Let’s face it, those of our generation who grew up fascinated by horror movies didn’t spend our impressionable early years mulling over the hidden, sophisticated treasures of Bava, Tourneur, Lang; in fact we might not even have seen a Romero film until we knew it was sanctified as “good for us,” and Cronenberg was still only as effective as his trashy-looking video boxes (that Scanners cover art, with its pulsing, shaking, about-to-explode head was freaky dynamite). For me, horror worked best not due to any clandestine, cult following it may have had, but in its most seemingly relevant form, as a viable mainstream Eighties product. And with no true horror director consistently working within the genre to capture the imagination, the most recognizable “auteur” was obviously Stephen King. Not a director himself (save Maximum Overdrive, his awful 1986 adaptation of his own short story “Trucks”), King nevertheless had a name that lorded over horror in the Eighties, for better (The Shining, with a little help from Kubrick; The Dead Zone, from Cronenberg; Creepshow, from Romero), or for worse (remember Firestarter? how about Silver Bullet?), or for middling but nevertheless iconic (Children of the Corn).
Of course, we grew up, and King’s writing, with its folksy, New England banter and pop culture digressions, seemed increasingly infantile, the lack sophistication in his sentences outweighing his undeniably captivating storytelling abilities. The heyday of King seems a distant memory, dotted as his oeuvre is now by middlebrow male weepies like The Shawshank Redemption and loopy, camp nonsense like Dreamcatcher. Yet his horror movies remain, and none continues to snarl as loudly and viciously as Lewis Teague’s 1983 adaptation of King’s Cujo. Everyone knows the name, but how many remember the movie? Plagued by a Warner Bros. ad campaign in 1983 that refused to reveal the identity of its central villain as “merely” a rabid dog, rather than reliably supernatural, or a serial killer (the poster was just a bloody fence and the tagline reading “Now there’s a new name for terror”), Cujo has always been easily derided for its subject matter. Yet rather than the gore-drenched variation on “When Animals Attack!” that many might assume it to be, Cujo is a surprisingly robust tale of guilt, infidelity, and trauma.
Tense, sad, and cathartic, the sweat-drenched Cujo is also, first and foremost, and without shame, character-driven. This isn’t unnoteworthy for a genre that often simply wants to shuttle viewers from one thrill to the next. Cujo, a massive Saint Bernard and the roaring id of a crumbling Maine family, doesn’t attack the central characters until well over an hour into the film; instead we get expertly plotted build-up, detailing the socioeconomic differences between the middle-class Trentons and the backwoods working-class Cambers. Donna and Vic Trenton are dealing with increasing marriage strains, made the worse by Donna’s affair with the “local stud”; meanwhile, dissatisfied car mechanic Joe seems to have loathed and resented his wife, Charity, for years. Each couple has a son: the snub-nosed adorable Trenton tyke is Tad, who’s scared of monsters in the closet, while the Cambers’ son Brett takes care of his beloved Cujo, shown in the opening sequence being bitten on the nose by a screeching bat. The only connection between the two families is that Joe has done work on Donna’s prone-to-stalling Pinto; it’s only a matter of time before Donna, with Tad in tow, breaks down at the Cambers' distant outpost.
Teague (who also directed the far more tongue-in-cheek Alligator and Cat’s Eye, another King collaboration) crafts his film with direct, effective, mostly unfussy precision (with excellent, merciless editing by The Edge’s Neil Travis), though at times he allows cinematographer Jan De Bont (who went on to direct Speed) to indulge in too many show-offy Big Shots—a vertiginous 360 rotation around the interior of the car is so egregious as to make De Palma’s spinning prom dance in Carrie seem downright static. And whatever inherent misogyny there is in the film’s conceit (that Donna is forced to reclaim her family and save her little boy’s life by literally fighting a rampaging beast to the death) nearly disappears in the face of Dee Wallace’s emotional agony and towering strength as Donna. Too often relegated to ineffectual mom roles (E.T.) or screeching weirdo side characters (The Frighteners), Wallace was given a prime piece of raw meat to chew on here, and it’s a nearly classic performance. The last third of Cujo takes place almost completely inside of a stalled car, baking in the summer sun, and Wallace emotionally navigates the tiny space with aplomb (and she’s helped immensely by Danny Pintauro’s distresing, difficult physical work as terrorized Tad).
With her mix of panic and pity, Wallace gets what makes Cujo such a thoroughly untraditional horror movie: the central monster lacks motivation, it’s just a lumbering, besotted animal, yet its insatiable hunger forms a nearly insurmountable obstacle. When the unforgiving hostility of a diseased nature comes banging at the car door, all that’s left for Donna to do is react with maternal instinct. Stripped down and bloodied, forced into desperate action, Wallace finally makes for one of cinema’s most plausible action heroes.