Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Stephen King Month: The Shining (1980)

I have to confess that I'm not much of a Stanley Kubrick fan; that's film-critic heresy, but much of Kubrick's work strikes me as too aloof and closed off, and even the movies of his that I like I tend to appreciate more than enjoy. The Shining is a movie of immense technical achievement, but at heart I find it too cold. That kind of detachment is fine for certain stories, but Stephen King's work is almost always driven by emotion, and I think that's a major element lacking in Kubrick's film. At the same time, I was constantly impressed with Kubrick's ability to build tension in a sort of sadistic, dispassionate way, like a kid torturing a bug with magnifying glass. It's difficult to empathize with any of the characters in the movie, but the sense of dread that comes out of the imagery combined with the relentless score of modernist classical music will eat at you over time.

The Shining is also just an amazing movie to look at; it features one of the earliest uses of the Steadicam, and Kubrick's long tracking shots through the cavernous Overlook Hotel are mesmerizing, giving a sense of its enormity as well as its emptiness. The hotel itself was built entirely on soundstages, and it's a monumental achievement in production design. Kubrick's meticulousness comes through in the movie's use of color, the way each corridor and room is dominated by a particular hue, sometimes bold and bright, sometimes muted and pale, but always noticeable and always contributing to the sense of the characters being isolated and overwhelmed.

The characters themselves are another story, though. Despite Kubrick's legendary penchant for dozens of takes, the performances in The Shining don't quite work together, or with the movie's impeccable design sense. Jack Nicholson, as writer Jack Torrance, is plenty intense and scary, but the problem is that he plays Jack as essentially unhinged from the start, even before the Overlook starts to warp his mind. So even the early domestic scenes of Jack and his family, or his interview with the managers of the Overlook for the job of winter caretaker, come off as slightly unsettled and disturbing. While King's story is about Jack's descent into madness and his possession by the evil that resides in the hotel, the movie seems to present Jack as inherently unstable, and thus much of the humanity of the character is lost.

Shelley Duvall is irritatingly hysterical as Jack's wife Wendy, and Danny Lloyd is awkward and flat as their son Danny, although that sometimes contributes to the creepiness of his line readings. It's weird to say that the movie succeeds in spite of its characters, but that's a testament to Kubrick's abilities as a craftsman. It misses the point of King's novel, and it seems to have a misunderstanding of what's truly scary about the story, but it nevertheless manages that feeling of dull anxiety throughout, which is something that few King movies achieve. And of course, telling the story exactly as conceived in the novel isn't the best approach anyway; I may not love this movie, but I wouldn't hesitate to take it over the more literal King-penned TV adaptation from 1997. That one has the whole story, but almost none of the craft.

How far to Castle Rock: Kubrick is definitely not the type for cutesy references to other works, although at one point Jack does mention Portland, Maine.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Stephen King Month: Christine (1983)

It's weird to see someone else's name as the possessive credit on a Stephen King movie; even the most tangentially connected films often slap King's name above the title as a cheap marketing gimmick. But this is indeed as much "John Carpenter's Christine" as it is "Stephen King's Christine," and Carpenter is one of a handful of directors who seems genuinely interested in putting his own stamp on King's material rather than just serviceably dramatizing it or cashing in on the familiar name. He doesn't bring as bold a vision to the King material as, say, David Cronenberg or Stanley Kubrick, but he does make the movie his own. Of all the King movies that I watched this month and had never seen before, Christine is the only one that actually impressed me.

It fits in well with other early Carpenter horror movies like Halloween and The Fog, setting horrific events among mundane suburban activities, and featuring unassuming average people as the protagonists. And Christine the car, a 1958 Plymouth Fury with some sort of demonic soul, is as unknowable as Michael Myers or the fog itself; none of the "villains" in these movies ever speaks a word. Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Phillips take out some of the back story from King's novel, making Christine more of an enigma, and the movie is scarier when we don't know how or why this car has become evil and taken on a life of its own. Carpenter also does a much better job than King himself did a few years later in Maximum Overdrive of making a driverless vehicle seem malicious and scary.

The humans in the movie are good, too: Keith Gordon is excellent as the nerdy Arnie Cunningham, who becomes obsessed with Christine and turns into a nasty, vindictive loner under her spell. Carpenter ties the car's menace to the period of time in which it was created, adding a masterful, dialogue-free prologue that shows the car's genesis on a Detroit assembly line, and using sunny rock n' roll oldies as signifiers of the moments when Christine is about to get homicidal. And in one of the cleverest touches in the movie, Arnie starts dressing more and more like a '50s greaser as he falls further under the car's influence. King has played with the insidiousness of 1950s culture and style a handful of other times (probably most notably in Sometimes They Come Back), and Carpenter makes it subtle enough to avoid being silly while being obvious enough to convey the change in the character.

John Stockwell is also good as Arnie's more level-headed best friend, and he and Gordon have a nice relaxed chemistry that establishes their friendship before Arnie goes off the deep end (Gordon and Stockwell both later essentially quit acting to become successful directors). The ending comes on a little abruptly, but overall Carpenter maintains an excellent balance of character development and scares, throws in some nice moments of humor (Robert Prosky is amusing as Arnie's curmudgeonly boss) and is always inventive with his camera movements. It may be more unassuming, but I'd put Christine right up there with Carrie and Misery among the very best King movies.

How far to Castle Rock: The book takes place in Pennsylvania, and the movie switches locations to California, but neither one features Castle Rock.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Stephen King Month: The Night Flier (1997)

Carrying the dubious distinction of being the Stephen King adaptation with the lowest theatrical gross, The Night Flier plays like a mediocre '90s TV show -- perhaps a forgettable episode of The X-Files, or an installment in the syndicated revival of The Outer Limits. The flat direction and straightforward procedural story only take a slight turn for the inventive toward the end, but at that point it's far too late to care about what happens to cynical tabloid journalist Richard Dees (Miguel Ferrer) in his quest to track down the title character, a vampire who travels via single-engine plane.

Ferrer is a solid character actor who knows how to play gruff and off-putting, but he overdoes the tough-guy routine a little as Dees, a veteran reporter who doesn't take kindly to demands from his editor or the fresh-faced young recruit (Julie Entwisle) who wants to muscle in on his story. Dees is meant to be unlikable, but Ferrer and co-writer/director Mark Pavia can't quite make the leap from Dees' early jaded antagonism to his later development of empathy as he witnesses the vampire's horrors. It doesn't help that the pouty Entwisle (playing a character who isn't in King's original short story) adds nothing to the movie other than a way to stretch the plot out and keep Dees from getting to the vampire too quickly. The contrast between her wide-eyed ambition and Dees' burnout is never fully developed.

There are a few creative touches at the movie's climax, including an amusing moment in which Dees sees the vampire pissing blood into a urinal behind him -- only all he sees is the stream of blood, since he's looking in a mirror. And the hallucinations that lead to Dees' downfall are pretty much the only actually creepy moment in the movie. The choice to have the vampire look like some outdated Dracula stereotype (complete with florid cape) makes him seem silly rather than scary, but there isn't enough humor for the movie to play effectively as a black comedy. This movie could have been edited down and aired as an episode of the unimpressive Nightmares & Dreamscapes King anthology TV series, and it would have fit right in.

How far to Castle Rock: The wall of covers at Inside View, the tabloid where Dees works, features a number of headlines with references to King stories, but none to Castle Rock. Dees does track the vampire to an airport in Maine, where an employee tells him that the vampire had just flown in from King's other favorite fictional small town, Derry.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Stephen King Month: Cujo (1983)

According to Stephen King, he barely remembers writing Cujo because he was drinking so heavily at the time, and I remember the book reading like it was written by someone who didn't know what kind of story he was trying to tell -- although admittedly I don't remember it all that well since it was such a long time ago (I was, however, sober). The movie version of Cujo, directed by Lewis Teague (who went on to also helm Cat's Eye two years later), streamlines King's story a bit, but by cutting out some of the extraneous subplots, it just emphasizes further how little there is to the story. Everyone knows that Cujo is about a rabid dog terrorizing innocent people, but it's a little surprising to watch the movie and see how long it takes for those events to actually occur.

Before we get to Donna (Dee Wallace) and her young son (Danny Pintauro of later Who's the Boss? fame) trapped in a car that won't start while the homicidal Cujo stalks their every move, we have to spend a long (long, long) time with Donna and her husband as they deal with their personal and financial troubles: She's having an affair with a moody carpenter, while he's about to lose a big client at his advertising firm. (Snore.) Building up characters over time can work well in a horror movie, so that when we finally do get to the terror, we care about what happens to these people and understand what makes them tick. But the domestic drama in Cujo is so anemic that all I was doing was counting down the moments until Cujo started tearing into people's flesh, which takes until at least the halfway point of the movie.

There's nothing supernatural going on in this story, and the way that two mundane things (a broken-down car, a rabid dog) can combine to create a horrific situation is portrayed effectively. The scenes of Donna and her son panicking as their options quickly dwindle are intense, and Wallace does a good job of creating empathy for her character (even though she's sort of being punished for her thoughtless affair). There's not enough of a connection between the earlier drama and the later horrors to justify all the time spent at the beginning, though, and the way that Donna's husband (Daniel Hugh-Kelly) symbolically heals their marriage and forgives her by coming to her rescue is a little retrograde and simplistic.

Then there's Cujo itself, which despite some heavy make-up work still looks like a fairly placid St. Bernard. It's easier to make a dog look menacing than it later was for the creators of Graveyard Shift to make rats look menacing, but there are still times when Cujo seems more cuddly than dangerous. I would have preferred a better sense of agony and terror from both the animal and the human characters, rather than a bland soap opera followed by scattered moments of genuine suspense.

How far to Castle Rock: Cujo is one of King's main Castle Rock novels, and the movie takes place there as well, although there's only one brief moment to indicate the setting, and the town as a whole doesn't really play a part in the story.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Stephen King Month: Dolores Claiborne (1995)

I always thought of Dolores Claiborne as unfairly underrated compared to more well-known "serious" Stephen King movies like The Shawshank Redemption, Stand by Me and The Green Mile, but watching it again this week I noticed a lot more flaws than I remembered. I still think it's unfairly underrated, and I also think it's an interesting kind of departure for King, not going for the inspirational uplift of those other "serious" movies, but also sticking to realism and a fairly grounded story without resorting to supernatural horror. It's a drama with a bit of a thriller in it, but mostly it's a character study of a woman who endured a lifetime of emotional abuse and tried hard not to pass that on to her daughter. And in that sense, it often succeeds quite well.

Kathy Bates brings a steely intensity to her performance as Dolores, a strong woman who mostly keeps her head down and does what she needs to do to get by, except when life pushes her so hard that she has to push back. It's a very different performance from the one Bates gave in Misery, but it's effective in its own less flashy way. Jennifer Jason Leigh is not quite as impressive as Dolores' daughter Selena, who returns to their small Maine island village when her mother is accused of murder. Dolores didn't kill the rich old woman she was taking care of, but she did kill Selena's abusive father (David Strathairn) 18 years before, and the movie switches between the two time periods as we learn what pushed Dolores over the edge.

Director Taylor Hackford navigates the two time periods well, but some of the emotional reveals are a little clunky. Leigh has a long courtroom speech at the end of the movie that lays things out far too neatly, and her relationship with her boss back in New York never feels like it matters. King's not known for writing great female characters, and Selena isn't as fully realized as Dolores. But Dolores is one of King's most interesting protagonists, and Hackford (along with screenwriter Tony Gilroy) mostly keeps her from becoming a stereotypical victim or a stereotypical bitch (even though one of her trademark lines is "Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold onto"). Selena, however, is a little more the stereotype of the brooding, ungrateful daughter, who left for the big city at the first opportunity. As we learn more about Dolores, we understand the tough choices she had to make, but as we learn more about Selena, she mostly just comes off as more selfish (even if she too was mistreated).

The wrap-up is too tidy, and the grudge held by a detective (Christopher Plummer) against Dolores for getting away with her husband's murder lacks the proper intensity. Still, Bates and Leigh play off each other well in the scenes that find them tearing into each other, and the dark drama offers probably the most realistic approach of any King movie. Not all of it works, but that parts that do deserve a second look from people who may have dismissed this movie as not up to the standards of other prestige King adaptations.

How far to Castle Rock: Accent-wise, this gives Pet Sematary a run for its money as the Maine-iest King movie, but there's no mention of Castle Rock (although Dolores does reference Shawshank Prison).

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Stephen King Month: Cat's Eye (1985)

Released in between the two Creepshow movies, Cat's Eye takes a similar approach of adapting several Stephen King short stories in an anthology format (and has a King-penned screenplay to boot). Unlike the Creepshow movies, it doesn't have a tongue-in-cheek tone or a nostalgic connection to old horror comics; it's pretty much a straight-up rendering of three King stories, connected by a cat who wanders through all three (and plays a major role in the final one). As such, it's a little flat, although the first two stories have a bit of charm to them. James Woods does a good job as the star of "Quitters, Inc.," about a very unorthodox agency to help people quit smoking. He plays a twitchy businessman who gets more than he bargained for when signing up with the company, which uses threats and violence to scare its clients into staying smoke-free. Director Lewis Teague stages one great scene in which Woods imagines cigarettes everywhere at a party, but the story kind of peters out at the end and suffers from too many leaps in logic (why do none of the clients ever call the police?).

The second story, "The Ledge," also loses steam after a little while, but Kenneth McMillan is amusing as the sleazy rich guy who forces his wife's lover (king of bland Robert Hays) to walk around his high-rise apartment building on a tiny ledge. It's a pretty one-note tale, and a little reminiscent of "Something to Tide You Over" from Creepshow, but it has moments of genuine tension and suspense. Unfortunately the movie climaxes with the lamest story of them all, featuring Drew Barrymore at her whiniest and some sort of tiny troll creature that terrorizes her. It isn't scary or darkly humorous like the first two, and it seems designed solely to justify the running cat motif. It's always been tough to find the proper medium to adapt King's short stories, and Cat's Eye doesn't quite get it right.

How far to Castle Rock: This movie is chock full of King references (the cat evades killer car Christine and rabid dog Cujo in the opening scene; The Dead Zone movie plays on a TV; characters read King novels), but none to Castle Rock.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Stephen King Month: The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

By a certain measurement, The Shawshank Redemption is the greatest movie ever made. If you believe the masses who vote over at the Internet Movie Database, Shawshank tops The Godfather, Schindler's List, all of the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings movies and various other classics and fanboy favorites. Of course, IMDb's list is always in flux, but Shawshank steadily maintains a place at or near the top, despite being a box-office failure in 1994 and left out of most academic or critical assessments of the best films (even just American films) of all time.

How did this happen? Part of it seems to come down to the deal that TNT got on the movie, which made it incredibly cheap for the channel to play it far more often than other licensed programs. The studio also flooded the home-video market after Shawshank tanked in theaters, and the movie found a much more receptive audience among people at home. It does sort of sneak up on you, and I can definitely imagine people passing it by on TV one afternoon, curiously stopping to watch a few minutes and getting sucked into the whole thing. Shawshank offers a familiar look at prison life in many ways, but it also turns that downbeat setting into the vehicle for a stirringly inspirational story, one that feels only a little bit manipulative. Unlike writer-director Frank Darabont's second Stephen King adaptation, The Green Mile, Shawshank mostly plays fair with its audience, allowing us to understand exactly how and why Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) and Ellis "Red" Redding (Morgan Freeman) triumphed over a corrupt system out to keep them down.

Of course, Shawshank presents an idealized version of prison life, notwithstanding the occasional beatings. Although Andy is innocent of his wife's murder beyond a shadow of a doubt, everyone else in Shawshank prison presumably committed the crimes they're serving time for, and the movie never bothers to reconcile those violent pasts with the inherently warm and kind personalities of the inmate characters. Only one convict in the entire prison ever treats anyone poorly, and he's the leader of the group known as "the Sisters," violent homosexuals who try and fail to make Andy one of their own. Red qualifies at one point that they're not really homosexuals ("you have to be human first"), but the mild homophobia on display is one of the movie's only sour notes.

Otherwise it's one triumph after another, starting small and moving toward Andy's eventual escape from prison and his reunion with Red on the outside. There are a lot of elements from Shawshank that have since become iconic (Robbins shot from above, his arms outstretched in the rain; "Get busy living or get busy dying"; Freeman's entire narration), and they've stuck with audiences for a reason. Darabont knows how to build emotional moments, and Robbins and Freeman work well together to get just the right kinds of reactions. Robbins plays Andy as quiet but competent, the kind of guy who knows way more than he ever lets on. And although Freeman's character could be a cliche (and has become one in later parodies and imitations), Red almost never feels like a sidekick or plot device. He's friendly but cynical, and his rapport with Andy comes about slowly and naturally. He's as amazed as everyone else when Andy finally escapes, and that disbelief carries over to the audience even if we've seen the movie dozens of times.

Red's demeanor aside, Shawshank is also one of the least cynical movies ever made, and that's not only because it promotes hope and tolerance and the inherent goodness of humanity. It also denies some of the audience instinct for revenge, as Andy declines to exact vengeance on those who wronged him once he gets out of prison. Yes, he arranges for the corrupt prison officials to be indicted (although presumably he didn't plan to have the warden commit suicide), but he never goes after the man who really killed his wife and got away with it, who laughed about Andy's decades in prison for a crime he didn't commit. The cops who wrongfully arrested him, the judge who wrongfully convicted him, the lawyer who improperly defended him -- all are implicitly forgiven as Andy simply heads down to Mexico to start over. Maybe that's the secret of this movie's success -- its message that we are all better people than the worst circumstances in which we may find ourselves, and that we can forgive those who wrong us and start anew, free from any burden of guilt or anger that we may have harbored in our souls.

How far to Castle Rock: Although Shawshank is Maine's most notorious prison, none of the inmates hail from Castle Rock.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Stephen King Month: Needful Things (1993)

Apparently there is a three-hour cut of Needful Things that director Fraser C. Heston put together for TNT, which includes nearly an hour's worth of deleted scenes but also has been sanitized for television, with profanity and violence toned down. On the IMDb comment boards for this movie, someone notes a bootleg version with the TV cut and the theatrical cut stitched together in order to maximize both R-rated content and additional footage. There's clearly a very obsessive (if also very small) cult around this film, which is strange given that it comes off like a halfway effective adaptation of one of Stephen King's more bloated novels. I found a lot of it to be pretty entertaining, but I definitely wouldn't have wanted it to be an hour longer.

Part of the movie's strength is actually the way that it streamlines King's sprawling story and cuts out a whole bunch of minor characters. A TV miniseries version would have explored every little digression in the novel, but a movie should be more focused and condensed, and that's exactly what happens here. We have the hero (Ed Harris as small-town cop Alan Pangborn), the villain (Max Von Sydow as evil shopkeeper Leland Gaunt), the love interest (Bonnie Bedelia as Alan's fiancee) and a few supporting characters to illustrate the premise. That's all we need, especially since King's novel, which is billed as "the last Castle Rock story," relies heavily on background for character and setting from other books, which the movie doesn't have. Heston and writer W.D. Richter take just enough to tell the story, and throw out the rest (or at least relegate it to the extended cut).

Some of the stuff here is a little awkward, and the movie's climax relies too much on big explosions and a convenient speech that seems to erase all the complicated animosities between characters. Harris is a little bland as the crusading Alan, who seems to have no flaws, but Von Sydow is predictably strong as the devious Gaunt, who uses people's greatest desires to prod them into evil acts. J.T. Walsh hams it up as a paranoid local politician, but his performance works well as a depiction of the descent into complete madness and paranoia. Heston could have gone a little deeper, not by adding extra subplots but by exploring the themes more thoroughly, but his approach is entertaining enough, and the running time is just right.

How far to Castle Rock: As mentioned above, Needful Things is a key Castle Rock novel (although of course it wasn't really King's last Castle Rock story), and the movie takes place there as well. The character of Alan Pangborn was played just a few months earlier by Michael Rooker in The Dark Half, but the movie ignores connections to other King stories (even omitting the major character of Ace Merrill, played by Kiefer Sutherland in Stand By Me).

Monday, May 23, 2011

Stephen King Month: Creepshow 2 (1987)

There are a lot of basically unrelated sequels to Stephen King movies (the Children of the Corn series, Pet Sematary Two, etc.), but Creepshow 2 is the only King sequel that fits my criteria for this project, since it's based directly on King source material (a few of his short stories). It's also a much more straightforward King adaptation than the first Creepshow, despite nominally sticking to the conceit of mimicking old E.C. comic books. Unlike George A. Romero, who directed the first movie (and wrote this one), sequel director Michael Gornick doesn't try to approximate the look and feel of lurid horror comics with his visual style, sticking instead to a more sedate, basic shooting style (which is a little odd considering that he was Romero's cinematographer on the original). Instead, he puts all of the E.C.-style stuff in the interludes, animated segments that feature a Cryptkeeper-like ghoul introducing the various stories.

Even those bits kind of look like '80s Saturday-morning cartoons, though, and the whole thing just comes off as a little low-rent and second-rate. Even the quantity has been reduced -- only three stories here instead of five, and only two that really pack any punch. "Old Chief Wood'nhead" opens the movie limply, taking way too long to get to its horror conceit (a wooden store Indian that comes to life to avenge the deaths of its owners) and then underplaying the eventual carnage. The concept is pure E.C. cheese, but Gornick doesn't know how to goose it properly, and it ends up awkwardly balanced between camp and seriousness.

The next two stories fare better, and even have moments of genuine creepiness. "The Raft" makes good use of a minimalist monster (basically just a film of slime floating on the top of a lake) but is undone by some truly awful acting, and "The Hitchhiker" has a classic moralizing E.C. premise but stretches itself a little thin. The woman who runs down a hitchhiker and then flees the scene clearly deserves a proper comeuppance, and seeing the man, bloody and beaten, continually in her path is a nice way to torment her. It's a little like an old ghost story given extra trappings, including an opening scene that features the woman visiting a male prostitute, as if King and Romero needed to make her just a little bit more distasteful so that her torment would be easier to accept.

It's too bad that the Creepshow franchise didn't continue (there was a direct-to-video Creepshow 3 in 2007 that involved neither King nor Romero), because the idea was fun and King clearly has affection for the old E.C. style. But even by this second installment, the commitment to the idea seemed to be waning.

How far to Castle Rock: Although the first Creepshow had a couple of Castle Rock references, there aren't any in this edition.

King cameo: He plays a truck driver who stops to help the injured title character in "The Hitchhiker."

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Stephen King Month: Maximum Overdrive (1986)

Usually cited as Exhibit A in the case for why Stephen King should stick to writing books instead of making movies, Maximum Overdrive is really not as awful as it's made out to be. The only movie King ever directed, Overdrive is dumb and clearly a bit of a mess (King has admitted to being coked out of his mind the entire time he was working on the movie, and not really sure what he was doing), but it's also sometimes clever and fun, and if the camp moments had outweighed the plodding action sequences, it might have emerged as a genuine cult classic. Instead, it's merely an intriguing misfire.

Based loosely King's short story Trucks, Overdrive features machines (mainly big-rig trucks) coming to life and menacing human beings, thanks to some sort of cosmic radiation or possibly alien influence from the tail of a comet that is enveloping the Earth and producing cut-rate neon-green special effects in the sky. The movie starts out with a nicely nasty sense of humor, as we see the LED screen outside a bank displaying "Fuck you," and an ATM merely prints the word "asshole" over and over again. King then stages a rather amusing sequence that involves a drawbridge going up without warning, as cars, people and watermelons collide into each other.

These two bits are essentially disconnected from the main story, which takes place at an isolated truck stop where a group of people are hiding out from giant semis that have suddenly become sentient and gone rogue. It's a standard post-apocalypse collection of colorful types, including the stoic hero (Emilio Estevez). King alternates between campy touches (the sort of leader of the trucks is a toy company vehicle with a giant Green Goblin head on the front of it) and boring seriousness, which reaches its low point in the ridiculous romance between Estevez's hero and a drifter played by Laura Harrington. The supposed worldwide revolt of the machines is poorly conceived and full of plot holes (a newscaster advises people to stay away from all electrical devices, while presumably broadcasting using a whole range of them), and the solutions to the problem are inconsistent and lazy.

The whole movie is lazy, which is the main problem. King goes for the easy laughs and the easy suspense, and when he's stuck in a corner he just blows stuff up (the movie's entire climax is just explosion after explosion). Overdrive is definitely not the work of a filmmaker in control of his craft, but it's also not so moronic or inept as to be unwatchable. It's a misfire with flashes of potential, and it's kind of too bad that King has bought into the dominant narrative about the movie and will probably never direct again.

How far to Castle Rock: Somewhat surprisingly for a movie over which King had complete control, Overdrive doesn't even take place in Maine; instead it's set in North Carolina.

King cameo: He plays the bank patron getting insulted by an ATM in the opening scene.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Stephen King Month: Children of the Corn (1984)

Of all the Stephen King movies that Hollywood churned out in the '80s, Children of the Corn is among the least likely to turn into a long-running franchise, but that's exactly what happened: The 1984 original spawned six loosely related sequels and a 2009 made-for-TV remake, and there are rumors of a theatrical remake on the way. So what's the appeal? It's not that this movie is particularly compelling or well-made -- it's serviceable at best, and frequently dull. But the concept of a cult of evil kids is pretty compelling, and it lends itself to various approaches, which is useful when pretty much every new installment features an entirely new setting and cast.

For this version, which makes a number of changes from King's original short story, we have a couple (Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton) getting lost on the back roads of Nebraska and happening on the isolated small town where the kids have banded together in some weird religious cult after having killed all the adults. It takes far too long for the main characters to stumble into danger, and seemingly half the movie is just them wandering through the empty town, and then later running through it as the kids chase them down. The concept is genuinely creepy, though, and director Fritz Kiersch gets a bit of mileage out of the disturbing zealotry of the kids. John Franklin is great as prophet/leader Isaac, who totally had the potential to be the Jason/Freddy of the eventual franchise (instead, he only appeared in one sequel, 1999's Children of the Corn 666: Isaac's Return, co-written by Franklin himself).

Julie Maddalena is also strong as one of Isaac's main disciples, and she anchors what's probably the best scene in the movie, a ceremony in which a 19-year-old cultist is prepared for facing death by He Who Walks Behind the Rows. Unfortunately, Kiersch spends more time with Courtney Gains as the snotty henchman Malachai, and the climax ditches the kids in favor of a vague monster embodied by really terrible special effects. The movie ends by literally just slapping the words "The End" on the screen in what feels like the middle of a scene, but of course things went on unnecessarily long after that.

How far to Castle Rock: I'm pretty sure they don't grow much corn in Maine, so the movie and story quite sensibly take place in Nebraska.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Stephen King Month: Firestarter (1984)

I'm pretty sure Firestarter is the first Stephen King movie I ever saw, although I'm not sure if I ever managed to see the whole thing. I remember watching bits and pieces of it on TV as a kid, but watching it again this week, I definitely noticed a lot of unfamiliar parts. Obviously the TV snippets were enough for me back then, and seeing the whole film hasn't really changed that judgment. Characters on the run from secret government experiments was a popular plot device in the '80s, and the first half of Firestarter is a fairly uninspired chase movie, with seriously crappy acting from David Keith as telepath Andy McGee and Drew Barrymore as his pyrokinetic daughter Charlie. The movie improves a little in its second half, after George C. Scott shows up as a devious and possibly insane government agent, and the action shifts to a secret compound where Andy and Charlie have been imprisoned.

It's still pretty cheesy (especially the awkward, stunt-filled climax), and Keith and Barrymore are still pretty bad, but Scott really digs in to the role of the damaged government agent who's seen too much and has calmly gone off the deep end. The way he cheerily manipulates Charlie and then coldly talks about how he plans to kill her is pretty chilling, and Scott gives it every bit of casual menace it deserves. His character's fate is about as disappointing as everyone else's, but at least he offers up some excitement along the way.

Firestarter was Barrymore's first role after her breakthrough in E.T., and it smacks of producers trying too hard to give her something edgy and impressive. Even though she's become a better actress as she's moved into adulthood, she's still fundamentally sort of cutesy and whiny, and those qualities really drag down her performance here. Charlie is meant to be formidable and intimidating, but even when she's burning down the entire compound and killing dozens of people at the end of the movie, she just looks pouty and cranky. Firestarter is really more sci-fi than horror, but that final sequence should be at least a little unsettling. Instead, Barrymore (along with the second-rate effects) makes it sort of silly. Scott's performance aside, sort of silly is about the best this movie has to offer.

How far to Castle Rock: Andy and Charlie spend the movie's first half on the lam from the government, but they never make it to rural Maine.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Stephen King Month: Misery (1990)

Rob Reiner and William Goldman are just about the last people you'd expect to team up to make a great horror movie, but Misery is not only one of the very best Stephen King adaptations, but also a truly unsettling and suspenseful piece of filmmaking. It may be Reiner and Goldman's backgrounds in other types of movies that allow them to make Misery so fascinating and disturbing; they're not concerned with goosing the audience or grossing them out, and the horror of the movie comes purely from the dynamic between the two main characters. Kathy Bates deservedly won an Oscar for her performance as obsessed fan Annie Wilkes, but James Caan provides the perfect balance for her as author Paul Sheldon, whose cynicism and pragmatism is a great contrast to Annie's delusions. It's easy to identify with his terror as he slowly realizes just what kind of person has "rescued" him from his car accident, but he's never a helpless or hapless victim.

That straightforward ingenuity works for the character, but it also means that Caan underplays while Bates steals the show as one of the best villains in the whole King canon. One of the scariest things about Annie is how close she is to being just a normal eccentric, the lonely middle-aged lady who buys romance novels at the grocery store and engages in pointless small talk with the clerk, then goes home to her empty house. Her fandom is recognizable, especially 20 years later in the age of J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer, and Bates easily connects that creepy if innocuous obsession to the more deadly variety that consumes Annie. Reading about the kind of vitriol directed by "fans" at people like George R.R. Martin, it's easy to imagine someone taking a fairly small step to where Annie is.

Bates and Reiner both do a great job of showing Annie's escalating grotesquerie; one of the movie's wonderful touches is how often Bates is shot from below, putting the audience in Paul's perspective as she looms over him, taking up his entire field of vision. We're right with him when he finally takes Annie out, but Bates is able to give her enough sadness that we sort of feel bad for her, too. If she maybe got herself some psychiatric meds and had lived in the age of the internet, she'd be semi-stable and spending all her time on Paul Sheldon message boards pillorying her favorite author for killing off her most beloved character. As usual, it's the identifiable human element that makes evil that much more tragic and disquieting.

How far to Castle Rock: Misery takes place in King's second favorite state, Colorado, with no mention of the small Maine town.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Stephen King Month: Pet Sematary (1989)

I remember being really freaked out by Pet Sematary when I saw it as a kid, finding its combination of dead toddlers and unholy resurrection especially unsettling. So I was wondering how it would hold up all these years later, and while a lot of it is undeniably cheesy (as seems to be consistently the case with screenplays that Stephen King writes himself), plenty of it still is pretty freaky and unsettling, and it's definitely one of the darker King stories around. The lead performance from Dale Midkiff is a little weak, and he has a few moments of anguish that are laughable. But Fred Gwynne is terrific in the supporting role of the folksy neighbor with deadly secrets, and Midkiff's everyman blandness works to his advantage much of the time.

Midkiff plays big-city doctor Louis Creed, who relocates to small-town Maine (of course) with his wife and two young kids, buying a house that happens to be adjacent to the titular burial ground. When Louis' daughter's cat gets hit by a truck while she's out of town, Louis' avuncular neighbor Jud Crandall (Gwynne) shows him a special Native American cemetery (of course) just beyond the regular one for pets, which brings back to life anything buried in its soil. So the cat comes back mean and smelling bad, but that doesn't stop Louis from burying his toddler son Gage there too, when Gage also gets hit by a truck. Pet Sematary works best in the way it plays on natural feelings of parental love and protection and turns them sour, and twists the natural appeal of a cute moppet (Miko Hughes, as Gage, is plenty cute) into something sinister and evil.

The movie's climax is suitably unpleasant and bleak, but some of the steps along the way are a little silly. The ghost of a patient who warns Louis (and later Louis' wife) about the dangers of the cemetery is a lame plot device that overemphasizes what should be left to implication, and Hughes, while cute, has trouble conveying menace once Gage comes back to life (it's no coincidence that a lot of his lines are heard from offscreen). Gwynne makes up for a lot of these missteps, though, perfectly embodying the insidiousness of small-town friendliness that so often lurks beneath the surface of King's stories (he may just have the best Maine accent in any King movie). Director Mary Lambert also does a good job with some of the smaller touches, like the grotesque paintings in Louis' in-laws' house. It wasn't quite enough to freak me out again, but it did draw me in.

How far to Castle Rock: The accents are a dead giveaway that the movie takes place in Maine, although the location is never explicitly mentioned.

King cameo: He plays the minister who officiates at a funeral, and avoids overacting for once.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Stephen King Month: The Green Mile (1999)

As far as prestige Stephen King projects go, The Green Mile is by far the most excessive. You could think of it as the height of the form -- although The Shawshank Redemption garnered more Oscar nominations (seven, to Mile's four) and has become an enduring classic (it's ranked at the top of IMDb's user rankings at the moment), Mile was a bigger deal right out of the gate. It's still by far the highest-grossing King movie ever made, and it came long enough after Shawshank's reputation had started to grow that it was anointed a success thanks to its pedigree (King, writer-director Frank Darabont, a period piece set in a prison) before even being released. People still love Mile, but to me it feels calcified by all of those expectations and preconditions, ladling on inspiration and meaning so thickly that it becomes suffocating. (I had to break up my recent viewing of the movie over two days just to get through the bloated, three-hour-plus running time.)

Darabont is a solid craftsman who put together an impressive cast, though, so Mile is never exactly unpleasant, just mildly irritating and frequently condescending. Thank goodness for Tom Hanks, who holds everything together as Paul Edgecomb, the head guard on death row in a Louisiana prison in 1935. Paul is compassionate without being syrupy, and that helps since so much of the story is incredibly sentimental. Hanks' measured performance is offset by Michael Clarke Duncan, who got a totally undeserved Oscar nomination for his hammy portrayal of John Coffey, the mentally challenged African-American inmate who touches the lives of all the other characters. Coffey is possibly the most egregious example of the "magical Negro" storytelling trope, and Duncan gives him this exaggerated childlike manner that's just incredibly grating. King tends to rely on these kinds of characters (both magical Negroes and saintly mentally handicapped people) far too often, and Darabont plays up all the most annoying aspects of the character without giving him any depth.

There are a lot of other strong actors elsewhere, though, even in small roles -- David Morse, Barry Pepper and Jeffrey DeMunn as the fellow guards, James Cromwell as the tortured prison warden, Patricia Clarkson as the warden's wife. The other inmates are nearly as cartoonish as John Coffey, though: Michael Jeter does an exaggerated Cajun accent as Eduard "Del" Delacroix, Graham Greene is the stereotypical stoic Native American as Arlen Bitterbuck, and Sam Rockwell goes nuts as the only prisoner on death row who isn't a completely great guy, making up for the meekness of his fellow inmates with over-the-top nasty behavior. I don't necessarily expect realism from King movies, but since Mile presents itself as a serious period piece (albeit with supernatural elements) rather than a fantastical horror movie, the laziness of the characterization is especially frustrating.

It's even more frustrating because it panders to the demands of a Shawshank-loving audience looking for easy uplift, which Mile delivers excessively over the course of its overlong narrative (King's novel was originally published in six monthly installments, which accounts for the protracted, episodic nature of the story). Darabont spends nearly 20 minutes just on the mawkish framing story featuring an elderly Paul in a nursing home, and slathers every significant moment with swelling orchestral music and sweeping camera movements. I wouldn't say that I hate The Green Mile, because it has noble intentions and a level of skill behind it, but it's probably the King movie I find the most laborious to watch.

How far to Castle Rock: Sadly no glimpses of what was going on there during the Depression; the movie sticks to Louisiana.