Cujo (1983)

Directed by Lewis Teague

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It’s typically a bad recipe when your movie relies on a dog’s performance, but you know what, Cujo isn’t bad!  There have been plenty of unfortunate Stephen King adaptations, but this one about a rabid dog isn’t one of them.  In fact Cujo might work best not just because the dog performance was surprisingly adequate, but because there is real subtext to the story.

We open with a portrait of a young family, Donna (Dee Wallace) and Vic Trenton (Daniel Hugh Kelly) comforting their son, Tad (Danny Pintauro).  Vic knows just what to say to calm his son’s fears about the monster in the closet, and because we know all about the forthcoming rabid dog, we know there is some metaphorical truth to Tad’s fears, even if there is no literal monster in the closet.

This is also a Stephen King story, and that means that quite often one or more characters is tuned into the dread lining their world.  Like Danny Torrance in The Shining, Tad knows something is amiss, even if he hasn’t yet met Cujo.  In King’s story worlds the dread and evil looms everywhere, and the inciting incident is like poking a hole in a life raft.  We get the feeling that it was only a matter of time before sh*t hit the fan.

The ‘monster’ Tad might be afraid of could have some symbolic connection to the rift in his parents’ marriage.  We quickly learn that Donna has been sleeping with Vic’s friend Steve (Christopher Stone), and not long after that Vic himself comes across this information.

Donna cuts off the affair, but Vic decides to leave town for a few nights to clear his head.  It just so happens that his departure coincides with Donna and Tad running right into the thick of Cujo’s wrath.

Cujo belongs to a local auto repairman, and while Vic is out, Donna has to head over there to pick up the car.  While their domestic drama plays out, we watch as Cujo becomes rabid and kills the repairman and a buddy of his.  When Donna and Tad arrive, we know they are entering the lion’s den.

Donna quickly finds herself trapped in her car with Tad as he’s growing increasingly sick while Cujo looms outside the car like a shark smelling blood in the water.  All the while Vic is the Hallorann character from The Shining.  He has a sense that something is wrong, and we await his heroic arrival to save his wife and child.

Except, that’s not what happens.  Vic does indeed show up, but only after Donna fends for herself and for Tad.  The knight in shining armor arrives only after Donna does all the hard work, and the film ends with another image of the young family, this time battle-weary and exhausted but alive.

Donna is a badass, and her self-reliance against this rabid beast feels much more subtextual when you consider a scene in which Steve tries to force himself on her.  Cujo is a monster, a manifestation of sexual violence, assuming I’m not mistaken.  He is a brute, and his torment of Donna concerns him trying to pry his way into her car, invading her space.

There is very little nuance to Cujo the dog, and though we might feel some initial sympathy for the dog (if only because it’s a dog), as the story rolls along, Cujo becomes more hideous and more monstrous, transforming from this…

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…to this…

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…and that doesn’t fully capture Cujo’s final form.  He feels bigger, drenched in blood and an unsettling yellow fluid beneath his eyes.  Any warm and fuzzy feelings we have for the dog are long gone, and I think it’s important we see this transformation.

The film could easily begin with Cujo as a monstrous animal, looming about from the very start.  Instead we see Cujo as a kindly pet, one who is good with kids.  It just so happens that he’s bitten by a bat and turns into a monster.  Though the bite just acts as an inciting incident, the choice to show Cujo’s descent is deliberate.

It mirrors our relationship to Steve, Donna’s paramour.  At the start he is something of a comforting figure, in contrast with the distance Donna feels from Vic.  Because Donna and Vic are having marital troubles, we might side with Donna and use this as a reason to suspect Vic is a more sinister figure than he really is, that he might have a heavier hand in their failing marriage.  In other words we might see Donna as a victim of the failed marriage rather than an equal partner in it.  This makes Steve a comforting figure, as if he’s there to rescue Donna.

Except this is a story about Donna not needing to be rescued.  Steve becomes a monster (as he tries to force himself on her with her son in the next room), and Cujo shows up as a threat when both of the men in her life depart.  She forces Steve to go, then Vic chooses to leave, and then Cujo shows up.  Three imposing male figures (for varying reasons) taking turns in the narrative.

Vic isn’t the same kind of overt force as Steve or Cujo, but I think he does represent a kind of domestic restraint imposed on Donna and many women.  While Vic goes off to work (fretting about a recent ad campaign), Donna stays behind to hold down the homestead.  She exists as a mother and a wife as well as Steve’s lover.  As a character Donna exists in relation to the men in her life.

Cujo tackles all this masculinity, summoning all the subtext, like rolling it up into a ball of dough and launching it at Donna.  This leads to the final moment of triumph in which she saves not only herself but her son and, as far as I can tell, her marriage.  And yet, that final moment is left unsaid.  Vic arrives on the scene, seemingly marveling up at his wife and perhaps seeing her in a new light.  The logical conclusion is that Vic now realizes nothing else matters as long as Donna and Tad are alive, but maybe there’s another leap in thought.  Perhaps Donna, finally alive, realizes she has no interest in leading the life she’s had up until the point.

Up Next: The Beast Must Die (1974), Fitzcarraldo (1982), The Ring (2002)

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