For almost 40 years, the word “Cujo” has become synonymous with vicious dogs. This is a misnomer because the Cujo the St. Bernanard is nothing more than a victim. Released on this date, Aug. 12, 1983, Cujo was a modest success despite getting not too favorable reviews.
In his book, On Writing, Stephen King talked about barely remembering writing the novel due to his struggles with alcoholism and cocaine at the time. What he did recall was how he got the idea after having car trouble and his vehicle taken to some mechanic shop out in the country where the proprietor had a dog that wasn’t too friendly with him. Dogs are mostly friendly but they can not like people sometimes. All it takes is a scent or a gesture to become a persona non grata with man’s best friend.
When the movie opens, Cujo (named incorrectly after the Symbionese Liberation Army co-founder Willie Wolfe who prefered to be call “Kahjoh” but mispelled as “Cujo”), is just being a dog. He sees a wild rabbit out in the Maine countryside and does what dogs do and chases after it. He follows it into a hole in the ground that is full of bats. His barking causes them to go wild and one bites him on the nose.
And from there, Cujo is infected with rabies. Cujo belongs to the Cambers, who live outside the Maine town of Castle Rock. Joe Camber (Ed Lauter) is a mechanic who is abusive toward his wife, Charity (Kaiulani Lee) and Brett (Billy Jacoby). It’s the Cambers’ fault for not getting Cujo his rabies shot. Why would someone allow a St. Bernard to run around rural Maine and not get his shots?
Joe is recommended by a mailman to Vic Trenton (Daniel Hugh-Kelly), who is enjoying some wealth and prestige after his advertising for a popular cereal has lavished him with a nice Jaguar and a beautiful home with an ocean view. However, the homelife isn’t so glamorous. Vic’s wife, Donna (Dee Wallace) is having an affair with a local handyman Steve Kemp (Christopher Stone, who was married to Wallace in real life).
One day, Vic’s professional life is thrown in a tailspin when the cereal is reportedly causing people to be sick. The book goes into further detail as the red food coloring makes it appear that people, especially kids as it’s marketed to, are coughing up and throwing up blood. With his account in jeopardy, Vic suspects Donna is committing adultery when he drives by Steve’s house and sees her in a fight with Steve.
As the Trentons family seems in peril, the Cambers get some relief as Charity wins some money from a lottery, buys Joe some machinery equipment that he needs but asks to take Brett out of town to visit his sister for a week. Reluctantly, Joe agrees but later talking with a friend, Gary Pervier (Mills Watson), they decided to go down to Boston while Charity and Brett are away. During this time, Cujo begins to have sensitivity to loud noises and growls slightly but no one notices.
On the morning they’re to leave, Brett notices Cujo’s behavior but Charity tells him not to tell Joe. I’ve got the implication that Charity is thinking of doing more than visit her sister but planning on leaving Joe. At the same time, Vic has to go to New York City for a meeting with the advertising over the cereal scandal. The Ford Pinto they also have has experiencing problems but Vic tells Donna he couldn’t get it looked at and tells her to take to to Cambers.
But by this time, Cujo has already gotten to the aggressive rabid stage and attacks and kills Gary and later Joe when he shows up. And when Donna and her son, Tad (Danny Pintauro) arrive at the Cambers, they are nearly attacked by Cujo but find themselves locked in the car. It’s the summer time so the car won’t start and they can’t run the air conditioner and can only leave the windows opened a little without threat of Cujo getting to them.
With little to no fluids and no way of contacting anyone, Donna and Tad become trapped. Vic tries to call home several times but there’s no answer. It’s 1983 and no one has cell phones. Even Joe has put a hold on all mail being delivered and the Camber resident is on a secluded road miles away. The heat inside the Pinto becomes unbearable as Tad’s youth causes him to cry and becomes hysterical. Unable to do anything, Donna tries to comfort Tad but doesn’t know if help is coming.
Some people have looked to Donna’s being trapped in the Pinto as punishment for his sins of adultery. Donna is willing to throw away a good marriage to Vic and possibly custody of Tad as well as her house to have sex with Steve, who is a former boyfriend from high school. Like most kids, Tad is afraid of the dark and the closet monster. Vic, like a good father, comforts Tad by reading a nightly proclamation to the invisible monsters they need to leave Tad alone and stay out of his closet.
And Cujo gets worse and will probably die, but Donna and Tad can’t stay in the Pinto as dehydration and heat stroke becomes a concern. Cujo stays around the Cambers property because that’s his home. The sadness is Cujo doesn’t know what’s wrong with him as the loud noises of a ringing phone make him more aggressive. The fact that rabies is also called hydrophobia and Donna and especially Tad start to show symptoms of dehydration is a nice contrast that makes the movie more horrifying.
Eventually, Vic returns home when he can’t contact Donna only to discover Steve has broken in and ransacked and cut up items. This leads the police to drive out to the Cambers location as Vic tells them she was supposed to take the Pinto there. (It’s here where we’re introduced the character of Sheriff George Bannerman. The same character appears in King’s novel The Dead Zone. It wa published before Cujo. However, the movie was released in October of 1983, making it an unintended prequel. Sandy Ward plays Bannerman here while Tom Skerritt plays him in Zone.)
When production began on Cujo, the original director Peter Medak and director of photography Anthony B. Richmond left after the first two days. They were replaced by Lewis Teague (who would go on to have Cujo appear in a cameo in Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye, that he also directed) and Jan de Bont as DOP. Both manage to pull some good thrills and scares but keep the violence down to a minimum. There were four St. Bernards uses as well as a mechanical dogs. At some times, they even used stunt man Gary Morgan who was only 5-foot-5 in a dog costume.
While Cujo isn’t as memorable as some of other Kind adaptations of the time, it’s garnered a cult following. And like King Kong or the original Godzilla (Gojira), Cujo is both the villain and the unexpected victim. King Kong would’ve been just fine left on the island and Gojira was a product of nuclear weapons and radiation. The sad part is that Cujo was intended to be left by Joe and Charity to suffer. While Cujo is finall put down, it’s more of a mercy killing.
And it could’ve all been avoided had the Cambers got Cujo his rabies shot.
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