Stephen King novels are usually something like a million pages long, but somehow screenwriters are able to whittle them down into movies that, give or take a Shining, are under two hours. I’m not a fan of King’s longwinded, meandering writing, but generally the basic stories are pretty damn good at their essence, which is why the adaptations typically work. And I’m not just talking about The Shawshank Redemption and The Dead Zone; even nonsense like Children of the Corn and The Lawnmower Man are relatively entertaining.
Cujo falls somewhere in the relatively entertaining range, a scary-enough horror flick that stars Dee Wallace (pre-Stone), the genre’s most underrated Scream Queen, as an adulteress whose sins of the flesh reign down instant karma in the form of a snarling, foaming Saint Bernard named Cujo.
The film carefully constructs a series of escalating real-life tragedies that rend at the fabric of Dee’s relationship with her husband, Daniel Hugh Kelly, the world’s most prolific character actor that absolutely no one recognizes. Apparently, Daniel borrowed David Hasselhoff’s Knight Rider haircut for the shoot, and it works out quite nicely for him as he drives around the Maine countryside in a convertible Jaguar. Not only does poor Daniel discover his wife’s infidelity but he does so on the eve of losing a major advertising account with a cereal company because of the Red #5 color additive scare.
Daniel leaves town to put out fires with the cereal manufacture while Dee drives the family’s Ford Pinto to the home of white trash mechanic Joe Camber (recognizable character actor Ed Lauter). Dee and her son (Danny Pintauro) arrive at the ramshackle abode to find it overtaken by the puss-oozing family dog. Now, it would be pretty terrifying to be trapped in a car with a rabid Saint Bernard circling, but when that car is a Ford Pinto, it’s very scary.
Building the tension by focusing on the dissolving relationship is a nice idea, but the dog doesn’t kill anybody until we’re nearly forty minutes into the film. The dog doesn’t really kill that many people anyway, he mostly just bleeds and froths and snarls and barks, although he does take a big hunk out of Dee’s leg. The scariest thing about the movie is that for the forty minutes they are trapped in the Ford Pinto, the little kid in the car shrieks at the top of his lungs.
Cujo is a lot of fun to watch -- in fact, it’s beautifully shot by Jan de Bont, who isn’t much of a director, but a hell of a photographer -- but it could have used more actual scares, or at least some gore.
But, at least it’s no Thinner.