Cujo, Children of the Corn, & Pet Sematary, Reviewed October 9, 2019
successor, in terms of the realm of King adaptations, is an across-the-board foul-up. Children of the Corn, from 1984, is lazy and inadvertently campy — a movie that knows what feelings King is capable of evoking in us as readers but is perplexed as to how to make the sensations of his novels transition nicely cinematically.
The story is straightforward. A couple, played by Linda Hamilton and Peter Horton, sees their car break down in a secluded Nebraska town en route to Seattle. They find out that the hamlet, which has ghostly energy, has been taken over by its children, who’ve formed a habit of adult-killing in recent years. They are led by the puggish Isaac (John Franklin), who has started a juvenile cult that bases its tenets on the needs of a deity exclusively referred to as “He Who Walks Beyond the Rows.” To ensure fruitful crop-harvesting, the youths provide the largely unseen being human sacrifices. Expectedly, the protagonistic couple is next in line.
I haven’t read the King short story Children of the Corn is based on, but I do know the power of horror movies that feature little kids as the villains for reference. When typically energetic and naïve youngsters suddenly turn cold and dead-eyed — as they did in Village of the Damned (1960) or The Omen (1976) — the frisson of fear becomes a semi-permanent fixture in our bodies, at least while we try to enjoy the film in which they cause trouble. But done wrong and killer-kid-driven storylines can be irreparably goofy. Children of the Corn, which has been artlessly directed by Fritz Kiersch, is the quintessence of an irreparably goofy fuck-up. Its beady-eyed kiddos aren’t scary — they’re just annoying. Franklin is especially irritating. He reminds me of a middle-school know-it-all who you can tell, from how he speaks and carries himself, is an inchoate extreme right-winger with proclivities for Chris Nolan and Fortnite. I was neither scared of him nor his lackeys. I wanted them to get out of my frame of view, as if they were flies that for some reason were avoiding getting electrocuted by the TV screen. The finale is pathetic from the outset, but then the shoddiness is further cemented by some ugly-looking, conspicuously slipshod special effects. I’d like to unwatch the whole movie, but that visual moment — which I won’t detail because I don't want to — particularly.
ujo is of a class of horror movies even detractors can respect: ones that may not holistically work but at least have in them a proficiency that shows competence and dedication on the part of the makers. But Cujo's
dog from hell — essentially a super-hungry lion who, if not able to snack on an innocent woodland creature to temporarily slake his pangs, is not opposed to lunging at a human throat. He’s a doggie vampire. Dogcula, maybe.
Cujo is a survival movie on a couple of fronts. We wonder: Will Cujo survive this rabies scare? Will a mother and son (Dee Wallace and Danny Pintauro) visiting Cujo’s part-time-mechanic parents to get the family car fixed survive after their sedan breaks down on the currently vacant farm, during a heatwave, as Cujo dances about the vehicle as if he were a furrier Jaws? The fate of the dog, whom I continued wanting to pet even after it had become clear he’d chew on me if I tried, has the same extinguished-antagonist fate in the movie that he does in the book. The film’s writers, Don Carlos Dunaway and Lauren Currier, fashion the good-boy-turned-bad into the efficiently demonic creature you tend to meet in most monster movies. You’re not meant to feel that sorry for him. King, in contrast, reminded us plenty in the novel that we should implicitly feel for Cujo. The giant pet was an unwitting victim turned into an unwitting bad guy, and suffered for it.
That’s a slight change I can live with. But less pardonable is the repurposing of the ending. Given to the adaptation is a happy, sigh of relief of a finale. That’s miles away from where the book lands: its final moments are fucked up in the bleakly appealing King way I rather like. His novels so often put our stomachs in knots because they, in addition to frequently toying with the supernatural and shining a light on real life’s shadowiest underbellies, regularly remind us that life is hyper-cruel. Just because we get to know a selected handful of characters doesn’t mean the world is going to be any nicer to them. Cujo the book recreated the unshakable chilliness one gets when they hear of a freak accident; Cujo the movie is a meant-to-be revivifying thriller — a well-acted and shot restaging of an incident talked about on an episode of I Survived (2008-present). By taking the latter stance, a frowziness is added. The feature takes a silly-but-still-scary-when-you-think-about-it conceit but foregoes its source’s nihilist shivers. Those shivers helped do away with the silliness. Part of the reason I think King endures in popular culture has to do with his willingness to go to the abstract “there”; the cinematic Cujo is deleteriously too timid to.
My dislike of the narrative Frankensteining shouldn’t imply that Cujo is an altogether bad movie. On technical and acting fronts it’s one of the better-made King adaptations. Lewis Teague has a good eye: compositionally he gets just right the claustrophobia that permeates the film. (Before it becomes a survival movie, the film is about how Wallace’s marriage to a Daniel Hugh-Kelly-portrayed cereal salesman is failing, and how she’s having an affair with a vindictive Christopher Stone-played man on the side.) And the underrated Wallace gives a characteristically emotive and physical performance; she’s among the few frequently christened scream queens who can match visceral terror with her expressions, body language. The good in Cujo, while not intermittent per se, is still not good enough to create a lasting, extensive veneer of effectiveness, though.
a bunny across a field and into the woods on the edges of his family’s farm. The bunny, quick and clever, leaps into its below-ground humble abode before it can become an appetizer. Cujo, dopey and spatially unaware, can only stick his head in the hole at the foyer of the substratum nest, alternately barking and crying. I imagine that, in dog speak, he’s saying “come back here!” Just as Cujo’s about to give up and return to his house, he realizes a couple of things. His lug of a head has gotten stuck in place. And the bunny isn’t just living with a crop of other bunnies. Adorning the wet ceilings of the cave thing is a group of rabid vampire bats. The epiphanies cause Cujo to understandably freak out. He gets bitten. A few hours later, he’s showing classic rabies symptoms. Within the next few days, he will have transformed into the archetypal
think it’s the bats we should be mad at, not the dog. At the beginning of Cujo, the 1983 adaptation of the Stephen King novel, the eponymous St. Bernard chases
Three Stephen King adaptations
From 1983's Cujo.
and potentially misguided, but, if executed intelligently enough, can be canny. They can either be helmed by an auteur who can replicate the spookiness of King’s prose — which tends to create a chill that gets steadily colder as a given chapter progresses — without being too dependent on the source material. Or they can stay true to what’s on the page and try not to get too carried away with their artistic differences. Carrie, from 1976, for the most part belonged to the latter camp, maintaining the pleasures of director Brian De Palma’s stylistic audacities. The Shining, from 1980, belonged to the former, and was understandably hated by King as an effect of the liberties Stanley Kubrick took. Still, it was great.
Pet Sematary (1989) is among the better King adaptations, and that’s mostly because of its tangible respect for King. It’s one of the author's heaviest books (which is saying something), and director Mary Lambert, whom King approved of in part due to her enthusiasm before production began, never balks at the movie’s grimmest detours. It has a few issues with schlockiness: a Ramones track serves as the movie’s quasi-theme song; the Grand Guignol makeup stirs in an unseriousness; and the use of a child as a villain winds up being far more amusing than I think it’s meant to be. (Though it's not as bad as it is in Children of the Corn.) But strong is the cinematic Pet Sematary's readiness to go to the aforementioned there. Once the film ended I was more dispirited than I was anything else, and I thought to myself that that was a good thing. So much of the time King shakes you up but ultimately makes you feel more like shit than a scared-shitless lamb. The adaptation of Pet Sematary speaks to this.
In store in Pet Sematary is a story of grief. A family — the Creeds — move to a farmhouse in Maine after patriarch Louis (Dale Midkiff) gets a job. But shortly after the unpacking process is the family overwhelmed by tragedy — the death of the family cat, then its youngest child (Miko Hughes). Ever-macabre, though, mourning is warped by the discovery that, if you bury your dead in a befogged graveyard adjacent to the Creeds’ new property, the corpse in question will come back to life. Come back to life “not right,” as a neighbor (Fred Gwynne) at one point clarifies, but back to life all the same — an evolution that Louis is tempted to see for himself as his sadness becomes more overpowering.
The movie gets more sinister as it descends into the darkness; cinematographer Peter Stein progressively emphasizes the shadows inching into the frame. By the time Pet Sematary reaches its conclusion, it’s gone from beckoning over a summery sunniness to letting the black smother the action with a murder pillow’s force. The film might have easily contrived a happy ending, but Lambert has clearly let King, who adapted the feature himself, bring his gloomiest ideas to the fore, almost gleefully so. Watching the film, you get exactly why, just like after reading the book, even King had a hard time being that fond of it. “I just had the greatest time writing the book until I was done with it,” he told Entertainment Weekly in a March interview. “And I read it over, and I said to myself, ‘This is awful. This is really f—ing terrible.'" He added that it wasn’t the quality that bothered him but how much he’d unwittingly plunged into the utmostly ink-black depths of humanity.
This adaptation mostly gets us to feel the same way as King, which I appreciate. Perhaps we don’t go to horror movies to be more depressed than we already are, but the despondence cast over the movie has been cast over excellently. That Pet Sematary was a box-office hit is especially impressive now. Here are horrors that, while tinged with twisted and dark fantasy, hit close to home.
Cujo, which won’t admit to itself the unfairness that plagues tragedies aplenty, and Children of the Corn, which is too stupidly made to kindle horror, cannot recreate what Pet Sematary does. They just don’t have the guts to really be ugly. The dissonance between King’s stuff on the page and King’s stuff on the screen can I think be attributed to this. If an adaptation doesn’t dare with King’s aplomb, it shouldn’t be made at all.
Children of the Corn: F
Pet Sematary: B+
any King adaptations are technically convincing while not being as frightening as the material on which they draw, like Cujo. The best King page-to-screen transitions usually do one or two things that are bold