First and foremost, I am well aware that I am not breaking any new ground by talking about films based on the works of Stephen King. He is possibly the sellingest author to ever walk the planet, and he options the film rights to his stories like Paulie Bleeker eats Tic Tacs. I am also well aware that I am breaking no new ground by saying that Stephen King is my favorite author, and the man who got me excited about reading novels. But the latter is quite true regardless of how un-unique it makes me, and the former is what I am going to be doing here. So eat me sideways if you don't like it. Maybe you can go read an article about the Care Bears or something until tomorrow, when another column will grace the front page here at Matchflick.
Know how many nightmares this gave me?
Right off the bat, I would like to hammer home the difference between a "Stephen King film", and a film based on the works of Stephen King. More movies than I could talk about in this small space have been based on King's novels and short stories, some of them adapted for the screen by the man himself, and he has also written original screenplays for screens both big and small by the man himself as well. He has even dabbled in producing some of those very efforts a time or two. But I don't really think that makes them "Stephen King films'. People tend to look at the failure of movies based on his works as being blamable to the man himself. So, newsflash: King is an author who likes to make money. There is money (heaps of it) in optioning the film rights to your stories. He doesn't cast them and direct them and DP them and edit them. So stop saying, "Oh, that Stephen King film sucked." It's not his fault.
Unless you are speaking of 1986's MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE. That film is from a script written by King, based on a (really) short story from his Night Shift anthology (a rather fertile ground for films over the years) called Trucks, and was also directed by King. So that qualifies as being a "Stephen King film". There are three types of people, in regards to OVERDRIVE: ones who have never heard of it (youngsters), ones who think it sucked (Philistines with no love of trailer-trash horror), and those of us, like me, who recognize it as being the goddamn gem that it is.
I mean, it is pure King all over. Giving a huge nod to King's buddy George Romero's seminal NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the Earth passes through the tail of a comet, and the ensuing radiation causes all things mechanical to possess a life of their own. It's a silly concept, but it is done with such tongue-in-cheek aplomb that you just have to smile. In keeping with the title of the source tale, though we do get to see electric knives and lawnmowers and even hair dryers run amok and take vengeance for years of abuse at the hands of humans, the main focus of the film is a truck stop full of diverse characters being menaced by a convoy that not even Rubber Ducky could get behind.
Resolutely terrible performances abound, possibly due to King not knowing how to direct actors. He hung around movie sets a lot, doing cameos in a bunch of movies bearing his name, but that certainly does not make one an actor's director. The film is gleeful in its bad taste, has the quintessential King black humor in spades, a lot of really interesting and gory kills, a completely bad ass AC/DC soundtrack, and, of course, that terrifying Happy Toyz truck with the menacing visage of the Green Goblin staring you down.
Also, the astute observer will see Marla Maples in her screen debut.
As I said, there is so much product bearing the man's name that I am not sure of which direction to head in now. Before I get into another movie I want to talk about at length, let's briefly discuss a movie that is not a Stephen King film in any way shape or form, regardless of what the unwashed masses may think. That film is the abysmal clunker known as THE LAWNMOWER MAN (1992). That film was a desperate attempt to cash in on the then-novel virtual reality craze, and stars Pierce Brosnan and Jeff Fahey in what is basically a knock-off of Daniel Keyes's lovely book, Flowers for Algernon. The film contains no connection to the original King story of the same name, about a man who doesn't want to cut his own lawn and the cloven-hoofed, murderous freak who shows up to do the job, and King successfully sued the producers to get his name taken off of it.
Good move on his part: the film is pure trash, and not in the good way.
Almost as many as this.
But to get back on a positive note, let's talk about 1997's THE NIGHT FLIER. The titular short story was an attempt on King's part to take a look at what Richard Dees was up to, after he got done being a jerk to Johnny Smith in his brief appearance in The Dead Zone (itself made into a fabulous movie by Canadian "body-horror" legend David Cronenberg). As it turns out, what he is up to is working for a tabloid called Inside View, and tracking down a story about a "man" who flies into rural airports in the dead of night in his jet-black (with red-piping) Cessna, slaughters a few people, then gets away scot-free. Well, in an all too untypical Hollywood story, young maverick Mark Pavia (along with his writing partner Jack O'Donnell) sent King a copy of their short zombie holocaust film, DRAG. King was so impressed with Pavia's directing skill that he showed the short to Richard Rubinstein, another Romero collaborator and producer of every horror fan's wet dream television series Tales from the Darkside, and both agreed that Pavia was the man for the job of directing THE NIGHT FLIER.
And how right they were. FLIER is a very good example of down and dirty filmmaking. Shot in Wilmington, North Carolina, just as OVERDRIVE was, and the King-based anthology CAT'S EYE as well (another really good watch), and featuring the judicious application of stock footage, FLIER is a success all around. The cast is great, with the ubiquitous Miguel Ferrer in the lead. Ferrer is no stranger to King, having been in both the ABC miniseries version of THE SHINING (which was not as faithful to the book as some would claim, and an utter failure next to the Kubrick film any way you slice it) and in THE STAND as Lloyd Henreid, which was an inspired choice if you ask me. Starring opposite him was newcomer Julie Entwisle, who did a great job but kept refusing to be Paget Brewster no matter how hard I tried. The film is well-paced and nicely gory, and has a lot of fun expanding on the source material. The ending is absolutely perfect. From the startling appearance of the vampire Dwight Renfeild, to the disposition of Dees, it is just class all around.
Now, I was about to write about how in an all too common Hollywood story, Pavia disappeared after FLIER. I was very excited to read in Fangoria, I think back in 2000, that he was set to direct his original screenplay, a film called SPLICE, set to star Entwisle again along with Michael Berryman (quite a coup!), but that it fell through due to opposition from the town where it was to be filmed. But after a quick Google search turned up Mr. Pavia's personal Myspace page, I see that the man is hustling and bustling and getting things done. I am very pleased about that. Go watch THE NIGHT FLIER, then go look the man up and see what he has going on. Have I ever steered you wrong before?
Next up under the heading of "King-based films that don't get proper credit" is THE DARK HALF (1993). Based on King's rather personal novel about a man's pseudonym taking on a life of its own (*ahem*Bachman*ahem*), it was directed by none other than George Romero himself, and is faithful to the book in a way that no other project has been. Romero here proves that you don't need to monkey with the story to make it into an entertaining film while still leaving your own stamp on it. Fine works abounds, from Timothy Hutton (seldom-seen, the rare actor that chooses to work only when he is inspired) in a dual role as both the protagonist and the antagonist, Amy Madigan as his loyal wife, and Michael Rooker essaying King's recurring character of small town sheriff Alan Pangborn, also played by Ed Harris in the dreadful NEEDFUL THINGS. Hell, even my man Robert Joy shows up as weasely Fred Clawson, who suffers a fate that no guy wants to read about, let alone write about. Well, except King, I guess.
I remember when this movie was set for release, I told my brother that if it had one particular scene in it, then I would be happy. The scene is when Thad Beaumont's alter-ego, Richard Stark, is gunning for newspaper reporter Mike Donaldson, the man who wrote the article outing Beaumont and essentially "killing" Stark. He is menacing him in an apartment building hallway, and a man comes out to see what all the fuss is. When he asks what's happening, Stark replies, with a wicked grin on his face, "Murder: want some?"
To which the man scurries back into his apartment and locks the door. The scene made me giggle out loud when I read it, and is portrayed perfectly in the film. Thus I am happy, thus you should watch it.
Stick with it, it gets better: trust me.
Then there is the very unlikely success of SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK (1991). I was surprised to see IMDb list it as being a television movie, because it really doesn't feel like that. I found the short story itself rather forgettable, but scripters Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal managed to flesh it out decently. It's a little schmaltzy in the beginning, but that evens out as the action progresses. In what I hope was an intentional nod to Kubrick's SHINING, the film opens up with a teacher trekking his wife and young son to a new town for a fresh start, and even includes aerial shots of the van traveling winding roads. Once in the new town, which also happens to be dad/husband Jim Norman's hometown, he begins seeing the long dead teens who killed his older brother when Jim was only 9-years old.
Capable work is done my Tim Matheson in the lead and Brooke Dunne as his wife, but it isn't until the three dead teens transfer to the high school from "Milford" that things really get interesting. They are appropriately creepy, and some decent kills and nice make-ups happen. And no one was as surprised as I was when I started crying at the conclusion, when Jim finally gets some closure about his long-dead brother. Put this one on your queue, and stick with it until it gets good. You won't be disappointed. If for nothing else than the obvious nods to THE SHINING, STAND BY ME, and even The Talisman, yet to be filmed (but in the works as a *shudder* television miniseries).
Rounding out the column, I'd like to talk about 1990's GRAVEYARD SHIFT (not to be confused with the vampire film of the same name, done three years prior). Once again based on a not so thrilling Night Shift short story, this film maybe captures the tone of King's fiction better than most. Filmed entirely in Maine, it centers around drifter John Hall, well, drifting into town and getting work at, get this, Bachman's Textiles, a grossly dilapidated textile mill. It's deep in the heart of a sticky-hot summer, and tension are running high in the town. The mill manager, Warwick, played with gusto by Stephen Macht, keeps a tight rein on his employees, with the mill being the only gainful employment in town. When an OSHA inspector wants to close the place down, Warwick has to assemble a crew to work in the basement during the July 4th holiday week.
Sounds kind of like a decent drama, right? Well, being King, there is of course a giant mutant rat/possum/bat thing down there, picking off mill workers like flies. The standouts here, for me, are Andrew Divoff (WISHMASTER and OBLIVION, among others, here free from prosthetic devices) in what would have been a forgettable role in anyone else's less capable hands, in particular the screaming tantrum he throws when confronted with danger. Also you have the one and only Mr. Brad Dourif as the exterminator, the only man who can pull off such a compelling speech about watching a man get sliced open in a POW camp and having a rat forced to burrow under his skin and into his body. There is also a nice Castle Rock reference thrown out by Kelly Wolf (seen recently in Grey's Anatomy).
Like I said earlier, the films based on King's works are simply too voluminous to be spoken of in just this one column, so I hope you've enjoyed reading about a few of what I consider to be lesser known entries in that list. As a quick overview, please enjoy the following half-baked opinions of yours truly:
Best adaptation with only passing resemblance to the book:
Worst adaptation with only passing resemblance to the book:
THE RUNNING MAN
Most anticipated project:
FROM A BUICK 8 (hell, maybe it'll put Tobe Hooper back on the map)
Least anticipated project:
THE TALISMAN (please, guys, just leave it be, okay?)
Note: King actually sells limited film rights to his short stories to independent filmmakers for the princely sum of one dollar, in order to help young and hungry helmers make a name for themselves. That, my friends, is class.
So, anyone got a dollar and a camera I can borrow?
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Eating the flesh of lesser film geeks since '72.
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