I was afraid to rewatch Cujo because when I saw this movie as a kid it terrified me and holds a special place in my mind, filed under “scary.” Some of the things I was enamored with at that age don’t stand the test of time, but I’m happy to report that Cujo still scares as a movie.
I first saw this at my next-door neighbor’s house when my family was living in Landstuhl, Germany. Our house had a color TV tuned to the military station with about twelve hours of news programming on per day; the only commercials were for recruitment—about “Be all you can be.” Certain neighbors, though, had VCRs and connections in the United States who would tape movies from the premium cable channels. That’s what I used to think was rich, walking into somebody’s living room—which was the same exact size and in the same location in every base housing apartment—and seeing a dark wood shelving unit loaded with VCR tapes and the boxy apparatus that would take them. Some people had both tape brands and equipment—Betamax and VHS. That was really rich.
Cujo takes some mundane elements and combines them brilliantly, and most of that is because of its excellent source material, Stephen King’s novel of the same name. What if the friendliest dog in the world (and one of the biggest) got bit by a rabid bat and developed rabies? What if the owner went away, but somebody came by and was trapped by the dog? What would happen? A tense little horror movie, that’s what.
In Cujo, there’s an American family of three—a mom (Dee Wallace), dad (Daniel Hugh Kelly), and son (Danny Pintauro as a wee boy)—and on the surface everything looks okay. But the mother is having an affair with the handyman—out of boredom it appears—threatening to destroy the family. When her husband needs quick work done on his car and goes out to see a man who’s good with engines, they run into another family. This is a country family of a different class, where everybody has a job to do, even the dog Cujo.
The mom’s affair is discovered, or rather suspected, and she chooses not to lie about it. The way this is played out is very quiet but well done—more like what an affair really does in a family, I think. There’s incredible tension between the husband and wife that the kid picks up on, and when the wife’s car is acting up before her husband has to take an emergency business trip, he’s not inclined toward helping her out any. This keeps the plot humming along, and when the mom takes her broken-down Pinto to the farm where the rabid dog lives and gets trapped with her son, the audience isn’t surprised that she’s left alone there. Her husband doesn’t freak out because he can’t get a hold of her; no red flags are sent up. After all, he’s just discovered she’s having an affair and isn’t sure what he’s going to do about it.
The music soundtrack is a bit bizarre, ranging from something that sounds like what played during the Little House on the Prairie opening credits—this is used when Cujo does his running and leaping about as a normal dog—and then when Cujo turns rabid and dangerous, the music changes to something like what the band Tangerine Dream specialized in, a particular kind of eighties soundtrack for genre movies.
I could tell during the dog-fighting scenes that some sort of a stand-in was being used, either a huge puppet or somebody dressed in a dog suit, spliced in with shots of a dog that was probably going for bologna held up behind a door. That didn’t distract me; rather it reassured me that no harm came to any dogs during the making of the movie. Standards were more lax back then, and after hearing about how the children’s classic Milo and Otis went through countless numbers of orange kitties and pug dogs to film all the stunts, I’m suspicious of animal movies.
As the mother, Dee Wallace does a great job playing the mama bear, doing everything in her power to protect her son from the monster and sometimes even snarling at him in frustration because of their situation and her fraying nerves. She is the hero in this movie, and she’s a very human hero with lots of flaws. A Pinto station wagon is a very small space to set most of a movie, but Cujo does exceedingly well with this plot device. You can feel the claustrophobia and fear, and the first time Cujo makes himself known to the mother and son—well, it still makes me jump almost thirty years later, reminding me that a car can be freedom, but sometimes it can be a trap, too.