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Cujo - reviewing the cult classic through modern eyes, 35 years on.

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"There’s no such thing as real monsters.” Cujo is a slow burn story that serves to remind modern horror films that attention to the small details makes all the difference.

Watching Cujo (1983) for the first time thirty-five years from its release is a petrifying experience even in the middle of the day. The film, based upon the eponymous and well-received 1981 novel by Stephen King, opens simply. A dog chases a rabbit in a field: a natural and happy scene, the rabbit escapes into what appears to be a small underground cave. But everything changes when the dog, his curious nozzle poking in, is bitten by a hissing, fanged bat.

 

We’re introduced to the Trenton family through an open window of their large Maine house. Tad (Danny Pintauro), the small child, acts strangely in his room. His eyes dart from the bed and around his room whilst he contemplates turning off the light. It’s later revealed that he has night terrors about a monster in his closet, a monster only his father, Vic (Daniel Hugh Kelly), can keep at bay.

Their domestic unit is cute and believable due to the ease with which the actors embody these roles. As a family, they face setbacks at work, a cooling marriage, and the constant need to repair one of their cars – experiences many are familiar with. Unfortunately for the Trentons, an amalgamation of these issues nearly kills them.

Whilst a brief love affair between the mother, Donna (Dee Wallace) and a family friend, Steven (Christopher Stone), reminds us this is a Stephen King story, the quick-to-dissipate affair is by far the least interesting part of this story.

The foundation of this plot is undoubtedly Cujo. Indeed, the titular dog seems to be, even from the beginning, smart and gentle. We see him being petted by his doting owner, Brett Camber (Billy Jacoby), who is a little older than Tad, putting up with the heavy-handed and loud-mouthed antics of Brett’s father, Joe (Ed Lauter), and his friend, Gary (Mills Watson), and the abusive way Joe treats his wife (Kaiulani Lee).

We see Cujo whine from loud noises and retreat into darkness on the atmospherically dusty farmland, first the barn and then the foundations under the house. Even once the rabies virus manifests in all its gruesome slobber, gunk, and, eventually, blood, Cujo seems to just simply be a dog afraid of loud noises. It drives him crazy. It’s a good thing Cujo can’t hear the music implemented by Charles Bernstein (A Nightmare on Elm Street) with such unpredictably brash and repetitively hypnotic music cues that play with our emotions and trick us into a false sense of security.

Somehow this rabid dog becomes an absolute bundle of terror. Just watching Donna and Tad, stuck together in a broken-down car, six miles from town, without food or enough water, makes you feel claustrophobic. The excellent, and deceptively simple editing by Neil Travis (Dances with Wolves) cuts from Cujo's open growl to the screaming face of a child, and back again.

Despite lacking any special effects and other modern techniques, Cujo feels real. Cujo could happen, and that is the truly horrific part of this all. Tad had been afraid of the monster in his cupboard when really the monster lay dormant in the bloodstream of a kind-hearted dog.

The only injustice in this film is that Steven Kemp, the so-called family friend, is left untouched by the troubles or, indeed, the law. He’s violent towards Donna after she rejects him and trashes their family home, including Tad’s, the room of a child he supposedly cares for. Is Cujo the only monster here?

Another aspect of this film that keeps it so visceral, especially when compared to today’s standard of transitory jump scares, is the role of rotten luck; the smaller details that build up. The reason Donna and Tad are trapped on the Camber farm is simply that their car broke down there. The reason they were left, isolated, for three days is because Mrs. Camber had won the lottery and visited her sister with Brett, whilst Joe and Gary were planning to spend a wild weekend away. The mailman doesn’t deliver a parcel to the farm because the Camber’s had requested all post to be held at the depot until they returned home.

The only lucky break the Trenton family has for the entire film is when Vic’s intuition wakes him from a nightmare whilst away for work. He fixes to get home to sort out his marriage with Donna, and even then, his late deduction that they’re at the farm is just that – late. Without spoiling the ending, the final frame of the film is almost like a Renaissance painting, filled with loaded meaning, a canvas of light and shade.

Overall, Cujo stands up well thirty-five years after its release largely due to director Lewis Teague (The Jewel of the Nile) and the crew’s ability to tell a story through nuanced details as well as gore. Perhaps some of today’s horror films would be a lot more effective and a lot scarier if they took a page from Cujo’s book: making the seemingly mundane or inconsequential into something with bigger bite and a lot more slobber.

 

 

 

 

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