(By Scott Starr) Cujo, directed by Lewis Teague, (Cat’s Eye), centers around the Trentons, a family of three who are cast into turmoil when a monster begins disrupting their way of life. The question is, is the monster a man or a beast? For most viewers, the answer will be obvious. The film’s focus revolves around Donna Trenton, played by scream queen Dee Wallace, and her son Tad, played by Danny Pintauro who are trapped and attacked within the confines of a 1978 Ford Pinto by the title character who is one of the grisliest looking canines you’ve ever seen...
...But is Cujo the true villain here, or is he merely a symbol for a different sort of animal? One who walks on two legs and goes by the name of Steve Kemp, played by actor Christopher Stone of The Howling fame. Kemp is the “friend” and handyman of Donna’s husband Vic Trenton, played by Daniel Hugh Kelly. In a bit of irony, (possibly intentional), Kemp’s initials happen to be the same as those of the author of Cujo, Stephen King. On the surface, Kemp comes across as a likeable guy. He plays tennis with Vic and refinishes furniture for Vic’s family. Underneath that loveable exterior though lies a man whose intentions are anything but respectable. Kemp has eyes for Vic’s wife, and unfortunately for Vic, he’s succeeding in his efforts.
Also unfortunate for Vic is the fact that his wife Donna is not entirely innocent when it comes to Kemp’s advances. She’s been carrying on an affair with Kemp for some time, but shame and guilt are swiftly catching up with her. In a pivotal moment, Donna tells Kemp she can no longer see him. Her eyes have been opened to the fact that her husband is one of a kind and her behavior has been less than admirable.
Throughout all of this, young Tad has been grappling with the fear that something lives in his closet. Vic composes a mantra to read with Tad each night before bed that banishes all monsters from Tad’s room. Tad takes some assurance in Vic’s words, but even chants can’t dispel the tension he ultimately senses within the household.
Nearly half of the film is devoted to the affair between Donna and Kemp and its effects on the Trenton family. Donna eventually reveals the affair to her husband just before he leaves on a ten-day business trip to try and salvage an ad campaign he developed for a breakfast cereal that is suddenly making children ill. Only after all of this do we get to the arrival of Donna and Tad at the Camber farm where Cujo lives.
It is at the Camber farm where Donna does her penance. The Ford Pinto she drives has been on the fritz and Camber is a reputable mechanic who can possibly fix it. Unbeknownst to Donna, Camber is already dead, killed by his beloved pet dog Cujo who was recently bitten by a bat that carried rabies. Cujo is now infected with the disease and hungry for human flesh. In short, Donna has just arrived at a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere with no cell phone, no dignity, and no husband. Her broken down car and five-year-old kid are all she has left. It is here that Donna will face her demons.
There are similarities to be noted between the Saint Bernard Cujo and Donna’s lover Steve Kemp. Both are big and burly. Kemp’s hair appears shaggy and he wears a beard that covers half his face. Both can also be given to violence. At one point in the film, Kemp attacks Donna in a lover’s rage, despondent at her seemingly abrupt rejection of him. Kemp grabs hold of Donna’s upper thigh in an attempt to force her into compliance, but Donna fights back and manages to escape his prying paws. Later, in one of Cujo’s attacks against Donna, Cujo violates this same thigh, leaving his mark upon Donna’s body. At another point in the film, Kemp vandalizes Vic and Donna’s marriage bed, enraged with passion and hell bent on vengeance.
Cujo, on the other hand, is no lover of Donna and her Tad, but he is intent on destroying them. He is out of his mind with disease and entirely representative of Kemp’s madness and Donna’s bad conscious. Cujo wages a relentless campaign of attacks against Donna and Tad, imprisoning them in the Pinto both day and night. Food and water are scarce commodities of which mother and son are in desperate need. Despite the long wait, viewers are rewarded for their patience with tense and bloody action that doesn’t disappoint. Time and again, Cujo hammers the Pinto like a battering ram, reducing it to a blood smeared shell of shattered glass and dented steel. When all hope appears lost for the Trenton’s, a patrol car arrives at the Camber farm. A deputy has been sent at the request of Donna’s husband who has grown alarmed and returned from his trip early because Donna hasn’t answered his calls. As the deputy approaches the Pinto, he is confronted by Cujo and ultimately mauled. In a final showdown, Donna succeeds in killing the dog with a baseball bat. When she returns to her car, she finds that Tad has stopped breathing. The lack of water, fear, and intense summer heat have all but killed him. With Tad in arms, Donna races up the front porch of the farmhouse and through the front door where she seeks to revive her son upon the kitchen table. After administering mouth-to- mouth resuscitation, Tad returns to breathing. All seems successful until Cujo bursts through the window in a final attempt to claim his victims. The moment is reminiscent of Kemp’s final attack upon Donna. But just as then, Donna retaliates, firing the deputy’s gun which she previously retrieved. Cujo falls to the floor, slain once and for all. It is only after this that Donna’s husband arrives and the family is peacefully reunited.
For many horror fans, Cujo will take too long to reach its more frightful parts. While I sympathize and partially agree with this assessment, one must try and understand the film’s intent. Cujo attempts to show that violence often has its origins in things beyond man’s control. Whether man or beast, there are events that can push us all into madness. For Cujo, it’s a bite on the nose. For Vic, it’s an ad campaign gone horribly wrong. For Tad, it’s a series of nightmares about the boogeyman, and for Steve it’s the rejection of a lover. Lastly, for Donna, it’s a car that breaks down at the worst possible moment. These situations can be small or large, but given the right place and right time, they are all that is necessary to send us spiraling out of control.
The film also serves as a meditation on suffering and repentance. Perhaps we unwittingly draw bad predicaments upon ourselves, hoping to be set free from sins that can only be absolved through punishment. Did Donna drive her car to the Cambers, unconsciously knowing it would break down? Did some part of her purposely bring her to this day of terrible judgment? Whatever the case may be, Cujo seeks to show us that bad choices and bad circumstances can combine into malevolent forces that will shake us to our core.
By Scott Starr
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