Running time: 93 min.
Release date: August 12, 1983
Cujo is classified as a horror film even though it does not contain ghosts or vampires or monsters of any kind. This could very well be a family drama that is interrupted by a rabid dog attack. The film could have aired on television as a TV-movie of the week deal. The author of the source material, horror master Stephen King, published the novel in 1981 so it didn't take long for a movie studio to buy the film rights and turn it around to the big screen. There are many people that have a very rational fear of dogs, and just as many, if not more, people that will feel sympathetic for the title creature but one thing that can be agreed on is that the plot of the film would be a terrifying experience for anyone.
The film opens with Cujo, a big and loveable St. Bernard, chasing a rabbit down a hole where he disturbs a colony of bats. One of the icky rodents bites Cujo on the nose, sending Cujo whining and running off. We then cut to suburbia, where the Trenton family is dealing with supposed monsters in the closet of Tad (Danny Pintauro), the only child of Vic and Donna (Daniel Hugh-Kelly and Dee Wallace). Donna is having an affair with the local handyman stud, Steve (Christopher Stone) which doesn't exactly make her a sympathetic character. Donna realizes that she is a bad, bad person and eventually calls off the affair, much to the angry disappointment of Steve. Meanwhile, car trouble sends the family to the rural property of the Cambers, where Joe (Ed Lauter) is known as a good mechanic for reasonable cost. It just so happens that the Camber clan are the proud owners of the now-rabid Cujo.
Charity Camber (Kaiulani Lee) has just won $5,000 in the lottery and wants to take their son Brett (Billy Jacoby) for a visit to her sister as a present to herself. Joe sees this as a great opportunity to go to Boston with his greasy friend Gary (Mills Watson) to try out some hookers and blow. However, Cujo has other plans for this pair, as he soon attacks first Gary and then Joe himself when Joe comes by to pick up Gary for their trip. Meanwhile, Donna has admitted her infidelity to Vic, who blows out of town on business when a client has a crisis that requires his attention. Donna's Pinto has trouble, so she and Tad head on out to the Camber farm hoping for some quick repairs. Lo and behold, nobody is home except for rabid Cujo. The film then becomes a stand-off between Donna and Tad, trapped in the hot Pinto death trap, and the insanely rabid Cujo.
The plot of the film is very simple and logical and that is to the film's benefit. However, director Lewis Teague takes his time in establishing the set-up, focusing on the two families for the first third of the film. The Trentons are established as your average suburban family, with Vic and Donna at an impasse in their marriage. The affair subplot is not very interesting here and does not shed a positive light on Donna, who later becomes the film's protagonist. The Camber clan are established as troubled as well, as Joe is a possible abusive alcoholic and Charity may or may not be running off with their kid to her sister's permanently. This subplot is also not very interesting but does establish Joe as being close to Cujo which shows that rabid pets will turn on their trusted owners.
Dee Wallace provides a good, multi-layered performance as Donna Trenton. She is flawed and makes mistakes and looks and feels guilty, but then when encountered with a dangerous situation, Wallace portrays Donna as both strong and frightened simultaneously. Young Danny Pintauro, who you may remember as Jonathan Bower on Who's the Boss?, gives a great turn as Tad Trenton. He appears to be legitimately frightened of Cujo when the dog attacks the car, and whatever Lewis Teague did to get this out of the six year old, it rings true on-screen. These are the two central performances in the movie and the real reason why the movie works as a whole. If Wallace and Pintauro give anything less, then the film falls flat.
The screenplay by Don Carlos Dunaway and Lauren Currier is rather dull and uninteresting as it is setting up the focal conflict. Lewis Teague does a decent job of comparing the marriage issues of the Trentons with the onset of insanity of Cujo, with the stories interweaving. It takes some contrivances to get the Trentons alone with Cujo, but once the film gets to woman vs. dog it is compelling and frightening and quite realistic. Of course, we get the obligatory scene where the animal comes back from the dead one more time to attack, but at that point the film has done its job.