As you all likely know, "Cujo", from way back in 1983, is an adaptation of the novel by Stephen King. Basically, it's the story of an affable Saint Bernard that becomes infected with rabies, and through a course of events terrorizes a woman and her young son trapped in an incapacitated car.
Now, on the surface, that just doesn't sound like the formula for a great horror film...but if you stop there, you rob the film of it's "bite", and rob YOURSELF of a great film experience. While some belabor the 'soap-opera' qualities of the first half of the film, my opinion is that if we weren't led to care about the characters, we'd have a tendency to be kind of indifferent to their plight in the second half. Character development is SO important, and in this case, it's used to show us how this woman pays for her sins, yet redeems herself.
First off, you have the brilliant portrayal of the woman in question by the talented Dee Wallace (this woman SHOULD have won some Oscars down the line). During the first half of the flick, we see her darker side as an unfaithful but repentant wife; whereas the dialogue does not play upon the matter much, her performance exudes a woman who has made a mistake, and is paying for it with the guilt she is saddled with. When we reach the climax, Wallace takes the role to a new level, giving us first an undeniable portrait of a woman taxed emotionally to the breaking point, then of a mother hell-bent to protect her child.
Danny Pintauro, only six at the time, delivers a tour-de-force portrayal of the young boy, bringing us physical and emotional acting chops that we don't often see in actors six times his age. The scenes in the car are claustrophobic and chilling, and the camera work was a marvel to behold (watch for the "spinning" scene at a particular high-tension point...sheer genius). The special effects make the friendly, jovial dog into a menacing and terrifying monster, his red eyes and slavering jowls a glimpse into the gates of Hell itself. Speaking of the effects, I reiterate my opening sentiments; when I say the dog terrorizes the mother and child, I mean door-denting, window-shattering, scratching, biting and slathering bloody mess…the attacks are painful to watch.
Add together the confined feeling, the explosive and unpredictable rages of the dog, and the stellar acting and cinematography, and you have one of the most realistic, most relatable, and most personal horror flicks of the 80's.