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Sample Movie Review on Cujo (1983)
Cujo is a film adaptation of a horror novel by renowned novelist Stephen King, directed by Lewis Teague. As is expected of a Stephen King horror, Cujo does not adhere to the typical thriller movie formula. Cujo depicts the story of a good-natured St. Bernard dog that goes rabid and kills people. This horror movie goes beyond the idea of fearing a monster that is supernatural in nature and instead shows how a being that is usually depicted with love can also become a dangerous monster. Although Cujo was not received well during its first release, it gained recognition as a well-crafted horror movie. This movie review uses Freud’s Uncanny theory to analyze how Cujo uses horror movie tropes to transcend the typical horror movie story arc. The beauty of Cujo as a horror film lies in its play on the concept of a monster to be feared, which makes the use of typical horror tropes more riveting.
Summary of Cujo
The main character in the movie is its namesake, Cujo, a St. Bernard, who goes from lovable dog to rabid monster. The St. Bernard breed is one of the best dog breeds to have as a family pet due to its loving and friendly nature. The movie opens with an idyllic scene of a rabbit in a field, which Cujo then chases around. This scene shows Cujo as a lovable dog who plays by chasing other small animals. However, despite the calm scenery, the music signals that something unpleasant is about to happen. Cujo gets bitten by a bat inside the rabbit hole. His slow demise into a rabid dog is interspersed with the introduction of the families who will soon fall victim to Cujo. Cujo’s first victims are Joe Camber, his owner, and Joe’s friend Gary Pervier. Joe Camber’s wife and son were saved as they left Joe due to domestic violence just before Cujo turned rabid.
The movie, however, centers on the Trentons who just moved to town and visit the Cambers’ to get help on their car. Donna and Tad, mother and son, become trapped inside their broken-down car as Cujo tries to get to them. Donna finds herself alone in trying to survive and keep herself and her son safe from Cujo. The town’s sheriff visits the Cambers’ house after Vic, out of town, reports that his wife and son are missing. However, Cujo overpowers even the sheriff, so Donna is left alone. Donna manages to wound Cujo and, eventually, when Cujo attacks again, kills the dog with a shot from the sheriff’s gun. Immediately after Cujo’s death, Vic arrives and is reunited with Donna and Tad.
The Uncanny Theory
This custom essay uses two theories to analyze how Cujo is a successful horror movie. The Uncanny Theory provides an explanation as to why people are drawn to horror movies that supposedly evoke negative emotions, specifically fear and anxiety.
The Uncanny Theory is developed by the father of Psychology, Sigmund Freud, explaining that the allure of horror movies stems from its ability to allow us to release fears that are deep-seated in our subconscious (Park 3). The “uncanny” is a kind of fear that something familiar is actually something unfamiliar or is a source of danger. This type of fear is common among children who tend to imagine fearful possibilities about regular things, which they will recognize as irrational fears once they grow into adults (Freud, 221). Horror movies, such as Cujo, touch on this fear of the uncanny and, in providing positive endings—as is usually done--, allow people to release these fears. The movie Cujo takes on and plays with this concept of the uncanny.
Review of Cujo
The introduction of the Trenton family resembles that of a typical horror movie. The camera goes through the front of the house and enters through the window in the child’s room. Tad is shown getting ready for bed, visibly scared of something, which is later on revealed to be a monster in the closet. When Tad screams, his parents Donna and Vic go to assuage his fear with comforting words and a pretend ritual. These scenes resemble the scenes where the child first sees or is tormented by a supernatural being in their home but is dismissed by their parents. However, in Cujo, Tad’s monster is indeed imaginary. Yet, this monster is also read. Tad describes the monster as having yellow eyes and a snout. This, later on, is revealed to be what Cujo looks like after he has gone rabid. This is where the conflict of the movie becomes apparent—whether monsters really exist. In the movie, a monster does exist and it is not a supernatural monster, but something scarier—something that people usually love and trust and let in their home: a dog. This tension is what makes Cujo even more terrifying and exciting at the same time.
The tension between a “real” monster and an imaginary one continues throughout the movie. Even as Cujo starts showing signs of turning rabid, the people around him continue to ignore these. Even as Cujo is growling, the people around him talk to him as they did before he had turned rabid. Brett, Cujo’s owner, sensed that something was wrong with Cujo because he was growling. However, instead of recognizing Cujo as a monster, Brett told Cujo that it was him and to calm down. In his case, talking to Cujo helped as the dog managed to hold itself from attacking the boy. However, in the case of Gary Pervier, the Cambers’ neighbor, and Joe Camber, talking to Cujo as they did when he was still the lovable pet did not work because Cujo had lost himself and become a monster. Gary and Joe trusted that Cujo was still the dog they knew even though he had visibly become rabid. In contrast, Donna immediately recognized Cujo not as a family pet but as a potential danger the first time she saw him.
Donna’s instinct that Cujo was dangerous was, in fact, correct the first time. However, just as parents typically dismiss their children’s imaginary fears, Vic and the others dismissed Donna’s instinct. Brett reassured her that Cujo is a “good boy” and Vic agreed, allowing Tad to pet the dog. When Donna returns to the Cambers’ to get her car checked, her instincts are confirmed—that Cujo is to be feared. Tad, himself, confirms that it was Cujo that he saw in his closet—the monster was real.
For the most part of the movie, Donna and Tad are stuck inside their broken Ford Pinto on a hot day with only a tumbler of water with a rabid Cujo waiting for an opportunity to pounce. This is where Cujo deviates from the typical horror movie. The threats to the main characters’ lives are not supernatural, but tangible things—heat, dehydration, a rabid pet—meaning the scenarios in the movie could happen to anyone. The allure of this style of horror movie is aligned with Sigmund Freud’s concept of the “uncanny.” According to Freud, horror movies “highlight unconscious fears, desires, urges, and primeval archetypes that are buried deep in our collective subconscious” (Park, 3) (see when to quote, paraphrase, or summarize ). A beloved pet dog turning rabid is a fear that perhaps everyone has. Seeing Cujo turn rabid is a very realistic fear or threat, which is why even though the film does not include any traditionally scary beings such as ghosts or demons, it still manages to evoke fear in its audience. Cujo touches on a fear that is hidden deep inside people’s subconscious and lets it release, which is what horror movies do according to Freud’s theory (Park 3). In doing this, Cujo manages to evoke the same feelings of fear on its audience even without supernatural elements.
Cujo’s success as a horror movie is not due to its clever use of special effects, but its clever way of handling the fear of the uncanny and horror movie tropes. Cujo’s premise is rooted in a fear that most people have and have likely considered irrational. Its irrational nature is further highlighted by the comparison with Tad’s irrational fear of the monster in the closet. Nevertheless, Cujo makes this fear real by using realistic elements. Simultaneously, Cujo consciously plays with the concept of the uncanny by having the characters in the movie ignore or question whether the beloved pet has turned into a dangerous rabid dog. The movie ultimately shows not only that monsters do exist, but does confirm that the things or creatures that we trust or are familiar with can turn into monsters. This is the very point of the Uncanny Theory, and because this fear is rooted deeply in the subconscious, it makes the movie Cujo all the more terrifying to the audience even years after its initial release.
Cujo. Directed by Lewis Teague, 1983.
Park, Michelle. “The Aesthetics and Psychology Behind Horror Films.” Long Island University – Undergraduate Honors College Thesis, 2016, https://digitalcommons.liu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1030&context=post_honors_theses.
Freud, Sigmund. “The ‘Uncanny’.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, edited by James Strachey, The Hogarth Press, 1925. https://uncanny.la.utexas.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/freud-uncanny_001.pdf