Cujo is a novel written by Stephen King which was published in 1981. Two years later, Lewis Teague brought King’s story to the big screen in an adaptation starring Dee Wallace, Daniel Hugh-Kelly and Danny Pintauro. The plot of Cujo is simple : a rabid dog terrorizes a woman and her son, trapping them into their car for two days.
The film opens with Cujo chasing a rabbit into a hole. Trying to reach his prey, the dog is bitten by rabid bats on the nose. The viewer is then introduced to the Trenton family : Donna (the frustrated wife having an affair), Vic (who works in advertisement and is often away on business trips) and their young son Tad (who is afraid there is a monster in his closet). The film focuses on the family’s daily life for the entire first half, showing us how their apparent happiness hides frustration and lies. In parallel, we see Cujo becoming sicker as time passes. This first half resembles more a made-for-TV family drama than the premise of a horror film.
Unfortunately, the slow pace really hurts the rhythm of the film, which is quite boring until the main characters finally encounter Cujo. When Donna and her son bring their car for repair at Cujo’s owners’ house, they find the location empty. The rabid dog attacks them, forcing them to stay inside the car…which, of course, refuses to start. A Saint-Bernard is hardly scary and Cujo does little more than running towards the car and barking. The sense of menace is therefore rather limited and it all quickly becomes repetitive.
However, the performances from both Dee Wallace and Danny Pintauro are stellar. I found myself wondering what the crew did to traumatize the boy as his tears and fear seem too genuine and real to be fake. That little boy will break your heart when you hear him crying of terror.
The story is extremely simplistic and so is the subtext : the mother’s isolation inside the vehicle echoes the sense of entrapment she feels in her marriage. It is a thin story, with very little scares, too much exposition and no pay-off in the end.