Killtoberfest 4 – #12: Cujo

In All, Movies by Kyu

Vic: “There are no real monsters.”
Tad: “Except for the one in my closet.”

Horror stories can be divided into two camps: those about inside evil and those about outside evil. Inside evil is the kind we’re all familiar with:

Inside evil is human weakness and human hate; when it comes to inside evil, the fault lies not in the stars but in ourselves. It’s Norman Bates and Patrick Bateman, Osama Bin Laden and Donald Trump. It belongs to humanity.

Outside evil is beyond all that. It’s the supernatural force that enters your life at random and destroys you. It’s Dracula coming to London, it’s the meteor that killed the dinosaurs, it’s the Colour Out of Space.

When it comes to outside evil, nothing is our fault; it was just our turn to get the bad end of the stick. Unlike inside evil, it’s not our task to correct outside evil, but merely to endure it with as much strength and courage as we can find.

Stephen King outlines this division in Danse Macabre, but what he doesn’t go on to point out is that he’s spent most of his career writing stories where inside and outside evil converge. Jack Torrance is an alcoholic with anger problems (inside evil) whose weakness is exploited by a haunted hotel (outside evil). A dome of unknown origin (outside evil) sets the stage for a small town despot (inside evil). Petty, self-centered townsfolk (inside) give into temptation when a new store arrives with the perfect deals (outside). In other words, hammer, meet anvil. And ultimately what’s frightening is the way in which his characters are not spiritually or morally prepared to withstand either seduction, temptation, or onslaught from an external force.

Cujo is another hammer-and-anvil story. To start with, you have the Trenton family, Vic (Daniel Hugh Kelly), Donna (Dee Wallace), and their four-year-old son, Tad (Danny Pintauro). On the surface, they seem happy and normal. But the family Pinto is having trouble, Tad is scared of the monster in his closet, and Donna is secretly having an affair with local furniture repairman Steve Kemp (Christopher Stone). It’s this last that represents inside evil. Donna’s affair (begun for reasons she doesn’t know or understand) is the fatal flaw in the Trenton family armor, and the resulting fallout comes as a distraction at a crucial moment in the plot. She’s the cracked anvil that may break when the hammer comes down.

The hammer, of course, is Cujo. When Vic leaves town for a business trip, Donna takes Tad and the troublesome Ford Pinto seven miles out of town to the home of Joe Camber to get it repaired. The Pinto breaks down in Camber’s driveway, which would be fortuitous if not for the fact that Joe is already dead. The Camber family’s massive St. Bernard has gone rabid, killed two people, and now stalks the yard, waiting to see if the woman or her four-year-old son are foolish enough to leave the car. If they leave, they die; if they stay, Tad will die of thirst, heat, and the stress of constant terror. The randomly cruel nature of the ordeal reminds us that Cujo (or more properly, the rabies that turns him from perfectly friendly to a vicious killer) is outside evil all the way, something the film and novel take pains to establish. The plot hinges on a number of coincidences, including Joe’s wife and son being out of town; had they not won a small lottery and taken a vacation, they would have spotted Cujo’s illness before it became a problem. Additionally, Tad believes Cujo to be the monster that was in his closet–something the book makes clear is absolutely true.

But the novel also connects the dog’s rabies to the ghostly, malevolent remnant of a local serial killer (whose story plays out in King’s The Dead Zone), suggesting that inside evil begets outside evil, as the anvil draws the hammer. This attitude is also on display in the film, which argues (albeit less explicitly) that Donna and Tad are vulnerable to Cujo because Donna’s infidelity and Vic’s ignorance of it leaves their family in disarray at just the point when they most need to be together. This is the point of the Sharp cereal subplot, where Vic’s advertising firm’s big account runs into trouble when their mascot loses credibility. The Sharp cereal professor’s “Nope, nothing wrong here” becomes a national joke when there’s a problem with the product’s food dye, and it’s also an ironic commentary on Vic’s family situation. As a friendly dog turned rabid, Cujo really represents the disruption of domestic order in its most dangerous and horrifying form. If any of a dozen things had gone differently, this story wouldn’t have happened, and most of those things can be traced back to the trouble between Vic and Donna.

The other buried theme in the movie is class. If you read between the lines, it’s clear that the Trentons have been moving on up. Thanks to Vic’s independent ad firm and accounts like Sharp, they have a gorgeous home and Vic drives a Jaguar. But the shift is recent enough that Donna is still driving their old, run-down Pinto, which just so happens to break down at the home of the working-class Cambers, for whom a $5,000 lottery win is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to escape their lives, at least for a little while. (Charity takes their son Brett to visit her sister, while Joe plans to sneak off to Boston for a week of drinking and baseball.) Meanwhile, Donna’s lover, Steve, turns out to be a violent, angry person who, after she ends the affair, first tries to rape her and later breaks into the Trenton home and trashes the place while Donna and Tad are dealing with Cujo. Steve is also a working class guy, very different in circumstance and personality from Donna’s buttoned-up, white collar husband, a difference sharply delineated when Steve comes over to the Trenton house to deliver furniture Vic and Donna have paid him to repair. In sum, it’s as though Donna is punished for her infidelity (itself probably born out of the disorientation and ennui of the newly comfortable) by being imprisoned again within the lower class life she’s already escaped.

In its construction, Cujo is essentially the poor man’s Jaws. Spielberg’s classic killer animal film uses the monster to explore first the fracture lines of a community (“Amity means friendship,” says the mayor who values tourist dollars higher than tourist lives) and then competing versions of masculinity (“You have city hands, Mr. Hooper. You been countin’ money all your life.” “Hey, I don’t need this… I don’t need this working-class-hero crap”). Cujo uses its monster to explore the fracture lines in a marriage and then, having seen her fail as a wife, asks Donna to redeem herself as a mother by saving her son. The best parts of the movie take place in the car as she weighs her options. Does she try to get to the house and its phone? Where is the dog? The film’s one trick in terms of horror is simple but effective: the dog is always, always behind her, lunging into the opposite side of the frame from where you expected it to be, snarling and barking and biting and clawing to get in through the window. As one day in this trap turns into another and another, Tad’s condition worsens and Donna realizes she must take her chances and make a stand.

In the novel, the characters’ flaws are fatal: Donna defeats Cujo but fails to save Tad. The filmmakers, fearing audience reactions to killing a sweet and innocent four-year-old boy, allow him to live. Even so, the film’s last shot, a freeze frame of the Trentons finally reunited, captures a moment we fear may be ephemeral. It’s possible that Vic and Donna’s marriage will continue to be plagued by issues of distraction and deceit, and that Tad will continue to be the victim of this disrupted domesticity. At the very least, the ending does not feel like a comfort. Even Donna’s moment of triumph over Cujo reminds us that this was once a happy, friendly dog who poked his snout into the wrong hole and got infected for his trouble. It’s not his fault, any more than this is Donna’s, really. Outside evil. The meteor strikes, and in the long run no dinosaur survives.

Every year, Kyu attempts to watch and review 31 horror movies in 31 days. This year, it’s Killtoberfest 4: Four Gore and Severed Ears Ago, because somehow the election has boiled down to a woman vs a rabid dog. Check out past Killtoberfests along with this year’s reviews, and be sure to follow us on Twitter @insidethekraken to track Kyu’s progress.