Cujo (1983)

Cujo the dog, and the events is the book of the same name, pop up often in Stephen King's later novels about Castle Rock, the fictional town in Maine where many of his early stories are set.  Even if one hasn't read the book - and it was well into my 20s or 30s before I got around to it, despite it being one of his early classics - the story is well-known.  It's a simple one about a dog that gets rabies and goes on a killing spree.  It had a bit of critical acclaim when it came out in 1981, and it was sort of sequel to The Dead Zone, which shared Castle Rock as a location for a major part of the action as well as Castle County Sheriff George Bannerman. 

By 1983 there had been a number of successful adaptations of Stephen King novels - Carrie, The Shining and a television adaptation of Salem's Lot.  Stephen King went from being an English teacher living in a trailer in rural Maine, barely getting by with his young family, to the hottest author in the country.  His sudden fame unfortunately inflamed some already evident substance abuse problems, and Cujo is one of the many books he doesn't remember writing, even if the inspiration of meeting a rather vicious dog when taking his motorcycle to get repaired was well known.  It is perhaps why I never found it to be one of his best novels but, top King or not, by this time Hollywood had noticed they had a goldmine with his stories, many of which he was willing to give out to aspiring filmmakers for a dollar.  Thus, in the same year we got David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone director Lewis Teague, responsible for the great b-movie Alligator, brought us his version of Cujo.

Vic (Daniel Hugh Kelly) and Donna Trenton (Dee Wallace) have moved to Maine from New York with their young boy Tad (Danny Pintauro).  Vic works for an ad agency that has recently had success with a cereal campaign, but that success is short-lived after a health scare results in the news making a mockery of his commercials.  This news comes at the same time he discovers that Donna has been having an affair with their friend Steve Kemp (Christopher Stone).  When he leaves for New York to do damage control, Donna is left on her own to deal with Tad and their ailing Ford Pinto.

Their local mechanic is a man named Joe Canber (Ed Lauter), whose son Brett (Billy Jayne) has a friendly St. Bernard named Cujo.  Unfortunately, while chasing a rabbit, Cujo is bitten by a bat and contracts rabies.  With Brett and his mother Charity (Kaiulani Lee) out of town and Joe planning a trip to Boston, Donna unknowingly takes the Pinto to Canber's with Tad in tow.  Unfortunately Cujo, far into his furious rabid state, is the only occupant of the property, and he lays siege to the mother and child in the car.  With no food and pretty much no water, and no one knowing where they are, the two must survive. 

Stephen King is a great writer, but his Achilles heal has always been tying up his often sprawling novels with a satisfying ending.  Although, like I stated before, Cujo was not one of my favorites of his, the ending was realistic and wrapped things up rather well.  Some critics were upset, and King himself has voiced regret at the book's conclusion, preferring Teague's altered ending.  He probably has a point for the movie version, as it is doubtful audiences would have appreciated if the movie followed the book exactly.  Still, Teague makes a grave error in ending the movie as abruptly as he does. 

It is a bit of a let-down after great performances from both Wallace and Pintauro, the latter who at the time had not yet learned to read and had to rely on his mother to coach him on his lines.  He does a truly great job in the role, not being the usual irritating brat that most kids come across as in movies.  It's too bad Wallace was shunted into supporting roles most of her career as she nails it in what is one of her few lead roles in a mainstream feature film.  Christopher Stone, her husband at the time, also makes a good secondary villain as her ex-fling turned stalker, while Daniel Hugh Kelly is largely relegated to looking concerned.  

Along with the changed ending some supernatural elements of King's story are removed.  As they were not necessary to the story itself they're not missed, as the meat of the story is Donna and Tad trying to survive Cujo's repeated attacks.  Most of the other characters are typical Stephen King characters, with the men often prone to violence or outright abusive, and Teague doesn't alter them much, other than Joe Canber's treatment of his wife and son being more implied than shown.  That said, although I like the movie a slight bit better than I do the book, and the core story is effective, it still is nowhere near the classic status of The Shining or The Dead Zone.  

Cujo (1983)
Time: 93 minutes
Starring: Dee Wallace, Danny Pintauro, Daniel Hugh Kelly, Christopher Stone, Ed Lauter
Director: Lewis Teague



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