The Movie Waffler New to Netflix - CUJO | The Movie Waffler

New to Netflix - CUJO

cujo review
A mother and child are menaced by a rabid St. Bernard.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Lewis Teague

Starring: Dee Wallace, Daniel Hugh Kelly, Danny Pintauro, Christopher Stone, Ed Lauter, Jerry Hardin

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There's something rotten in the state of Maine in director Lewis Teague's 1983 adaptation of Stephen King's downbeat 1981 novel, Cujo. Stripping the novel of its more fantastical elements, Teague's film plays like a melancholy state of the nation address, a gritty rejoinder to the "we've never had it so good" delusions of the Reagan era. Combining familial strife with the 'animal attacks' genre, it's the sort of movie you imagine Spielberg might have found himself making in this period had his shark movie flopped.

cujo review

The original release poster for Cujo featured the movie's title scrawled in blood on a picket fence in need of a new coat of paint. A fitting, if a tad on the nose, graphic representation of a film that pulls back the curtains to reveal the morass infecting suburbia in a nation that ignored Jimmy Carter's 'Crisis of Confidence' warning in favour of commercial indulgence.

The film's anti-heroine is Donna (Dee Wallace), an unhappy wife engaged in an affair with 'the local stud', Steve (Christopher Stone). This is no glamorous affair of the type found in the novels of Harold Robbins or Jackie Collins. It plays out not in plush hotel rooms but in Steve's dingy bedsit and in gropey moments stolen in Donna's kitchen, Steve manhandling Donna next to that great symbol of American indulgence, the giant refrigerator. For Donna, the affair is merely a way to ignore her failing marriage to successful advertising executive Vic (Daniel Hugh-Kelly), who regularly leaves his wife alone while he spends time in the city, devising ways to sell cereal to America.

cujo review

Vic's career hits trouble when the cereal he sells with the tagline "Nope, nothing wrong here" causes consumers to fall ill. Seems Vic is as deluded regarding the nutritional value of his products as he is blind to the state of his marriage. The sickness felt by those who have eaten the cereal is indicative of the malaise that appears to infect humans, animals and automobiles in the film. The titular mutt is a St. Bernard who becomes a bloodthirsty hellhound when he contracts rabies after being bitten by a bat. Donna and Steve's cars keep breaking down, needing to be repaired by local grease monkey Joe (Ed Lauter). All three elements will combine to lead us to the movie's second half, an extended set-piece in which Donna and her young son Tad (Danny Pintauro) are trapped in her broken down car at Joe's home, with a hungry Cujo doing his best to invade the safety of the vehicle.

Cujo might be the most under-rated of King adaptations, and had it been released at the end of the decade - where it would have fitted in neatly with movies like Blue Velvet and River's Edge, which similarly examine the hidden horrors of small town America - it likely would have fared better with audiences and critics. A year after E.T., Wallace is excellent in a role that was rare for the time (and indeed still is today), a woman betraying her marital vows who is yet the closest the film has to a hero. The movie doesn't judge Donna for her infidelity, rather she judges herself. When her husband discovers the affair, he simply asks "Yes or no?", the full question having lingered unasked for some time. Donna's subsequent reply can be interpreted various ways, and such ambiguity is testament to the film's refusal to spoon feed its audience. Cujo doesn't give easy answers to its characters' morality. Hell, it doesn't even ask easy questions.

cujo review

When the movie morphs from melancholy marital drama to grindhouse woman versus nature thriller, Teague, cinematographer Jan de Bont and editor Neil Travis put together a rare extended set-piece (it's roughly half the movie's runtime) that doesn't outstay its welcome, and unlike the interchangeable action climaxes of so many modern blockbusters, it integrates it character dynamics into the action. You get the sense Donna feels she has brought on the punishment inflicted by the rabid dog, but her child is an innocent party in all this, and she'll do all in her power to keep him safe. There are no "Get away from her you bitch!" moments here, simply a gruelling battle between a woman in the wrong place at the wrong time and an animal who is itself a victim of cruel circumstance. Like Sam Fuller's White Dog (released the previous year), Cujo takes a loveable pooch and makes it the snarling representation of a country too dazzled by commercial distractions to acknowledge its problems. Nope, nothing wrong here.

Cujo is on Netflix UK/ROI now.