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Cujo (40th anniversary revisit)

August 12, 1983

I’ve written about CUJO before, but that was 15 years ago. Since there aren’t that many horror movies in this summer of ’83, it seemed worth revisiting now. Cujo the book was formative to me because I read it when I was in third grade. It might’ve been my first Stephen King book, maybe even my first horror book besides Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and Alfred Hitchcock short story collections. The part I remember vividly, of course, is something about Donna’s sex life with Steve. That seemed grown up and mysterious. The dog attacking people just seemed cool.

The movie wasn’t as important to me, and though I saw it on VHS at some point it wasn’t until rewatching it for that 2008 review that I realized it’s a real gem. It’s a movie everyone knows about but I’m not sure it’s held in as high of regard as I think it deserves. It’s a simple movie with very strong execution, and some of the elements involved (killer dog, tiny kid, limited location) are of a high enough degree of difficulty that there aren’t many other movies to directly compare it to.

The first part of the movie where all the circumstances of the large dog vs. compact car siege are set up is important because it establishes the lives this catastrophe is interupting. We meet the Trenton and Camber families and learn about the tensions within them that lead them to temporarily split up. Donna (Dee Wallace, THE HILLS HAVE EYES) and Vic Trenton (first timer Daniel Hugh-Kelly, Ryan’s Hope) are good at taking care of their six year old Tad (Danny Pintauro, As the World Turns), but there’s a coldness in their marriage, and Donna is having an affair with family friend and handyman Steve Kemp (Wallace’s real life husband Christopher Stone, also in THE HOWLING with her).

There’s a brilliant touch when Steve is introduced, knocking on the door to deliver a wooden horse he repaired for Tad and have a friendly visit. Donna is cooking breakfast and the way the camera stays on the back of her head very deliberately not turning to see him gives us a pretty good idea what she’s hiding. She soon decides to call off the affair, and as they’re fighting about it Vic figures out what’s going on, just before leaving for an emergency ten day business trip.

Meanwhile, they’ve been having car troubles. When the mechanic they usually go to is booked up, a passing mailman (Robert Elross, THE RIGHT STUFF) tells Vic to try this guy Joe Camber out in the booneys, up such-and-such road. I like this because it’s that unlikely happenstance that sends them to a dangerous place they never would’ve been otherwise. He could’ve come a minute earlier or later, or the mailman could’ve minded his business, he never would’ve, at most, read about this rabid dog situation in the newspaper or seen it on the local news and said, “Oh, that’s not far from, that’s just up that road.”

Joe is played by Ed Lauter (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN RIDE!) and he’s a good mechanic, bad husband and father. He yells at his wife Charity (Kaiulani Lee, THE FAN) for buying him garage equipment he wanted, doesn’t even apologize when she shows him that she won $5,000 in the lottery. The gift is really in trade for letting her take their son Brett (Billy Jacoby, BLOODY BIRTHDAY, HOSPITAL MASSACRE, Young Dar in THE BEASTMASTER) on a vacation just to get the fuck away from him for a while.

And of course the Cambers are the owners of Cujo, the friendly St. Bernard who in the opening chases a rabbit, sticks his head in a hole and gets bitten by a rabid bat. We see him in the yard and in cobwebs under the house, slowly getting sicker, panting more, drooling more, unnoticed by the family. Donna first encounters him before he’s gone full rabid, and lifts Tad away from him. She notices the bite mark on his nose, but doesn’t say anything. This is one of the traits Carol J. Clover attributed to the Final Girl of slasher movies when she coined the term in Men, Women and Chainsaws: they’re more observant than the people around them, and notice dangers long before others take them seriously.

Brett is the first one to really worry about Cujo, after noticing him foaming and acting weird the morning before their trip. He wants to tell his dad but his mom convinces him to call him after they’ve left, worrying that he’d make them cancel the trip. If he hadn’t made his family so terrified of him, he might’ve survived.

Vic leaves town unsure about the future of his marriage. Depressed, I-fucked-everything-up Donna promises to bring the Pinto to get fixed while he’s gone. When she gets there everyone’s gone, the Pinto won’t start back up and Cujo is now a slimy fuckin monster jumping up on the windshield trying to chew them up. So most of the rest of the movie is this poor woman and her tiny kid trapped inside the car for two days, unable to escape.

The dog does lots of laying around. Sometimes in sight, so they know they can’t run for it, sometimes it seems like he’s gone but Donna opens the door and oh fuck he’s laying right by the car. They only have one Thermos of water (or coffee?) and no food. She spots a (pre-established) baseball bat laying in the yard, but even if she can get to it in time, can she really beat this dog to death without getting bitten? She’s not ready to commit to that yet.

The cutaways from the Camber house build suspense. Vic keeps calling, at first probly assuming she just doesn’t want to talk to him, but getting increasingly worried. He tries calling Joe to see if she made it there – the ringing phone makes Cujo flip out. There’s a wicked touch where Donna tells the kid they’ll be able to get help as soon as the mailman shows up, and it cuts to the (pre-established) mailman picking up an auto part to deliver to Joe before a co-worker reminds him that the Cambers put a hold on deliveries during their vacation. He laughs at his absent-mindedness and thanks him for saving him the trip out to the middle of nowhere.

(This might be a good thing, though – if Cujo could kill Joe he could probly kill the mailman.)

There are many ways the mechanics of this suspense could go wrong. I have heard from some people who think it does with the dog, who is reportedly played by four St. Bernards, several animatronics/puppets, a Labrador-Great Dane in a St. Bernard costume, and a human stuntman (Gary Morgan, GOING APE!) in a St. Bernard costume. Some say there are shots that look silly and that the real dogs don’t look vicious enough. I really looked for it this time and fortunately I have no idea which shots they’re talking about. I guess all the disgusting viscera smeared all over the fur and the window are doing most of the work, plus the actual size of this type of dog already being unnerving before they turn savage. But to me that thing is scary as fuck. I don’t want to have to deal with that thing. Please stop ramming the car and biting the window.

The element that would be easiest to screw up, I think, would be the performance of the child actor, but as I marveled about in my first review, Pintauro is just incredibly real in this thing. It’s so upsetting to see this tiny little guy clinging to his mother screaming. And then it’s balanced out by those perfect moments when things have calmed down and he turns back into a clueless kid, off in his own world, drawing pictures and stuff. I suspect Wallace, who was so good with the kids in E.T. just a year before this, is a big part of the special magic here. And that must’ve been a heavy burden on her playing protective mother in the scene and also having to remind the actual kid that this is just pretend (though his actual mother was there too).

Even before Cujo is in the picture there’s a scene where the parents are trying to convince Tad that there’s not a monster in his closet, and in a long take he describes what the monster looked like and the sound it made and you see his eye well up with tears. What the fuck, man. Supernatural performance.

What I really realized the last time I watched it, and was even more fascinated by this time, is the stellar fucking work of director of photography Jan de Bont, a Dutch veteran of several Paul Verhoeven movies, and relative newcomer to Hollywood. The camerawork in this movie is stupendous. He subtly captures the lighting of hazy afternoons, sunsets, low-light night time scenarios. The scene of Brett noticing Cujo’s sickness happens in thick fog, for a classic horror feel. De Bont somehow shot the POV of the dog chasing a rabbit and staying right on its tail. He does this astounding slow motion shot of Tad running across his bedroom after turning the light off, expressionistically capturing the feeling of being a small child scared of the dark, making the distance look enormous, and also doing a cool tilt up and over him and turning upside down as he leaps onto the bed. (Credit also to Teague for devising the sequence and production designer Guy J. Comtois [who later did BODY ROCK] for building the oversized set.)

Almost as cool: the scene where Vic is driving in his convertible and glimpses Donna fighting with Steve outside his apartment. The camera stays close on him in the driver’s seat as he makes a U-turn and drives back and they’re no longer there. Intense. Or the one where the camera spins around between Donna and Tad inside the car. I had to research how they did it – De Bont built a device that hung a rotating periscopic lens down through a hole in the roof.

More often than those sort of show-offy moves he does the very slow, deliberate ones that carefully time when to remind us of the geography, threats and objectives to keep in mind. And it really struck me this time that he’s doing these shots in scenes that require both a child and a dog to do the right thing within the same shot. There’s one where Pintauro has to deliver the dialogue and the pauses just right and the camera pulls away from the car, rotates around and comes in close on Cujo laying nearby, and twitching his jowls right then. That last part may have been accidental, but how the fuck do they move the camera around and the dog still looks like he’s watching the car and not noticing the camera?

(Or if that’s not a real dog maybe I’m even more impressed. Looks great, fellas.)

I’d also like to shout out composer Charles Bernstein (MR. MAJESTYK), who helps set the tone and setting with a gentle orchestral score and some ominous undertones. Then when the shit hits the fan he starts bringing in a few electronic sounds (which he’d soon dig more into for A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET).

The director who pulled this all off so well is Lewis Teague, who was coming off of FIGHTING BACK but recommended by King because of ALLIGATOR, that other very good character-driven large vicious animal movie of the early ‘80s. ALLIGATOR is definitely quirkier, CUJO feels more reality-based to me. Not just because there’s no sci-fi involved, but because the small scope and ordinariness of the scenario really create an authentic texture. These are normal, flawed people, during a bad point in their marriage, which happens to intersect with this bad luck pile-up of car trouble + rabies. I don’t remember from the book but I certainly get the impression in the movie that Vic worrying about Donna, feeling helpless with the physical distance between them and arriving just after she’s saved herself reminds him of what’s important and will help them repair their marriage. I’d like to think they later renewed their vows and sent invites to the bunny, the bat, the mailman who told Vic about Joe, Brett and Charity (for not warning Joe about Cujo), and the designers of the Ford Pinto for making it all possible.

That CUJO works so well while so flagrantly violating the “don’t make movies with kids or animals” advice is made even more impressive by the fact that Teague and de Bont replaced original director Peter Medak (THE CHANGELING) and director of photography Anthony B. Richmond (THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH) and continued the shoot two days later. To be fair, Teague had been the producer’s original choice and had seen various drafts of the script (credited to The Rockford Files vet Don Carlos Dunaway and DEATHWATCH’s Barbara Turner). He wasn’t involved in the casting but was obviously impressed with what they came up with.

I forgot that Tad died in the book. King wanted it changed in the movie. He actually wrote an earlier, unused draft that Teague thought was too different from the book, but he liked that change. Yeah, I like the happy ending. They were also wise to remove the supernatural elements from the book, making this uniquely down to earth among King horror adaptations.

CUJO did pretty well at the box office, got some okay reviews, and some really bad ones. Siskel and Ebert apparently both hated it, though I couldn’t find their reviews. Gary Arnold of The Washington Post seemed to think you couldn’t root for Donna to survive since she did a bad thing and the dog doesn’t know better. Variety called it “a dull, uneventful entry in the horror genre.” Jay Scott of The Globe and Mail loved it but wrote that it was arguably “too good” because “the combination of low shock and high style results in an experience that borders on the unbearably intense. The movie is spectacularly well-made, but it’s nearly unwatchable.” Okay, I guess I’m the closest to agreeing with him, except I find it very watchable.

Teague followed this with another King adaptation, CAT’S EYE, and then went big time with THE JEWEL OF THE NILE. De Bont came along for JEWEL, later DIE HARD made him the definitive action d.p., and after that he had his nine year stint as a big name director, which brought us SPEED, TWISTER, SPEED 2: CRUISE CONTROL, THE HAUNTING and LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER – THE CRADLE OF LIFE. Turner later wrote the acclaimed dramas GEORGIA and POLLOCK. Pintauro became one of the stars of the sitcom Who’s the Boss?. Hugh-Kelly played McCormick in Hardcastle and McCormick. Stone died tragically young of a heart attack in 1995, but Wallace continues to be prolific, having appeared in around 175 movies since ’83, including ALLIGATOR II: THE MUTATION.

signs o’ the times:

Tad has a Pac-Man lunchbox. Joe Camber drinks from a McDonalds Captain Crook glass. The most prevalent beers are Olympia and Hamm’s.

This entry was posted on Thursday, August 10th, 2023 at 3:50 pm and is filed under Reviews, Horror. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

21 Responses to “Cujo (40th anniversary revisit)”

  1. I’m glad the kid lives in the movie, not just because it’s a more satisfying ending, but because I don’t think a movie could get across the true horror of the situation. In a movie, the kid’s death would seem like pure chance. A random sequence of events that means nothing. No rhyme or reason to any of it. The theme would be “Shit happens.” Pure nihilism. That’s not a flavor that goes down well in the movies. In the book, however, King makes it clear that everything we saw that led up to the kid’s death–every incident, every weird coincidence, the whole unlikely web of happenstance–was in fact set in motion by an unknowable evil. Evil works in mysterious ways, and in this case evil worked very hard behind the scenes for reasons of its own to engineer down to the smallest detail the perfect scenario for this small, innocent child to die a slow, agonizing death in his mother’s arms, a death guaranteed to destroy the lives of everyone who knew him. Now, your mileage on this may vary. In the real world, wild, unlikely sequences of events lead to meaningless tragedies all the time, and that is terrifying in its own banal way. But maybe it’s even scarier to think that evil has a plan, and when it sets its sights on you, there’s nothing you or your mom or anybody in the whole world can do to thwart it. King has often dealt with the theme of balance, of there being a corresponding force of good that is set in motion to combat the forces of evil. In CUJO, there is no balance. Good is defenseless and evil has great big teeth. It’s probably the darkest thing King ever wrote, smack in the middle of a dark point in his life, and I can see why he wanted to distance himself from it.

    Anyway, even without all that, it’s a really underrated movie. I’ve never understood why it wasn’t better regarded.

  2. grimgrinningchris

    August 10th, 2023 at 5:27 pm

    My Cujo story from earlier this year…

    Dee Wallace and Danny Pintauro were both guests at our local con this year (actually Dee was there for two reunions- Cujo and also with several ET actors including Henry Thomas).

    Anyway. My buddy fronts a popular, long time horror punk/psychobilly band in the region and they play the con every year.
    Another friend of both of ours was Matthew Lillards handler for the weekend, but also befriended Pintauro because their tables were so close.

    She told Danny that one of the MainStage bands had a song about Cujo and he should try to go see them play. He asked for an escort down and took a break to check out the music.

    I’m down at the live show anyway. She brings Danny down, introduces me to him, waves down our buddy on stage to alert him that he’s there. Buddy breaks a big smile. Bumps “Cujo” in the set, dedicates it to Pintauro and rips through it.

    I see Danny pull out some cash, stuff it in the tip bucket the band has on the front of the stage. High five my buddy. Whoop it up for another song or two dancing with my handler friend, then waves back to the stage, shakes my hand and tells me it was nice to meet me yada yada and has my friend take him back to his celeb floor.

    After their set, I tell my buddy “dude, I think Danny Pintauro tipped y’all like 30 or 40 bucks!” “Awesome, that’s so rad! I’m so stoked he came down and that we hadn’t already played the song!”

    I run into my buddy an hour or two later.
    “Dude! Along with all the 1s and 5s stuff and and loose change there was a wad of 20s all together. Danny tipped us almost $300!”

    So yeah. That was cool.

    Also. This might be the single sweatiest movie ever where nobody is naked.

  3. grimgrinningchris

    August 10th, 2023 at 5:50 pm

    Oh and Vern… Who’s The Boss, not Growing Pains.

  4. Great review Vern! As a King nut though I want to add there is no supernatural stuff in the book either – I feel like this gets bandied about online, but there is no context for it in book itself. King does lay dread early on as the town Castle Rock is still recovering from the murders committed by Frank Dodd in The Dead Zone and from
    that it’s like the town is still haunted by that evil. The boogeyman Tad thinks is in his closet is relayed in relation to that lingering evil, but no way implied to be an actual supernatural force.

    Anyway love your review and writing as always!

  5. Chris – Thanks for the correction. I actually watched both shows growing up but I guess they didn’t stick.

    Colin – I don’t remember from reading the book in third grade but in the making of from the DVD Lewis Teague says that Cujo was a reincarnation in the book and he tried to include that but couldn’t figure out how to make it work:


  6. I read the book after I had seen the movie, and liked Teague’s vision better. That could be because Wallace and Pintauro are so damn good, but also because after all the stuff that the characters go through, the kid dying is just a bad ending.

    Vern, I think the critisism of the dog mostly has to do with a couple of the real St. Bernards waving their tails in some scenes.

  7. grimgrinningchris

    August 11th, 2023 at 3:33 am


    That thing with Pintauro marked me second Ehos The Boss connection. As one of my best friends is Tony Sansa’s head of security when he tours with his storyteller/lounge/Rat Pack live show.
    Still no movement on Alyssa Milano (even though most of the rest of the cast of Charmed was also here this year) or Judith Light (who I wouldn’t have really cared about a year ago… but then she was soooo great on Rian Johnson’s POKER FACE.

  8. I’ve read a ton of King over the years, seen a lot of films, but somehow have never gone near this one in book or movie form. Don’t know why. I guess I’m shaky about seeing a good dog go bad and become a monster, though I’ve never had a real-life experience anything close…and my favorite King is PET SEMATARY which features a kid getting run over by a semi truck, how could this be worse?

  9. About the dog criticisms – Might be a dog owner thing – there’s a couple of shots where, as Pegsman said, the dog is being a very happy good boy. But (at least from memory) it’s a small goof compared to all the awesome stuff they pull off successfully, and letting it detract from an otherwise kick-ass movie seems a bit much.

  10. IMDb trivia says most of the time they tied the tail to the dogs leg most of the time to prevent him from showing how much fun he had, but a few times they apparently forgot.

  11. In the book, Cujo is said to be possessed by the ghost of Frank Dodd. He is the serial killer/cop from Dead Zone that commits suicide by scissors. King was up and running on his Castle Rock mini-verse.

    Cujo is the first King book I read as a kid. My parents and I were going on vacation and drove from New York to South Carolina. I saw the paperback in the book store, and it was basically just artwork of the dogs muzzle. I was a fanatic about Jaws and it reminded me of the Jaws poster, so I gave it a shot. I finished it on the drive down, and slowly but surely tore apart every King book in methodical fashion. I don’t know that I would have been a voracious reader had I not gotten that book. It was the first true “can’t put it down” page turner I ever read, and I am still a sucker for those kind of books.

    Also, I had a Ford Pinto in High School. Lots of bad beats for the Pinto back in the day. Blowin up, breaking down, killing kids from heat stroke.

  12. This from the King Wiki page:

    “In the novel, there are hints that Cujo has not just been infected with rabies, but also possessed by the spirit of a local serial killer, Frank Dodd (who featured prominently in King’s previous novel, The Dead Zone). They may only be brief, but it is enough to get those supernatural cogs whirring.”

    I haven’t read it in ages, this is inspiring me to go back. I think it is mentioned at the very beginning in the first few pages.

  13. So many horror movies as a kid. This one stuck out (along with the Thing – I saw them around the same time, I’m guessing when they came to HBO or Movie Channel). I was probably 9 when I saw it. Scared the motherfucking living shit out of me. Not really knowing what good filmatism was, I think the fact that it scared me into fucking oblivion and still conjures that up reading your review means it was well made.

  14. Haven’t been around here in a bit, but I’m here now to say I love Cujo. The movie and the dog. The filmatism, as described by Vern, is wonderful. That’s just the camera and visual design on its own is exemplary, striking and always creative.

    However, I am certainly on the wagon of ‘their is nothing scary about the dog.’ I am a major dog guy. If you’re a cat person, perhaps the picture is scary. But when I watch it, every shot of the Saint Bernard, all I can ever think is “Oh, what a good dog.” The foam, blood, and scary music applied to each shot of the good fella just makes it funnier.

    That being said, it doesn’t diminish my love of the movie one bit. Hell, I’d have to think back to pre-adolescence to come up with a movie that “scared” me. The execution of the flick– Vern mentioned the obvious production difficulties involved (if only in took place on a boat at sea in the middle of a snow storm)– is wonderful fun, show off-y, and full of black humor. So, I’m glad it worked as it was supposed to: scaring people. (Guessing Vern is a cat person ;). ) But what I love most about the movie is seeing a very, very, very good dog do his thing.

    On the other hand, this is clearly a BAD DOG…


  15. Crushinator Jones

    August 15th, 2023 at 10:54 am

    I read this book when I was a kid too, I think I was in fifth grade. I remember the sex/affair stuff just being incomprehensible to me. Not gross or icky or forbidden – I had taken health class – but just, “why are these people acting like this?”

    I never saw the movie, because I thought that they would kill Tad in it, same as the movie. It was nice to hear that King second guessed himself on that – the ending of the book is one of my most hated of all time. It was an honestly malicious ending that didn’t fit the story being told, if you ask me.

  16. I always love the photo where Dee Wallace is dancing with the stuntman in the Cujo costume.

  17. Vern – yeah I know the creatives of the movie keep saying this, Dee Wallace mentioned it on her interview on the Kingcast, but I read the book pretty recently and there is nothing in the text that actually implies or states Cujo is infected with anything other than rabies. The only suggestion King has of the sort is that the evil Frank Dodd brought to Castle Rock with his killings still lingers/haunts/curses the town and he has become a boogeyman for Castle Rock. The book has povs from Cujo and he is just a poor dog losing his mind.

  18. Well, many people seem to interpret it differently than you. For example this wiki about Frank Dodd talks about his ghost appearing in the Cujo novel:


    I think those were the scenes Teague was talking about trying to adapt and deciding they would be too silly.

  19. Thanks for replying Vern. Maybe I am a dumb or misread when I read the book, but I honestly think this is a misinterpretation of an abstract idea King was trying to get across about randomness of evil and how bad events linger and poison the ground after the fact. People look for boogeymen to explain what is just random tragedy. The literal ghost of Frank Dodd is a concept I think has been echoed into fact like a whisper down the lane. Or again maybe I am a dumb. My copy is in storage so I can’t pull out the text, but I read it just a year or two ago. Anyway thanks again for replying to me, I know the wikis and Teague and Dee Wallace say there was a supernatural element, just trying to do my part to fight misinformation (hopefully not doing the thing where I am actually spreading it, but pretty confident I am not)

  20. If there’s one thing fans love doing, it’s overinterpreting stuff or doing fan theories. I forget which movie it was but not too long ago was talking with this guy about a fan theory about a popular flick, which I had heard a lot trying to correct “errors” but really they just didn’t liek something so said the whole ending wasn’t real or something. Even though no evidence in the movie that atually works for it. Like, want to argue Total Recall is real or in Quaid’s head, go for it…movie supports either interpretation, and even MORE that it’s in his head.

    King has always been big on bad vibes sticking around and infecting areas. Like Salem’s Lot is all about a house where bad shit went down which attracted vampires to it, but it didn’t cause the vampire. It was a beacon for evil.

  21. Just watched this tonight and LOVED IT. An absolutely top-rank Stephen King movie, easily up there with THE SHINING and SALEM’S LOT and CHRISTINE and THE DEAD ZONE. It’s streaming on Max. I see it as an absolutely devastating realist horror movie — the first 45 minutes are a brutal late 70s/early 80s kitchen-sink drama about a dissolving marriage, and the last 45 are an ultra-intense siege movie that never cheats once. The whole thing is one of the best examples of an “avalanche” story I’ve ever seen. One inciting incident and a series of badly timed coincidences lead to seriously bleak consequences for pretty much everyone. And if you think about it, having the kid live is the far better, bleaker narrative choice, because pull back a step and what are the next few months of that family’s life like? The next few years? Their marriage was already dissolving; is this gonna pull them back together? The kid is permanently traumatized; hell, the mom is, too, and she’s gotta go get rabies shots ASAP. Their lives are fuuuuucked. This is one seriously bleak movie, and the fact that it has absolutely no supernatural elements at all only makes it tougher.

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