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Cujo-00068

Film: Cujo
Director: Lewis Teague
Performers: Dee Wallace, Danny Pintauro, Daniel Hugh-Kelly, Ed Lauter, unnamed Saint Bernards and Rottweilers (as Cujo)
Breed featured: Saint Bernard
Animal trainer: Karl Lewis Miller (credited for animal action); Glen Garner, Jackie Martin (credited as animal handlers)
Production information: Warner Brothers, 1983 (USA)

Stephen King’s Cujo is synonymous with the killer dog raging out of control. If you don’t know the story, the name may or may not bring to mind a Saint Bernard (gee, I wonder if the movie spurred an uptick in demand for this breed?). It may or may not even call to mind rabies, the disease that is transmitted to the titular dog, causing him to stalk and kill both his familiars and hapless passers-through. In popular parlance, to “go Cujo” just means to turn violent with little to no basis for aggression; provocation or other, explanatory factors are not necessarily part of the definition.

kids, this is NOT how you greet a strange dog -- rabid or not

kids, this is NOT how you greet a strange dog — rabid or not

Cujo embodies the basic fear that no matter how “tame” you may consider your cohabitants — your pets, your spouse, your child(ren) — there is always a possibility that they will turn on you. Yet, it’s not nearly so frightening when betrayal comes in the form of a cheating or abusive partner, a side plot to the central conflict. When the creature that turns is a 200-pound dog who is physically unstoppable, can’t listen to either emotion or reason, and could easily tear out your throat and suck the juices from your face without bothering to wipe off any of the mess… well, that’s the stuff of nightmares.

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Really gross, drippy, and OMGdontevenTOUCHmejuststayAWAY nightmares.

As I jot down this review, I am thinking of Taiwan, currently in the grips of rabies hysteria. In June 2013, a number of ferret-badgers from the landlocked county of Nantou in central Taiwan tested positive for the rabies virus. These discoveries effectively struck the island from the list of international rabies-free zones, a status it has enjoyed for over 50 years. The news was made official in mid-July. To date, there have been 36 confirmed cases, though none involve pets or any of the large population of free-roaming cats and dogs.

Ideally, the disease will be contained as vaccines are properly administered — when they’re available. There’s been a shortage of supplies, and quite a bit of dramatics involved. Historically, cross-culturally, and even aesthetically, this seems to be the nature of the disease. Visual and literary depictions of rabies frequently run to extremes, as if born of anxieties that the madness is transmissible by more than bites, but by thought itself.

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What seems most frightening about rabies is how it possesses and transforms the very nature of the individual, the closest thing to mammalian metamorphoses documented by humans. Even the cleanest household beast will turn into a drooling, staggering mess if infected — and by then, it’s a goner. In the case of pets, it’s frightening to think that a constant companion, whose presence is frequently invited and a welcome part of daily life, has even the slightest potential to become the vector of violence and trauma. Indeed, pets only became as widespread and as precious as they are now when the threat of an untimely loss due to rabies (and other common diseases like distemper) was effectively nullified by modern vaccines.

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Of course, there would be no story if Cujo’s owner had just properly vaccinated him like a responsible, modern pet owner. Indeed, the world has moved on from the days of Old Yeller, where a farm dog chasing wild rabbits on his turf was only so much charming, innocent fun. Now, you gotta add rabid bats and other, unforeseen dangers to the environment. Cujo (and his owner) are essentially punished for being relics of backwoods ignorance that no longer have their place. But in a story like Old Yeller, where no humans are actually hurt by rabid animals, the pain is more psychological. In this story, where the dog’s original owner is quickly dispatched, and the main victims are a mother and son who just happen to get stuck on Cujo’s farm, the threat is mostly about physical rather than emotional harm.

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That is, if they could just kill the damn dog and get to a phone, there’d be no lingering regrets about losing a formerly-loved friend. And honestly, by the end of the movie, I was kind of wishing they could just be done with it though I knew there was only one way out. The rabid dog never wins. He just can’t.

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But cripes, at least they can give him a proper bath when the shooting’s over!

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