Thanks to his almost prodigious writing speed (averaging almost two novels a year since first publishing Carrie in 1974), and his generally generous attitude towards letting filmmakers adapt his work (save for one glaring exception), Stephen King represents something of a gold mine for Hollywood. For four years running I have spent some part of October catching up with adaptations of Stephen King’s work and it never ceases to amaze me just how many there are out there. And amazingly even after doing this for four years straight, I probably still have at least enough Stephen King movies to keep this mini project going for two to three more years (for the curious: here was last year’s batch). In any case, here was this year’s batch:
CHILDREN OF THE CORN (1984) dir. Fritz Kiersch
Sometimes it’s plainly obvious when a movie adapts a Stephen King short story. This is because the story is stretched to its paper-thin limit as the movie struggles to meet its 90-minute runtime. This is certainly the case with Children of the Corn as all the characters spend so much time staring at corn-fields and moving at a pedestrian pace as they will the movie into an acceptable runtime. They do succeed in meeting that runtime but at the cost of killing almost all of the tension out of this admittedly creepy premise. The problems start right at the beginning, where for reasons inexplicable director Fritz Kiersch immediately departs from King’s short story and dives into a long prologue explaining in great detail what happened to the adults of the town of Gatlin. As you can imagine, this eliminates almost all of the mystery of the narrative so that when the outsiders Burt (Peter Horton) and Vicky (Linda Hamilton) show up, we know exactly what awaits them there. This sort of tension-killing move would cripple the performances of even the best of actors, and unfortunately Horton and Hamilton are not; they are helplessly exposed as fairly one-dimensional by the director’s decision to explain away the mystery. Of course, as I mentioned already, the pedestrian pacing also doesn’t do them any favors. Comically when (minor spoiler) Vicky and Burt run down a child by accident to set them on their inevitable course to Gatlin, the casualness with which they respond to this horrific moment borders on almost criminal behavior as they hem and haw over what to do next and the camera postures into the best possible position to capitalize on an inevitable jump-scare. With the central couple giving us nothing to vicariously journey along with them, it falls on the other actors to make things interesting. Unfortunately, they are all child actors who fall into the category of either not being able to emote at all or of trying to overact while giving their best impression of David from Village of the Damned. Fortunately for us, Children of the Corn does have some value in falling in the “so-bad-its-good” category as the wooden acting, horrifically rendered special effects, and a soundtrack that consists entirely of children chanting combined 80s electronic music and drum effects effectively turn this movie into a camp classic. Also as I have struggled to adjust to the madness that is celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving in October, I am grateful to finally find a produce-related horror movie to fit with the theme.
1408 (2007) dir. Mikael Hafstrom
Admittedly the premise of a writer spending 60 minutes alone in a haunted hotel room while horrific things happens to him does not sound all that compelling. However two things help prevent this movie from turning into a one-man vanity project. First, the shoulders that this one-man show rests upon is not some B-movie no-name but rather is John Cusack, who seems to relish the chance to sink his teeth into the challenging role. The second necessary ingredient to the success of this movie however is the excellent work done in setting the scene before Cusack spends his torturous night in room 1408. The jaded writer Mike Enslin (Cusack), one of King’s better written characters, is a talented fiction writer who settles for writing hack-job haunted house review books after the death of his daughter kills all his motivation. The movie does such a good job setting up Enslin as a character before he enters room 1408, that we are fully onboard with his plight. This is vital because once he enters room 1408 the movie quickly becomes as much a psychological profile of Enslin as it becomes a haunted story of horrors. We believe Mike Enslin as a person, and thus the movie works. The only real complaint is that despite what the poster may suggest, this movie is entirely lacking in Samuel L. Jackson. The scene in which Jackson, who plays the hotel concierge, tries to dissuade Cusack from staying in the cursed room is easily the best in the movie. There is a part of me that wishes this movie had pitted the two against each other, instead of the actual way the movie pans out. Fortunately Enslin’s personal demons prove worthy foes.
SLEEPWALKERS (1992) dir. Mick Garris
This movie is unique in that the screenplay is written by Stephen King and is not based on a previous work of his. It thus perfectly illustrates both his overall strengths as a writer, but also is emblematic of his worst tendencies. A common criticism of King’s work is that though he is extremely gifted in coming up with unique story concepts and writes with prodigious speed, he often churns out these story ideas with half-baked narratives attached to them. This is most certainly the case with Sleepwalkers. King’s monsters here are a mother-and-son duo who are shapeshifting cat-vampires who feed off the life force of female virgins in order to survive is most certainly an original addition to the monster pantheon, with the scandalously incestuous way they transfer energy to one another giving the movie a suitably R-rated edge to the proceedings. But King quickly gets lost trying to figure out what to do with these characters, resigning himself to placing these monsters in a paint-by-numbers plot involving a small town, some clueless cops, and a virgin who quickly has to fend for herself. The fact that these monsters’ grand weakness involves furry felines and that the make-up work is typical of low-budget mid-90s movies certainly does not help in the scare department, and ultimately Sleepwalkers is an example of potential wasted by lazy and uninspired execution. (However, a fantastically campy cameo from Mark Hamill in the opening scene helps make this not a completely wasted experience).
CREEPSHOW 2 (1987) dir. Michael Gornick
In Creepshow 2 there is a clear attempt to replicate the magical alchemy that happened when Night of the Living Dead director George A. Romero joined up with Stephen King to produce the cult classic Creepshow. However Romero ditches the director’s chair in favor of just providing the screenplay and King is credited with giving only the story ideas and is not directly involved with the movie as the reins get handed to relative unknown Michael Gornick. The difference is markedly felt. While the original Creepshow had all the fun of a great campfire ghost-story session, Creepshow 2 has the feel of a campfire ghost-story session after most of the campers have gone to sleep and all the good stories have already been told. And like a lot of those late-night campfires, it certainly isn’t a waste of time if you are one of those last few exchanging ghost stories – but there is also the sense that those who went to sleep earlier won’t have missed anything either. Unlike the original anthology series, Creepshow 2 only has three stories instead of the five, and it is safe to say that none of these stories would’ve made it in the original anthology with only the first episode (“Old Chief Wood’n’head”) potentially coming close. Even the framing device seems second-rate this time around where cheap-looking animation basically depicts a run-of-the-mill “Revenge of the Nerds” type narrative to tie the stories together (when compared with the delightfully macabre framing device the first time around). Still, if you are a fan of horror and especially of the original Creepshow there is enough here to warrant watching this sequel, but casual viewers need not bother.
SECRET WINDOW (2004) dir. David Koepp
Let me caveat this review by saying this first: If you haven’t seen this movie, or read the short story its based on, then go ahead and watch the movie. It is well made, featuring Depp actually giving a performance rather than relying on his gonzo acting, with a suitably macabre premise. Now stop reading here so that I can delve into some minor *SPOILER* territory.
I assume if you are still here then you’ve seen the movie or read the short story it is based on, so I can talk more freely. Here’s the problem with this movie: Unlike most of my previous encounters with Stephen King, this is a movie where I had actually read the story first and thus was privy to its big twist. And unfortunately, knowing the grand twist saps this movie of most of its narrative power. This is a shame because Johnny Depp and John Turturro turn in fantastic performances respectively as Mort Rainey, a down-on-his-luck writer recently estranged from his cheating wife, and John Shooter, the mysterious Southerner who shows up at the writer’s door accusing Rainey of plagiarizing his story. Their conflict sets up a tense story in which Rainey constantly feels the ground shifting beneath his feet as Shooter insistence of Rainey’s guilt keeps getting more forceful and the actions he takes to emphasize the rightness of his cause turn more sinister and terrifying. There is more than enough tension, mystery, and intrigue in this movie to give it the legs it needs to get across the finish line.
That is, unless you know the story’s main twist. Because once you know the twist, it is easy to see the clues King and director David Koepp have planted along the way. And without the benefit of being in the dark, there simply isn’t enough craft to keep the movie interesting. However, I have to give some credit to Koepp for bravely going for an ending that is somehow bleaker than Stephen King’s short story, and it is hardly fair of me to criticize a movie because I already know the central mystery it spends most of the movie expertly hiding from the viewer. If anything it simply means the movie probably isn’t as rewatchable, but it certainly is worthy of a first look.
THE MIST (2007) dir. Frank Darabont
As I watched this glorified box-episode of a movie, the first thing that occurred to me was that it is plainly obvious why Frank Darabont was tapped to initially bring The Walking Dead to life. For just like The Walking Dead, The Mist is an intense psychological profile of how people react when put under incredible stress, but dressed up as a monster movie. And like The Walking Dead, the movie portrays these complex and differing emotions, reactions, and beliefs with about as much subtlety as a high-school debate team. Just about every human perspective gets represented when a mysterious mist hiding murderous Lovecraftian monsters descends upon a small-town in Maine, trapping most of its surviving citizens in the local supermarket. The trapped citizens quickly divide into factions with the even headed side obviously represented by our heroes, while the religious nutjobs, infantile pranksters, overly rational, weak-minded and other human impediments to our heroes clearly belong to the other side. Again, anyone who has sat through the multitude of unsubtle and draggy seasons of The Walking Dead ruminating on the nature of evil and morality in a collapsing world will be well familiar with the ground trod here. Fortunately for us two things make this movie tolerable, where The Walking Dead has long since moved past its sell-by date. First, unlike The Walking Dead, this movie actually has a two-hour runtime with a definite ending meaning that the long-drawn out and unsubtly pronounced dialogues and monologues actually move the plot along and further character development. Second, the monsters of this movie are infinitely more interesting than relatively monotone zombies, with each proving deadly in increasingly inventive ways. Together these two make the movie watchable, if not much more than that.
Oh, and fair warning: This is without a doubt one of the darkest endings in recent movie history with the potential to make you want to chuck something at the screen in despair.