Combustible Celluloid
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With: Dee Wallace, Danny Pintauro, Daniel Hugh-Kelly, Christopher Stone, Ed Lauter, Kaiulani Lee, Billy Jacoby, Mills Watson, Sandy Ward, Jerry Hardin, Merritt Olsen, Arthur Rosenberg, Terry Donovan-Smith, Robert Elross, Robert Behling
Written by: Don Carlos Dunaway, Lauren Currier, based on a novel by Stephen King
Directed by: Lewis Teague
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 93
Date: 08/10/1983

Cujo (1983)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Bad Dog

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Lewis Teague's Cujo came out in a fever pitch of Stephen King movies, and probably contributed to the fallacy that movies based on Stephen King books are no good. Oddly, Cujo actually does look pretty good today. It has two major things going for it: it contains an enormous -- perhaps even ridiculous -- amount of character development, and it contains no supernatural elements at all.

Dee Wallace, hot from having appeared in the previous year's hit E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, stars as Donna Trenton, a mom in a small town. Her husband Vic (Daniel Hugh Kelly) is an advertiser, working on a troubled breakfast cereal campaign. Their son Tad (Danny Pintauro) thinks he has monsters in his closet. His dad tells him, helpfully -- and prophetically -- that there are no such things.

Donna, meanwhile, is having a hot, sleazy affair with the local handyman, Steve Kemp (Christopher Stone). (Creepily, these two fell in love in real life and later married.) And Vic is trying to get an old Pinto up and running again, taking it out to a hillbilly mechanic, Joe Camber (Ed Lauter), who lives in a run-down farmhouse. Joe's wife (Kaiulani Lee) has won the lottery and wishes to use her winnings to take a trip to visit her sister, bringing their son Brett (Billy Jacoby) with her.

That just leaves Brett's dog, the big St. Bernard, Cujo. During the movie's opening credits, Cujo chases a rabbit, sticks his nose into a hole and gets bit by a bat. And that's all. He gets rabies. Not zombie rabies or vampire rabies, just regular rabies. He slowly goes crazy, his fur becomes matted with dirt and blood, and begins charging at anything that moves.

Basically, the long setup is so that everyone leaves town and the hillbilly mechanic gets killed, leaving only Mom and Tad, stuck in the broken-down Pinto, stalked by the crazy Cujo. This sequence begins about halfway through the film and is pretty tough to watch, given the nature of the child in jeopardy (he keeps going into shock), as well as the sheer, screaming terror of the mother.

Director Teague handles this sequence with skill, breaking it up with snippets of the husband's breakfast cereal meetings, and using space and rhythm well. He stoops to some ludicrous touches during the climax, and horror fans may wonder why the movie goes into such great detail about breakfast cereal and extramarital affairs, but overall Cujo is a decent minor entry in King's cinematic oeuvre.

Olive Films has released a new Blu-ray edition, though a 25th anniversary edition was already released a few years back. The new one features a brand-new commentary track by director Teague, hosted by Jeff McKay.

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