The simplicity of Cujo is almost enough to derail the film. Director Lewis Teague doesn’t work with a lot of horror set-pieces in this 1983 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel; instead, he allows the rabid dog of the title free reign, creating a character that requires no dialogue or exposition to understand. It’s all done in the lead-up to the actual attack, a testament of Teague’s and his screenwriters’ (Don Carlos Dunaway and Lauren Currier) ability to work in dramatic character investment before the actual horror of the piece kicks in. Cujo is, despite what some may believe from hearsay, a slow burn that really has very little to do with the dog at all – it’s actually about humanity and the existence of real-life monsters unlike the ones that pop out of the minds of people like King.
Teague’s approach is to settle down in the lives of the protagonists before getting to the meat of the drama. Cujo follows the Trenton family, made up of mom Donna (Dee Wallace), dad Vic (Daniel Hugh Kelly), and son Tad (Danny Pintauro). They’re a struggling family, not financially (well, a little later on maybe) but emotionally – Donna’s been cheating on Vic with their friend Steve (Christopher Stone), and Tad’s been having some bad dreams about boogeymen in his closet. Despite his talk of saving Tad from monsters, Vic is unable to comfort the boy, and he’s also unable to fix all of the problems in his home life despite some car repairs done by Joe Camber (Ed Lauter) out in the mountains.
The emphasis on home life is important to Cujo. For one, it cements a few big themes for the film to explore later on. Tad’s night terrors are authentic, based on a boy’s imagination but also somewhat warranted because of the events that he sees happening around him. Vic, in his masculine efforts to thwart and demystify monsters for his scared son, promises to protect him from the bad stuff – because to him, it’s not real. But later, when Vic leaves home to take some time to think about Donna’s infidelity, he’s not there to protect Tad from all of the spooky things. The monsters, despite the adults’ promises, do exist, just not in the way most would expect.
That monster rearing its ugly head is rabies, an infection spread once Cujo gets into a fight with a bat and then starts to decay mentally and physically. While Cujo has the option to just present the dog as an enemy, Teague doesn’t take it – instead, he gives Cujo a bit of backstory, centering on the family life of the Cambers every now and then. Joe Camber is an abusive husband and father, an alcoholic, and his treatment of Cujo is terrible to the nth degree. And so Teague puts real stakes into the film; the viewer doesn’t want to see Cujo die because his aggression isn’t his fault, but they also have to root for the humans in this scenario because of the dynamic between Donna and Tad.
The attack doesn’t occur until at least 45 minutes into the film (read: over halfway), and while that would seem to indicate a slow and boring rising action, it’s not so. The family dynamic creates a foreseeable yet impressive conclusion that melds all of the right themes together: Vic can’t leave his family because of the guilt of not being there for his son, and Tad now knows that monsters are real but they can be vanquished. But the morals aren’t all pleasant and happy, either; it’s a reminder to parents that their children can never fully be protected, not from real evil that lurks on the periphery. Parents and cops can’t be there all the time, and Cujo is an allegory for the vulnerability of children when that real evil strikes.
It’s not a perfect film, and Cujo can drag on in some parts when Donna and Tad are trapped in the car. But it’s also a strong horror film because of its resonating drama, carried through to the conclusion and steadily built upon like a wall. Eventually, it almost becomes too much when Tad is nearly lost. It shows, though, how well Cujo is able to work in real life horror – mostly everything about Cujo can happen, an existing monster instead of the mythological boogeyman.