Horror movie critic John McCarty once said of Stephen King’s novels that the quality seemed inversely proportional to the length. The ones where it seemed King was getting “paid by the word,” as he joked, were usually the flabbiest and least convincing. McCarty has a point: Horror is difficult (actually make that impossible) to sustain over a thousand pages. It may have a few freaky passages once one gets past page 150 or so, but the overall effect will have worn off, leaving you with a supernatural coming of age story retold on the scale of James Michner. On the other hand, and without wanting to sound too much like Publishers Weekly, his comparatively terse novels and some of his best short stories retain their level of dread after they’ve been placed back on the shelf. By my estimation, his best novels are Dolores Claiborne, The Dead Zone, Pet Sematary, and Cujo. While Dead Zone had the luxury of being released while King’s star was about to explode, and Dolores Claiborne was received in the midst of a coronation for King’s post-horror renaissance, Cujo, released only a few novels after Dead Zone, unfortunately landed squarely on the first wave of The Great King Overexposure of the Early 1980s (a trend Pet Sematary bucked by sheer marketing, with King referring to it as the novel that even scared him).
So it also was with the movie, which was released the same year as high-profile adaptations from John Carpenter (Christine) and David Cronenberg (Dead Zone) even though the public was still reeling from the shock of King’s first foray into screen acting (as Jordy “Meteor Shit” Verrill in Creepshow). Cujo, both as a film and a novel, certainly added fuel to the perception that King was coasting on book after book using his own horrific Mad Libs formula: “A haunted [noun] terrorizes a family in rural [city], Maine, though the only one who truly understands the threat is the family [son/daughter].” Cujo is a pseudo-haunted St. Bernard who goes rabid after being bitten by a bat, though in King’s novel there is the suggestion that the dog is also being inhabited by the ghost of serial strangler Frank Dodd, who was foiled in Dead Zone. While there are a few unnecessary subplots padding out the macabre fairy tale (it begins “once upon a time”), the central drama is remarkably concise: Donna Trenton and her son Tad have the bad luck to be driving a bum pinto onto Cujo’s turf, and are subsequently stuck when the car dies in the hot summer sun. The simple story is supplied with a simple subtext: The isolation and terror of Cujo’s attacks also reflects Donna’s own marital troubles with her husband Vic, who she is cheating on her in an attempt to escape the suffocating monotony of their married existence.
Cujo is a swift and brutal read, with a controversial ending King later said he probably would’ve written differently had he not been writing while coked out of his brain. The movie, directed by Lewis Teague with less cinematographic flair than even the TV miniseries for ‘Salem’s Lot, unfortunately demonstrates the difficulty in adapting King’s shorter works. To be blunt, because there was just barely enough material in the source text to pad out the film, the filmmakers also used a lot of the stuff that worked in novel form but came off as stultifying on the screen. (Dolores Claiborne and Pet Sematary ran into similar problems. Only Dead Zone seemed to strike the right balance on film.) As a result, the film’s first hour, in which the parallel stories of not only the Trentons and Cujo, but also the otherwise pointless travails of Cujo’s human owners are set up at great length. Structurally, Cujo the film is about half expositional prelude. Granted, once the Pinto poops and foam starts leaking from the sides of Cujo’s droopy mouth, it picks up considerably, in no small part thanks to Dee Wallace’s tense, committed performance as a mother at the end of her rope. (King remarked that Wallace should’ve been nominated for an Academy Award, and since Testament‘s Jane Alexander actually was nominated that year for performing a catatonic variation of the very same role—mother helpless in the face of mortal danger to her children—I’m inclined to agree.) Cujo, as a film, is your classic glass half empty/glass half full scenario. It’s either the worst of that truly awesome stretch of King adaptations up through 1983, or it’s one of the best King adaptations from that year thereafter.