Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Halloween Movies of Choice 2020: Movies 8 to 10 - Rewatching Early Stephen King

Modern horror is in many ways "King's Monster."  King dug up the pieces of the genre, stitched them together, added lightning, and a gloriously gruesome entity emerged.  Given this, it's always baffled me that I was never a big fan of King's works.  I'm a writer and aficionado of all sorts of strange stuff, so why is it that most of King's writings and their adaptations never struck a cord with me?  I decided I'd take my October 2020 movie party to re-watch a few of his early flicks, and consider my impressions more deeply.

Okay, I'm not utterly without certain King favorites.  King has written a gigantic number of novels and stories, and some of these I have definitely come to like such as those that have seeped into movies via anthologies (Creepshow 2), or via other genres than direct horror (Stand By Me, Danse Macabre.)  Creepshow 2 in particular has King starring in a solo performance that I have always loved.  I'll post about that later ...

So let's take a look at three of these early King-novels-as-movie adaptations: The Shining (which I remember not liking at all) Salem's Lot (which I remember liking a little) and The Dead Zone (which was the only King movie of the time that I remember liking a whole lot).  Now that I've just re-watched them, maybe insight shall be gained.

SPOILERS OF ALL KINDS!  Total SPOILAGE!  But seriously, I think anyone interested in this post is gonna be pretty familiar with these already.

Movie 8 - The Shining 1980

This is of course the story of a caretaker, his spouse, and his son who winter over alone at a resort.  Wendy hopes for the family to reconnect, while Jack hopes to find writing inspiration.  We have no idea what Danny wants.  The one sentence plot is that Jack is possessed by evil spirits from the house, tries to kill his family, and ends up freezing to death in the hedge maze outside as his wife and child flee to safety. 

Things I liked:  Upon re-watching, I enjoyed the filming itself much more.  The long shots, camera angles, colors, and lighting are all highly effective, making the inside of the resort feel more like a hospital than a plush hotel.  Duvall is believable as a woman who is unable to leave her abusive husband, exhibiting well-known behaviors such as defending him in conversation by saying his breaking his son's arm was an understandable accident.

The character of Dick, who also has the Shine, is particularly likeable as the only person who attempts to actually bond with Danny.  Last, a ragingly possessed Nicholson on a rampage with an axe is some of the most alarming scenery-chewing you will ever see.

Things I didn't like:  Why cast Jack Nicholson in this role?  The actor had already developed a reputation for playing twitchy characters (as in the 1970 Five Easy Pieces famous 'chicken salad sandwich scene' and the entire movie of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.)  We are also told early on that Jack is prone to outbursts of temper and has battered both his wife and son.  Listening to him whine to the bartender is painfully pathetic.  Unlike in King's novel, the movie-Jack does not have a late moment of understanding and regret; he is wholly unsympathetic.  One look at Nicholson and the question isn't "will" he try to kill you, but "when."

There is absolutely no chemistry in this family.  They all act like complete strangers to one another.  Danny has no personality, and the addition of the invisible friend "Tony" does not serve any purpose.  "Redrum" spoken over and over devolves into babble, and writing a word backwards to be seen in a mirror is a old prank predating this movie.  Duvall screams so often I wasn't even hearing it anymore.  Dick, the only interesting character, spends half the movie both realizing there is a problem and then getting back to the hotel, only to be killed immediately upon arrival.

Overall, this thing is an awesome-looking mess.  I can see why King didn't like it, as this is not the story he wrote.  Although I don't feel any connection between the people in book, either, and am not compelled by King's recurring theme of places being evil and attracting evil.  The movie has no ... charm maybe?  No cleverness?  Except for Nicholson's ad-libbed "Here's Johnny" line, the movie takes itself too seriously, allowing for no shifts in tone that might enhance the viewers' sense of perspective on the story.

Movie 9 - Salem's Lot 1979

I love a vampire flick, and it was interesting to revisit how the TV mini-series of Salem's Lot worked with the old gothic tropes, as well as with Stoker's conception of Dracula.  This is of course the story of Ben who returns to his childhood hometown to write about a creepy house there, which unbeknownst to anyone now hides a vampire.  The townspeople are eventually converted into vampires, including Ben's girlfriend, before Ben and local teen Mark can stake Master Vampire Barlow through the heart and burn the whole place down.

What I liked:  Even now the vampire eyes are a very good effect.  Some of the townsfolk are sympathetic, and the girlfriend Susan is intelligent and self-possessed.  The floating vampire boys tapping on the windows are still a creepy sight.  Watching the people get picked off one by one is also chilling as they leave cars abandoned in the streets and tricycles overturned in their yards.  There is actual interpersonal chemistry between the school teacher Jason, Ben, and his girlfriend's father Bill (who seems relieved his daughter didn't pick a loser for a change.)

PLUS this film can claim one of my favorite scary scenes of all time - while Ben is driving a stake into Barlow's heart, his undead minions are slowly but surely crawling across the floor towards Matt, who is oblivious.  There are no jump scares and nothing is hidden, it's all right in front of you and the tension is fantastic.

What I disliked:  Why did they put "Hutch" (who still looks and acts like a police detective) in a Jeep if he doesn't know how to close a Jeep door?  He tries to slam it in almost every scene, and once even goes back and slams it again.  It's some of the only humor in the film and it's clearly not intended.  I'm assuming Hutch kept forgetting this wasn't his and Starsky's beat-up Torino.

Susan, who is otherwise portrayed as intelligent, goes to the Marsden house for absolutely no reason when she's supposed to be getting her mother to safety.  She must have inherited this from her father, who for absolutely no reason walks upstairs without Hutch and of course gets waxed.  The pushing-four-hours of running time is filled with people driving places and going in and out of doors and setting up conversations.  I cut out almost 25 minutes just by making people walk fast.  

The music that plays over most of the "action" seems to have been composed by the ghost of Wagner.  And as usual for horror movies, there's too much pointless non-horror-related-violence; such as one dude who thinks it's okay to beat his wife for infidelity, and Hutch who physically throws Mark on the ground and into furniture whenever Mark doesn't do what Hutch says.  The choppy editing and continuity gaffs make the production appear almost B-movie level.

But overall, this is an interesting and occasionally even fun vampire flick with some trope-defining moments.  If you use a bit of fast forward you can avoid the slow spots and much of the irritating music, getting to the scenes with actual character interactions and some good vampire freaky-ness.  There is in fact a dash of charm to be found, as we feel some of the director's (and no doubt King's) affection for this dysfunctional small town and its increasingly undead populace.  We encounter good, bad, and a lot of in-between in the humans of this town, and it puts the utterly inhuman elements of vampiric evil in stark relief.

Movie 10 - The Dead Zone 1983

Johnny Smith wakes up from a five year coma and finds out his girlfriend has married, has a child, and that he now has developed psychic powers.  He saves some people from terrible fates, solves crimes, and eventually stops nuclear Armageddon by ending the prospects of a narcissistic presidential hopeful, although at the cost of his own (Johnny's) life.

What I liked:  This movie has aged well, and I love it as much as I ever have.  It conveys a constant, thrumming dread - the sense that something has been touched that is too intense for any human to bear for long, with consequences that cannot be predicted. The film contains complex and believable relationships, genuine warmth, nuanced characters, and some good performances.  

Christopher Walken is, as usual, fantastic in every way.  He carries this movie, totally selling how his experience changes him, his feelings of isolation, and his motivations for his choices.  Even Walken's physical performance is a standout, as over the course of the film he recovers his mobility even as he is slowly drained by his powers.  The way Johnny's visions are shown is not high-tech, but the sort of "flashback" mechanism works well.  By the end of the film we can feel Johnny's exhaustion as he tries to hang on to this world that has felt so alien to him since the moment he awoke.  Oh, and Martin Sheen is also a lot of fun as the smarmy candidate for senate - holding up a baby as a shield so he doesn't get shot.  The very bottom of the moral barrel.

What I didn't like:  I never liked the ending.  It is believable, but I feel that Johnny's journey is unfinished.  The vignettes in the movie give a smattering look at his powers, his choices, and the changes he undergoes, but I still feel that there was much more to explore with this premise, and especially with Walken's performance.  This leads me to how much I didn't like the doctor's idea that he shouldn't talk to his long lost mother because "it wasn't meant to be."  I find this fatalist attitude to be entirely self-defeating, and it undermines the subtlety of the premise.  I can understand him saying, "I can't open that door and be sure I'll survive.  It was hard to lose my mother, and I feel I can't take that emotional risk."  But saying "it wasn't meant to be" is a real chicken-out move.  Should the nurse not have heeded Johnny's warning and left her daughter to die?  Is this a whole "monkey's paw" situation?  This gives the impression that Johnny's powers are simply evil, rather than a chaotic but creative force that can be used for good.

Overall, there is so much warmth, humanity, and yes, charm in this film that we can't help but like the characters and find ourselves rooting for (or against) them.  There is genuine laughter and humor, which works very well to sharpen the edge of the frightening, mysterious, and violent moments, giving them extra punch.

In conclusion of my lengthy post here, it seems pretty clear what I think is missing from some of these stories and films - humor to provide perspective, warmth to contrast the horror, and charm to allow us to engage emotionally with the characters and their world.  I can see why it is I identify with the work of people like Tim Burton, who use more of these elements, rather than King, who is apt to give us something deeply horrific from page one and not let up.  Obviously most horror lovers want that sort of thing, since King is, well, the King of Horror.  But there are also folx like me whose appetites lie more towards the quirky, inky, ironic, and endearingly freakish realm of the genre.

Image Credits: King's pic from his amazon author page.  DVD covers for all three movies.  Other images still shots from movies or promo pix.

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