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Fade to Black January 7, 2010

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It’s sort of impressive that it took me seven movies to reach the first Stephen King adaptation to unequivocally suck.  Children of the Corn (1984) is so bad, though, that one suspects director Fritz Kiersch was trying to make up for lost time.  To be fair, memory tells me that King’s novels make better movies than his short stories.  When I think of his movies that I consider to be sub-par, the ones based on short stories are the ones that leap to mind first.  I don’t remember much of the “Children of the Corn” story, but if the movie’s anything to go by, it must have been the very definition of flimsy.

The movie opens in the small town of Gatlin, Nebraska, and the first thing we hear is voiceover narration courtesy of Job, a plucky little kid who’s out on the town (after church, I think) with his father.  They swing by the local café, where Dad makes a phone call to his wife, and Job gets a milkshake because he’s a plucky little kid and that’s what plucky little kids do.  While all this small-towniness is going on – much coffee is drunk and many slices of pie are eaten – Job notices a creepy-looking kid (who, with his wide-brimmed hat appears to be Amish) peering in the front window.  He seems to be making eye contact with a second creepy-looking kid (this one with red hair and a serious overbite) playing pinball in the back of the café.  An unspoken signal is passed between them, and a third kid locks the door to the café.  It’s only then that all the children turn on their elders, poisoning the coffee, slicing their throats with knives and sickles, and being generally antisocial.

Cut to three years later.  The town has been taken over by the children, led by Isaac (the creepy Amish kid) and kept in line by Malachai (the redhead in need of orthodontia).  We learn from Job’s plucky narration that not all the kids are on board with Isaac, and we see Job and his sister Sarah attempt to help another boy escape.  He dashes into the cornfield, only to be killed by someone wielding an especially pointy knife.

It’s only now that we meet Vicky (a pre-Terminator Linda Hamilton) and Burt (a pre-Thirtysomething Peter Horton).  They’re driving cross-country for Burt to take a medical internship, and as they pass through the Nebraska cornfields, they accidentally run over the escapee, who’s been tossed in the road by his murderer.  Vicky and Burt throw him in the trunk, and then, with a troubling lack of urgency, tool around the country backroads in search of a hospital.  They finally end up in – you guessed it – Gatlin, and discover that the town is deserted and covered in cornstalks.

As it turns out, Isaac makes ritual sacrifices (of the kids once they reach their eighteenth birthday, as well as any adults unfortunate enough to stumble upon the town) to some unseen creature referred to only as He Who Walks Behind the Rows (it tunnels under the cornfield, so maybe it’s a big worm like in Tremors).  It’s unclear what these sacrifices are achieving since all the kids dress like extras from Witness and technology has apparently been outlawed.  Logical incoherence notwithstanding, once Isaac and Malachai discover there’s fresh meat in town, the rest of the movie involves a lot of running and chasing and hiding.  Vicky is eventually captured, taken to the middle of the cornfield, and – in a symbolic act as subtle as a punch to the nads – is hoisted up, J.C.-style, on a crucifix made of cornstalks.

The climax of the movie, such as it is, involves Burt preaching to the kids that a religion not based in love is a rotten, no-good, really bad thing.  And then they blow up He Who Walks Behind the Rows with gasohol.

It’s pretty bad.  I remember bits and pieces of it from when I watched it as a kid, and it certainly hasn’t held up well.  It’s obvious that the two leads would eventually be headed to bigger and better things (for Hamilton, The Terminator would be released later the same year, and Horton would have to wait three years for the debut of Thirtysomething), and while they make the most of a severely crappy acting situation, even they can’t save Children of the Corn.  The dialogue is laughable, even by horror movie standards, and it’s hard to feel any sort of suspense when Linda Hamilton looks like she could mop the floor with these twerpy little kids.  Some movies are bad, but just miss being passable.  Children of the Corn, however, is a failure on pretty much every conceivable level.

Read my other Stephen King reviews here:

Carrie, 1976 (11/14/09)

The Shining, 1980 (11/18/09)

Creepshow, 1982 (11/24/09)

Cujo, 1983 (11/30/09)

The Dead Zone, 1983 (12/11/09)

Christine, 1983 (1/3/10)

Next up: Firestarter (1984)

*****

Current listening:

Arctic Monkeys – Humbug (2009)

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Cinema Sunday (1/3/10) January 3, 2010

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Maybe it’s the premise.  Maybe it’s the profoundly sucky latter stages of John Carpenter’s career.  Maybe it’s my ailing memory.  Whatever the reason, I went into Christine (1983; my sixth Stephen King adaptation) with the assumption that it sucked.  I was wrong.

One thing I hadn’t considered is that Christine is embedded firmly in director Carpenter’s golden age.  Check this track record, from 1974 to 1986: Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, Christine, Starman, Big Trouble in Little China. I mean, yeah, The Fog kinda sucked (as can be expected of a movie about zombie pirates), but that list contains at least four stone-cold classics, as well as a couple of bona fide cult favorites.  Christine slots confidently into this fertile period, and is astonishingly good.

The movie is, of course, about a haunted car.  It’s ridiculous and preposterous, and the fact that it works at all is credit to Carpenter and the cast he’s assembled.  It all hinges on the role of Arnie Cunningham, the high school nebbish (played by actor turned director Keith Gordon) who purchases the titular ’58 Plymouth Fury and finds himself possessed by its malevolent spirit.  Arnie finds himself inexplicably drawn to the car, buys it against his parents’ wishes, and gradually sees it transform him from a glasses-wearing dweeb into an arrogant and callous stud muffin.

Even before Arnie buys it, though, we know all is not right with Christine.  In an opening sequence set in the 50’s, we see Christine on the assembly line, and it’s here that it (she?) slams its (her?) hood on a worker’s hand, and later kills another worker who thoughtlessly flicked his cigar ash on her pristine seat.  When Arnie buys the car, we learn that its previous owner killed himself in Christine, and his 5-year-old daughter choked to death in her.  So we know from the get-go that Christine is bad news, and Arnie’s best friend – Dennis, the popular jock (played by John Stockwell, another actor turned director) – seems to sense this and tries to talk Arnie out of the purchase.  It’s all for nought, though, and soon Arnie is storing Christine at a local garage and fixing her up in his spare time.

It doesn’t take long for Christine to show her true colors.  Leigh, Arnie’s new girlfriend, nearly chokes to death while they’re at a drive-in movie, and when Christine gets trashed by a group of juvenile delinquents who torment Arnie at school, she systematically wipes them out.  At the same time, Arnie himself becomes crueler and more dismissive of the people around him, choosing instead to spend all his time with his car.  It’s at this point that Dennis and Leigh realize what’s happening, and decide they need to destroy Christine before the car destroys their friend.

As I said at the top, it’s a dopey premise, and Christine was never one of my favorite King books.  I don’t care how gullible you are, a haunted car will never be scary, so for the movie to work, there had to be some other appeal.  The appeal in this case is the uniformly excellent cast, and Carpenter’s direction of it.  As I watched the fun and funny opening scenes – set in high school and introducing the main characters – I found myself wishing Carpenter would try his hand at a straightforward high school movie.  The hallway banter between the characters (even the minor players) was loose and believable, and it effectively created the sort of reality that would be necessary for the rest of the plot to work.

Gordon, especially, is impressive.  Most people will know him from the Rodney Dangerfield movie Back to School (1986), but in Christine he has to run the emotional gamut, starting out as a completely powerless, perpetually victimized nerd and ending as a raving lunatic, in thrall to an obsession that everyone else sees but him.  The movie can’t be taken seriously in good conscience, but Gordon goes all-in, playing Arnie with a straight face as a real person.  He initially wants to buy Christine because it would be the lone thing in his life over which he’d have any control.  When you think about Arnie in those terms – and I think we all know at least one Arnie in our lives –   it’s sort of profoundly sad to see what eventually happens to him.  The dude just wanted to fit in. (Interesting side note: Gordon, as I mentioned earlier, became a director.  Among his films are excellent adaptations of Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War and Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night.  His standout, though, is a World War II flick called A Midnight Clear, which I think is a brilliant film.  Seek it out.)

The rest of the movie is exactly as good as a movie about a haunted car can be.  As we see Christine start to hunt down Arnie’s tormentors, it’s mildly spooky to see this giant metal predator silently tail them, and the way Carpenter has shot these sequences, it works to not know yet whether Arnie is behind the wheel.  The one bravura scene happens after Christine blows up a gas station (don’t worry – the ridiculousness of that sentence doesn’t escape me; you just have to go with it) and goes careening down a darkened street in a ball of flame, chasing down one more victim.

There’s some other ancillary stuff (the reliably great Harry Dean Stanton shows up as a detective investigating the sudden rash of murders; Arnie and Leigh break up once she realizes he’s become a deranged nutbag), but really, the whole thing is building up to the final showdown between Christine and Dennis driving a bulldozer.

As that last sentence indicates, the movie is, in some ways, review-proof.  Criticism is almost beside the point, because Christine really has no hope of ever being anything other than dumb fun.  But damn it all if it doesn’t come close.  Carpenter somehow makes it work, and the reason, of course, is that, despite what I wrote at the beginning, he’s made a movie that isn’t really about a haunted car.  The car is on the poster, but at its heart, the movie is about one man’s descent into madness, and the friends who try to save him.  It’s less frightening than you’d hope, but deeper than you expect.

Read my other Stephen King reviews here:

Carrie, 1976 (11/14/09)

The Shining, 1980 (11/18/09)

Creepshow, 1982 (11/24/09)

Cujo, 1983 (11/30/09)

The Dead Zone, 1983 (12/11/09)

Next up: Children of the Corn (1984)

*****

Current listening:

Warm Jets – Future Signs (1997)

Another Version of the Truth December 11, 2009

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Of all the adaptations of Stephen King’s work, there are five films regularly – and justifiably – singled out not as just great adaptations, but as great movies: Carrie, The Shining, Stand by Me, Misery, and The Shawshank Redemption.  For my money, though, I think you could easily add David Cronenberg’s 1983 version of The Dead Zone to that list.

One need look no further than the principal figures involved with the movie to get a sense of its quality.  You have Cronenberg, who had just come off Scanners and Videodrome (two of the creepiest, most imaginative films of the early 80’s), and who was just about to make The Fly and Dead Ringers (two of the creepiest, most imaginative films of the mid to late 80’s); screenwriter Jeffery Boam would go on to write The Lost Boys and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade; and Christopher Walken – long before he became a parody of himself – gives one of the most restrained, nuanced performances of his career as Johnny Smith, a man blessed, or cursed, with visions of the future.

At the start of the film, schoolteacher Johnny is happily involved with Sarah (played by Brooke Adams), one of his colleagues.  They giggle, engage in a little hallway PDA, and go on a date.  At the end of the evening, Sarah invites Johnny inside but Johnny, ever the gentleman, declines.  Driving home in the pouring rain, Johnny plows into a milk truck (one of the movie’s few bum notes), and flips his car.  He awakes from a coma five years later to discover that Sarah is married and – oh yeah – when he touches people’s hands he’ll occasionally get a flash of some future event in that person’s life (and it’s always bad – no one wins the lottery or gets a surprise promotion at work or finally scores with the hot Waffle House waitress).

The rest of the film is split in half.  In the first section, Johnny struggles to come to grips with his newfound ability.  He’s enlisted by Sheriff Bannerman (Tom Skerritt, in a cool little role) to solve a string of murders that have been taking place over the last few years (and get ready to cringe at one of the most grotesque death scenes in film history).  In the second section, Johnny meets Greg Stillson (played by a wonderfully messianic Martin Sheen), a Congressional candidate who’s not above playing hardball with the local newspaper to get a negative editorial retracted (it involves, as these things often do, photographs of the publisher in flagrante dilicto with a young lady – at which point one of the bad guys predictably points to a photo and says, “I think this one is my favorite”).  At a Stillson rally, Johnny shakes hands with the candidate and receives a flash of the future – Stillson as a presidential demagogue, about to wage nuclear war on the rest of the planet.

It’s at this point that Johnny finds some of these premonitions have, as he describes it, “something missing” – a dead zone.  In these instances, Johnny realizes that the future can still be changed, and now he has to decide how to keep his vision of President Stillson from becoming a reality.  This leads to a darkly funny climactic sequence that is brilliantly executed and, more importantly, 100% satisfying.  I’ve seen too many movies that have cruised through the first 85 minutes, only to blow it in the last five.  Here, Cronenberg wraps things up exactly as he should – it’s the perfect ending.

I don’t remember enough of King’s book to make a comparison, but one of the things I admire most about Cronenberg’s movie is that, yes, it’s a thriller, but it’s also a fairly potent exploration of some heavy moral and philosophical issues.  For instance, if you could have a hand in altering the future, what level of responsibility do you have?  At first, Johnny doesn’t want anything to do with Bannerman’s police investigation, but he changes his mind when he realizes that any future victims could be partially his fault.  Later, as he wrestles with his premonition of the maniacal President Stillson, Johnny approaches his Jewish doctor with a hypothetical scenario that’s usually tired and worn-out, but which works remarkably well in this context.  If, he asks the doctor, you had met Hitler in his youth and knew what he would ultimately become, what would you do?  The doctor’s response is terrific: “I’m a man of medicine. I’m expected to save lives and ease suffering. I love people. Therefore, I would have no choice but to kill the son of a bitch.”  The movie goes beyond typically Stephen Kingian, things-that-go-bump-in-the-nightisms to delve into some darker, deeper corners.

I think there are a variety of reasons why The Dead Zone isn’t remembered as fondly as some of its peers.  It doesn’t have the striking imagery of The Shining or Carrie; it’s not as overtly suspenseful as Misery; it’s not as proudly sentimental as Stand by Me or The Shawshank Redemption. Those aren’t flaws, though.  Cronenberg’s direction and pacing are as sure-handed as ever, and Walken’s performance – while not as flashy as Jack Nicholson’s in The Shining or Kathy Bates’ in Misery – is sensitive and believable.  The Dead Zone is suspenseful and compelling, and, as is usually the case with Cronenberg’s movies, shot through with a rich vein of dark humor.  It’s an understated and effective movie that deserves to be elevated to the top tier of Stephen King adaptations.

Read my other Stephen King reviews here:

Carrie, 1976 (11/14/09)

The Shining, 1980 (11/18/09)

Creepshow, 1982 (11/24/09)

Cujo, 1983 (11/30/09)

Up next: Christine (1983)

*****

Current listening:

The Seahorses – Do it Yourself (1997)

Rules of Disengagement November 30, 2009

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Cujo (1983) is an important movie in the Stephen King canon, mainly because it’s the first of his film adaptations to kind of suck.  His first three films (not counting the TV miniseries ‘Salem’s Lot) were directed by Brian de Palma, Stanley Kubrick, and George Romero.  For Cujo, the producers enlisted a guy named Lewis Teague, whose only claim to fame at that point was a horror spoof named Alligator (notable mainly for the fact that it was scripted by indie phenom John Sayles).  Post-Cujo, Teague went on to direct one more King adaptation (Cat’s Eye),  Jewel of the Nile (the crappy sequel to Romancing the Stone) and Navy Seals (starring Charlie Sheen and Michael Biehn!), and then found himself relegated to episodic television.  Long story short: for the first time, King’s work was being directed by a guy who didn’t have an impressive track record, and whose name wouldn’t eventually be remembered as one of the leading lights of cinema.

Despite that, though, the movie isn’t entirely terrible.  I said it kind of sucks, and it kind of does.  But some of it is pretty great.  It stars Dee Wallace (fresh off her starring role in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestial) as Donna Trenton, a housewife married to Vic (an ad executive), and mother to 6-year-old Tad (a shockingly believable Danny Pintauro, who’d go on to play adorable moppet Jonathan in Who’s the Boss?).  Unbeknownst to Vic, Donna is having an affair with the local carpenter, and this rot at the center of their marriage is what takes up most of the first half of the movie.  The hook of the film (and King’s book), of course, is that it’s about a killer St. Bernard, but one of the weird flaws of the movie is that the horror and suspense essentially play second fiddle to this domestic drama.

So where does the dog come in?  The titular St. Bernard is out frolicking at the start of the film, chasing a rabbit into a cave (but not rescuing a stranded skiier with the keg around his neck, which is what I was hoping he’d be doing ).  He barks, the bats living in the cave get angry, one scratches him across the snout, et voila! Rabies.  Cujo belongs to a mechanic who lives, conveniently enough, way the hell out in the middle of nowhere.  VIc Trenton leaves on a business trip (apparently a cereal for which he designed the ad campaign has started killing kids – which sounds like a pretty good horror movie by itself), and while he’s gone, Donna and Tad drive out to the mechanic’s home to try and get their car fixed.  Little do they know, the mechanic and his family are gone – but Cujo is very much there and very much foaming at the mouth.

The rest of the movie focuses on Donna and Tad, who are now trapped in the car.  Every time they try and set foot outside, Cujo comes barking, smashes himself against the door, nearly shatters the windshield, etc.  It’s all very tense.  And of course no one comes to their rescue because Vic is out of town and the mechanic put his mail on hold before leaving.  There’s a wholly unnecessary subplot wherein Donna’s jilted paramour (she decided to dump him shortly before Vic left town) decides he’s going to take a pair of scissors to every piece of upholstery in the Trentons’ home, and Vic, who has returned from his business trip, thinks the carpenter has abducted Donna and Tad.  Imagine if George Lucas had tried to insert a detective story in Star Wars – it works about as well here as it would there.

The movie works best when it remains on the drama unfolding for the trapped and increasingly desperate Donna and Tad.  One of Cujo‘s strengths is that Teague was working with cinematographer Jan de Bont (who would, of course, be the DP on Die Hard, and go on to direct, among other things, Speed and Twister), and he makes the most of the claustrophobic setting, shooting mother and son in a way that amplifies the cramped isolation of the car.  Mid-summer, windows rolled up, attacked by a vicious, blood-streaked dog – it’s pretty visceral, and both Wallace and Pintauro pull out all the stops in portraying their terror.  To their credit, neither actor plays it tongue in cheek, and one of the most effective parts of the movie is seeing Donna devolve to the point where she single-mindedly and animalistically protects her son.

The movie doesn’t entirely work for a couple reasons.  One is the uneasy balance between the two stories it seems to want to tell: 1) how a seemingly happy domestic family can rapidly disintegrate, and 2) how a rabid dog can terrorize a couple in a Datsun.  The two halves just don’t mesh.  The other problem, I think, is that King’s novel essentially takes the story in a different, much more interesting, direction, implying that Cujo is possessed by, or the reincarnation of, a murderer from his novel The Dead Zone. Teague, on the other hand, plays it as a straight case of rabies, like he wishes Tim Johnson (the rabid dog from To Kill a Mockingbird) had ripped out Atticus Finch’s throat instead of being shot dead in the street.  There just isn’t enough plot in the rabid dog story to warrant a feature-length film, and as a result we get the boring domestic stuff at the beginning, and a movie whose 91 minute running time feels longer than Roots.

I think it’s great that Teague didn’t shy away from the darker aspects of the book (although the Hollywood ending feels like a cop-out after the truly pitch-black conclusion of the novel), and it’s undeniably terrifying to see Cujo – fully gored up by the effects crew – attacking the mother and her son.  But the movie as a whole is strictly C-grade stuff, and marks the first (but definitely not the last) time when Stephen King’s work failed to make a smooth transition to the big screen.

Read my other Stephen King reviews here:

Carrie, 1976 (11/14/09)

The Shining, 1980 (11/18/09)

Creepshow, 1982 (11/24/09)

Coming next: The Dead Zone (1983)

*****
Current listening:

Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More (2009)

The Ones We Managed to Win November 24, 2009

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I’ll always owe a debt of gratitude to George Romero.  Giving us Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead earned the guy a free pass for the rest of his career, as far as I’m concerned.  And yet the argument could be made that if it weren’t for those two movies, we wouldn’t know who George Romero is.  His non-zombie output has been, shall we say, underwhelming.  Bruiser, anyone?  Knightriders? Just like Roland Emmerich (Independence Day; 2012) is only good at blowing up the world, Romero is primarily only good when it comes to the shambling undead.

Creepshow (1982; one of two Romero adaptations of Stephen King’s work – The Dark Half is the other), however, is a funny, affectionate anthology of King-penned tales, some previously published, some written expressly for the screen.  The first thing to note about the movie is that I used the word funny, and not the word scary. I also could have said it was clever and goofy; both of those adjectives would be more accurate than saying it’s frightening.  That might seem like a weird thing to say about a movie with Romero’s and King’s names attached to it, but there’s always a darkly comic undercurrent running through much of the author’s work, and as for Romero … well, let’s not forget that Dawn of the Dead includes a zombie-human pie fight.  They might primarily be known for their horror, but both artists are no stranger to humor.

The movie itself consists of five individual stories, with a shorter, wraparound story bookending the movie.  None of the stories are especially scary, choosing instead to mine a sort of middle ground between the grotesque and the droll, and for that reason the movie has always reminded me more of The Twilight Zone or Outer Limits: it’s fantasy as much as it is horror, and dark humor as much as it is either of those other two things.  Some of the stories work; some don’t.  But they’re always interesting, and in their best moments, they’re terrific fun.  The easiest way to attack this movie is probably story by story, and I’ll try to avoid spoilers for people who haven’t seen it yet.

“Prologue”: Paired with the epilogue, this is the silliest of the bunch.  A father throws away his son’s scary comic book, uttering the immortal line, “That’s why God made fathers, babe. (Sips beer.)  That’s why God made fathers.”  The windswept comic book provides the individual stories that follow.

“Father’s Day”: Written by King for the movie, this story is, unfortunately, a dumb and inauspicious way to start.  A group of money-grubbing relatives gathers each year for the titular holiday, and the new member of the family (an in-law, played by a very young Ed Harris – hair intact) is introduced to the story of Aunt Bedelia.  Seven years prior, Bedelia killed her father, Nathan, by smashing in his head with an ashtray.  Three guesses as to who rises from the dead to kill his family members, and the first two don’t count.  Key line: “I want my cake!”

“The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill”: Did I say the prologue was the silliest story in this movie?  I misspoke.  Inexplicably starring King himself in the title role, “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” is an inconsequential sci-fi nothing, based on his short story, “Weeds.”  King plays a backwoods rube who stumbles across a meteor (key line: “I’ll be dipped in shit if that ain’t a meteor”) and has designs on delivering it to the local college for the king’s ransom of $200.  Unfortunately, when he touches it, something tragically agricultural happens to him.  This vignette is definitely funny (shots of King delivering the meteor to the university’s “Department of Meteors”), and the last section is unexpectedly poignant.  It works, despite its goofiness.

“Something to Tide You Over”: My favorite of the bunch.  Here, Harry (a pre-Cheers Ted Danson) is abducted by Richard (Leslie Nielsen, before he was forever typecast as the dimwitted cop by the Naked Gun movies) for canoodling with Richard’s wife.  He takes Harry to a remote beach and unveils the plot he’s devised to enact revenge on both Harry and his wife (hint: it involves burying both of them up to their necks in sand).  Of course, because this is a horror anthology, things ultimately don’t go as Richard planned.  (Key line: “I can hold my breath for a long, long time!”)  The real kick of this segment is seeing Nielsen in a dramatic role.  It’s easy to forget that he had a long career prior to Airplane! (according to IMDB, 236 roles dating back to 1950), and it’s a lot of fun seeing him act so convincingly as a cruel tough-guy here.  Danson, too, is entertaining to watch.  The gift of hindsight – getting to see him in a supporting role just as his career was about to skyrocket – can’t be underestimated.

“The Crate”: Originally published by King as a short story, this section of the movie stars Hal Holbrook (who most recently portrayed Chris McCandless’ elderly benefactor in Into the Wild) as a henpecked college professor who uses the discovery of a century-old crate (or, rather, its contents) to punish his shrewish wife.  As with the previous story, it’s a lot of fun to see an actor of Holbrook’s stature stoop to pulpy, B-movie fare.  This segment is an awful lot of fun: creepy, gory, clever, and a nearly-perfect melding of King’s and Romero’s sensibilities.  Key line: “Get out of my way, Henry, or you’ll be wearing your balls for earrings!”

“They’re Creeping Up on You!”: Written by King for the movie, this story involves a Howard Hughes-esque tycoon (played by venerable actor E.G. Marshall) who has sealed himself away in his apartment, but who still maintains a healthy fear of bugs.  Cockroaches, specifically.  (Key line: “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got this bug problem.”)  As the story progresses, we learn what a repellent figure this guy is, and are gratified when the bugs get their revenge.  I’m not sure this segment exists except to provide the viewer with the highly gratifying sight of roaches erupting from a person’s chest.  Entertaining, and Marshall – who is essentially the only actor in this segment – does a terrific job, but it’s kind of a nothing way to end the movie.

“Epilogue”: The other half of the silly story that bookends the film, it quickly shows how the kid from the beginning of the movie gets revenge on his dad.  The only upside is getting to see Romero’s longtime FX guru Tom Savini as a garbageman.

Creepshow is certainly not a great film.  It is, however, good, pulpy fun, and the trick is to go into it expecting something campy and silly, with a B-horror-movie sensibility.  If anything, it reminds me of the cinematic version of those schlocky horror and science fiction mags that published King’s first work (as well as Ray Bradbury’s, Kurt Vonnegut’s, and Harlan Ellison’s).  Pulp, which I used above, is probably the best adjective for the movie.   Creepshow has a low-budget, borderline ridiculous, Grindhouse feel to it.  And I absolutely mean that as a compliment.

Read my other Stephen King reviews here:

Carrie, 1976 (11/14/09)

The Shining, 1980 (11/18/09)

Coming next: Cujo (1983)

*****

Current listening:

Bear in Heaven – Red Bloom of the Boom (2007)

Accidents Will Happen November 18, 2009

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The National Council of Teachers of English annual conference kicks off tomorrow, so I’m headed to Philadelphia for a few days.  That means two things: 1) Things will be slow (or absolutely silent) around here once I leave tomorrow afternoon until Sunday evening, and 2) I needed to write my weekly review of a Stephen King movie adaptation before I left.

*****

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) probably has the most impressive pedigree of any Stephen King adaptation.  Brian de Palma was still making his reputation when he gave us Carrie; David Cronenberg was (and, really, still is) a cult director at the time of The Dead Zone; ditto George A. Romero (Creepshow and The Dark Half); and Frank Darabont was primarily a screenwriter at the time he made his feature-film directorial debut with The Shawshank Redemption. The only adaptations comparable to Kubrick’s would probably be John Carpenter’s Christine, which came in the middle of a long run of early 80’s, post-Halloween hits (Escape from New York; The Thing; Starman), and Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Misery. (I know Reiner is also responsible for Stand by Me, but his two films previous to that – This Is Spinal Tap and The Sure Thing – weren’t huge hits at the time.  Misery, on the other hand, was his William Goldman-penned follow-up to the enormously successful When Harry Met Sally…)

As much as I like Carpenter and Reiner, however, they’re no Kubrick.  When he directed The Shining, these were Kubrick’s previous four movies: Dr. Strangelove; 2001: A Space Odyssey; A Clockwork Orange; and Barry Lyndon. Holy shit, indeed.  No other director of one of Stephen King’s books has that track record, and it really is sort of curious that a director of Kubrick’s stature would take on an adaptation of a pop horror novel.

For those who don’t know the story, it’s actually one of the simplest in King’s canon.  In a nutshell: Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson in what might be his most memorable role) takes a job as caretaker of the remote Overlook Hotel during its closed winter season.  He brings his wife, Wendy (Shelly Duvall, who, to put it charitably, never quite finds her footing in this role), and young son, Danny, to spend the winter with him.  Madness and ax-murder ensues.

One of the benefits of this little adventure of mine is that I get to watch some movies that I haven’t actually sat all the way through in a long time.  The Shining is certainly one of those.  I’ve seen bits and pieces on television, but it’s been years since I’ve watched it in its entirety.  I’d forgotten, first of all, what a beautiful movie it is.  Those first, sweeping images of what’s supposed to be Colorado (but which is, in fact, Glacier National Park) are still breathtaking, but these opening shots are really just a prelude to Kubrick’s use of Steadicam in the Overlook Hotel, rolling us seamlessly through the hallways and stalking the characters as they move in and out of the hotel’s cavernous rooms.  Not just virtuosic from a technical standpoint, The Shining also contains a handful of iconic images that linger even after the movie is over: the twins in the hallway; the elevator pouring blood; the hedge maze; Danny tearing around the hallways on his Big Wheel; Jack sticking his head through the splintered bathroom door and uttering the line, “Here’s Johhny!”  Regardless of what you might think of the story (or of horror movies in general), it’s just a hell of a lot of fun to watch.

That said, the movie has some odd flaws.  Pacing is one.  It’s entirely possible that this was part of Kubrick’s grand design, but most of the conversations between the characters seem uncomfortable, stilted, wooden.  There are weird pauses and wonky reaction shots in the opening interview scene between Jack and the Overlook’s manager, and none of the scenes where we’re supposed to buy into Jack, Wendy, and Danny as a family really work.  Try as I might, I can’t see Nicholson as a family man, and this is only compounded by the off-putting scenes where I think he’s trying to convey fatherly love but actually seems more like a sarcastic SOB who’s just killing time with this family until he can clock out and head to the Playboy Mansion.  Nicholson’s descent into madness is one of the selling points of the movie; unfortunately, it’s only when he’s crazy that he’s actually believable.

But Shelly Duvall takes the Grand Prize for acting atrocities.  It’s a bizarre casting choice, to be sure, as there was nothing in her acting history to suggest she could play Wendy with any degree of credibility.  It’s a fairly demanding role – she fears for her son, watches her husband descend into madness, and has at least a couple confrontational scenes that a better-suited actress could have knocked out of the park.  Unfortunately, it looks for all intents and purposes like Duvall was already auditioning for the role of Olive Oyl in Robert Altman’s Popeye. It’s a shrill, off-kilter performance that, amazingly, never hits one authentic note in the movie’s entire two hour and twenty minute running time.

Despite its flaws, the movie works.  It works because of the amazing visuals (and I’d be remiss not to at least mention cinematographer John Alcott), and the nearly-palpable sense of dread that infuses virtually every scene of the movie.  It’s far from perfect – and not nearly up to scratch with Kubrick’s earlier films – but when Nicholson’s performance finally jives with Kubrick’s direction and visual acuity, it’s a masterwork of tension.

*****

Current listening:

Marillion – Holidays in Eden (1991)

The World Is Made of Fire November 14, 2009

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carrie

Last night I began my foray into the (mostly) complete cinematic works of Stephen King.  Before I get to the actual review, I want to establish one relatively important ground rule: I’m not reviewing King’s books.  In many cases (including the one I’m writing about today), I haven’t read the actual work in at least 20 years.  So I won’t be talking about how the movie is faithful to the original text.  If it matters to you, I don’t really think faithfulness to the source material is particularly important anyway.  Books and movies are completely different mediums, and what works in one won’t always work in the other.  I know there are differences between book and film.  I don’t care.  Okay?  Then away we go.

*****

It’s fitting that Brian de Palma is the director responsible for the first King adaptation.  Like all the movies based on King’s works, de Palma’s own films veer wildly from great (Scarface, Carlito’s Way) to trashy but entertaining (Dress to Kill, Body Double) to virtually unwatchable (Mission to Mars, The Black Dahlia).  De Palma’s filmography is all over the map, but it lacks the cohesion of quality possessed by Martin Scorsese, one of de Palma’s contemporaries in the group of great American filmmakers to emerge in the 1970’s.  Watching De Palma’s movies, I always feel like I’m watching someone who simply doesn’t have control of his technique. When one of his movies crashes and burns, it’s like watching the Hindenburg of cinematic flame-outs.  But he does, as I mentioned earlier, have his moments of brilliance, and Carrie (1976) is certainly one of them.

The fact that Carrie is able to overcome its opening is a minor miracle in and of itself.  The movie begins with a group of high school girls frolicking in the locker room in various states of undress, shot in gauzy slow motion, accompanied by a treacly musical score, and looking, for all intents and purposes, like a late-night Cinemax feature.  I completely understand what de Palma was going for here – establishing sort of a fanciful, bucolic atmosphere that would ultimately serve as a stark contrast to what was about to happen – but looking at it now is ridiculous and uncomfortably voyeuristic.  Maybe it worked in ’76 and didn’t seem like the mother of all feminine hygiene ads.

De Palma’s restless camera (de Palma’s camera, if you’ve never seen one of his movies, is always restless) moves through the locker room and slowly settles on Carrie White (played by Sissy Spacek), showering by herself apart from the other girls.  She lathers up and gives herself a good scrubbing, and as she rinses off, we’re treated – still in slow motion – to the sight of blood streaming down her legs.  This is, we learn, her first period, and she panics, rushing into the locker room.  The other girls ridicule her and force her back into the shower, pelting her with tampons and sanitary napkins until the kindly Miss Collins (a very good Betty Buckley) furiously breaks things up.  Oh, and did I mention that in the middle of all this a lightbulb mysteriously shatters?

The savagery of this scene, as I mentioned above, is the antidote to the sickly sweetness of the opening moments, and it effectively sets the tone for the rest of the movie.  If you don’t know the story, we learn that Carrie White has burgeoning telekinetic powers.  They first manifest themselves when she’s angry or frightened – hence the shattering lightbulb in this scene, and an overturned ashtray in a later confrontation in the principal’s office.  Carrie lives at home with her religious fundamentalist mother (played by a deliciously over-the-top Piper Laurie), who treats everything sexual as evidence of sin, and who frequently locks Carrie in a closet filled with religious icons, including a statue of Jesus that looks uncomfortably like comedian Russell Brand.

The plot accelerates when Miss Collins punishes all the girls who took part in Carrie’s hazing.  in this group is Sue (Amy Irving), who realizes what she did was wrong and feels immense guilt for it, and Chris (Nancy Allen), one of those imperious teenage bitches who metes out punishment to anyone she feels is inferior to her, without recourse to compassion or morality.  Sue wants to help Carrie acclimate to high school life, and talks her jock boyfriend, Tommy Ross (William Katt, in a terrific performance), into asking Carrie to the prom.  Chris, on the other hand, only wants revenge for being punished by the gym teacher, and decides to enact it on prom night.

One of the first things to say about this movie is that the acting is all note-perfect.  Spacek inhabits the title role so well that it becomes inconceivable to imagine anyone else in it, and as I mentioned before, Piper Laurie is excellent as the mother who sees sin in every action her daughter takes.  Importantly, though, the key roles of Sue, Chris, and Tommy are all played sensitively and without affectation.  We clearly see Sue’s disgust at being caught up in the mob mentality of the locker room, and feel her acute need to atone for it.  Tommy is schnookered into asking Carrie to the prom by his girlfriend, and while he’s reluctant at first, it’s one of the movie’s small joys to watch him gradually grow fond of the shy, naive Carrie.  And Nancy Allen, as Chris, attacks the least sympathetic role in the movie with glee.  Without these actors in these specific roles, De Palma’s visual tics might have taken over.

And, as is the case with all of de Palma’s films, the visual tics are in abundant display.  Steadicam, smash cuts between scenes, quick edits within a scene, split screen work, and, in a nauseating sequence at the prom, a dizzying 360-degree camera move around Tommy and Carrie that starts slowly, picks up speed, and seems to last forever, even though it adds nothing to their conversation.  This is what I meant earlier when I talked about de Palma often seeming not to have control of his technique.  He frequently uses flashy stylistic devices that draw attention to themselves, even though they aren’t essential to the story being told.  It’s a show-offy move that seems designed more often to highlight the man behind the camera than the action in front of it.

For all of that, the movie gets by on the strength of the acting, and the parallel drawn by King’s story between Carrie’s developing sexuality and her growing telekinetic powers.  When prom explodes in an orgy of fire and destruction, the image of a vacant-eyed Carrie standing stock-still in the middle of it all is one of the most indelible in cinema history.  And then there’s the final shock that comes at the end of the movie – an audacious, laugh out loud trick that’s been copied by numerous films since.  Carrie is not just a high-water mark for adaptations of Stephen King’s work; it’s one of the great movies of the 1970’s.

*****

Current listening:

Gravenhurst fires

Gravenhurst – Fires in Distant Buildings

And Now for My Next Trick … November 11, 2009

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Stephen

Stephen King, as I’ve documented on here before, is the first writer I was ever fanatical about.  It started with Cujo in 7th grade (roughly 1985), and it didn’t take long for me to devour everything by him I could find, which wasn’t as difficult in the mid 80’s as it would be now.  I’ve followed him faithfully ever since, and even when his books haven’t scaled the heights of something like, say, The Shining or The Stand, he’s never anything less than a solid storyteller, and I refuse to toe the popular English teacher line that says his works aren’t “real literature.”

That said, King’s books have been responsible for some of the shittiest movies in cinema history, as well as some of the best (or at least some of the most watchable).  It’s a really perplexing grab bag, where David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and Rob Reiner’s Misery and Stand by Me rub shoulders with Paul Michael Glaser’s (who?) The Running Man, Mark L. Lester’s (what?) Firestarter, and Fritz Kiersch’s (huh?) Children of the  Corn.  Even when good directors tackle King’s material, the results aren’t guaranteed.  Witness George Romero’s The Dark Half or Tobe Hooper’s The Mangler. And then you get little-known directors who just knock it right the fuck out of the park, like Frank Darabont did with The Shawshank Redemption.

But I haven’t seen all of the movies based on King’s work, so I’m going to embark on something that will either prove to be fabulously entertaining or stupidly foolhardy.  Starting this week I’m going to watch at least one movie a week that is either based on a Stephen King text or written specifically by him for film or television, until I’ve exhausted everything Netflix (and my own personal video library) has to offer.  I’ll watch them chronologically, from 1976’s Carrie through 2007’s The Mist, and I’ll watch all of them available, including the ones I’ve already seen.  It’ll be an interesting experiment, if nothing else, and I’ll post the results of each film here.

Here’s the complete list of movies I’ll be watching, based on Netflix’ inventory and what I personally have on my shelves:

  • Carrie (1976)
  • The Shining (1980)
  • Creepshow (1982)
  • Cujo (1983)
  • The Dead Zone (1983)
  • Christine (1983)
  • Children of the Corn (1984)
  • Firestarter (1984)
  • Cat’s Eye (1985)
  • Silver Bullet (1985)
  • Stand by Me (1986)
  • Creepshow 2 (1987)
  • The Running Man (1987)
  • Pet Sematary (1989)
  • Graveyard Shift (1990)
  • It (1990)
  • Misery (1990)
  • Sleepwalkers (1992)
  • The Dark Half (1993)
  • The Tommyknockers (1993)
  • The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
  • The Mangler (1995)
  • Dolores Claiborne (1995)
  • Thinner (1996)
  • The Shining (1997)
  • Apt Pupil (1998)
  • The Green Mile (1999)
  • Storm of the Century (1999)
  • Hearts in Atlantis (2001)
  • Rose Red (2002)
  • Dreamcatcher (2003)
  • The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer (2003)
  • Secret Window (2004)
  • Kingdom Hospital (2004)
  • Salem’s Lot (2004)
  • Riding the Bullet (2004)
  • Desperation (2006)
  • 1408 (2007)
  • The Mist (2007)

There are a few that I don’t own and Netflix doesn’t have.  If anyone has a line on where I can find these, I’d be most appreciative.

  • Salem’s Lot (1979)
  • Maximum Overdrive (1986)
  • Golden Years (1991)
  • Sometimes They Come Back (1991)
  • Needful Things (1993)
  • The Stand (1994)
  • The Langoliers (1995)

I don’t know why I do these things.

*****

Current listening:

24-7 Gumbo

24-7 Spyz – Gumbo Millennium (1990)