Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Kings of Horror (1 - 12)

One of my favorite month-long Halloween celebrations this year is "Kings of Horror," a daily dose of video reviews of Stephen King (theatrical) film adaptations, hosted by Shock Till You Drop's Ryan Turek and Crave Online's William Bibbiani.  I'm enjoying it so much that I feel compelled to add a few more perspectives to the debate... mine (of course) and Stephen King's.

KING: "In many ways, the film is more stylish than my book, which I still think is a gripping read but is impeded by a certain heaviness, a Sturm and Drang quality that's absent from the film."

MADDREY: I agree with King (and Turek and Bibbs) on this one.  He has called DePalma's film more sophisticated and more fun than his first novel, and I think that's true.  DePalma's unforgettable stylistic bravado is well balanced by the humanism of Lawrence D. Cohen's screenplay and the performances of Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie.  The film only falters when neither of those two actresses are onscreen.  Certain scenes revolving around supporting characters -- especially the tuxedo rental scene -- are painfully dated, but they still don't diminish my impression of the film as a whole.  ****

KING: "Kubrick is a very cold man - pragmatic and rational - and he had great difficulty conceiving, even academically, of a supernatural world... So he looked, instead, for evil in the characters and made the film into a domestic tragedy with only vaguely supernatural overtones.  That was the basic flaw: because he couldn't believe, he couldn't make the film believable to others."

MADDREY: Turek and Bibbs also reference King's oft-quoted criticism of Stanley Kubrick's adaptation, and I think they're right that the author misses the mark in his criticism.  King's book and Kubrick's film have to be regarded as different stories.  King's story is about an essentially decent, God-fearing man who falls victim to destructive supernatural forces in his life.  Kubrick's film is about an insane man in a seemingly God-less world.  Both are effectively terrifying.  A few details in the film are downright incoherent -- sometimes (the blood in the elevator) they add to the tone of menace, and sometimes (the man in the bear suit) they pull me out of the narrative -- but I can generally chalk up these weaknesses in logic to the maintenance of a surreal, nightmarish tone.   ****

KING: "In a sense, I always relate humor to horror, and in some ways CREEPSHOW is very funny... My idea is that the audience should be laughing and screaming at the same time, almost."

MADDREY: I agree that humor and horror are very closely related, but for me it's a rare film that can perfectly balance the two so that they both work equally well.  There's no question that CREEPSHOW is a lot of fun.  I love Romero's visual panache and I love the E.C. Comics themes, but in general I prefer a bit more subtlety and seriousness in horror films.  Personal bias aside, I can still appreciate this film for what it is.  King's performance as Jordy Verrill is as broad as a barn door, but it cracks me up.  ***

KING: "In terms of being true to the book, this is probably the first Stephen King novel per se that's been put on film."  / "It's one of the scariest things you'll ever see.  It's terrifying!"

MADDREY: Ryan Turek criticizes this film for being melodramatic.  William Bibbiani defends it, saying that the characterizations are what make the scares work so well for him.  I agree with the latter, and with King.  I think director Lewis Teague does a brilliant job of creating characters and crafting suspense, and then paying off the suspense with a harrowing assault on the senses.  I also agree that this is one of the best adaptations of a King novel, brilliantly integrating the author's themes about childhood fears and the seemingly irrational intrusion of real horror into everyday life.  ****

KING: "It was well acted and it was well directed, but it didn't have the richness of incident and the wealth of characters that the book had.  So people that had read the book and went to see the movie compared the two, and the movie came off thin compared to the book."

MADDREY: As a big fan of The Dead Zone novel (it is my favorite of all of King's work), I agree with the author's assessment, but I think I like the film better than he does.  Yes, Cronenberg's film is simpler and more cold-blooded than King's humanistic novel.  (This is, I think, yet another example of an atheistic director profoundly changing the tone of King's story.)  For me, however, that cold-bloodedness makes the film genuinely unsettling.  Christopher Walken is alternately down-to-earth and alien, as only Christopher Walken can be, and Cronenberg's visuals make psychic phenomena mysterious rather than hokey.  The film doesn't have the depth of the novel, but it's still an inspired interpretation. ****

KING: "I'm not talking about the guy that played Arnie... but the two main characters were just sort of forgettable.  They didn't generate any real magnetism among the three of them.  [...] There's still a lot of Carpenter.  There's some of the excitement that he can generate.  When the car's going along the road, and it's in flames, and it's chasing these people, that's pretty good."

MADDREY: I think King is right on the mark again.  Christine is not a great book, but it has some great characterizations.  Keith Gordon's performance as Arnie Cunningham is the soul of this movie.  One of the most powerful scenes in the film is when he attacks his father, then casually brushes off the attack as if he has just swatted a fly.  As an actor, Gordon gives 110%.  John Stockwell and Alexandra Paul are pretty bland by comparison, and that diminishes King's story.  Carpenter, however, makes up for the loss by showcasing his own brilliance as a visual (and aural) storyteller.  A movie about a killer car is bound to be silly at times, but I still love it.  ***

KING: "My feeling for most of these things is like a guy who sends his daughter off to college.  You hope she'll do well.  You hope that she won't fall in with the wrong people.  You hope she won't be raped at a fraternity party, which is really close to what happened to 'Children of the Corn,' in a metaphoric sense."

MADDREY: This is where things start to go downhill for Stephen King adaptations.  Turek and Bibbs do a good job of pointing out the main problems (the lack of suspense that follows from an all-too-revealing opening sequence, the sheer absurdity of the finale); they also do viewers a helpful service by recommending a pair of much better films with similar plots (WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? and THE CHILDREN).  Oddly enough, this rather incompetent film has garnered a cult following over the years.  From what I can tell, that cult following is based more on nostalgic memories than on the film itself, which is mostly dull and annoying.  *

KING: "FIRESTARTER is one of the worst of the bunch, even though in terms of story it's very close to the original.  But it's flavorless; it's like cafeteria mashed potatoes."

MADDREY: Stephen King has been particularly harsh with FIRESTARTER, which doesn't seem necessary.  It's not a terrible film.  It's just not very good.  The film has some memorable qualities, including a wonderfully ethereal score by Tangerine Dream, but there is something rather bland and frustrating about the project as a whole.  This is one of those cases, like Christine, where the interior thoughts of the characters provided most of the fuel for the source novel, and those interior thoughts didn't make it onto the screen.  One can only wonder what would have happened if John Carpenter had directed this film (as he was originally supposed to).  This could have been -- and should have been -- a much more kinetic film. **

KING: "CAT'S EYE was another movie that I like a lot.  I think it's a good movie.  I think it's witty and stylish."

MADDREY: I first saw this anthology movie when I was about 12 years old, which was the right age for the third segment "The General."  That's the segment that stands out in my memory when I think of this title, although it's the dark humor in "Quitters Inc." that appeals to me most as an adult viewer.  Turek and Bibbs are right that the film is uneven... The first two segments play like episodes of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS.  The third one is TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE all the way.  The wraparound segment fails to tie these stories together in a satisfactory way, which makes the film as a whole seem lightweight.  Still, it must be said that all three episodes work in isolation, and that's a rare and impressive accomplishment for any anthology horror film.  **1/2

KING: "I think it's either very good indeed or a complete bust.  Past a certain point you simply can't tell."

MADDREY: In my opinion, this one is a complete bust.  It's one of those movies, like CHILDREN OF THE CORN, that was amusing to me as a 12-year-old... but, as an adult, everything about it seems silly or half-assed.  At this point in his career, I don't think Stephen King (who wrote the screenplay) had a very good appreciation or understanding of what's involved in translating a story from page to screen.  King thinks like a novelist -- in words and ideas -- not like a director.  Unfortunately, it seems like the same criticism should be applied to director Daniel Attias (at least, at this point in his career).  Attias is faithful to King's mostly-dialogue script but he fails to add a coherent or compelling "vision."  The result is a film that's tonally schizophrenic at best, laughably hokey at worst.  *

KING (before the film's release): "I think the people who don't like my written stuff, who find it vulgar and tasteless, will find this vulgar and tasteless, gross and grizzly, unpleasant and possibly boring, awkward, stereotypical and all the rest.  And people who do like my stuff, are gonna find it vulgar, tasteless, but they're going to see the spirit behind it, which is a combination of Monty Python and Jack the Ripper.  Believe it or not, they're the vestiges of an intellect working around up here."

KING (many years after the film's release): "The problem with that film is that I was coked out of my mind all through its production, and I really didn't know what I was doing."

MADDREY: This is a tough film to review.  I'm glad that Ryan Turek says "I love it for all the wrong reasons."  Yes, MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE is vulgar and tasteless, gross and grizzly, unpleasant and often boring, awkward, stereotypical and all the rest.  I do not believe this is true of King's work in general.  In fact, I'd argue that these adjectives apply much more often to the author's attempts to adapt his stories to the screen than to the original stories themselves.   The great thing about King's novels is that they are an adult's take on a child's crazy idea.  When he makes a movie, however, he seems to regress entirely to an 8-year old.  (Apparently, a coked out 8-year-old.)  That's why MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE lacks any semblance of logic or good taste.  Whether or not you enjoy this film will probably depend on how -- or whether -- you parse the difference between fun-lovingly crude and obnoxiously crude.  I'm with Turek on this one.  I know it's bad, but sometimes it feels pretty good.  **

KING: "There wasn't enough money, there wasn't enough time, and still we came out with one piece that was good.  'The Hitchhiker' - that turned out pretty well."

MADDREY: There's no question that this sequel pales in comparison to the original.  It lacks the style and the energy of Romero's film, as well as much of the humor.  I suspect that King likes "The Hitchhiker" segment because it is a black comedy.  Personally, I like it too -- just because it is batshit crazy.  I also like "The Raft" because, even though the characters are annoying, the concept is pretty scary.  Simple, but effective.  I think everyone can agree that the 'Ol' Chief Woodenhead' segment is insultingly bad.  As a whole, I don't hate this movie but I can't muster much enthusiasm for it either.  I see it mostly as a missed opportunity.  ** 

The marathon continues HERE...


  1. I so very much agree with you regarding CUJO, Joe. Y'know, I bet Teague filmed the novel's ending, and it's on some cutting room floor somewhere. Either way, Stephen King said that if he could go back and change anything from one of his books… [spoiler warning for those who've not read the novel]

    …it would be letting Tad live. This is why he survives in this film.

    1. Thanks for writing, Michael! It's interesting that you quoted King as saying that he wishes he could change the ending, because he fought for that ending when the book was published. He told an interviewer in 1984: "I was asked if I could revive him for the re-draft; at the publishing company they didn't want him to die. And I said no, that it would be a lie to say that he was alive. The movie people came along and said, 'What do you think about if the kid lived?' And I said fine, because movies are not books, and what they do doesn't bother me. I thought it would be real fun to see what happened if he did live. Even though I knew that it wasn't real. That would be make-believe. The kid really died."

    2. Interesting. Given the scenario he painted in the novel, yes, I'd agree the kid would likely die. Then again, and unfortunately, children survive a tremendous amount of physical abuse before succumbing (I've read way too many news reports that go down that same sad trail). Thanks, Joe!