Cujo (1983), Lookback/Review

How did one, big, hairy, rabid dog and two people trapped in a car become a feature length film and a pop culture touchstone?

***This review contains spoilers for both the film and novel versions of Cujo***

Cujo is an especially peculiar inclusion in the Stephen King canon. While the title has remained in popular memory since the film’s release in 1983, it still seems like an awfully unlikely contender: a woman and child are trapped in a car by a rabid dog. Sure, that’s a dramatically undesirable destiny, but how could it possibly fill a feature length film? How could the set of circumstances leading in have the fable-like cogency necessary for this narrative to nest in the collective consciousness? But it does and despite its apparent simplicity, Cujo actually expects more from its audience than the average nature amok thriller and even many of King’s more successful stories.

Lawrence Teague, who would helm another animal-themed King adaptation two years later with the bizarre horror anthology Cat’s Eye, has directed a cardboard-brown, plainspoken exercise in suburban dread that unfolds at an almost brisk, no-nonsense clip from the first frame. Meet Cujo, the lovable Saint Bernard. See Cujo run. See Cujo chase the bunny into its hole. See the big brown bats that bite Cujo on the nose. Do we really need another page? Don’t we know what will happen next? It’s akin to having Travis Coates follow Old Yeller around the farm with a shotgun for the duration of that movie; the dog is done for, the means of doing away with him is no secret and it is depressingly obvious what is going to happen to anyone in his proximity in the mean time. With a plot trajectory this drearily transparent, it is almost impossible to imagine how the film can maintain any semblance of suspense.

Cujo takes its time explaining the relationship of its parts to its whole – and remains somewhat mysterious in this respect for much of its running time. No sooner is Cujo infected than the seemingly directionless story careens through a totally unrelated survey of the trials and tribulations of the Trenton family. Fresh from the bat cave, we arrive in little Tad Trenton’s closet, which he is certain is infested with flesh-eating monsters — so certain is he that he spends the night stacking all his furniture against the offending door. In the morning he is interrogated by his father Vic (Daniel Hugh-Kelly), when they are interrupted by the local woodworker Steve Kemp, “Maybe it was Mr. Kemp who moved all your furniture around!” jokes Vic, not knowing that Mr. Kemp has in fact committed a very real home invasion, as wife and mother Donna (Dee Wallace) Trenton’s secret lover (Kemp is played by Dee Wallace’s then-husband Christopher Stone, in a team-up predated by their screen coupledom in 1981’s The Howling). Vic is clueless to his wife’s infidelity for only the briefest of screen moments. He keys in, ironically, just as Donna calls it quits. But his discovery comes quickly on the heels of the death of his career as an ad man, when his prize campaign for a cereal company coincides with that cereal apparently causing children across America to hemorrhage from their digestive tracts (it turns out to be just an inadvisably massive inclusion of red dye). Even the Trenton family car has problems; a Ford Pinto may seem an unlikely choice of metaphor outside of a Tom Waits song, but with the revelation of each new disaster, as if in sympathy, the car shows rapidly advancing signs of decay. 

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Of course, the car seems to be the least and simplest of their problems and the Trentons are directed to the services of Joe Camber, an honest mechanic whose home is beset by similar horrors, not the least of which will turn out to be their sick puppy Cujo. Ed Lauter plays the role with an air of villainy that suggests Jack Torrance with a migraine. His hostility toward his wife Charity (the wonderful Kaiulani Lee, whose unusual appearance makes Karen Black look average) and their young son Brett. Charity has recently won the lottery, but her luck only exacerbates the unease inspired by the poverty, alcoholism and whatever else creates a man like Joe. Most deleterious, however, is the way in which the Cambers’ focus on their own individual survival leads to the neglect of their now irrepressibly rabid dog, who more or less immediately eats Joe’s only friend and Joe himself. Charity and Brett unwittingly escape this fate by fleeing their head of household.

As with the Cambers’ lottery win, Donna’s attempts to improve her situation (as presented in a startlingly raw and profoundly sympathetic performance by Wallace) do not exempt her from being further punished for the circumstances she has created. When she nobly puts the kibosh on her affair with Kemp, she discovers that the Chuck Norris-blond himbo turns into a dangerous psychopath when spurned. His violent outbursts toward her are followed by his dramatic destruction of the Trenton family home. By then Vic knows he has been cuckolded and is safely away from the would-be murder scene at the time, while Donna and Tad innocently ride off to Joe Cambers’ place in hopes of repairing the terminal car. Soon enough the mother and son find themselves trapped at the deserted and blood-stained Cambers country home with nothing but the husk of their broken down car to protect them from Cujo the big now-red dog. Inside the pinto, they are still vulnerable to the ravages of malnutrition and dehydration, the portrayal of which is every bit as horrific as the eponymous animal’s rampage. 

This coincidence of one distraught family’s neglect of their Pinto with another’s neglect of their pet is a strange recipe for a classic horror story, but that is exactly the nature of the material at hand. In literal terms, the sequence of events is tragically random and without the apparently direct correlation between crime and punishment that many mainstream horror movies have, with hubris, horniness or the violation of hallowed ground leading future victims to behave in obviously dangerous ways that put them in the path of conservative-minded killers. The progression of Cujo does not rely on clear-cut causal relationships between bad behavior and the stupid decisions that deliver characters to their logical conclusion; it instead seems sadistically arbitrary. Unlike Evil Dead’s Scott brashly playing a reel of incantations from The Book of the Dead, likable Donna Trenton’s regretted infidelity does not have an obvious relationship to winding up on abandoned farmland with diseased animals…does it?

The secret to Cujo’s success is the way in which subtext is more the star of the show than the literal horrors on display. Although it appears to be an ultra-mundane monster movie, Cujo has less in common with Jaws and more in common with a movie like the surreal 1978 Australian thriller Long Weekend, in which a vacationing couple’s interpersonal turmoil is strangely mirrored by the natural environment in which they lose themselves. Cujo’s apparent downtrodden simplicity bellies the headiness of its thematic material and its assignment of existential guilt. Because there exists no direct line between the Trenton family, their daily life, and the Cambers’, to say nothing of their family dog (mother and son scarcely interact with Cujo between the chance introduction during which he gives Donna bad vibes and his vicious assault on her car an hour or more later) one can only examine the story in almost mythological terms. They do not trample the earth of old tombs nor tamper in god’s domain with mad science, but the adult characters in Cujo are guilty of delinquent domesticity, which invites the intrusion of savage nature. They leave vulnerable their dwelling, interrupt the rearing of their child and violate the civic bonds of their marital contract. The film presents a condition of magic realism whereby the abuse of the conditions of civilization is tantamount to surrender to chaos and wilderness in the form of a dog — the domestication of which was one of the earliest achievements of civilized human life. 

It is worth mentioning that Stephen King wrote the novel Cujo during a period of his life marked by alcoholic blackout. It would be very easy to dismiss the story’s superficially chaotic quality as the result of the author’s distorted consciousness, but the story of citizens failing to civilize themselves incurring the wrath of primordial nature is actually a rather obvious idea for a person in a state of serious dissolution, who is experiencing a dramatic failure to keep house. Indeed, King’s novel is even grimmer than the film, and concludes with Tad expiring from dehydration during his and Donna’s long stay in their car. King has gone on record as saying that killing Tad is one of his major regrets as an author and something he would change were he able. King contributed heavily to the screenplay and Tad’s onscreen survival may well be of his making.

Inevitably Donna does what even the local police (now deceased) failed to and literally steps up to bat, subduing Cujo with the aid of that appropriately unexotic weapon and a borrowed sidearm from the dead officer. Vic arrives exactly too late to affect the rescue himself, having come home at last to verify that his wife kept her promise to end her affair and slowly tracing her path from their vandalized home to their mechanic’s garage. Crippled with hunger and streaked with blood, Donna greets her husband on the Cambers’ porch, carrying their nearly-dead son out from under a rack of antlers mounted on the eaves. Then a curious thing happens, as the parents rush to meet each other on the steps, the film comes to a halt. There is no touch, no kiss, no avowed forgiveness or reconciliation, no shared caressing of the child. Time stops and the credits roll, as the viewer is left without satisfaction, without catharsis. The cause of the Trenton’s personal tragedies may be of an almost only philosophical order, but the consequences of their spiritual indiscretions are devastatingly actual – and apparently permanent. We can flee or fight monsters, but not our personal failures.

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