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.
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