For nearly 40 years, there has never been any question about whether Stephen King’s prolific horror fictions should be adapted into movies—they just are. The real question is what form they’re going to take: Do the novels become features, or tacky TV miniseries? Do the short stories get expanded, or bundled into anthology films? And while the King cottage industry worked well when it was hot out of the box—the first two features, 1976’s Carrie and 1980’s The Shining, remain the best King horror adaptations (in spite of his objections to the latter), and 1979’s Salem’s Lot is a scarier-than-average TV movie—quality-control issues started creeping into play throughout the ’80s, when the rights were handed out as liberally as Honorable Mention ribbons at a children’s swim meet. There’s always been good reason for studios to seek out King’s work, beyond his bestseller status: His novels and short stories alike are hooky and story-driven, with accents of character and setting that translate easily to the screen. But who’s doing the translating has been more of a crapshoot than necessary.
Cujo was one of a whopping five King adaptations to hit theaters and television in 1983, and even though it’s based on a full novel, it feels like a clear case of too much film built around too little material. Director Lewis Teague was presumably hired on the strengths of 1980’s Alligator, an above-average Jaws knockoff (written by John Sayles, no less), and he attempts the same secondhand Jaws magic with the rabid St. Bernard of King’s book. But between the burly farm dog getting nipped in the nose by a bat during the opening credits and the climactic showdown between the animal and two people trapped in a Ford Pinto, Teague and his screenwriters struggle to pass the time. Just getting to the damned dog takes some doing.
King’s book follows a typical middle-class suburban couple, providing the drama of a fractious marriage between breakfast-cereal pitchman Daniel Hugh Kelly and his wife Dee Wallace, who’s been carrying on a regrettable affair with a local handyman. There’s also a comically disposable subplot about toxic product threatening the “Sharp Cereal Professor” that Kelly and his partner created. But all roads lead to a farm that doubles as a mechanic shop and a St. Bernard that keeps getting sicker and sicker, gaining near-supernatural menace. When Wallace and her irritating 10-year-old son (Danny Pintauro, who had not yet developed the chops that would carry him through eight seasons as Jonathan Bower on Who’s The Boss?) drive the Pinto to the farm for repair, it breaks down as soon as they arrive, and the dog pens them in the middle of the driveway.
The last half-hour of Cujo would make a fine standalone short film, because it cuts away all the superfluous melodrama of the previous hour and offers a simple, terrifying dilemma akin to a rowboat drifting into shark-infested waters. If Wallace and her son leave the car, they’ll be mauled to death; if they stay, they may also get mauled to death, if sunstroke doesn’t get them first. Ending this standoff takes an act of raw courage and desperation, and Teague does a capable job of keeping the tension high, even when Cujo chickens out on King’s ending. But no film can survive a first hour that could be written off as disposable.
The producers opted to back off the ending of 1987’s The Running Man, too, but that’s only one in a series of compromises that turned the slim science-fiction novel, written under the King pseudonym Richard Bachman, into a dim Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle. Three years later, Schwarzenegger teamed up with Paul Verhoeven for Total Recall, and the two films are a study in how to (and how not to) integrate brainy science-fiction ideas into a bloody, quip-filled Schwarzenegger shoot-’em-up. Verhoeven proved his ability to do just that with Robocop the same year, and Total Recall smartly cherry-picks some of Philip K. Dick’s ideas while exploiting its star’s limited (but undeniable) charisma. The Running Man, by contrast, almost goes out of its way not to develop any of the social politics in King’s dystopia, and seems content to stick with the dumb violence and cheesy one-liners that had become Schwarzenegger’s stock in trade.
It’s still compelling, mind. Though the filmmakers botch the thematic possibilities of a totalitarian state where the criminal-justice system feeds inmates to a gladiator game show, The Running Man does well to relay its bread-and-circuses appeal. With Richard Dawson, the greatest of all talk-show schmoozers, cast as the villainous host, the TV show The Running Man sends violent convicts (and/or dissidents) through a gauntlet of musclehead “stalkers” like “Buzzsaw,” who motorcycles around the arena with a chainsaw, or “Dynamo,” an electric-bolt-shooting behemoth whose only weakness is water. Falsely condemned for killing scores of civilians in a military raid, Schwarzenegger and a few of his fellow inmates—as well as snooping love interest María Conchita Alonso—are forced to play, but his surprising success at killing all comers turns public sentiment in his favor.
Working from a script by Steven E. de Souza, the action maestro whose credits include 48 Hrs. and Die Hard, actor-turned-director Paul Michael Glazer seems completely uninterested in investing The Running Man with any meaning, or even much thought-through detail. The forces that created and maintain this dystopia are unseen and unexplained, and simple things like the basic rules of the game are left hanging, too. (Why, for example, do select members of the studio audience get copy after copy of the Running Man home game?) On a surface level, there’s a modicum of satisfaction to seeing Schwarzenegger gut his way through the stalkers and land clanking rejoinders (“Where’s Buzzsaw?” “He had to split”), but only Dawson rises above the fray. His smarmy performance gets at the sinister nature of TV hosts who promise the world to their contestants, but would seem equally pleased if there were alligators behind Door #3.
Key features: Olive Films Blu-rays are typically frills-free, but both Cujo and The Running Man include recently recorded commentaries by their directors.