Hi! The movie reviews on my book pages were good, but visitors to the House wanted more -- wanted something a little more in-depth when it came to the films. And though I can't guarantee they'll be as detailed as the reviews on the written word, I can say you'll gain a better understanding of the films right here!
As with the Books About King page, I'm assigning a star system to the films [no stars] being the worst, **** being the best.
Let's begin, shall we?
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The Reich Stuff:
Review reprinted from the upcoming Phantasmagoria #8, edited by George Beahm
A scene early on in the film Apt Pupil sets the tone for the entire movie: an intelligent boy who has recently become interested in the Holocaust is busy scribbling on the top of a paper his teacher recently graded. The grade is an A, but what the boy is scribbling is far more telling: a series of dark swastikas, hanging over the good grade like an omen.
The boy is Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro), a smart and well liked high school student. He enters into his newly discovered interest obsessively, filling the chest at the foot of his bed with articles and books on the Third Reich. But Todd is still pretending to have a normal life … until he discovers that his hometown harbors one of the men he has read about: a fugitive Nazi named Kurt Dussander (Ian McKellen). Todd confronts Dussander, not out of a sense of greater good, but to hear the stories Dussander can tell. "I want to hear everything," he says, and after some initial reluctance, Dussander relents, drudging up his most painful memories and sharing them.
Both the boy and the man begin to have nightmares about the concentration camps, Dussander reliving his own horrors while Todd creates the terror in his mind. During one particularly chilling scene, Todd presents the Nazi with a replica SS uniform and makes him march in it, only realizing too late that he can't make the man stop unless Dussander wants to. Todd's grades slip, and only some desperate deal-making between Todd, his school guidance counselor, and Dussander pretending to be the boy's grandfather, can save them both. Apt Pupil spirals downward, capturing Todd's continuing loss of both morals and stability, as he realizes the mutual trap he and the old man have locked themselves into. As the stakes raise higher and higher, the film shows Todd becoming more ruthless, more devious, culminating in a terrifying, intensely shot sequence in Dussander's basement.
Director Bryan Singer has done well with his source material here, bringing Stephen King's novella to the screen in stark light and shadow. Fans of the original story may be disappointed that the movie does not follow the book's structure; much of the dialogue and time frame has been changed and the ending is so completely altered that the resulting tone is weaker than it should have been. But the only real flaw of the film itself is plunging us into the character of Todd after his obsession begins. His constantly unsmiling face gives us no basis for comparison, no idea how completely his life has been changed, and how impossible it would be to resume that life.
Apt Pupil is one of the better films to be made out of a Stephen King story, worthy and chilling. Based against its peers (adaptions of the novellas in the amazing Different Seasons) The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me, however, it seems a bit weak. Perhaps it's the excision of the original ending, which would have almost certainly given the film more closure, or the fact that there are no truly likable characters in the movie. But Apt Pupil isn't trying to be an adaption or a feel-good film. It is perhaps the darkest examination of the human experience in any of the films based on King's work, a macabre lesson in the sins of the past begetting the black horrors of the present. And if it is impossible to see the light by the end credits, then Apt Pupil has made its point.
Carrie (Brian DePalma, 1976)
***1/2 -- The first Stephen King adaption still holds up as one of the best. Both Sissy Spacek as Carrie White and Piper Laurie as her mother, Margaret, were nominated for Academy Awards for this film, and it's easy to see why. Spacek makes us fully believe in her shy and trod-upon Carrietta White (the tampon-throwing scene retains almost as much power of the book's), and we feel her torment as she is beset upon by all sides. Laurie's Margaret White takes on that character's religious fervor in stunning, terrifying sequences, the most memorable being the first ("And the raven was called sin, say it!") The Biblical imagery and the Cinderella motif (Sue Snell = The Fairy Godmother; Tommy Ross = Prince Charming; Chris Horgensen = the wicked stepsister; the prom itself = the ball) gel well together, and DePalma's subtle displays of Carrie's telekinesis convince. The ending pyrotechnics might leave some wanting more (especially readers of the book's final chapter, "Wreckage"), but it works well on the screen, anyway. And lest anyone forget the final hand-from-the-grave shot -- an addition to the story and perhaps the scaryest moment in any film, ever.
Cat's Eye (Lewis Teague, 1985)
*** -- Cat's Eye tries what Creepshow did earlier on -- utilize the format of a horror-film anthology yet make it coherant and semi-structured around one basic plot. It succeeds to a point, then stops. The problem is, several important scenes were cut from the print, making the wraparound "cat" story incomprehensible. The stories themselves ("The Ledge," "Quitters, Inc," and "The General") all work fairly well on their own levels. "The Ledge" is the best of the lot, playing on the fear of heights using dizzying camera angles. Robert Hays (remembered best for "Airplane!") does an amazing job here with a few inches of ledge and his own terror. "Quitters, Inc." stars James Woods, and utilizes a couple of other fears: paranoia and addiction. (This works a lot better, both the film and the story, than the later "The Ten O'Clock People"). "The General," while getting into the Guinness Book of World's Records for largest props, isn't as good. The use of the Police song "I'll be Watching You" is good continuity, and the story shouldSceamplays) A worthwhile movie that does some good takes on the otherwise cursed Night Shift movie library, but doesn't much stand out.
Children of the Corn (Fritz Kiersch, 1984)
** -- Why why why? Although not as bad a movie as King critics make it out to be, it's pretty bad. Starring Linda Hamilton (pre-Terminator) and Peter Horton (pre-thirtysomething), this tale of religious cultism and supernatural dread turns into a town full of killer kids. He Who Walks Behind he Rows kinda burrows behind them (not unlike a gopher), and Malachai kinda reminds one of Eric Stoltz in Mask. Some not-bad moments include a scene with a dead cop on a cross and ... um, well, that's it. Memorable for the line "Outlander! We have your woman!" Fun at MST3K events!
Christine (John Carpenter, 1983)
***1/2 -- The most underrated of the King adaptions, Christine takes its ideas and tone from the book, and changes a lot around. In the novel, the question of Christine's evil is always in doubt; in the movie, we know she is bad to the bone from the start. Keith Gordon does an amazing job at transforming nerdy Arnie Cunningham into a dark, unpleasant danger. Still, like the book, some of the "old" Arnie shines through at times, such as when Darnell is found. Three superior sequences raise this film above the lot, all involving Arnie's love for Christine: the first, when Arnie and leigh find Christing trashed, Arnie begins to place the rubber seals around the window methodically, unthinking and unbelieving. A nice, subtle touch. The big scene on New Year's Eve, when Arnie gives Dennis his diatribe on love is one of the scarier scenes in any King movie, and nothing overtly terrifying happens. The final scene, with Arnie touching the emblem on Christine's grille before he dies, underlines the fact that he never escaped her grasp. (Also, kudos go to the transforminf sequence -- great special effects) Some not-so-good points: Alexandra Paul is plastic and you never really understand her character. John Stockwell has a really big head (it's true! It's really weird!) And I didn't like that it was LeBay's brother that sold Christine to Arnie -- it just didn't sit right. Otherwise, a fine adaption.
Creepshow (George Romero)
*** -- This one is interesting, an episodic horror movie that doesn't really try to connect the tales. Sure, there's the premise that these are all stories out of a comic book, with the "framework" story being a kid (Joe King, Stephen's son)whose abusive father has thrown away the comic, entitled Creepshow. Interweaving this framework throughout the telling of the tales (respectively, "Father's Day," "The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill," "The Crate," "Something to Tide You Over," and "They're Creeping Up On You") are well made, and include a stellar cast (including Stephen King in his first movie appearance based on his own work.) The basic premise of Creepshow is to present a combination of horror and comic-book sensibilities, and in most cases, this idea works. In others, however, there's an entirely different story. Take "The Crate," for instance, which is the scariest of the stories in the comic book adaption. The buildup is great -- enough blood and suspense to keep gore freaks and true horror fans happy. But when the creature in the crate appears, comic-like backlighting diminishes the scare factor, making it all seem hokey. The opening and closing peices work well, though -- truly terrifying parts include the birthday cake scene, the cockroach scene, and Ed Harris disco-dancing. Oh, and the Stephen King performance is quite enjoyable; King gets the most out of the term "meteorsh*t." Try it!
** -- Okay, this is going to sound hypocritical, or, at the very least, giving two opposite opinions. In my review for Creepshow, I stated I didn't like the comedy interfering with the horror. Well, in Creepshow 2, they've left the comedy out, and it just makes the movie worse. The first segment, "Ol' Chief Woodenhead," involves young punks terrorizing old people. A laff riot. Really, it just seems uncomfortable to watch these elderly people run amuck by jerks. (THis is not always the case; Fred Gwynne did a good job in Pet Sematary of making it less an age issue than a horror issue.) Then we have the final peice, "The Hitchhiker," which is memorable only for the scary line, "Thanks for the ride, lady." Otherwise, it falls apart. The middle one, "The Raft," is based on an actual King story (in Skeleton Crew) and it's the only one that really works well, doing a good job staying afloat (HA!) on its own, as well as being a good adaption. Really scary last shot, too. And the animated sequences were okay (The Plant, Part 4?) But the mediocre live action ones lead one to wonder why they decided to leave out the section "Pinfall," an extremely gory tale of revenge still only in sceenplay form. I don't know. I guess the oft-used word in "Ol' Cheif Woodenhead," "LOCO!" was apt.
*** -- This isn't a bad movie, nor is it a mediocre movie. It does the best it can at making an exciting and suspenseful film out of an extremely depressing book. On that level, it succeeds, but at a price: the claustrophobic, nervewracking waiting periods (Donna Trenton keeping constant watch on Cujo, while he keeps constant watch on her) were the best parts of the book. The film chooses not to dwell on these, perhaps feeling that it would have slowed the film down. On the one hand, the dog attacks are quite exciting and horrifying. On the other, Donna's own mental stability and physical cohesiveness aren't thoroughly delved into, and this lessens the inherant danger of her, and her son's situation. The controversial changed ending (which I won't reveal here; if you don't already know, you'll want to be surprised) isn't all that big a deal -- in each instance, book and movie, the ending fits according to the buildup. Dee Wallace gives a great performance as Donna, and, as Stephen Spignesi has asked, why wasn't she nominated for an Oscar for this?
The Dark Half (George Romero)
***1/2 -- After years of promising and then not doing The Stand, George Romero decided to take on this Stephen King project, which, given his past films, seems more suited to him. The movie, involving such academic subject matter as pseudonyms, the craft of writing, ancient superstitions, and medical science, this would seem to be a nearly unadaptable novel. But Romero, somehow, does it and does it well. Without talking down to the audience, he informs us first what a pseudonym is, and why Thaddeus Beumont (writer of his own academic books) feels compelled to write under another name, using it as an excuse to write down-and-dirty crime stories. Some of the harder things to show on screen -- the reasoning behind the sparrows, the automatic writing, et cetera, come across easily. The movie doesn't feed itself to you -- you do have to think a bit -- but it's not totally obtuse.
Some gripes: the fact that Tim Matheson plays both Beumont and Stark is a bit distracting (although a friend of mine commented while watching it that they should have gotten the same actor to play both, not knowing that it actually was! This leads me to believe that Matheson actually does look different, and I was annoyed becuase I had pre-knowledge of the dual role.) And Amy Madigan's accent. What's up with that I don't want to rafg on the woman, she's a good actress, but the New Yawk thing in the middle of Maine didn't fit, and it's distracting. Otherwise, a terrific film -- Romero should really do more with King.
The Dead Zone
**** -- One of the best adaptions of a supernatural Stephen King tale, The Dead Zone is really at the top of its form. Christopher Walken was the perfect character to play sympathetic Johnny Smith, both in his physical nature (in the book, his students referred to him as "Frankenstein"), and in his acting ability. He makes us believe in the power of precognition without forcing it down our throats. The decision to put Johnny within the visions was a terrfic one; the scene in which his bed is on fire juxtaposing the little girl's room is visually breathtaking an effectively scary, as are the horrific rape scenes which queasily recall A Clockwork Orange. The best line in the entire film is Smith's to the mother of the Castle Rock Strangler, after grasping her arm: "You knew, didn't you? You knew." Chilling and tragic, The Dead Zone is the example future directors of supernatural King adaptions should look to.
Dolores Claiborne (Taylor Hackford, 1994)
**** -- The magic that comes alive when Kathy Bates and Stephen King are together is unparalelled. First, with Misery, Bates created a character of widely divergent personalities that coalesced into one larger, scarier, whole. In Dolores, she goes for a more subtle approach, letting the sole, run-down personality of he character speak quietly yet powerfully.
The shift in storylines is at first unsettling; in the book, Slena St. Sgeorge is little more than a flashback character who makes an appearance at the end. In the film, she becomes a main character, brilliantly prtrayed by Jennifer Jason Leigh (for those unfamiliar with Leigh's work, she often takes on roles which would horrify other actresses -- witness Georgia, or even Single White Female.) Selena hates Dolores for vaguely specified reasons, but underneath, Selena knows Dolores killed her father Joe, but has surpressed any memory as to why. Several flashback sequences fill us in on the gory details: why Joe had to die, and when she had to kill him. The flashbacks are impressively done, especially a scene in which Selena nearly slits her throat open with a Christmas ornament. Dark and touching all the way.
For those who have enjoyed the non-supernatural films and books (The Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me, The Woman in the Room, Misery), Dolores Claiborne is a terrific addition to that list. WHile it may be too heady for some viewers, this film is a remarkable dark journey into two womens' souls, and the possible light that may be found there.
Firestarter (Dino DeLaurentis, 1984)
**1/2 -- The problems with the filmed version aren't immediately apparent: the script is a nearly word-for word representation of the novel. The cast (Martin Sheen, Louise Fletcher, etc.) are first rate, for the most part. The visual effects (fireballs, bullets blowing up in mid-air) are stunning. So why didn't this film make a big impression? It's boring.
The entire film relies on an eight-year-old girl (played by Drew Barrymore, who, truth be told, really tried hard to do this well). She's too, for a lack of a better word, uninteresting, for the majority of the movie. Several scenes, especially the one in which she's supposed to set a tub of wood chips on fire, are remarkably well done. The big difficulty with Firestarter is that it has (sorry) a few bright sparks, but ultimately, it fizzles. Read the book.
[no stars] -- absolutely the worst King film ever made, and quite possibly the worst film in the history of film making. This is so horrendously bad, so completely insipid, with no real characters, or plot, or substance, you may rather kill yourself than sit through an entire viewing. And it's not even the campy-bad that Children of the Corn was, or the sequal-bad that Pet Sematary 2 was, or even the wasted-talent bad that The Mangler was. This is, quite simply, a tremendously awful movie, and I give you fair warning: never ever ever rent this movie. Ever. I mean it.
The Green Mile
It, (Tommy Lee Wallace, 1990)
***1/2 -- This was the second miniseries based on a work of King's (1978's 'Salem's Lot was the first), and the first to be released in the 1990's. The success of It paved the way for the scores of other successful King miniseries. But was It really any good?
The answer is twofold, in that by its own merits, the movie worked well enough, and even excelled at points. But because of the nature of the miniseries, and the as-yet-unproven ground of a horror miniseries, It wasn't really given fair treatment. It is a novel topping off at over 1,000 pages, and the filmmakers tried to cram all that verbiage into four hours: it doesn't entirely work.
There is quite a lot that did work, though, and the focus should be on the positive. The first two hours, focusing on the Loser's Club as children (the director opted not to use the shifting time frames the book employed) was simply wonderful. Again, too short, but the sense of deep friendship buttressed by sheer terror was almost palpable. Every one of the children did a singular job, making you truly believe they were the characters from the book. And the scares were very real, and quite terrifying -- both the showdown scene and the scene involving the photo album pack an entire Friday the 13ths worth of horror in a few minutes. The Apocalyptic Rockfight plays out very well, bringing the tense and exciting battle of the book to vivid life.
The problems begin with the adults. Had the second two hours been interrupted by more scenes with the kids, they may not have dragged as much. The feeling of friendship between the Losers is still there, but now muted. Many of the actors (William Christopher in particular) don't seem well suited to their characters, and too often it appears that they are actors, not characters. Less thrilling than Part One, and brought down heavily by a ridiculously fake Spider at the end, part Two ultimately tries hard, but fails.
Taken as a whole, It is an achievement. The small disappointments of Part Two can't take away from the sheer joy of Part One. Rent It. Buy It. Love It.
The Night Flier (Mark Pavia)
**** -- Mark Pavia has made history.
His new film, The Night Flier, is the first truly good feature film based upon a Stephen King short story (as opposed to a novella; the adaptations Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption excelled.) For a bit of dreary history, look down the long corridor of previous short story adaptation attempts: the hokey Children of the Corn, the mutilated Mangler, and the simply horrible Graveyard Shit. In that company, nearly any capable film would smell sweet. But taken with King films as a whole (or, to go even further, most modern horror films), The Night Flier is terrific.
The basic plot remains true to King’s story. A tabloid reporter named Richard Dees – a weary, bitter man whose esteem at Inside View isn’t what it used to be – is given a chance to make the front page again. There’s a frightening new serial killer on the loose, one who files his own private plane, and who drains his victims’ blood almost entirely. The murdered are discovered with two gaping holes on either side of their neck – as if they were gouged with railroad spikes. Dees goes on a chase for the story, but there’s a complication. A new character named Katherine Blair (known as "the Jimmy," as in "Jimmy Olsen") is an up-and-coming reporter, unprepared for the hard and dark world of Inside View. Blair becomes a welcome addition to the film, first as a more humane mirror to Dees’s amorality, then as a worthy adversary.
The main thrust of the film is in the tracking of the murderer, The Night Flier, who calls himself Dwight Renfield,. Each site is more horrible than the last, yet Dees can’t help but "touch up" the carnage – spraying his own blood on a gravestone in one scene, shifting corpses around to make them more photogenic in others. One of the film’s most unnerving aspects is the focus on Dees’ complete lack of conscience; this theme is explored fully in the final, utterly terrifying scenes.
I won’t give too much away; the film is a too much a dark joy to behold without a string of revelations. Pavia has significantly expanded the story’s original ending, giving it a more horrific ending with cleaner closure. The original tale sought redemption for Dees. The movie seeks revenge. There is a scary black and white sequence near the end that goes far more in the direction of splatterpunk than King’s comparatively reserved tale went, although the famous blood-in-the-urinal scene remains. There are some explanations, as well: we now understand the physical reasons behind those eerie huge neck holes, and we are shown what the Night Flier actually looks like. The numerous in-references to King are plentiful (Pavia weaves elements of It, Cujo, and a certain important scene in ‘Salem’s Lot; especially obscure is the use of the "scrapbook" motif used in The Shining, Misery, and It), obvious enough to be noticed but not enough to be annoying.
The Night Flier is an expansion, in terms of plot and length, on its source material. Questions of whether the film or the story is the superior incarnation is left up to the individual. But while The Night Flier certainly can’t hold a candle to such King films as The Shawshank Redemption, The Dead Zone, or Misery, it is an amazing adaptation of a down-and-dirty vampire story. More gore for your buck, and more bite than your average horror flick, The Night Flier is a bloody good movie.
(Review origianally appaered in Phantasmagoria, issue #7)
The Running Man
The Shawshank Redemption
The Shining (Stanley Kubrick)
The Shining (Mick Garris)
Stand by Me
Storm of the Century
Released as a six-hour miniseries on ABC in 1999.
Tales from the Darkside, The Movie [inc. King's "The Cat From Hell"]
The Woman in the Room/The Boogeyman