Saturday, October 15, 2016

30 Days of Nightmares #15: CELL (2016)

The Story: A mysterious electromagnetic pulse turns everyone using a cell phone into a rage zombie.  John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson, the dynamic duo who struck gold with Stephen King’s 1408, lead the resistance in King’s version of THE WALKING DEAD.

Expectations: I recognize that I bring a lot of baggage to Stephen King adaptations.  I’ve read all of his books and seen every film adaptation (excepting the countless Dollar Babies).   I know a lot of people say that, but I mean it… I even wrote a book about it.   So I bring some heavily-research preconceptions to the table, and I have some very strong beliefs about what makes King work on the page and on the screen.

I also have strong opinions about Cell, King’s 2005 novel that marked (for some readers) the author’s long-awaited return to the horror genre.  I don’t mind that King dipped into the most overexposed subgenre in horror today, or that he changed the rules of George Romero's mythology.  After all, Cell isn’t really a zombie story.  I like the way King created his own mythology by offering a pseudo-scientific explanation for the “phone crazies.” 

Basically, one character speculates that the “pulse” erased all the “software” from human brains, wiping them clean the way a giant magnet would erase a computer hard drive.  Another character extends this explanation, by suggesting that humans have some kind of primitive operating system that cannot be wiped, a core of “madness.”  But that’s not the final word on the subject matter, because Stephen King is essentially a humanist.  The author goes on to illustrate that the phone crazies are not just evolutionary throwbacks.  They are also a single evolved consciousness, psychics tapping into a “hive mind.”  Or, to put it in New Age terms…. enlightened?   Which begs the question: Should they be destroyed?  Are human beings really superior?  It’s these compelling ideas—and the way the novel’s protagonist Clay Riddell engages with them over time—that make Cell a worthwhile addition to King’s library.

But, as many Stephen King film adaptations have demonstrated, it is not easy to translate the author's characters and ideas to the screen.  Even King himself, in the role of screenwriter, doesn't do it very well.  (If I weren’t already rambling at absurd length, I’d make my argument that King might actually be one of the worst adapters of his novels…. But that's another rant for another time.)

CELL hit theaters earlier this year.  Presumably it wasn't a cheap movie to make.  It has to big-name stars, plus Stephen King's byline.  But it made less than a million at the box office--which means that almost nobody saw it.  Among those who did, nobody liked it.   If I weren’t such a completist when it comes to Stephen King, I probably wouldn’t have bothered.  But here we are.

Reaction: CELL ranks up there with the worst of the big-budget Stephen King film adaptations.  It’s not as outright ridiculous as DREAMCATCHER… but it’s so conventional and soulless that it might actually be less fun to watch than DREAMCATCHER.  I hate to say that, because I really hated DREAMCATCHER.

CELL starts off desperately trying to be Zack Snyder’s DAWN OF THE DEAD remake, but the spastic cinematography and editing are a poor substitute for suspense and believable human interaction.   Before you can blink, we’re two seasons into THE WALKING DEAD, and minor characters (here one minute, gone the next) are waxing philosophical about the nature of the beasts.  The musings that King earned as novelist with several hundred pages of characterization play like dry farts in the film.  Then it’s back to tiresomely conventional storytelling, as John Cusack risks his life to maybe rescue his son from the zombie horde.  It’s hard to care one way or the other.  He just looks so bored.  And what the hell is with the beanie he wears through the whole movie?  (When you're paying attention to stupid details like that, you know you're watching a bad movie...)

I don’t know, maybe I just shouldn’t be watch zombie movies anymore.  Almost certainly, I shouldn't be watching every Stephen King film adaptation that gets made.  But still.  This was depressing.

Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: The one scene that had some genuine emotional resonance for me was the last stand of Isabelle Fuhrman’s character.  It was so effective that, for a few minutes, I felt like I was watching a different movie.  If only.


  1. Have to confess this was on my maybe list primarily because of the cast but now...

    1. I hate to say it, because I really wanted to like this one.... but I'd stay away if I were you. Cusack and Jackson are sleepwalking.

    2. And apparently they hated each other on set! Oh!