Friday, October 25, 2013

Stephen King: From Page to Celluloid (Part 2)

Hello and welcome back!

I've had a great time going over these titles and writing about them.  So, if you're ready to am I.

Leaving off with Cujo, we’ve barely cracked the surface of Stephen King movie adaptations and looking at the list of films in front of me, I don’t even know if I’ll be able to get through all of these.

But…without further ado, let’s continue…

The Dead Zone
Continuing King’s reign of films based on his books taking over Hollywood, 1983 brought another of his stories to theaters: The Dead Zone.

Based on King’s 1979 novel of the same name, the film stars Christopher Walken as Johnny Smith, a man who gets into a horrific accident that leaves him in a coma for five years (seven years in the book) only to wake up with lots of physical therapy as well as a gift for seeing the future.

The movie plays out a lot like the book, but there are subtle differences.  In the book, it seems as if Johnny has the gift before his accident—not as strong, but there nonetheless.  I don’t remember much else from the novel, there may be more, but from what I can remember, it plays out the same way in the film.

The film also stars Tom Skerritt as Sheriff Bannerman, a name you might be familiar with if you’ve seen most of the films based on King’s books, or if you’ve read most of them.  The character appears a few times in King’s books, as well as a few movies over the years.

A chosen scene I recall from the film is when Johnny shakes hands with Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), an up-and-coming politician and gets a vision of the future.  The revelation shows Stillson as President of the United States and wanting to start a nuclear war, making his vice president agree to it by force.  This scene is the turning point of the film where you know Johnny has to do something to stop the future from happening.
The film’s third act begins with Johnny facing a dilemma and not knowing what he should do about it.  A very poignant scene in the film has him asking his doctor a philosophical question, which, when answered, helps him in his decision: If you could go back in time to Germany, before Hitler came to power, knowing what you know now, would you kill him?

The Dead Zone has some remarkable performances throughout and the film is a pretty darn good adaptation of Stephen king’s novel.  It’s an heroic story for our main character, but a heartbreaking one to the end.

The third film of 1983 that was based on a Stephen King novel—published in the same year—was Christine, a film by John Carpenter and one of the few films he’s directed that he didn’t have a hand in writing.  In one sentence, the film’s about a killer car that goes after anyone who’s wronged her owner.

I thoroughly relished this book when I read it back in the late 80s.  Knowing there was a movie based on it that I hadn’t seen at the time, I wanted to finish the novel before I decided to rent the film.  Stephen King used an interesting narrative in the novel, going from one character’s point of view in one part, to another and another.

The trend of not fully adapting his works to film well keeps right on going in this one.  There were some changes that I can see made some sense.  Like, for instance, in the book Arnie buys the car from the original owner.  In the film, the original owner has been dead for a while and his brother is the one selling the car.  That, I thought, made sense as the original owner was so in love with the car that his death was the only way that could separate him from it.  A few other minor changes were noticed when I first saw this flick, but it’s long been forgotten.

The film’s lead character, Arnie, is played perfectly by Keith Gordon.  I never really liked him much in any part that he played, but when it comes to playing the character of Arnie, he nailed it.

A few favorite scenes of mine in the film are when Christine goes after Buddy Repperton (William Ostrander) and his friends who had trashed the car.  The very memorable scene where the car is emerging from the exploding gas station, fully engulfed in flames, is terrific.

I’ve said it before in a previous review that I’m impressed to this day on how they performed the special effects of the car rebuilding itself and that’s one accomplishment that still stands up today.

Children of the Corn
Although first published in Penthouse magazine back in 1977, Stephen King included the short story, "Children of the Corn," in one of his best short story collections, “Night Shift.”

The book has had a number of stories made into movies and all are very enjoyable to read.  Published in 1978, the book features this one, about a small town taken over by the children who live there, much like the movie version.  However, the story and film have different endings.

The 1984 film stars Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton as Burt Stanton and Vicky Baxter respectively.  The couple is driving across country to Burt’s new job as a physician when they hit a small boy outside of Gatlin, Nebraska.  Burt and Vicky then go to the town to try and get help and see that the town seems abandoned.  They soon discover the children, led by Isaac (John Franklin) and Malachai (Courtney Gains), and see that they need to get out of town as the children try to kill them.

Although the film is a bit one-dimensional, it’s still a fun watch, very nostalgic of the 1980s.  John Franklin is a stand-out due to the fact that he was a 25-year-old playing a pre-teen due to his GHD, so it gave him a creepy and offset portrayal of a child with such disciplined vocabulary and speaking of biblical references.
The film is a great watch and pretty good special effects for its time.  Performances are perfect and much, MUCH better than the remake in 2009.  See this one…a must for your Stephen King collection.

In the 80s, there seemed to always be one of two go-to actresses that were always cast to play cute little girls.  One was little Heather O’Rourke of Poltergeist fame and the other was Drew Barrymore, who stars in this 1984 film.  It was adapted from Stephen King’s novel, of the same name, published in 1980, and like most of King’s stories, I made sure to read this one first before watching the film.

The story is about how Andy McGee and his soon-to-be-wife, Vicky Tomlinson, during college, agree to participate in experiments in which they’re given a low-grade drug called Lot-6.  They end up getting certain powers—Andy can make people do things and Vicky can read minds.  They end up having a child, Charlene “Charlie,” who has the power to start fires.  After Vicky’s been murdered, Andy and Charlie go on the run from a government agency that wants Charlie for her abilities.

The film version is more or less the same, with some minor differences here and there.  Of course, I think everybody does the same thing while reading a story.  I picture someone, usually an actor or an actress, for each character in the book.  At the time, I knew Drew Barrymore was the lead, so I pictured her of course.  But there’s one character translated to film that I disagree with the casting wholeheartedly, and that’s the casting of George C. Scott as the character of John Rainbird.  The character was supposed to be Native American, so how they thought of Scott to play the role is beyond me.  The whole time I read the book, I was picturing Will Sampson in the role.  You know?  An actual Native American?

Anyway…the film is a little weaker than the standard King adaptations we’ve gotten before—especially the middle segment where our main character is stuck in a comfy-looking compound—but still a treat to watch.

Cat’s Eye
Being a fan of Creepshow, it was nice to get another anthology film featuring Stephen King’s works.  Although with Cat’s Eye, we get more of a family-friendly film with no gore and nothing that’ll give children— or adults—nightmares when trying to sleep at night.

The film consists of three tales all tied together as we follow the adventures of a stray cat trying to get to a little girl (Drew Barrymore) he has visions of along the way.  Two of the stories are adaptations from Stephen King’s short stories, while the last one is written specifically for the film.

The first tale—adapted from the short story of the same name published in 1978’s “Night Shift” collection—“Quitters, Inc.,” is about a guy, Dick Morrison (James Woods), who is referred to an office that helps people quit smoking.  However, the techniques the company uses are quite unusual yet extreme.  The story is completely unbelievable and the things that happen to James Woods’s character are highly unlikely, yet the story is very enjoyable and probably the second best story of the film.

The cat’s involvement in this story is simply that the president of the company, Dr. Vinny Donatti (Alan King), happens to find the stray on the street and brings it in to his office, using it as a demonstration during one scene of the film before the cat gets out and runs away.

The second story, “The Ledge” (also from the “Night Shift” collection) is my favorite of the movie and is the one story that makes you think what you would do if you were in this guy’s place.

After retrieving the cat following a morbid bet with a friend, a rich Atlantic City gambler, Cressner (Kenneth McMillan), has Johnny Norris (Robert Hayes) brought to his penthouse after he finds out the man is having an affair with his wife.  Being a gambling man, he tells Norris that he can have his wife and a bunch of his money if he does one thing: climb down onto the ledge of his building and travel the perimeter without falling.  Of course, the ledge is several stories up and looks to be around eight inches wide.  Having no choice as Cressner’s goons force Norris out with their guns drawn, he reluctantly starts the deadly task.

Before the third, and final, story begins, “The General” (the one story written for the film exclusively), the cat gets away from the penthouse and makes his way to the house of the little girl he’d been having visions of throughout the film.  The girl (Drew Barrymore) finds him and brings him home where her father is okay with the new pet, but not the mom.  But she agrees as well, with some strict rules for the cat.

The story turns out to be about a troll that lives within the walls of the girl’s bedroom which comes out at night to wreak havoc and to steal the breath of the little girl, a switch in the old wives’ tale about cats stealing the breath of babies.

The third one is the one segment that feels a little soft and too family-friendly.  It doesn’t seem to belong to the film when compared to the first two stories, almost seeming like some feel-good Spielberg yarn.  Also, the whole thing was filmed with a bit of lighthearted acting, giving it a cartoonish feel during the course of the movie.  But I think most people will like it…just don’t expect the usual Stephen King fare when pulling this off the rental shelf.

Silver Bullet
Not only was the mid-80s a good few years for Stephen King, but it was also the time that the two Coreys (Corey Feldman and Corey Haim) ruled the teen flicks.  Most of those movies they had starred in during those days, I had no interest in viewing.  However, Corey Haim turned a solid performance as wheelchair-bound, Marty Coslaw, in 1985’s Silver Bullet.

The film was adapted from King’s 1983 novella, “Cycle of the Werewolf,” that I’d tried reading a while back but couldn’t get through it.  The book seemed poetic in nature, with not too much dialogue, and I just don’t enjoy those types of narratives.  That said, Silver Bullet is your typical 1980s horror flick that really feels like a TV movie by today’s standards.  The special effects are not that great and the werewolf costume is sort of lame.  But…the film does have some tension and a few scares here and there.

With a standard telling of the classic wolf-man lore, the plot goes through the motions of the full moon coming out and people getting killed by a monster until a final showdown between the protagonists and the werewolf.

With all its faults I’ve just mentioned, Silver Bullet is still a good movie that’ll keep most people enthralled and overlooking the weaknesses.  I mean, who doesn’t like a good werewolf movie, right?

I think I’ll stop there to give you all a breather on my look at Stephen King’s books-to-film for now.  Be sure to check back soon for my continuation of this subject in the very near future.

Stay tuned for the third part of my Stephen King retrospective and, as always, thank you for reading.

If you have any comments, I welcome them any time.

You can also tweet at me on Twitter: @CinemaBits.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Stephen King: From Page to Celluloid (Part 1)

I have to catch myself when I speak about reading Stephen King’s works because I always come close to saying I’m his number one fan. Not only do I know there are bigger fans than I, but I cannot forget that same line of the character of Annie Wilkes from his novel, “Misery.” A lot of his fans will travel miles to see him and to get his autograph; I haven’t gone that far yet (I stress yet). I will pick up each and every book he releases on the very date it’s on the store shelves, usually the hard covers, but once or twice I’ve waited for the paperbacks. So I guess I can say that I’m a big fan, just not at the very top of the list.

Yes, I can brag that I’ve read around 40 of Mr. King’s novels—both as Stephen King and Richard Bachman—and a number of his short story collections, as well as a story he had released online a while back called “The Plant” (even though, to this day, he hasn’t finished it). All his books have taken me to a different world for weeks at a time. Hell, I’ve felt like I’ve been to Maine before when I’ve never visited the state in my life. But that’s how well he makes his readers visualize the world his stories take place, whether it’s a story that takes place in the world we all know so well, or the nether regions of the territories many of his books are part of.

Since the 1970s, the library of Stephen King’s books was the well most filmmakers visited to adapt onto film. It was almost a no-brainer to use one of his stories to put onto celluloid and it usually worked. Most times, the name alone of Mr. King’s titles was enough to get people in the seats. Half the time, filmmakers weren’t able to translate the work well enough and critics had their day with what they gave us. But they were always fun movies and critics never really get that, do they? Nevertheless, the oeuvre of films based on Stephen King’s novels—especially the films during the decade of the 1980s—are enjoyable to this day and I have a large portion of my Blu-Ray and DVD library dedicated to the man’s stories.

So, what I’d like to do is go over the books and translated films, one by one, from his earliest to latest, giving my opinion on how well the stories were adapted to film.

Back in 1974, King’s first novel, “Carrie,” was published. Of course, being only around 6 years old at the time, I didn’t read those types of books—I was more of a “The Mouse and the Motorcycle” kind of kid back then—and it wasn’t until recently that I decided to give it a look.

Usually, if I’ve seen the movie version of one of his works, I don’t read it afterwards. But…”Carrie” was a quick read for me and I enjoyed it thoroughly. At 199 pages, the story went from the narrative to what was going on with the main characters, to flashing forward to news reports and conjured book passages, as well as excerpts of witness testimonials of a fictitious trial that took place after the events of the book. It was a very interesting read, playing out much like the subsequent movie by Brian DePalma in 1976.

The story is about a young girl in high school, not very well-liked and has an overbearing mother who is a religious zealot. She begins to notice that she has telekinetic powers and it never really comes to fruition until prom night.

Now, in the book, Carrie discovers the power early on and begins to exercise it because it exhausts her at first. In the film, she discovers it and seems to be okay with doing little things with it right away until it goes full force on prom night. I’m sure we’re going to get the book version of it in the upcoming remake, starring ChloĆ« Grace Moretz, where Carrie destroys the whole town and not just the school. Besides the book describing some awesome visuals that weren’t in the original film and that can be included in this new reworking, the remake is not needed.

So obviously, in 1976, the limited field of special effects couldn’t duplicate what was described in the book, such as the multiple levitations of objects, the raining of stones, and the total destruction of the town within the story. Otherwise, the story plays out much like the book, all the important plot points are there and the film is very entertaining. The cast is very well known and most of the actors and actresses you’ll recognize. Sissy Spacek plays the title character of Carrie White. Piper Laurie does an incredible job as Margaret White—Carrie’s mother, Tommy and Sue are played by William Katt and Amy Irving respectively, Nancy Allen convincingly act s like the biggest bitch as Carrie’s antagonist Chris Hargensen, and John Travolta—before hitting it big in Saturday Night Fever and Grease—as Billy Nolan.

The differences between how the characters are described in the book compared to De Palma’s film are very minor, but it’s worth noting that the character of Carrie is described as a little portly with some acne, losing both by the time the climax comes around. I also find it odd that Billy Nolan was described as a kid who decides to dress like a greaser from the 50s, and that’s maybe because I can’t forget how John Travolta personified the character nicely in the film and made Billy Nolan his own.

The only nitpick I have about this film is the tuxedo shopping scene. It seems as if this was a little bit of filler to fluff up the film a bit. Maybe it was to add a little comedy to the film, what with the actors—along with their voices—being sped up for a little laugh…I guess. But the film as a whole is a great nostalgic piece, looking back at high school days during the 1970s.

Salem’s Lot
A year after the novel, “Carrie,” was released, Stephen King followed it up with a great and modern take on the vampire lore, titled, “Salem’s Lot.”

I first became familiar with this story through the television movie back in 1979 and remembered it being quite scary for the ilk of TV horror films back then. Not long after it became available on DVD, I purchased it to gain a bit of nostalgia and to see if I remembered any of it from my childhood. The only scene I had vaguely remembered was the boy, who had been turned, floating outside of another child’s window in the dark. But that was all. Needless to say, the film still holds up a bit, especially when you understand the standards of television in the 70s.
Most of the killings and bloodsucking are done off-screen or the film pauses with a scary music cue just as something bad happens. A few years back, I picked up the hardcover of this novel and, although I was familiar with the story, read it through and really enjoyed it.
The story really takes you back to that era and King excels in taking you out of your body and putting you in the pages of the story you’re reading. It's much better (of course) than the TV movie, which gives you a very different vampire than the one depicted in King’s novel, and that was what surprised me most. Because in the telefilm, the vampire is some monster that doesn’t speak and looks a bit like the vampire from Nosferatu—bald, ugly and kind of buck-toothed. In the novel, he’s intelligent and looks like anybody else, much like the character of Jerry Dandrige in Fright Night. Either the book or movie will keep you entertained, but I highly advise anyone to pick up the paperback and give it a read. You won’t be disappointed.

The Shining
In the 80s, the name Stephen King really became a household name because of all his works that were adapted to film. In total, 15 films were made based on—or featuring—Stephen King’s stories.

1980 brought one of the most frightening of his stories to celluloid, as well as a bit of controversy, thanks to Mr. King himself. The release of Stanley Kubrick’s take on King’s 1977 novel, “The Shining,” was one of the scariest I had seen at that time and I really don’t understand the animosity it receives from King fans, as well as Stephen King himself.

The film stars Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance and Shelley Duvall as his wife, Wendy. It’s a very spooky and claustrophobic story of a man, along with his wife and son, caretaking for a hotel during its offseason in the wintertime. The Overlook Hotel, being a haunted entity, wants to seduce Jack to kill his family and be part of the hotel forever.

The novel and movie differ in that last sentence, as in the story, the hotel wants the son, Danny. While in the movie, it wants Jack. There is also a subplot in the book of alcoholism that’s not really touched on in the movie and that’s where the controversy lies. It seems that Mr. King was a little upset about how the film turned out and expressed his feeling openly in some media forums. A lot of fans agree, but I believe that films hardly ever get it right anyway, so what’s the fuss?

For a few years, after watching this movie, I was frightened of Jack Nicholson no matter what role he played. I remember seeing him in an old war film, where he played a good guy. However, remembering him from The Shining, and out of sheer fright, made me want to change the channel.

Nevertheless, both the book and film are equally entertaining, so give them both a looksee.

One of my favorites from both Stephen King and George Romero is the film, Creepshow.

The film is an anthology—one of the best in my opinion—and features five vignettes of horrific tales, some with a taste of comedy mixed in. Two of the yarns are based on Stephen King’s short stories, while the rest were written by King specifically for the film.

For my complete and in-depth view on this film, as well as its sequels, check out my review back near Christmas of 2012.

Bottom line, it’s a great nostalgic flick and you can’t pass up checking out Ed Harris’s dance moves!

Although the 80s were big for Stephen King, 1983 was a big year for him for he had three of his novels adapted to film.

At this point in my life, I hadn’t read a single book of his, yet I knew his name and that he was known for horror stories, and when I saw the trailer and TV spots for Cujo, I knew I’d become a fan of his in time. I remember seeing those advertisements on television and being really creeped out because you couldn’t tell what the film was about, only that people in the film seemed to be frightened of someone—or something—named “Cujo,” as they cowered away from whatever it was.

As it turned out, Cujo is a dog—a Saint Bernard—that is chasing after a rabbit one day and follows it to a burrow in some field. He sticks his head in and, frustrated at not being able to get to the rabbit, barks in defeat inside the hole. Well, the hole turns out to be filled with sleeping bats that become awakened at the sound of Cujo’s woofs and growls. They begin to fly around the small cavern and towards the dog’s head. One bites the dog near the nose, making the pooch retreat. Soon, the dog becomes rabid, starting to attack and kill anyone or anything that gets in his way.

Now, that’s the simplified plot for King’s novel, but there’s so much more that can’t be translated to film.

You get the dog’s point of view, what he’s thinking and feeling as he becomes infected with rabies, and you sort of understand how he’d feel with his head pounding and body aching, getting angry at noise and wanting it to stop. Then there’s the tie-in with King’s previous novel, “The Dead Zone,” where a minor villain who offs himself in that story appears in “Cujo” as a malevolent spirit that takes over Cujo at times. But that’s the trouble with adapting books—there’s just some certain aspects you need to leave out and just enjoy it only in the book.

Nevertheless, Cujo is a solid horror film that stars Dee Wallace (The Howling, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial) as Donna Trenton and Danny Pintauro (TV’s "Who’s the Boss?") as her son, Tad. After some kills by the dog and drama between Donna and her husband, the main crux of the story takes place when Donna takes a car to be fixed at the local mechanic—Cujo’s owner—only to be broken down on the driveway inside the small car with her son while the dog terrorizes them.

Cujo is a good flick with a great performance from Danny Pintauro (I really think the filmmakers actually terrorized that kid…otherwise he puts on a hell of an act for a seven-year-old), do yourself a favor and rent this from your local DVD rental shop (are there any still in business?) or Red Box.

I’ll stop here after giving you my take on these first five Stephen King adaptations. Most of them were fun popcorn movies and can be enjoyed any time of the year. Typically, I watch films during the time of year that they take place. For instance, Carrie takes place during the end of the school year when prom season begins, so I’ll usually pop in the DVD in May or June. The main plot of The Shining is during the winter, and even though it doesn’t snow around my neck of the woods, I view it at that time as well. But most of King’s stories/films can be experienced any time because, whether it’s summer or autumn or spring or winter, you’re going to enjoy most of his tales regardless.

Stay tuned for the second part of my Stephen King retrospective and, as always, thank you for reading.

If you have any comments, I welcome them any time.

You can also tweet at me on Twitter: @CinemaBits