Stephen King, other than being a famous horror fiction writer, is a famous fan of horror movies, using many of the horror movies of his youth as inspiration for his horror novels. Things have naturally come full circle in that his novels, short stories, and novellas have become a treasure trove for Hollywood, starting with Brian de Palma’s adaptation of Carrie in 1976 all the way to this year which will see four adaptations of his work (The Dark Tower, It, and Netflix’s Gerald’s Game and 1922). By a rough count King’s work has inspired 43 movie adaptations with many more on the way. He is also the inspiration for a host of TV shows and mini-series.
The problem is that after the top tier of Stephen King movies (with the aforementioned Carrie, Kubrick’s The Shining, and the less horror-centric movies of Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption among them) the quality of King movies falls of a precipitous cliff into B-movie territory. And even amongst this B-movie territory, there is a stark difference between his B-movies that are genuinely entertaining and those that are decidedly less so. What follows below is my little excursion into some of the less-than-top-tier entries in the King catalogue:
FIRESTARTER (1984) dir. Mark L. Lester
Andy (David Keith) and Vicky (Heather Locklear) participate in a college experiment that ends up getting them telepathic abilities. For some reason, after they fall in love and get married, their eventual child Charlie (Drew Barrymore) inherits the ability to create and control fire (from telepathic parents). Naturally these abilities eventually cause the authorities to come after her and she ends up on the run. It is less a horror film and more like an early draft of an X-Men movie, with wooden acting and weird plotting. Somehow they managed to make a chase movie about superpowered humans on the run slightly boring. It is however worth watching simply because it is such a product of the 80’s with its glorious synth soundtrack, awesome hairstyles (including a very regrettable George C. Scott ponytail), and a healthy dose of fighting against the man.
DREAMCATCHER (2003) dir. Lawrence Kasdan
Stephen King at his best is inventive, provocative, and when he wants to be (because he’s not just a horror writer) truly terrifying. Stephen King at his worst however finds himself running over extremely similar ground in less creative or innovative ways. Unfortunately in this case, we have King at his worst as he basically tries to repeat what he did with probably his best work It as he has four men reuniting after experiencing amazing things in their childhood to confront an unknown force. The similarities between both stories are so startlingly similar that if anyone but King had written it, they would be sued, and all the ways the stories differ are inferior changes. Of course the weak source material is made all the more apparent in this pedestrian film adaptation which is disappointing considering the level of talent involved including Timothy Oliphant (Justified), Damian Lewis (Homeland), Morgan Freeman, and directed by Lawrence Kasdan who wrote Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark among other things. Watching this just makes me actually want to watch the new It movie all the more.
GRAVEYARD SHIFT (1990) dir. Ralph L. Singleton
A run-down textile mill seems to have a huge rat infestation. Even more worryingly, workers in the “graveyard shift” at the mill seem to be mysteriously disappearing. Unsurprisingly the two happen to be connected. The cruel mill-boss hires more and more people from the bottom rungs of society to fill this graveyard shift, including our protagonist the drifter John Hall (David Andrews), and to clear out the rat infestation. Laughably bad acting and dialogue ensue as the movie runs through the motions of a monster movie complete with predictable deaths along the way. Eventually our protagonist and a bunch of red shirts confront the monster in the bowels of the mill. The monster is cheesy and over-the-top but is easily the best part of the movie, and I found myself actively cheering it over and against the offensively bland and wooden humans here. There is a mean spitefulness that runs through the entire film production which makes it hard to enjoy even from a superficial level. Pretty much of interest to King completists only, if even that.
Rating: ★ (for the monster)
SILVER BULLET (1985) dir. Daniel Attias
Anybody who has spent a decent amount of time with horror movies and books knows that the film’s title necessitates there be a werewolf in this story. And as far as the particular iteration of a werwolf story goes, it is entirely conventional but entertaining nonetheless. There is a small town being terrorized by a bunch of mysterious deaths. An incompetent and powerless police force trying to solve the murders. A mob mentality that captures the town. And finally a group of avenging heroes, led by some plucky kids, decide to take down the werewolf. On the side there is ostensibly a story about a dysfunctional family and their struggle to come together (anchored by the amusingly unhinged Gary Busey), but really we’re just here to see a werewolf take down and be taken down by some humans. And on that front, this movie delivers.
PET SEMATARY (1989) dir. Mary Lambert
A family moves from the hustle and bustle of Chicago into a sleepy town in Maine (surprise!) where they find out that their house is situated near a pet cemetery that is the resting place of more than just dead pets. Through a series of twisty actions things predictably go south for this family. This is the only revisit on this list for me, mostly because I remember really hating it the last time I saw it and I was convinced that I just had to have been in a bad mood or something. And while revisiting it did reveal that I was overly harsh the first time round, the movie still isn’t very good which is a shame because it is one of King’s better stories. The problem is that the movie too quickly devolves into an exposition-machine where many scenes are devoted to explaining the plot, providing backstory, and explaining the mechanics of the haunting and rules of the game. The end-result of all this exposition is an endgame that you can see coming a mile away. Without the element of surprise then, the movie has to rely on more basic film elements like acting to make it interesting, and unfortunately it’s just not up to the task.
CAT’S EYE (1985) dir. Lewis Teague
The movie opens with a cat running away from Cujo the dog and almost being run over by Christine the car. The cameo appearances of these two characters immediately indicate that this is a movie that you should not take too seriously, and if you heed that advice Cat’s Eye is mostly a blast. The horror anthology film starts out strong with a segment called “Quitters Inc.” about a man who garners the help of an agency to help him quit smoking. The agency uses extremely threatening and persuasive methods to achieve their goals, so much so that any chance of Morrison lapsing into smoking puts his family in danger. This macabre premise results in easily the best segment of the movie. The second segment “The Ledge” is slightly less fantastical, focusing instead on the sadistic cruelty of people in power. These first two segments were directly adapted from Stephen King’s short stories and it shows as there is a clear focus to the work. The final segment “General” is an original creation for the movie and also the one that focuses the most on the cat who ties the other segments together. Unfortunately it is also the weakest not because the quality of the story is o poor, but because it tonally doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie. The first two segments are decidedly grounded humanistic tales about addiction and power, while “General” veers into a fantastical direction leading to a disjointed viewing experience. Still, even despite that slight misstep it remains a very enjoyable romp on the dark side.