- Dee Wallace as Donna Trenton
- Danny Pintauro as Tad Trenton
- Daniel Hugh Kelly as Vic Trenton
- Christopher Stone as Steve Kemp
- Ed Lauter as Joe Camber
Although a terrifying and tense film based on the Stephen King novel, Cujo falls down in pacing and a sometimes over the top nature. It’s thankfully saved due to some horrifying sequences and a powerful turn from Dee Wallace that raise Cujo up a few levels, even if the overall product is flawed.
In the opening, we observe the friendly St. Bernard named Cujo chasing a rabbit. He gets his head stuck in a cave when looking for the rabbit, but awakens the bats that reside there. His presence scares the bats(which are rabid) and they respond by biting him. Slowly, Cujo begins exhibiting signs of rabid behaviour, that no one seems to notice. Meanwhile, in the town, various dramas are at play. Housewife Donna Trenton is married to advertiser Vic and has a young son named Tad. Although she cares for both, she has grown restless and dissatisfied. This has led her into an affair with local stud Steve Kemp, although Donna attempts to resist this. A problem with the family’s car forces them to visit alcoholic mechanic Joe Camber, who is the owner of Cujo. The dog is progressively getting more frightening and infected, but everyone is concerned with other things to truly take note of it. Donna, feeling guilty about her indiscretions, admits to her affair to Vic. Having to deal with a crisis at work and the knowledge of his wife’s affair, Vic leaves for business, which makes Donna be in charge of sorting the failing car and grappling with not knowing what the future holds. Little realising what awaits them, Donna and Tad head to Camber’s house to finally get the car sorted out. Unfortunately, by this point Cujo has become a rabid animal that has killed Camber and his friend. The dog soon sets upon Donna and her son, isolating them in their car that the battery has run out of. Trapped inside the car and terrified, Donna must summon up all the resolve she has to survive the attacks of Cujo and ensure the safety of her son.
Lewis Teague makes a good stab at directing this horror tale and does manage some very scary moments. His control over pacing and narrative is less assured, as he could have brought a bit more immediacy to things to increase the shocks. When the movie gets the nitty-gritty of the rabid dog attacking people and ultimately trapping Donna and Tad , is where the big strength and effectiveness of Cujo lies. It’s the build up to the unleashing of violence that provides a stumbling block for the movie. In one respect, some of it builds suspense and comments on how wrapped up everyone is in their own lives, that they fail to notice a change in Cujo. Yet the other narrative points are too melodramatic and soap opera style that they feel extremely out-of-place. It’s a conundrum to be sure, and just when you may consider turning the movie off, the horror kicks in and the better parts of Cujo become noticeable. With odd camera angles and a frenetic energy, the latter half of Cujo makes up for the stale first part. It gets straight to the fear of Man’s Best Friend going awry, which is a frightening notion brought to shocking life here. The use of what at first looks likes the point of view of the beast, that ultimately isn’t is impressively used when Cujo jumps out of nowhere and puts your body in a jolt. The dog of the title is terrifying yet pitiful, as it isn’t the dog’s fault that it became rabid. Still, the sheer size and appearance of the animal is ferociously rendered and towering when it menaces Donna and Tad. Above all, the theme of a protective mother and her child is brought forth, and is what gives Cujo the life-blood it needs to be memorable. Watching as they are holed up in the run-down car, near dehydration and completely traumatised makes for some nerve-shredding suspense and a sympathy for their plight. A creeping and capricious score enables suspense and terror to influence the atmosphere in the film and make it stick.
For all the flaws that Cujo boasts, the main acting from Dee Wallace is not one of them. She really convinces as the desperate mother in a battle to save her child, while almost at the point of exhaustion. Wallace searingly plays the protective mother with committed energy and depth; you genuinely feel worried for her as the attacks from Cujo become more frequent and she must gather what’s left of her strength to fight. Between vulnerable and strong, Wallace brings a much-needed dose of power to the film that is a chief asset among the other less compelling parts. Young Danny Pintauro gets it right as the absolutely terrified child, in a horrific situation. I’ve heard some people say that he’s annoying because he screams a lot in the film, but he is a child and just think how you’d react if there was a rabid dog attacking you. The other roles in the film are OK, but nothing like that of Wallace and Pintauro. Christopher Stone does what he can with the part of spurned lover, but Ed Lauter overdoes it as the hard-drinking owner of the eponymous threat. Saying that, Lauter does have very good and shocking death scene that really kicks the film into gear
An uneven slide of horror that nonetheless has its moments of greatness, Cujo can best be described as a mixed bag. If things had been a bit more focused, it may have attained excellence. Overall a creeping atmosphere, some outstanding camerawork and fine central performance are the redeeming factors that keep you watching Cujo.