Cujo is a big, playful St. Bernard who, one sunny day, chases after a rabbit in a field and into a hole in the ground that leads to a small cave full of bats. When he sticks his head through the hole and barks, he disturbs the bats and one of them lands on his snout and bites him. Elsewhere that night, Vic and Donna Trenton have to convince their young son, Tad, that there's no monster hiding in his bedroom closet, but the boy remains steadfast in his beliefs. This is the least of the family's worries: Vic and Donna's marriage is slowly but surely beginning to crumble, and Donna has been having an affair with Steve Kemp, a local carpenter and repairman. Having trouble with his car, Vic is told to take to Joe Camber's house out in the country and when the family drives out there, they meet Camber, his son, Brett, and his wife, Charity, as well as Cujo, who happens to be their pet. Soon, Donna decides to break off the affair with Kemp, but his possessive and crazed mindset makes him unwilling to comply, and when they have an argument about it on the street, Vic drives by and sees them together. It doesn't take long for him to figure out what's going on, especially after he finds Kemp at their house and sees the aftermath of an argument the two of them had, and before they can work things out, he has to go out of town on a business trip to deal with a recent scandal involving an advertising campaign of his. He's also unable to fix their malfunctioning Ford Pinto before he leaves and tells Donna that she'll have to take it out to Camber's. At the same time, the Camber family, unaware that Cujo has contracted rabies from the bat bite and is beginning to succumb to it, wins $5,000 in the state lottery and, after buying an engine horse for husband, Charity uses it as an excuse to take Brett and go visit her sister in Connecticut; in reality, she's leaving Camber, who's verbally, and possibly physically, abusive towards them. Before long, Cujo goes completely mad and attacks and kills Camber's friend and neighbor, Garry, and does the same to Camber immediately afterward. Donna and Tad arrive at the Camber household so he can repair their Pinto but they're ambushed by Cujo, who traps them in the car, and when it dies completely, they have no choice but to take shelter inside and wait for help. Cujo keeps them trapped inside the car for several days, relentlessly attacking them whenever they try to escape and whenever loud noises such as a ringing phone enrage him further, but when the heat from the sun threatens to cause Tad to die from dehydration and heatstroke, Donna realizes that she must make a stand and do whatever she can to save her son.
Dee Wallace was somebody made a career out of playing housewives and mothers, often in horror films or, at the very least, in movies with fantastical elements, like E.T., and her role as Donna Trenton here has to be her most signature one, as it combines both of them. Okay, she's not the model housewife, as she's revealed to be cheating on her husband, but she remains very sympathetic and likable, regardless. For whatever reason, her marriage with Vic doesn't have the spark that it used to have and, in her frustration and boredom, she turns to Steve Kemp, whom she describes as the local stud of the neighborhood. After a while, she realizes what she has and that it'd be foolish to jeopardize the way she has, so she decides to cut the affair off... unfortunately, Kemp isn't willing to give her up, and when he shows up at her house and tries to make a move on her, the aftermath of their struggle confirms for Vic what he'd been suspecting. Donna was hoping that with the affair now over, she could begin repairing her marriage, but now that Vic knows for sure about it, their future is uncertain when he leaves on his business trip. Soon, though, that becomes the least of her worries, when she and little Tad become trapped in their broken down Pinto by the rabid Cujo. While very frightened, as anybody would be, Donna's maternal instinct comes to the forefront here and she does whatever she can to keep terrified son calm, give him what he needs, and try to find a way to get help, even if it means getting out of the car and risk getting mauled. Over the course of the film's latter half, she does take quite a licking from Cujo, particularly during one moment where he manages to push her down into the front seat and nearly rip her to pieces, badly biting her on her left thigh (I used to think she should've been starting to get rabies herself after that but, looking it up, it seems like it takes anywhere from several days for a few months for the symptoms to begin after infection), and she's also pushed far past her breaking point from the combination of the situation, the punishing heat, and Tad's hysteria. As their time in the car wears on, Tad begins to display symptoms of dehydration and heatstroke and when he falls unconscious at one point, Donna's drive to save her son prompts her to face off with Cujo and apparently kill him, smash through the car's back window to get Tad, and head into the Camber house in order to revive him. While Wallace's performance throughout is excellent, the part where she's giving Tad mouth-to-mouth and she begins to cry while doing so when he doesn't respond and it looks like he's gone always gets me, as she sounds genuinely heartbroken. Of course, Tad does come to, but when Cujo bursts through the window for one last attack, Donna shoots him dead and, afterward, is reunited with Vic. Whether or not their marriage is still salvageable at this point really doesn't matter; Donna saved her son and they've both survived this nightmarish ordeal.
When he goes with Donna to the Cambers' house in order to get the Pinto fixed and they're attacked by Cujo, who he met when they went out there the first time, Tad is not only hysterical and scared out of his mind but he thinks that Cujo is the monster that was in his closet. And like I said, it's truly amazing how, in spite of all the crying, screaming, and whimpering that Tad does, he never gets annoying but rather, believably comes across as a frightened kid who's having to deal with the threat of this big, ferocious dog trying to get into the car to kill them and has to watch as his mother is nearly mauled to death by him at one point. (By all accounts, Pintauro was just as impressive off-camera, as he understood it was all fake and could go from being terrified to back normal in an instant.) Yeah, his constant whimpering for his father at one point causes Donna to lose it and scream, "ALRIGHT, I'LL GET YOUR DADDY!", but it's clear that she's simply at her wit's end from everything and I know a lot of parents have sympathized with her. In fact, when he becomes so dehydrated that he's threatening to die, he provides Donna with the motivation she needs to get out of the car and ultimately face and kill Cujo. I'm well aware that in the book, Tad dies, but I'm glad that they let him live here, as I think it would've felt ungodly cruel, unfair, and rather mean-spirited after everything he and his mother have been through. A number of Stephen King stories have had that kind of ending and their movie adaptations have kept it, like in The Dead Zone, The Green Mile, and especially Pet Sematary, and in other cases, like The Mist, have added to it, but in this instance, I don't think it was needed and even King himself has said that he prefers the movie's ending to that of his own book.
Just as likable and sympathetic as Donna is her husband, Vic (Daniel Hugh-Kelly). He comes across as a really loving father to Tad, doing what he can to make him understand that there are no such things as monsters and going as far as to recite some made up words that meant to keep them out of his bedroom, and as good a husband to Donna as he can be, given the circumstances. It doesn't take him long to sense that their marriage is in trouble and he wants to do whatever is possible to salvage it, at one point suggesting that maybe they should try to have another child (which is never good way to go about it), but he's shocked to discover Donna's affair. He begins to have suspicions when he catches a glimpse of Donna and Steve Kemp having an argument by her car out on the street and gives her a chance to confess when she comes home later that day but, ultimately, it takes a massive argument between her and Kemp at their house to finally make her do so. I like the way they had Vic handle this confirmation: rather than getting angry and screaming at her, you don't see them speak until he's having to leave on his business trip and even then, it's very civil and adult. When she tries to tell him that the affair is over and that she can't pretend like it didn't happen, he tells, "I can't make like it never happened either, Donna. So, I don't know what I'm going to do. I don't know." Speaking of his business trip, Vic works as an advertising man and came up with a popular campaign for a cereal line, but then, a massive misunderstanding about one of the cereals causes a scandal that threatens the whole thing: parents thought their kids were peeing blood when it was actually due to red dye from the cereal. Needless to say, he's pretty upset about this, though not nearly as much as his partner, Roger, and when they lose an important account as a result of the scandal, Vic and Roger head out of town to try to come up with a new campaign.
When you first see her when the Trentons arrive out at the house to meet Joe for the first time, Charity (Kaiulani Lee), Joe's wife, has that look and air of somebody who's stuck in an unhappy and abusive marriage, with her rather demure, quiet way of talking to Donna and reticent posture. I have a feeling that she was hoping her winning the lottery and getting Joe the engine horse would bring him around and make him appreciate her more but, when it doesn't, she decides to take Brett with her to Connecticut. She says that they're going to visit her sister there but, as she's seen putting some family albums in the suitcase and trying to make sure Joe doesn't see them, it becomes obvious that she's planning to leave him. Charity is also reluctant to let Brett tell Joe that there's something wrong with Cujo, as she feels he would use that as an excuse to keep them from leaving, but I also wonder if she stopped him because she was hoping that Cujo would possibly kill him. She has to know that Brett's description of what's going on with him means that he's going rabid and, as payback for the stuff he did to her, she might've wanted Joe to be unaware of it and less likely to defend himself when Cujo finally did go mad. There's not much to say about Brett (Billy Jacoby), other than he loves Cujo as much as his father and is really alarmed when he encounters him in the fog early one morning and sees how badly he's deteriorating. I'm not sure whether he knows that he and his mother are actually leaving his father but he's pretty aware of the problems they've been happy, as he witnesses their arguments and doesn't question what his mother tells him will happen if he mentions what's wrong with Cujo, going along with her plan for him to casually ask Joe if he's feeding the dog when he calls him that night.
None of the other actors in the film have major parts in the story but some of them are worth mentioning, like Vic's friend and advertising partner, Roger (Arthur Rosenberg), who's far more upset about the scandal that erupts around their campaign than Vic and is furious when they lose an important account as a result. While on the business trip to come up with a new one, he becomes exasperated with Vic's being distracted from the job at hand and is no happier when he tells him that he's going home. In a comic moment, he thinks he knows what Vic's problem is, which is that he feels he's lost his touch when it comes to coming up with new ad campaigns, and when he learns about Donna's affair and that Vic hasn't been able to get ahold of her for the past two days, he dumbly says, "Look, maybe she's just spending the night with a friend. God, I can't believe I said that!" He tries to talk Vic out of leaving but it doesn't work and lord knows how he handled the situation after he did leave. You also have Detective Masen (Jerry Hardin), who puts out an APB on Steve Kemp after he trashes the Trenton house, which ultimately results in him getting picked up, and Sheriff Bannerman (Sandy Ward), who heads out to see if Donna and Tad are at the Camber house when Vic mentions that might be where their missing car is. While Bannerman himself is unable to do anything to help them, as he's attacked and killed by Cujo as soon as he arrives, despite putting up a pretty good fight, his losing his pistol gives Donna the weapon she uses to finally kill the crazed dog. Despite being in only a couple of scenes, elderly mailman Meara (Robert Elross) is significant in that he's the one who suggests to Vic that he takes his car up to Joe Camber's, telling him, "He'll do a real good job and he won't rob you blind." He also comes very close to getting attacked by Cujo as well at one point, as he was just about to head out to the Camber house to deliver some mail but is reminded by a guy at the post office that he's supposed to hold all mail while the Cambers are out of town. (The film tries to make this moment out as Donna and Tad unknowingly losing any potential help from him but, seriously, what could he have done against Cujo?) And finally, you have the "Professor" (Merritt Olsen), the guy at the center of Vic's advertising campaign for Sharp Cereals who tells kids that their different brands are all good and healthy, his slogan being to take a bite and say, "Nope, nothing wrong here." This line comes into play two more times in the film in an ironic way: you see him in the background and hear that line in the scene where you get your first hint that there's something off about Donna and Vic's marriage, and it's used sarcastically by a couple of newscasters when false reports of hemorrhaging caused by the cereals crop up, much to Vic's irritation.
With the film's look, we again have a low-budget horror movie that's shot in that very soft, bright type of cinematography, where the lights often have a visible halo around them and the sunlight flares on the edges of the screen. However, it looks much crisper and more polished, akin to films like Carrie and The Howling, than a lot of the slasher movies filmed the same way around that time, probably because, even at just $5 million, it had a much bigger budget than any of them ever did. In short, it's a very nice-looking movie, and it helps that the cinematographer was Jan De Bont, who would go on to direct movies like Speed and Twister. His photography not only gives the movie itself an appealing look but it also shows off the beauty of the filming locations, which were mostly in California although, like the novel and most of King's books, the film is set in Maine, in the fictional town of Castle Rock. Some of the most appealing shots are of the Trenton house, which sets up on this hill overlooking the ocean, as well as the nearby town and makes for some very picturesque images, and the same goes for shots of the landscapes leading to and around the Camber house out in the country, with these big, open fields and rolling hills. One of the loveliest shots in the entire movie is of the Pinto sitting in the middle of the Camber yard, with a golden sunset in the background, and Cujo bedding down in the foreground. Finally, you have that unforgettable scene between Brett and Cujo out in the fog, which looks like something out of a Gothic horror film or, at the very least, a fairy tale (it's a lot like something you'd see in a Tim Burton movie), and is well shot by De Bont, like everything else. It was also something the filmmakers had to create themselves, using a naval fog machine, and was so convincing that the local fire department thought the woods were burning!
The interior of the various houses and sets in the film are also worth mentioning, not just because they look good but also because they best represent the two vastly different worlds of the upper class town and the blue-collar, working class people out in the country. The Trenton house, as you've seen, is a very nice, luxurious place and is similarly appealing on the inside, being completely spotless, with a good-looking kitchen and some appealing bedrooms for Tad, Donna, and Vic. You also get a look inside Steve Kemp's house, which is not quite as nice as the Trentons' house (you only see one room of it, though) but is still pretty fair and middle-class, unlike the houses out in the country. Being a blue-collar family, the Cambers' home is a pretty simple farmhouse, with an okay-looking interior, especially when you see Charity's bedroom in one scene, a quaint yard, complete with a tire swing on a tree, a shed where an old car and parts are kept, and a barn where Joe does a lot of his work, and it's out in the middle of that lovely landscape I described and showed up above. No matter how low class their house is, though, it's a mansion compared to Garry Pervier's rundown, junkyard of a place, the front yard of which is full of trash and empty beer bottles and cans, and the inside is no better, as it's obvious that he's something of a hoarder and the place is just ugly and messy (I think we've all known somebody with a home like that). One last place that I'm sure was a set is the small cave that Cujo sticks his head in at the beginning and is where he gets bit by a rabid bat. It's clearly artificial in the way it looks and is designed but it gets the job done and, like the scene in the fog, adds to the kind of fairy tale quality the film has.
Going back to Jan De Bont, he and Lewis Teague further elevated this movie above your average killer animal horror flick with some very impressive camerawork and use of editing. There are a number of notably creative angles, pans, and movements throughout the film, from smooth pans around the Trenton house when it's first established, low angles on Cujo and Donna in the car, and other angles and push-ins that feel like Cujo's POV (sometimes, as in the moment where he first attacks Donna and Tad, they turn out to be a trick), to high angles on scenes such as when Gary Pervier prepares to arm himself and gets attacked, impressive crane and dolly shots showing the car in the background and coming around and zooming into Cujo's face and shots that frame something in the foreground while the action is taking place in the back, like when you see the phone in the Camber house while Cujo is attacking the car outside. Among the most impressive of these are when something as simple as Tad trying to get into bed as fast as he can once he turns the light out is made much more special by building a longer than normal version of the bedroom set and shooting Danny Pintauro from above in a way in which the camera goes upside down when he runs beneath it. You also have a moment where the camera pushes into the dining room window to show Donna, Tad, and Vic eating at the table but separated by the bars on the glass, with Tad ending up alone in the frame at the end of it, which could signify the distance that's opened between the parents and that Tad is caught right in the middle. The most memorable one by far is when, after Donna's just barely managed to fight Cujo off and push him out of the car, the does a continuous 360 pan from her to Tad and back, getting faster and faster until it becomes a complete blur, showing the chaos and madness they've been plunged into (it's kind of similar to how the camera swirls around in front of Henry Fonda after he's been wrongly imprisoned in Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man). The way that cuts to Vic suddenly jolting up in bed after having a nightmare is an example of the well-employed editing here, as it shows how he has an unshakable feeling that something's wrong, and the same goes for the final standoff with Cujo in the house, which is shot in slow-motion, akin to how they say things seem when you're caught up in something frightening and dangerous. Plus, the way the attack scenes are edited is very skillful, it gives them a lot of energy and makes them very frantic but not so much that they become incomprehensible, which tends to happen nowadays.
Speaking of Hitchcock, Cujo is very similar to The Birds in how it starts out as one type of movie and gradually evolves into a horror film. In spite of the title materializing out of a swirling pool of blood, accompanied by some very menacing music, the first sequence feels like you're watching a Disney movie, as you see a cute little rabbit come out of a hole and Cujo is introduced by playfully chasing him across a field, all while whimsical, sweet music plays. It's only when he's bit by one of the screeching bats inside that cave that you have your first hint of what's going to happen and even then, it happens gradually. Following that, the film's entire first half goes at a leisurely pace and spends its time developing the main characters, showing how Donna and Vic deal with their son thinking there are monsters in his bedroom closet, that their marriage is crumbling, and that Donna is dealing with the consequences of having an affair and Vic finding out. And just like how The Birds juxtaposes Melanie Daniels and Mitch Brenner's evolving relationship with the ever-growing threat of the birds, the domestic drama we have going on here is inter-cut with scenes where we see that Cujo's health and mental stability are deteriorating as the rabies progresses, leading to his finally snapping and killing Gary Pervier and Joe Camber. Right after that is when Donna and Tad drive the Pinto to the Camber house and are attacked and from then on, the movie is an absolute marathon of tension and terror, as they fight to survive. What's more, the majority of the second half taking place inside the cramped confines of the car is very Hitchcockian in and of itself, as he often set films in a confined space, with the most comparable example being Lifeboat, and in terms of Stephen King adaptations, it also anticipated what Rob Reiner would later do in Misery.
Cujo himself is something of a very sad and tragic character because you can tell that he is a good dog. Like most St. Bernards, despite his large and imposing size, he's very lovable and playful, chasing after the little rabbit in the beginning in a non-threatening manner and strolling up to Brett and Tad and licking the latter when the Trentons fire visit the Camber house. I would've liked a little more of the film showing just how sweet and gentle he initially is and the closeness between him and Brett, as we get only one moment between them before he starts to go mad, which I think it would've given it even more power, but what we do get is enough. Over the course of the film's first half after he's bitten on the snout by the bat, we see Cujo slowly but surely beginning to succumb to the rabies. At first, he just has a red bite mark around his nose but soon, he begins to display an aversion towards loud noises, which seem to cause him discomfort, and we start to see mucus and foam appearing around his eyes and mouth. In spite of the pain he's in, Cujo's mental stability holds until the scene between him and Brett in the fog. Brett hears him moaning and whining in the distance and goes out to look for him, stumbling across him now looking very bloody and with more foam and mucus, as well as snarling at him in a very aggressive and threatening manner. At this point, he still has enough sanity left to eventually recognize Brett and, upon doing so, walks away from him, probably because he understands in his own way that he's losing control and does so to keep from hurting him. It was the right thing to do because, the next time, we see Cujo, he's completely succumbed to the rabies and is now a vicious, bloodthirsty monster that'll attack anyone and anything he sees. When he traps Donna and Tad in the Cambers' yard, he becomes completely obsessed with killing them both, attacking at every opportunity he gets, sometimes appearing to try to remind Donna at points that he's still there, and, at some points, deliberately hides for an ambush, like when he sees Bannerman coming. He also tends to become further enraged by the ringing phone in the house, the sound of which causes him pain, and either tries to break inside to destroy it or takes his fury out on the car. The terror and suffering that he causes them builds and builds until it comes to a head and he and Donna face off, both of them determined to survive.
The filmmakers used a number of different techniques along with good editing and Dee Wallace and Danny Pintauro's effective performances to pull off the many attack scenes during the second half. Obviously, they used a number of real St. Bernards (accounts of how many they had in all vary, as everybody on the documentary on the DVD says something different), each one trained to do a different type of action, and they were able to use the editing, camera angles, and sound effects to make them look and feel vicious. It's so convincing that you'd never guess that, right offscreen, the dogs' tails are wagging happily because of the fun they're having, although in the scene where he's about to attack Garry Pervier, you can see his tail wag, in spite of the snarling. In addition, they had a mechanical head that they could use for shots such as when Cujo headbutts the outside of the driver's side, as well as a guy in a dog suit, whom they used sparingly and in very quick cuts because, if you look at production photos, you can see that the suit didn't look good at all. All of these different approaches blend together absolutely seamlessly and will have you believe that Donna and Tad are in real danger of being torn to pieces. Those are truly the only effects highlights in the film, including blood and gore, which there's very little of, as you don't get really graphic close-ups of Cujo ripping throats out or biting limbs off like you might expect (and which aren't necessary). In fact, side from a shot of the dead Garry's ripped open throat, the nasty bite wound that Cujo delivers to Donna's left thigh, and the gruesome injuries he deals to Sheriff Bannerman, the only major makeup effect in the movie is the illustration of Cujo's rabies, with a lot of fake blood, foam, and goopy mucus that was smeared around the dogs' faces (the latter was made from egg whites and sugar, and the dogs would constantly lick it away, so they had to film as soon as it was applied).
Ultimately, I think what gives Cujo a bit of an edge over many of King's other horror stories is that it's one of the most relatable. There are aspects of his other work that one can relate to, like the notion of cabin fever in The Shining, obsession over and personifying an inanimate object in Christine, and especially bullying and being an outcast in Carrie, but a lot of those stories tend to veer into something completely supernatural that you know can't happen. However, I think we've all had bad experiences with dogs at one point or another in our lives (I know I've had my fair share). Few of us have probably had any comparable to Donna and Tad's ordeal with Cujo but, whether you like dogs or hate them, and I like them, you're going to run into some in your lifetime that are not friendly at all, especially if you live in a rural area like I do, where a lot of people have them as pets and often keep them outside. Believe me, I could tell some stories of dogs I've run into that were kind of like Cujo, including a really mean pitbull whose owners deliberately sicced on me because they didn't want me riding or walking through the spot in front of their yard, even though that part was public property. And rabid dogs, which I've, fortunately, never had to deal with, are especially frightening, not just for their viciousness but because of the threat of your getting rabies yourself if you're bitten. Granted, this movie does exaggerate it, as I doubt a dog as far along into the disease as Cujo would be as strong as he is, but a dog that big with rabies would still be a serious threat. I also like how the movie deals with childhood fears of monsters and how a kid's overactive imagination can make them think they heard and saw something that wasn't there. What's more, I think any kid as sensitive as Tad is would come to the same conclusion when faced with Cujo: that he's a monster, rather than just a sick dog. I've always liked that aspect that, after he initially attacks, Tad becomes hysterical, wondering how the monster got out of his closet and that he writes down the "Monster Words" that his dad recited while they're in the car and quietly reads them, probably hoping that it'd make Cujo go away.
Like I said, in spite of how the title comes up on the screen, the movie begins like a live-action Disney movie, with the first shot being of a little gray rabbit coming out of his hole, hopping around the woods and a creek, and eventually wandering into a lovely, open field. As he stops and rears up on his hind legs, Cujo is introduced when he walks in from off-camera and begins playfully chasing him. He chases the rabbit through an old, wooden fence and when he sees him duck inside a hollow log stretching across the creek, he sticks his head inside of it and barks and tries to dig into it. The rabbit comes out the other side and ducks back into the hole he came out of at the beginning. Seeing this, Cujo runs up to the hole and sticks his head in, barking at the rabbit inside the small cave. His loud barking, which echoes within the cave, disturbs a colony of bats on the ceiling and they start flying around in a panic. Cujo initially pulls his head out but, still seeing the rabbit in the back of the cave, he sticks his head back in and continues barking. It's then when one of the bats lands on his snout and bites him just above his nose, causing him to yell and whine in pain and finally pull his head back out, as the bats inside continue to screech. The film then transitions to the Trenton house, where little Tad is seen leaving the bathroom and walking back to his bedroom down the hall. Just as he's about to turn out the light, he hears a creak and sees his closet door slowly swing open. Walking over to it, he closes it and runs back to the light switch, preparing to switch it off and jump into bed. After a moment where he bolts but doesn't hit the switch, he finally does turn the light out and runs and jumps into bed, getting under the covers as quickly as he can. Wringing the tops of the covers with his hands, he keeps his eyes glued to the closet door, which, again, slowly creaks open and after he peers inside, he can be heard screaming for his mother. Donna and Vic come in and they try to calm him down, showing him that there's nothing in his closet, but he insists that there's something in there with yellow eyes and sharp, curling teeth. Vic tells him that there are no such things as real monsters and Tad finally seems to come around, but when they leave him alone in his bedroom, leaving the door open and the hall-light on, we see that he still believes one is in his closet. He believes so much that, the next morning, he stacked a bunch of chairs and other objects against the door to keep it inside.
Again, the first half of the movie spends most of its time introducing the characters and the central conflicts in their lives, and we don't see Cujo again until the Trentons drive out to the Cambers' house after Meara, the mailman, suggests to Vic that he let Joe fix his car. They drive their red convertible out there, where they first meet Brett, followed by Vic meeting Joe and Donna walking up to the house and seeing Charity sitting out in front of it, working with some vegetables. Donna then sees Cujo appear nearby and she panics when she sees that he's walking right where Tad is. Brett calls Cujo over, while Donna picks Tad, scared of what he might do, but Brett assures her he won't hurt Tad, saying that he likes kids. Joe then asks Vic to drive him around in the car a bit so he can hear what the problem is and Vic, seeing that Cujo looks friendly enough, tells Donna that it should be safe to let Tad down. When Vic gets into the car with Joe, he also assures Donna that Cujo's safe, and she sets Tad down so he can pet the dog. Brett tells Tad Cujo's name as he pets him and Cujo gives him a little friendly lick on the face. As Tad continues petting him, Donna notices the bite around his nose but doesn't think anything of it. A little bit later, as Vic is dealing with the scandal that's arisen with his advertising campaign, we see that the rabies is starting to affect Cujo, as he's laying out in the yard while Joe is working in the barn with a saw and he clearly doesn't like the loud noises the tool's making. When he turns his head to look in the barn, it's also obvious that he's more sickly-looking than he was before. Whining from the sound of the saw, he eventually gets up and walks back to the house to get away from it.
A little bit later, as Vic begins to suspect that Donna's having an affair with Steve Kemp, Cujo is shown sleeping in the shed, when he's woken up by the sound of Joe barrelling into the yard in his pickup truck. When he raises his head, we can see that he looks even worse than he did before, with a lot of mucus around his eyes, which are now red, breathing heavily, and making growling sounds. He gets up and walks out of the barn, crawling underneath the house, as Joe stomps inside and confronts Charity about the engine horse he found waiting for him in his barn. Joe angrily grabs Charity's arm and shouts at her, causing her to drop a fork on the floor, the clattering of which disturbs Cujo down below. In the next scene, Joe, now knowing that Charity won the lottery and that she and Brett are going away for a week, talks with Gary Pervier at his house about his plans to go to Boston. Cujo is over there with him and Gary's constantly making noise, clattering cans off the table, slamming dishes on it, and smashing loose the ice in his refrigerator, all of which causes him pain and discomfort. Joe's excitement about going with Garry, which includes patting Cujo a little roughly, whistling, clapping, and the two of them toasting by clanking their beer cans and bottles together, don't help either. Following Vic's discovery of the affair and his inability to fix the rickety Ford Pinto, as well as writing up the "Monster Words" for Tad, we go back to the Camber house early one morning, with thick fog all around. Brett steps out on the porch, when he hears what sounds like Cujo whining off in the distance. Following the sound to a large tree with overhanging branches, he walks up towards the trunk and quietly calls for him. The whining and moaning he's been hearing then turn to growling, and when Brett turns to go back to the house, he comes face-to-face with Cujo, who's bloody and drooling, as well as snarling viciously. Asking what's the matter, he tries to pet him but Cujo barks ferociously at him, causing him to recoil. Brett then tells him that it's him and Cujo becomes calmer, appearing to now recognize him, but he then turns around and disappears off into the fog, glancing back at Brett several times, as the kid calls for him.
While Brett and Charity are getting to leave for Connecticut, with Brett trying to tell his mother what he saw that morning, Cujo, now completely rabid, is shown walking along the dirt road away from his house. Garry is then shown adding to the garbage and junk pile in his front yard, when he hears some snarling and then, Cujo comes around the corner of the pile, growling. He looks right at Garry and continues growling, making him realize it's directed at him, and when he becomes more threatening, Garry drops the bag he was holding and runs for it. Cujo chases after him, as he trips on the steps leading onto his porch, and jumps on him before he can get away. Garry struggles with him and manages to fling him off the porch to his right. Enraged, Garry yells at him, telling him to come on and fight him, if he's going to. Cujo just stares at him with hate-filled eyes, as Garry gets up and walks inside his house, latching the screen door and growling, "You are dead, you stupid son of a bitch!" As Cujo heads towards the door, Garry takes his shotgun off its mount on the wall and prepares to load. He doesn't get a chance, though, as Cujo easily rips through the screen door, charges at him, and, rearing up on his hind legs, tackles him. Garry struggles with him, getting slammed back and forth in the narrow corridor in his house, before Cujo manages to get him down on the floor and, after a bit more fighting and Garry trying to hold his mouth back, overpowers him and rips his throat out. Back at the Camber house, Joe whistles and yells across the field for Cujo, but when he doesn't see any sign of him, he pours some food in his tray and heads for his pickup. He then drives over to Garry's house, probably to ask him if he's seen Cujo, and when he gets close to the door, he sees that the screen's been ripped open. Walking inside, he calls for Garry, glancing upstairs and in the room to his right, when he finds Garry's body on the floor in a corner. Absolutely horrified when he sees what's happened to him, Joe runs to the room down the hall and gets on the phone, preparing to call the police. Cujo then comes roaring into the room from the hallway and Joe needs to take only one look at him to realize he's rabid. He tries to keep the table between him and the dog when he walks in, barking fiercely, and he flips the table at him before flinging a chair at him. But, Cujo backs him into a corner and is on him within a second.
Donna and Tad are then seen driving the Ford Pinto to the Camber house, the car pretty much dying when they arrive in the yard. Noticing that nobody seems to be home, Donna steps out and yells, "Hello," several times, but doesn't get an answer. Tad then says that he can't get his seatbelt off and Donna opens the door back up to try to help him. The button is stuck and Donna struggles to unlatch it, cursing the car, and the camera zooms in towards her, making you think it's meant to be Cujo's POV... when he suddenly jolts up outside the passenger side (this moment was featured on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments and on that very program, Stephen King said he felt it was the most effective scare of any movie based on his work). He sticks his head through the half rolled up window and struggles to try to get in at that them, snarling and growling and sending Tad into a panic. Donna tries to roll the window up all the way but he snaps at her hand at every time she goes for it, allowing her to roll it up only a little bit at a time. Eventually, she manages to roll it up all the way, forcing Cujo to pull his head out, and she quickly closes the other door as he comes around the back of the car towards it. He slams up against the glass, scrapping at it and barking ferociously, before seemingly finally subsiding. Donna then tries to calm down the hysterical Tad, who believes that Cujo is the monster that was in his closet, when he jumps on the hood and scrapes fiercely at the windshield. Tad goes into hysterics again and Donna has to beep the horn repeatedly to force Cujo off the car (another moment that reminds me of The Birds). She then tries to calm Tad down again, as he keeps saying he wants to go home, but when she tries to start the car, it refuses to turn over. As Tad continues crying, Donna tells him that they have to let the engine die down but this doesn't do anything to make him stop. She holds him and tells him that they're going to go home in a few minutes, but the reveal of Cujo sitting across from them, waiting for a chance to attack, shows that they aren't going anywhere.
Some time later, Tad is in the backseat, writing on a piece of paper, while Donna is sitting in the driver's seat. Tad asks if they're going yet and Donna decides to try the car. Sure enough, when she turns the key, the car starts, and she breathes a sigh of relief, as Tad jumps into the front seat excitedly. Cujo comes charging out nearby upon hearing the car and barks as Donna pulls it around and prepares to leave, looking right at him and saying, "Fuck you, dog." However, Donna spoke too soon, as the engine dies and the Alt. light comes on. She tries several times to turn it back over but when it becomes clear that isn't happening, she yells and pounds the dashboard in hopeless frustration, cursing Vic for not getting it fixed himself and then, rests her forehead on the wheel, trying to calm herself down. Tad asks if she's okay and Donna tells him that she is. He then asks if Cujo can get into the car at all and she says that he can't. Tad mentions, "I wish he would die," and Donna says, "Me too," as she watches Cujo walk back over to the shed. In the next shot, the sun is shown to be setting, and Donna watches as Cujo sits down on the other side of the yard from them, continuing to watch and wait. Following a moment where Vic tries to call his house but doesn't get an answer, it's shown to be nighttime at the Camber house. Tad tells Donna that he has to pee and she reluctantly opens up her door just a little bit to allow him to do so, unaware that Cujo is sitting in front of the car. He sees the door open but doesn't do anything to attack, when the phone inside the house starts to ring. Looking towards the house and then glancing back at the car, Cujo charges towards the front door, trying to break through it. Seeing this, Donna closes the car door as soon as Tad finishes peeing and she watches as Cujo moves to the window across from the front door, barking angrily at the ringing. He ends up smashing through the glass but, as soon as he does, the phone stops and he pulls his head out and walks to the front step, where he settles down for the night. Morning arrives in the next cut, the sun slowly coming up over the horizon and illuminating the front yard. In the front seat, Donna wakes up and turns her head to the window, only to see Cujo looking through it at her, growling.
Later that day, after Vic again tries to call his house without any luck, Donna cracks the car's windows in order to let some fresh air in. She looks at the Monster Words that Tad has written on a piece of paper, when he goes for the thermos of water in the back. She stops him, saying that they don't have much left and they need to save it. After giving Tad back his Monster Words, she watches Cujo mill around the yard, when she spies a baseball bat on the ground nearby. Deciding not to risk it, she slumps back in her seat, when Tad says that the car might start now. Donna says that she's afraid to try it because of how weak the battery is and Tad asks, "What does it matter if the battery's weak or not? We're just sitting here." He implores her to try it and she does but it barely makes a sound when she turns the key and the horn doesn't even work anymore. Cracking her own window, Donna says that they'll go home when the mailman comes. A cutaway to the post office shows that Meara is about to deliver a package to the Camber house but someone reminds him that the Cambers said to hold all mail while they were away and he thanks him for saving him a trip. Cutting back to the Camber house, it's now really hot out and Donna is eying the house but, unfortunately, Cujo is walking around the yard. She says to herself, "Get back in that barn, damn you," but instead, he lays down near his food tray. The phone starts ringing again and Cujo rushes towards the house, stopping a little bit away from it and whining. Glancing at the car and then back at the phone, he unexpectedly charges at the former, bashing into the door on the driver's side with his head and knocking himself to the ground. Tad starts screaming again and Donna puts her hand over his mouth to try to quiet him, as Cujo gets back up and smashes into the door again, hard enough to knock the inside handle off. He then jumps up on his hind legs and scrapes at the window, sticking his snout through the crack, trying to smash through it, and he comes around to the other side and slams his paws on the window behind Donna's head, coming very close to shattering it. They duck down away from the door, as Cujo grabs the door handle outside with his mouth and pulls back, tearing it off, as Donna keeps trying to get Tad to be quiet, telling him that the noise is making him angry. He jumps on the hood and runs to the roof of the car, pawing and scraping at it hard enough to rock it back and forth. Donna begs Tad to be quiet, as Cujo, after looking in through the cracked driver's window at them, jumps off the car and stares at the door, while the phone continues ringing. Tad begins whining that he wants to go home again and Donna can only say that she wants to go home too.
Later, Donna is sitting calmly in the front seat and checks on Tad, who's asleep in the back. When he doesn't wake up, she then scans the yard out the windows and, seeing no sign of Cujo, she takes the door handle that he broke off during his rampage earlier and reattaches it as best as she can, before trying to get the door open with it. After some pulling and shoving herself against the door, it does pop open and, after glancing at Tad again, she slowly gets out of the car and scans the area again, knowing Cujo could be anywhere. A cutaway then reveals that he's laying on the ground in back of the car (I think they should've cut that, as not knowing where he is at all would've made his appearance in a few seconds all the more terrifying). Closing the door, Donna is about to make a run for the house, when she realizes that Cujo may be laying somewhere around the car and bends down to look under it. She doesn't seem him anywhere, but that's because he's creeping up behind her. He snarls, causing her to while around to face him and back up against the car. He then attacks, charging at her and pinning her down against the hood, as she desperately tries to fight him off and shove him to the ground, all while Tad, who woke up from the noise, watches from inside the car. She manages to knee Cujo in the gut, knocking him to the ground, and she opens the door to try to get back in, only for him to pop back up on it, momentarily pinning her against it and the car. She shoves him off and gets back in the car, but before she can close the door, he charges and manages to get inside the car. He traps her down against both seats, causing Tad to run to the corner of the backseat in a panic, watching as his mother tries to push Cujo off while also try to keep from getting mauled to death. While she does manage to shove him off and out the door, he jumps right back in, pinning her again and getting right in her face, threatening to rip it off with his powerful jaws. Donna grabs the thermos in the floorboard and bashes him in the face with it, but while she's able to get him off a little bit, he delivers a massive bite to her left thigh, causing her to scream in pain. She punches his head repeatedly with her fists but she's unable to get him to let go, as he now has ahold of her skirt and threatens to pull her outside by it. After trying to push him off, she grabs onto the door as he pulls back on her skirt, ripping a piece of it off and giving her the chance to close the door. She collapses back on the seats, crying in terror and exhaustion, and Cujo takes one last look through the window before stopping his assault. Tad, crying, crawls up to his mother and touches her thigh, causing her to recoil and he, in response, pulls back. Donna, completely delirious from what just happened, tells Tad not to get out of the car, as the camera does that crazy 360 spin in the center of it.
That night, there's a moment where Donna is using bits of her clothes as a makeshift bandage on the bloody bite wound on her thigh, when Cujo climbs up on the hood and, instead of attacking, simply lays down, watching her and Tad through the windshield. Donna then quietly says, "Please, God get me out of here." The next morning, Donna wakes up to the sound of Tad wheezing and when she looks down at him, he's laying between the seats with his mouth open, his hands fixed above his chest, and his rolled in the back of his head. Seeing that he's in serious trouble, Donna sits him up, as he clutches at his throat, and she tries to wake him up and snap him out of it but it doesn't work. Looking out the windshield at the front door of the house, Donna, in desperation, opens the car door, but the moment she does, Cujo comes peeling out of the work shed, snarling and barking. She quickly closes it again and continues trying to wake Tad up, as Cujo rears up outside and barks at them through the window. She then sticks her fingers in Tad's mouth and he bites her, causing her to recoil. It happens again and she finally gets him to breathe again. He holds onto her and starts crying about wanting to go home again, as she tries to sing to him in order to calm him down. Following that, Vic has returned home to find that Steve Kemp has trashed their house in his craziness and jealousy, prompting him to call the police. While they put out an alert on Kemp to have him picked up, Sheriff Bannerman decides to head out to the Camber house upon learning that Donna may have taken their Pinto there for repairs.
Cutting back there, Donna and Tad are shown to be sleeping across the front seats. Cujo is resting near the top of the driveway as well, when the sound of an approaching car gets his attention. He runs and hides, as Bannerman pulls into the front yard, cruising past the Pinto but unable to see Donna and Tad from where he is. Parking in front of the barn and stepping out of the car, he's about to call in when hears something rattle inside. He walks towards the entrance of the barn and is quickly jumped by Cujo, who smacks his pistol, which he draws, out of his hand. He jumps up onto Bannerman, who struggles with him and falls to the floor of the barn. Donna awakens upon hearing Cujo snarling, as Bannerman gets bitten repeatedly by the crazed dog before grabbing a nearby block of wood and whacking him in the head with it, forcing him to let go. Bannerman climbs up onto a long, wide plank stretched across the barn in order to escape, as Donna now sees what's happening. Cujo grabs the bottom of his pants leg and tries to pull him off but he's able to hang onto another beam up there and get loose. He shimmies across the plank, while Donna tries to open up the damaged car door to help. Cujo follows after him and jumps up at him but misses, knocking some paint cans to the floor. He then attempts to shove Bannerman off, and while the sheriff is initially able to keep him at bay, the dog does manage to cause him to fall and ravage him within seconds. Unable to open her door, Donna is forced to climb out of the passenger one, while Cujo rips out a chunk of Bannerman's stomach. Donna is no sooner out of the car when Cujo comes barrelling out of the barn, barking at her threateningly. She ducks back in and closes the door, when Tad starts having another episode like before. Fortunately, instead of attacking them, Cujo heads back into the barn to finish Bannerman off. Donna is able to get him out of it pretty easily and he starts repeating that he wants his father over and over again, and as she watches Cujo continuing to rip up Bannerman, she's pushed to the brink and yells at Tad that she'll get his daddy.
The climax begins after Detective Masen tells Vic that they've picked up Kemp but Donna and Tad weren't with him and that Bannerman hasn't called in yet from the Camber house; Vic then gets in his red convertible and heads out there. At the Camber house, Donna wakes up and tries to do the same for Tad, who's lying in the backseat. However, his eyes are half-open and he doesn't respond to her shaking him and pulling him up into a sitting position. Not even her saying his name and lightly tapping the side of his face doesn't rouse him. She then puts her ear to his chest and doesn't hear a heartbeat, making her realize that the heat from being stuck in the car for so long has gotten to him. Knowing that the house is their only hope, Donna gets out of the car and hobbles towards it, when Cujo comes out from under the porch. The two of them stare each other down and Donna across the yard towards the baseball bat she saw earlier, as Cujo charges at her. She picks it up and swings it at him, causing him to back away while growling. She yells, "Well, come on, then!", and he begins lunging at her, as she keeps him at bay with the bat. She scores a couple of hits on him with it and another when he gets right back up. He walks towards her again, his head now bleeding, and backs her up against Bannerman's police car, only to get hit again. At the same time, Donna backs into the car's rear and tumbles to the ground the same time that Cujo does. He gets back up and charges her when she gets to her feet and she hits him again, this time hard enough to break the bat. Now, with nothing more than the splintered handle of the bat to use as a weapon, she watches as Cujo again gets up and she backs away. But, she trips over one of the large roots of a tree behind her and falls on her back. Seeing his chance, Cujo charges and jumps on Donna, getting impaled on the sharp, broken end of the bat handle. She holds his head back as he tries to maul her but, within seconds, he stops attacking and his body goes slack, apparently dead. Rolling his body off of her, Donna grabs the gun Bannerman lost earlier and points it at Cujo's body, in case he gets back up. He doesn't make a move and so, she decides to hobble back to the car to help Tad. But, she's unable to open the door on the driver's side because of the damaged interior handle and goes around to the passenger side to see that the door there got ripped off. She then tries to open the back window of the Pinto but it won't budge either and she smacks it with the butt of the pistol until it finally shatters.
Limping to the house with Tad in her arms, Donna kicks open the door, rushes into the kitchen and dining room, clears off the table, and lays Tad on it. She rinses her hands in cold water from the faucet and uses it to rub his chest and the sides of his face. She then pours some down his throat and begins compressing his chest, trying to get him to breathe, and when that doesn't work, she starts giving him mouth-to-mouth. As Vic races to the house, Donna becomes desperate to get Tad to start breathing again but, as much as she blows down his throat and presses his chest, it looks as if she's too late. But, just as she's about to give up, he coughs and starts gasping for air. Ecstatic, Donna cries happily and embraces him, when Cujo suddenly comes crashing through the window behind them. Landing on the floor across from them, he turns around and comes in for one last attack, but Donna grabs the pistol, which she laid on the table, and finally kills him with one shot. Right after that, Vic peels up the driveway and into the yard, stopping behind the Pinto. Getting out, he walks to the car, calling for Donna, and when he sees the state of it and that there's no one inside, he becomes panicked and yells for her. At that moment, Donna walks out onto the house's porch, holding Tad in her arms. Seeing this, Vic rushes to them and the family is reunited.
The year before he did the music for A Nightmare on Elm Street, Charles Bernstein scored Cujo and his music for it varies in tone as much as the movie itself. In keeping with the slowly-paced, character-centered feel of the first half, a lot of the music there consists of this really nice, pretty piece that you first hear when Cujo's chasing the rabbit through the field and sort of becomes the Trenton family's theme afterward, some low, sad-sounding bits for the scenes showing the trouble the Trentons are having in their marriage and the revelation of Donna's affair, and a quiet, dream-like piano theme that you first hear when the rabbit comes out of his hole at the very beginning and is replayed at several points throughout, such as when Donna sees that nobody appears to be at home at the Camber house and when morning comes while she and Tad are trapped in the Pinto. All of that warm, pleasant, Disney-like music, however, doesn't change the fact that this is indeed a full-blooded horror film and the main title theme, which consists of some very threatening, pounding chords, an unsettling, building electronic sound, and Cujo's own leitmotif when the title comes up, which is a distinctive horn piece that Bernstein admits he took from John Williams' legendary "shark theme" from Jaws, coupled with the title itself appearing out of a pool of swirling blood, reminds you that, despite how it actually starts, this is eventually going to become very dark and tense.
Cujo's theme sounds less threatening than it originally did when he first appears in front of the rabbit but when it's heard again throughout the movie as he begins to succumb to the rabies, it signifies the dangerous change he's going through by sounding much lower in pitch and tenor. Those pounding notes that I mentioned are heard numerous times throughout the film's second half, giving Cujo a foreboding presence even when you don't see him and, as you first hear them narrative-wise during the scene in the fog, they elude to how he has now become a deadly, bloodthirsty beast. Bernstein also sometimes uses some distant, electronic-sounding strings that are akin to some of the stuff you'd later hear on Unsolved Mysteries and it gives those moments even more of a feeling of atmosphere and the notion that Cujo could be anywhere. That piece is akin to other ones that reflect the tense, distressed nature of certain scenes, like the whirling, crazed bit of music that accompanies the dizzying 360 camera spin and an uneasy, building one when Vic comes home to find that Kemp has ransacked the house. The attack scenes feature music that's really thrilling and exciting, be it this theme that's made up of low, rhythmic pounding and high, frantic instrumentation, a crazed piano bit that you hear when Cujo charges the house when the phone starts ringing the first time, or this one that consists of fast-paced, electronic-sounding clicking with a menacing sound accompanying it, which is slowed down in more suspenseful moments. And finally, while the movie ends with that really lovely, warm piece playing over the ending credits, it becomes a bit sadder and more melancholic near the end, probably hinting at the effect that this entire experience will have on the family.