One of three Stephen King adaptations to be released in 1983 (The Dead Zone and Christine being the other two), Cujo is a moderately thrilling though never outright terrifying horror about a man’s best friend gone rabid. Most of King’s stories concern supernatural threats, but Cujo is more grounded, boiling down to a simple story that could occur in the real world. It does work in the film’s favour since it’s stripped-down and intense, but it is a tad underwhelming on the whole; it doesn’t have a great deal of staying power, and certain aspects of the production are certainly dated. Nevertheless, Cujo still has teeth and packs a punch, making for an entertaining enough ’80s monster movie which has its moments.

The titular Cujo is a Saint Bernard dog who’s bitten by a bat, which causes him to turn feral and develop into a bloodthirsty killer. Enter Donna Trenton (Dee Wallace), the wife of an advertising executive and the mother of precocious young boy Tad (Danny Pintauro). With her husband out of town for a few days on business, Donna’s car begins sputtering, prompting her to take it to a local mechanic. Problem is, the mechanic is Cujo’s owner, and when Donna shows up with Tad, the vicious dog is on patrol. Trapped in their broken-down car with nobody around except for the killer canine, Donna and Tad begin to realise that other dangers exist, with hunger, exhaustion and dehydration gradually setting in.

King wrote Cujo at the height of his alcoholism, and he reportedly cannot even remember writing the novel due to his severe drinking problem. Published in 1981, the book is often perceived as one of the author’s darkest works due to its bleak ending that even King himself wishes he could change. Hence, the script for this adaptation (by Don Carlos Dunaway and Lauren Currier) concludes on a brighter note, a decision fully endorsed by King. The thrills ofCujo are slow to start – the first forty-five minutes are dedicated to build-up, developing the characters and laying the narrative tracks that will lead to Donna and Tad venturing into Cujo’s hunting ground. The dramatic stuff is only moderately successful, making for a passable if unremarkable sit. Indeed, the characters have pretty perfunctory issues, with marriage infidelity even thrown into the mix, and you could be forgiven for just wanting the dog carnage to commence. To its credit, Cujo does have some interesting thematic undercurrents, with thoughtful allegories that some may not pick up on. However, none of this makes much impact, and it doesn’t feel especially profound.

Veteran filmmaker Lewis Teague was personally picked by King to helm Cujo, as the author was impressed with the director’s last picture, Alligator. Teague’s contributions are mostly fine, demonstrating a firm grasp of the art of cinematic tension, and the film benefits from sound cinematography courtesy of future director Jan de Bont. Cujo’s reveal is especially terrific, as the scene is drenched in thick fog which sets an ominous mood. However, Cujo‘s special effects do not entirely hold up in the 21st century. The attack scenes are shot and edited in an effectively intense fashion, but Teague cannot quite sell the menace of this otherwise adorable Saint Bernard dog. Even though the effort is valiant, the attacks are never quite believable enough, because the mutt never looks particularly vicious or dangerous when supposedly killing people.

Horror movies do not often give thespians the opportunity to prove themselves, but the acting here is rock-solid. Wallace and young Pintauro create a believable mother-son dynamic, and manage to sell the terror with utmost skill. Once Wallace is trapped in her car, she really shows her range, showing realistic outbursts of emotion, horror and desperation. Meanwhile, Pintauro belies his age here, delivering an impressively natural performance. His reactions to Cujo’s attacks are stomach-churning and rattling.

Cujo is a low-budget B-movie at its core, but it does show a degree of innovation in its technical construction and script, even if it does lack the substance of superior monster movies like Jawsand The Birds. The family drama is pedestrian and some of the effects are dated, but a few thrilling sequences are peppered throughout which make Cujo a fun diversion. It’s nothing spectacular, but it’s a decent adaptation that does no disservice to King’s novel.