What’s so good about Stephen King’s killer dog movie? In Stephen King’s book Danse Macabre, the author writes persuasively about the 1979 version of The Amityville Horror, and a scene in which a sum of money goes missing from the Lutz family. He writes about how, rather than the flies and the axe attacks, it’s the financial horror that the Lutz family experience that really grounds the film, and King’s own ability to ground a horror conceit in domestic purgatory is very much to the fore in the film of Cujo.
Cujo is, famously, the killer dog featured here, but there’s no much Cujo in the first half of Lewis Teague’s film, bar an intro which shows the mutt being bit on the nose by a rabid bat. Instead, Teague’s film gets into the minutiae of one particular cell of the Castle Rock organism; Donna (Dee Wallace) has decanted from New York, her husband Vic (Daniel Hugh-Kelly) who is struggling with an advertising account gone rogue. Meanwhile her lover Steve (Christopher Kemp) beats her husband at tennis, runs down the street shirtless and doesn’t take it well when Donna dumps him.
If that’s not enough, we then get into Donna and Vic’s car trouble, and their attempts to get their shonky Ford Pinto into shape, which involve mechanic Joe Camber (Ed Lauter) and his family. All of these characters are extremely well described, and as a film, Cujo generates a heap of suspense before working out exactly how Donna’s life is going to fall apart. If there’s not much Cujo in the first half, the second half is all Cujo, and Donna and her son are trapped agonisingly in the confines of the Pinto while the rabid dog rampages outside.
If audiences were perhaps overwhelmed by the intensity of the latter stages of the story, the not-quite-terrifying dog make-up, or the less than satisfying ending, the majority of Teague’s film is way ahead of its time, respecting King’s characters and setting, while doubling down on intensity. Before he became a notable directorial talent, Jan De Bont does a great job with the look of the film, making something iconic of Donna’s Pinto in the abandoned yard and predating his excellent work on Die Hard amongst other films.
The name Cujo is still often bandied around when naughty dogs are mentioned, and Cujo the movie is probably ripe for a CGI-heavy remake; if anyone goes down that road, it would be ideal if they constructed the long, careful, patient build-up Teague manages here. Cujo the dog seems to feed off Castle Rock’s bad energy, and there’s far more to King’s story than just a woman in peril.