor is either dense or deliberately misunderstanding it to make trouble.

ultrazilla2000 8/12/2013 1:56:10 PM

 I love the film version of Cujo, and personally feel they did a great job with it.  Dee Wallace is fantastic, but so is the very young Danny Pintaro (spelling?) Who plays her son.  Either he was one amazing child actor, or he truly was terrified to death during filming!  

chrismidkiff 8/12/2013 6:50:47 PM

I didn't much care for the movie. I felt that the book was a bit more scary.

VermithraxPejorative 8/12/2013 7:28:08 PM

The dog, in it's rabid form, was actually a Rottweiler done up to look like St. Bernard. That was how they could get such violent reactions and intense scenes, since a St. Bernard is very gentle and non-threatening.

I saw this in the theaters back in 83, and it scared the sh*t out of me!!! Still can't watch most of it. I love dogs and to see it go through that is truly painful.




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