This is an entry in Steve Carlson's Killer Animal Blogathon at Our Science is Too Tight.
When asked to name his favorite adaptation of his work, Stephen King frequently cites, alongside more prestigious films like Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption, 1983's Cujo, based on his book about a rabid St. Bernard terrorizing a Maine housewife and her 3-year-old son. Released at the start of a decade-long glut of movies of varying quality based on King's work (John Carpenter's Christine and David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone were released the same year), Cujo might seem like an arbitrary choice, especially over films by Cronenberg, De Palma and Kubrick. King seems to value Cujo for its lack of an auteur's signature, and for its simplicity, describing it (I'm paraphrasing as I can't find the quote) as a machine that batters the audience mercilessly. Indeed, Cujo is a well-done B movie that succeeds in its modest ambitions. And if that sounds patronizing, I don't mean it that way at all - sometimes I just want to watch a movie that will make me jump when it says "boo," and at this Cujo succeeds admirably.
Director Lewis Teague's version of King's fictional Maine hamlet Castle Rock is very much located in the wondrous 80's-cinema version of small-town life commonly known as Spielbergiana, and not just because E.T.'s Dee Wallace plays a mom in Cujo as well. The film opens with a bucolic scene of the happy, uninfected dog bounding after a rabbit, accompanied by Charles Bernstein's magical John Williams-esque score. When Cujo, poking his nose down a rabbit hole, is bitten by a rabid bat who'd been sleeping in an underground cave, Cujo establishes the same understanding of reality familiar from E.T. and Poltergeist - that magic and mystery, both good and evil, exist just underneath the surface of everyday life. The first half of King's book focuses on the troubled marriage of Donna and Vic Trenton (Wallace and Daniel Hugh-Kelly) and Donna's affair with local hunk Steve Kemp (Christopher Stone). The infidelity plot is given less time in the movie; while the book suggests (rather heavy-handedly) that Cujo is fated to teach this family a lesson, in the movie is just a random bad thing happening to basically good people. There's no moral lesson to be learned, just the reminder to appreciate family and the simple things in life because one never knows when one will be attacked by a killer dog.
The back story is also condensed, presumably, because the filmmakers are eager to get to the action. With Vic out of town on business, Donna and son Tad (Danny Pintauro) find themselves trapped in their stalled Pinto at the end of a very rural route. Cujo has already killed his owner, mechanic Joe Camber (Ed Lauter), and Donna has to find a way out of the situation before heatstroke and dehydration take her son's life. Teague and cinematographer Jan De Bont (who would later direct Speed and Twister) make excellent use of the claustrophobic setting, and they are aided greatly by the team of effects artists. While Cujo's analog effects aren't seamless, they're quite impressive considering they're pretty much a combination of hand puppets, a guy in a St. Bernard suit and several wet dogs; you more or less believe that Cujo is beating the hell out of Donna's Pinto. The most important elements for suspension of disbelief, however, are the performances; luckily, Pintauro is a believably frightened little boy and Wallace (as in E.T., The Howling and numerous other genre favorites), brings an emotional authenticity to the character that goes above and beyond the character as written. When Donna, caked in dirt, sweat and blood, fights back against Cujo to save her son, Wallace displays a kind of primal warrior mama ferocity that is surprisingly compelling.*
The ending of Cujo deviates from King's book (spoilers ahead). While Tad finally dies of dehydration in the novel's closing pages, he is spared in the movie. While I normally hate it when downbeat endings in literature are made crowd-pleasing when brought to the screen, here I think it is the right choice. While horror stories, which are about upending life as we know it (as George Romero is fond of saying, "upsetting the apple cart"), are often more effective when they do not restore order in the end, Tad's death makes the events of the previous 300 pages meaningless, making it an uncharacteristically nihilistic book for King. The restoration of order at the end of the movie is more appropriate to the story; the movie freeze-frames at the moment the family reunites and all is well in Spielbergiana once again. Like the faulty red dye in Sharp Cereal, Cujo gives a good scare but nobody is really hurt.
*Sidenote: I coincidentally saw Dee Wallace at the Rock and Shock horror convention in Worcester this weekend; she was warm, friendly and endearingly eccentric. I particularly liked her story about being asked by Rob Zombie to voice one of three sexy she-devils in the animated The Haunted World of El Superbeasto. She told Zombie, "I'll only do it if I can be the one with the biggest tits."