Stephen King's Many Monsters Of '83

We look back at the year King reigned supreme at the cinema.

By Tim Coleman · @fatscoleman · December 30, 2023, 11:00 AM EST

As we close out the year of King, celebrating 40 years of a Stephen King cinematic trifecta, we take one more look back at these three iconic cinematic adaptations — and the monsters they birthed. Stephen King's success has always been inextricably linked to cinema. From being inspired by the monster films of his youth to the speed at which his books were adapted – debut novel Carrie made the leap from page to screen in only two years – there's something intensely visual about his prose. And when one considers his command of language, gift for imagery and ear for dialogue, it becomes clear that King is a writer who – from the very beginning – was made for the movies.

By 1983, this was already becoming obvious. After Carrie in '76 there had been Tobe Hooper's TV 1979 adaptation of Salem's Lot and then of course, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining in 1980 – which, despite upsetting many, not least King himself, is still widely considered one of the all-time great horror films. It's fair to say that together, this triptych set the bar high, but it was only a preview of coming attractions.

By the end of 1983 King would go nuclear, with three more films released by three very different directors, all of whom would put their own unique stamp on the writer's work. And this trilogy would demonstrate one of the most enduring of King's own thematic preoccupations: who – or what - is a monster.

Cujo DVD

In August of '83, Lewis Teague's Cujo appeared to answer that question unequivocally. Essentially Jaws-on-land, the story sees the titular Saint Bernard bitten by a rabies-infected bat before descending into a murderous, man-eating rage. But while on the surface Cujo is the monster, Teague's movie smarty interrogates that with disturbing results.

The film opens with nipper Tad (Danny Pintauro) being afraid of monsters in his closet, a childish notion his parents, Donna (Dee Wallace) and Vic (Daniel Hugh Kelly), try to cure him of. But Tad's right. There is something wrong hiding in the house, though it's not a beast that must be exorcised with magic words: Donna's having an affair with local handyman Kemp (Christopher Stone), and the family's domestic life is about to explode.


This idea of infidelity – and a toothsome monster that comes to punishment it – is something that also nods towards Peter Benchley's novel Jaws (though it is missing from Spielberg's adaptation). Here too, it's easy to read Donna and Tad's later entrapment in her broken-down Pinto as some kind of judgment (particularly with Tad singing John Williams' iconic score at an earlier dinner sequence). However, while the Great White was an impassive antagonist, Cujo is richly personified; our sympathies aligned with him from early scenes of an unhappy home life that – just like Tad – he must endure.

Belonging to the Camber Family, Cujo – along with kid Billy (Billy Jacoby) and mum Charity (Kaiulani Lee) – are dominated by patriarch Joe (Ed Lauter), a local mechanic who plans to spend his wife's lottery winnings on "broads, booze and baseball" while she's out of town. So when Cujo's whimpering goes unheeded, and his kill switch finally flips, it's Joe and his drunkard friend Gary (Mills Watson) who are the first to go. Cujo might be a hulking, blood-drenched beast, but Joe is arguably the first real monster.

Cujo Dee Wallace

Another is Kemp, Donna's ex-lover who – once jilted – sexually assaults her before breaking into the family home to tear her bedsheets to shreds. Yes, Donna may have cheated on her husband, but the film clearly parallels Kemp with Cujo: a savage, violent creature who puts a mother and her child at risk.

A few months later, on October 21 - just in time for Halloween - David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone opened. A far more restrained and cerebral King property, it tells the story of Johnny (a career-best performance from Christopher Walken) who, after a terrible car crash, awakens from a coma with powers to divine the future of anyone whose hand he touches. It's a blessing and a curse, allowing him to warn children of impending disaster and help cops catch a serial killer, but also to realize that aspiring presidential candidate Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) will one day plunge the world into nuclear war.


What marks The Dead Zone, though, isn't primarily its horror trappings - though there are certainly plenty (murder, gore, supernatural shenanigans) - but rather the rich sense of melancholy between Johnny and former fiancée Sarah (Brooke Adams). During his coma, she moved on, but their later encounters are rich with aching sadness; two former lovers unable to move beyond what might have been had fate dealt them a kinder hand.

The monster of The Dead Zone – emerging quietly in the wake of the serial killer subplot – is Stillson, and Sheen plays him to perfection. Sixteen years before he became everyone's favorite (fictitious) president in The West Wing, Sheen imbues Stillson with a sleazy charm: a firm handshake and winning smile concealing his predatory nature. Cujo may have eaten people, but Stillson could one day kill us all, and as such, Johnny lays his life down, attempting to assassinate Stillson in a heart-in-mouth finale. And – although Johnny fails – Stillson reveals his true nature when he tries to use Sarah's child as a human shield, thus destroying his reputation and chances of the presidency.

The Dead Zone (1983)

On a side note, others have commented about how the rise of Donald Trump eerily echoes that of Stillson – broad-talking with a persona that thinly veils his dangerousness – which makes King something of a real-life Johnny; a man with the ability to peer into the future with an unnerving level of accuracy.


But '83 wasn't done with King yet, and in December Christine pulled into theatres. Marking John Carpenter's return after The Thing bombed the previous year (ironically costing Carpenter the chance to helm Firestarter, another King gig), the director has been candid about how this film was – to him - just a job. So it's remarkable then that it's, in fact, another classic, both in Carpenter's glittering run of masterpieces and among the pantheon of King adaptations.

Following high-schooler Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon), it's the story of how a geek gets the girl, or in this case, a 1958 Plymouth Fury that looks like heaven but is possessed by hell. Ostensibly an "evil car" movie, with King and Carpenter behind the wheel, it's so much more, again subverting ideas about who – or what – the monster is.

Christine (1983)

Sure, Christine kills a bunch of people. Yes, in one iconic scene, she mows down a bully while her chassis burns aflame, but she does so for love, destroying those who hurt her man and would hurt her too. Similarly, as his infatuation for his car gradually takes over Arnie, he physically transforms into a '50s greaser, all swagger, charisma, and confidence. "Let me tell you a little something about love," he says in one key sequence, "It has a voracious appetite. It eats everything. Friendship. Family… But I'll tell you something else. You feed it right, and it can be a beautiful thing, and that's what we have."


The framing of Arnie and Christine's love affair is utterly sincere, and it's this – perhaps like Johnny and Sarah in The Dead Zone – which adds an element of tragic complexity, particularly in the finale where Christine dips her headlights in grief as Arnie dies in front of her. Yes, she's a killer (as is Cujo), but could it be that our sympathies are aligned with her, if only for a moment?

That's the great thing about King: the monsters in his movies may be fantastical, but they're rooted in reality and cause us to look a little closer to home. Maybe we're not going to encounter a rabid dog or a possessed vehicle, but we might meet an abusive man, a dangerous ex, a politician who - if unchecked - could destroy the world, or a love so fierce it might do so too. It's a hell of a lesson, and King taught it to us in just one year.