Skip links

Cujo (1983)

July 11th 2015
Intro by Lee Gambin
Writer / Author and Cinemaniacs founder
Purchase Lee's Books on Amazon

Good evening ladies and gentlemen and welcome to Cinemaniacs special presentation of the fantastic horror classic CUJO from 1983 starring Dee Wallace and directed by Lewis Teague, based on the novel by Stephen King.

Tonight is an extra special occasion because all profits will be going to the Linda Blair World Heart Foundation where Linda and her devoted team take care and rehabilitate dogs all across America and work tirelessly to protecting and looking after these pooches so they can have good long healthy lives in good homes. It’s a beautiful cause, so I thank you for supporting that in advance.

Now tonight we have a lot to get through, and it’s all brilliant. First and foremost we have one of my favourite local film writers and horror film experts Alexandra Heller-Nicholas who will be sharing introduction tasks along with me, and then right after her fabulous presentation we have yet another awesome lady over in Los Angeles, Camilla Jackson from Fangoria and Cinemaniacs talking to star Dee Wallace, director Lewis Teague and the film’s composer Charles Bernstein. Camilla was super lucky to get nearly an hour of interview time from these three brilliant artists, and you can check out the entire video on our website. Here, we have a condensed version edited by Darren from Cinemaniacs and with sound editing by Lisa from Cinemaniacs, two more brilliant people that I am lucky to have in my team. Also, a special shout out has to go out to Dee Wallace who has been super generous as she has sent through a bunch of signed 8X10s from various films of her’s such as CUJO of course – as well as THE HOWLING and ET – which are part of our raffle prizes that we will be drawing after the film. Also a massive thank you to the stunning Megan from Itchycoo Park vintage shop and Yaesmin from Stitch You Up who have kindly donated prizes for this event, thank you ladies.

OK, so on with tonight’s proceedings – let me tell you a bit about our guest speaker….

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic on Triple R’s Plato’s Cave. She is the author of two books on horror and cult film – she has written a book on rape revenge cinema and a book on found footage horror films. She also has a book on Dario Argento’s Suspiria due for release at the end of 2015. She is also an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Institute of Social Research at Swinburne University. So please, welcome to the podium, the fabulous Alexandra Heller-Nicholas!

When I first saw CUJO as a kid – I would have been about five or six, I recall remembering fragments of it. I remember little Danny Pintauro peering over his bed covers listening for the growling sounds of the imagined monster in his closet, the image of Cujo in the fog snarling at his friend Brett Camber and my sister saying to me “He won’t attack him, he knows him, and he loves him”…and then of course the incredible siege upon Dee Wallace’s car which stayed with me for the rest of my life.

Being addicted to horror movies from childhood is something that I hold dear to my heart and it’s shaped my career – all of these films that I would watch over and over again were formative and are now part of what makes me who I am. That might sound fuckin’ weird, but it’s true. And one of the many, many movies I used to revisit and re-borrow from the video shop and constantly watch over and over again was this very straight forward, almost super simplistic story about a dog who contracts rabies and causes great distress for a woman and her little son in the dead of summer.

Born from the mind of prolific horror novelist Stephen King, Lewis Teague’s filmic adaptation of Cujo is a sublime example of how within simplicity and good old fashioned straight and narrow storytelling intelligent complexity can exist. Not only is Cujo a beautifully executed scary ride it is also a clever character study and an acute commentary on a family in turmoil. The film really differentiates two major forces of horror: the real and the imagined. The real fears are tangible and easily relatable – infidelity, financial insecurity and a child’s fear of the dark, whereas the imagined fears such as becoming invisible, losing loved ones and monsters dwelling in the closet are secret fears that are seldom discussed – but Stephen King forces us to deal with these, his characters are beautifully painted fully realized people with real problems.

Masterfully, King puts all these fears (however major or trivial) into perspective when a ferocious in your face threat – that of a rabid 200 hundred pound St Bernard ready to tear you apart – is introduced. As soon as the malicious dog appears foaming at the mouth, barking angrily at the beat up Pinto, the film’s (and book’s) protagonist Donna Trenton puts aside all anxieties and inner turmoil bought on by her extra-marital affair, emotional sadness, personal isolation and desperation in order to save and protect her dehydrated child from being killed by the rabid dog or dying from exposure to oppressive heat.

CUJO is one of those rare Stephen King works that doesn’t involve supernatural horror (Misery is the other one that comes to mind) and yet the film and book are somehow told as a parable or even a fairy tale. The novel itself opens with “Once upon a time…” and this really does set the tone for the film – it is a contemporary American gothic tale set in a very real situation. The realism of the drama gives Cujo its teeth, but ultimately just under the surface there is a deep mythic quality to this story that pits flawed maiden against lumbering beast.

Opening with a picturesque prologue that features a playful, healthy St. Bernard chasing a rabbit through the Maine countryside, this Disney-esque curtain raiser soon turns ugly as this unfortunate dog comes into contact with rabid bats. He is bitten and in turn contracts the deadly neurological disease. From this opening sequence, a major theme of the film is summed up: what seems to be a happy halcyon innocuous picture ultimately has underlying horror, impending doom and consequential sadness. Later in the movie, we continually hear the adage “Nope. Nothing wrong here!” which vocally summarizes this same theme.

The film follows the lives of two families; the middle class Trentons and the working class Cambers. Vic Trenton is an advertising executive facing financial worry while his wife Donna is a bored and lonely woman who in fear of growing old and useless has started an affair with local furniture stripper Steve Kemp. Kemp is also a friend of Vic’s and his character not only strips the Trenton’s furniture, but he strips Donna of her humanity as well.

The couple also has a young son Tad who is imagining monsters in his closet (an imagined fear that will suddenly materialize in the third act). The film doesn’t agonizingly scrutinize these characters’ personal anxieties be they real or imagined, instead it clearly states them as fact and we are left with domestic unrest and personal conflict. Juxtaposed to the Trenton’s lives are the Cambers that consist of Joe, a drunken abusive mechanic, his downtrodden wife Charity and their son Brett who’s best friend is the 200 pound St. Bernard from the opening scene, named Cujo.

Stephen King excels at exploring the dark side of American institutions such as the intricacies of the family unit, which becomes the focal point and heart of the story of Cujo.

King is very good at cleverly turning normalcy into pure malevolence: the high school prom becomes a nightmarish hell on earth in Carrie, America’s love affair with the automobile proves deadly in Christine, sinister secrecy in small town America is examined in ‘Salem’s Lot and here the family pet (in this case the beloved dog) becomes a monstrous manifestation of the breakdown of domestic bliss.

As Cujo’s condition worsens (his rabies taking hold of him physically and psychologically causing him to descend into a vortex of sadistic horrors), the Trenton family unit suffers and there is a shift in the Camber household: Vic finds out about Donna’s affair and Charity decides to pack up and leave Joe. Soon enough, with the help of smooth taut writing which sets up circumstances that move our tale forward ever so effortlessly, we reach an intense climactic showdown between a mother trapped inside her broken down Pinto trying to protect her severely dehydrated son and an angry rabid canine foaming at the mouth waiting outside; hell bent on killing them both. Here the classic archetypal story telling device of the adulterous woman being left out in the storm is played out in a viciously violent blood soaked finale. Dee Wallace truly delivers what simply is a tour de force role written for a woman and this film magnificently showcases her great talents as an actress.

Cujo boasts many sublime moments both in the realm of action packed horror and in subliminal metaphoric subtleties: Donna roaring with rage after she shatters the glass window of her car trying desperately to get her son out to safety is a moment of primal scream catharsis, the murderous crazed bloodied dog frantically pushing at the busted up Pinto tearing off the door handles and smashing his mighty snout through a slight gap in the window cements a truly harrowing experience as well as an unstoppable force of a new kind of movie monster, the tortured marriage as seen through the innocent eyes of an angelic Danny Pintauro as Tad is so nuanced and telling, the death of Joe Camber as he realizes his world has crumbled to dust when faced with a menacing rabid dog is frenzied and somewhat perversely satisfying and the last moment of Cujo’s sanity as he tilts his head toward his friend Brett before disappearing into the foreboding Maine fog is heartbreaking – here the tragic dog comes to be lost in confusion and detached from clarity and director Lewis Teague and choice cinematographer Jan De Bont present this descent into madness with poetic precision and elegance.

Something the horror film does wonderfully is force us to question the nature of what we have or have considered to be safe, normal and/or comfortable. For example, the tenderness and innocuous warmth of the elderly is turned grotesque and monstrous in such films as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte, Rosemary’s Baby and The Nanny and children who are supposed to be the epitome of innocence and purity suddenly turn sinister in The Bad Seed, The Innocents, Who Can Kill A Child? and The Village of the Damned. Dogs are very similar. They have always been seen as domestic earth angels who love their human friends – but the horror film shifts that, and in the case of CUJO it really brings the eco-horror movie home. It is not about social injustices, it is not about nature and the order and disorder of nature, it is about people and it is essentially about domestic unrest. Not only does CUJO present us with one of the most harrowing siege-situations ever put to screen in its final act, but Dee Wallace’s character is so expertly written and performed that the film is one of the most successful “women left out in the storm” pictures, but told through the eco-horror mould. CUJO examines class resentment, domesticity, marriage, the unity of the family and delivers the “three days of judgement” with a foaming and bloody realization. The crazed rabid dog is the manifestation of the breakdown of the American family and the throwaway nihilistic ideals of family values. Ultimately CUJO employs the fundamentals of Jezebel and the dragon with adultery hanging over like a pendulous cloud. King wrote an amazing monologue for Donna which I call the “White Noise” soliloquy where Donna explains to Vic why it is that she has had an affair. Screenwriter Lauren Currier kept in there, but third round writer Don Carlos Dunaway in correspondence with Lewis Teague decided not to use it, that it would slow the film down. I spoke to Dee about this as a sidenote in our lengthy conversations about THE HOWLING for which I am writing a book on for Centipede Press as part of their Studies in the Horror Film series and I asked her if what she thought of this cut. And what she said not only surprised me, but it made me understand that there are excellent actors out there (like Dee) that care more about the story at hand rather than simply having more to do or say in a film.

She said:

Donna’s loneliness and emptiness comes from within and I would hope that as an actress I conveyed these feelings from the first time we see her. To have a lengthy monologue about reasons as to why she had this affair would be redundant. I always thought that Donna would hide the reasoning behind why it happened because she herself can’t truly articulate it. And also, sometimes people have affairs just for the enjoyment of sex outside their partnerships. I get that. And I hoped the audience understood that Donna was not a so-called perfect wife and mother, that she was very human and with very human needs as well as flaws.

Originally, Stephen King’s draft of the screenplay opened with the Trentons going through a slide show where the supposedly happy all-American family scan through snapshots of their mediocrity, however follow up screenwriter Lauren Currier decided that the film should introduce the family already besieged with imagined fears, hence establishing Tad’s personal monster in the closet. She was also adamant that the first word of dialogue spoken (or in this case screamed) was “Mommy!” which is incredibly important thematically, as the entire film would become an exercise in what a mother has to do in order to protect her child. The tragedy of the story is that Cujo doesn’t want to be a bad dog at all. In fact, the closing lines of the novel prove this.

Karl Lewis Miller was the dog trainer on CUJO. He and his wife and a team of three others worked with a number of St. Bernards who were all rescue dogs and all of whom excelled in particular areas of expertise. One dog was good at jumping, another great at looking ferocious and so forth. Miller had also worked on other incredible films such as WHITE DOG, ZOLTAN HOUND OF DRACULA and one of my personal favorites THE PACK. I recently interviewed the star of THE PACK Hope Alexander-Willis and she told me some beautiful stories regarding Karl who basically lived for his dogs. That interview will appear in Fangoria sometime in the future. Sadly Karl died some years ago after a long battle with alcoholism, but his animal welfare society and his amazing work for the protection of dogs, cats and other critters goes on. You’ll find that most animal trainers are also devoted animal activists such as the late great Moe Di Sesso who worked with the rats on WILLARD and BEN, trained Sandy the dog in ANNIE and many more, the late Frank Inn and Juanita Heard who were the devoted human parents to Higgins the dog who played Benji and then of course Higgin’s daughter Benjean who would go on to play Benji in follow up movies, as well as the living Susan Backlinie who was of course Chrissie (the first to get chomped by the shark in JAWS) and who had worked on classic eco-horror films such as DAY OF THE ANIMALS. Karl Lewis Miller’s work in CUJO is absolutely outstanding and with the help of great editing, masterful cinematography from Jan de Bont, puppetry and mechanical dog heads and the like, the animal action in this film is top class.

I think I’ve said enough about CUJO, and if you want to hear more about it, you can grab my book on ecological horror movies, I have a few for sale tonight. But right now, let’s all get comfortable, celebrate this incredible film about a woman and enjoy the sheer brilliance of CUJO!