Thursday, November 7, 2013

Stephen King: From Page to Celluloid (Part 4)

Hello again and welcome to this ongoing look at the works of Stephen King that were translated the film in good way and in bad.

Going into this, I didn’t realize how many novels and novellas were adapted to the screen.  Not that I’m regretting it—I actually kind of think this is fun—but I hope you don’t get burnt out by the subject matter.  Hopefully this will be help in deciding which films to see and which ones to skip.  So far, I think I’ve given the films a recommendation, either enthusiastically or a little more than lethargically.

Well, let’s jump right to it and get into the story-to-films, shall we?

Graveyard Shift
Based on a short story published in Cavalier magazine in 1970 and then collected in Stephen King’s 1978 “Night Shift” collection, Graveyard Shift is a 1990 film about a mysterious monster killing people in the small town’s local textile mill where it resides underneath.

The film is probably one of the first that I was disappointed with when I viewed it in theaters back then.  I felt it was a little boring and had stupid contrived peculiarities that the filmmakers tried to pass off as normal quirks people may have.  The one point I’m thinking of is how the main character has a little hobby of slinging soda cans—he actually uses a slingshot to shoot soda cans!  Who does that?  If I had a slingshot—and I’ve owned a few in my time—there’s no way I’d feel the urge to pick up a soda can and try to sling it!  There’s a no way I could!  It wouldn’t make it through the ‘Y’ of the sling!

The poor character development aside, the plot is your pretty standard King fodder with a monster that lives in the damp and deep bowels of the local mill, taking out people between the hours of 11 PM and 7 AM, hence the name of the story, Graveyard Shift.

The design of the monster is pretty cool, and the way it’s filmed was nice as we’re never given a full shot of it to determine what exactly it is.  The atmosphere the filmmakers give us is spooky and presents a sense of dread for the characters involved.

Overall, I can get through this film with a fair amount of involvement without laboring through it and having to watch this in multiple sittings.

As a Stephen King fan, or even a typical horror fan, you may want to give this a gander.

Besides Salem’s Lot in 1979, as well as a couple of short vignettes for the “Tales From the Darkside” and “Twilight Zone” television shows, Stephen King hadn’t really left a mark on television thus far.  However, 1990’s It, changed that forever.

I can honestly say that my two favorite books from King are “The Talisman” and “It.”  Published in 1986, I first read “It” in high school, at first frightened of the size of the paperback but then enthralled in it.  Every chance I had was used in reading that book.  To put some much separate, yet detailed, character development in such a large group of fictitious individuals was amazing.  Just to keep track of the peculiarities of them was one hell of a feat.

I’ve always loved the coming-of-age tale of these school friends who are there for each through thick and thin, fighting off the town monster that has been killing kids but that the adults can’t see and mysteriously ignore the clues of its existence.  The second half of the book is about the same friends who get together as adults because of a promise they had made when they were children, that they’d all come back if the monster returns.

I’ve always felt that the book would be impossible to adapt to film, that it’d be too long of a story to put into a less-than-two-hour-film.  But the powers-that-be decided to adapt this story into a two-episode mini-series on television to be able to fit most of the story onto the small screen.

For the most part, the first half of the mini-series is great.  You have some great young actors that are very recognizable and are still working today.  The late Jonathan Brandis plays the main younger version of Bill Denbrough, Seth Green as the young Richie Tozier, as well as Emily Perkins as the young Beverly Marsh.  As for the adults, there’s Richard Thomas as the adult Bill, John Ritter as the adult Ben Hanscom, Annette O’Toole as the adult Beverly, and the pièce de résistance…Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown.

Like I’d mentioned, the TV film gets the first part perfectly with the young actors having such great chemistry together, showing it throughout.  However, the second half of the film—when the adult versions of the characters come together to meet after all the years apart—kind of fell flat.  I really can’t put my finger on what went wrong, because the actors playing the roles really did a fine job in their portrayals, but it just didn’t have the same flow as the first half of the film.  It just seems as if the filmmakers had a hard time to make the story seem believable when it involved the adults.

As a whole, the film is pretty solid even though the standards of television in the 90s shows as you watch this.  There isn’t too much gore, but there are some spooky moments.  Tim Curry as Pennywise is still a memorable performance and if they decide to remake this film—which I’ve heard they may do so in the near future—the actor who plays Pennywise is going to have some large shoes to fill.

While 1990 was a bookmark year for King’s work to make a mark in television, it also brought us a stellar adaptation from his 1987 novel of the same name, Misery.

The title of both the book and the movie has a double meaning when referring to the story: the main character goes through misery throughout yet the underlying plot has to do with a character in a book series, named Misery.

The story is really a simple one, about an author named Paul Sheldon (James Caan) who always travels, by car, to Colorado when writing a book.  After going through a few other superstitious oddities upon completing a new manuscript, he checks out of the hotel and drives back to Los Angeles to hand it to his agent.  He’s very well known for writing a series of novels about a character named Misery Chastain.  He was finally able to stop writing about the character, as the book that’s about to be released ends with Misery being killed off to end the series.  The new manuscript he happens to be writing during this trip to Colorado is a different departure and more serious in tone.

When Paul finishes the new manuscript, he checks out of the hotel and starts his drive to Los Angeles.  Going through a terrible blizzard, he loses control of his car and drives off the road, totaling his vehicle.
As he lies in his overturned car, going in and out of consciousness, Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) rescues him and brings him to her home to treat his broken legs and dislocated shoulder.  As he comes to, she tells him she’s his “number one fan” and that the phone lines are down, but he’s in good hands.

As time progresses, and Annie’s rage and craziness starts to show when she finds out about Misery’s fate in the latest book, Paul realizes he’s trapped and a prisoner, with no hope of anyone finding him.
Rob Reiner—the second time directing a Stephen King adaptation—does a marvelous job translating this story to film.  After reading the book, I really can’t remember too many differences when it was brought to the screen.  The only part that was different, but had the same impact, was the hobbling scene.  In the book, Annie chops off one of his feet with an axe.  In the film, however, she breaks both ankles with a sledge hammer.  I guess the chopping off of a body part would be a little too extreme for movie audiences, but it’s still an excruciating scene to watch.

Kathy Bates puts on a superb performance as the crazed fan, Annie Wilkes.  She won both a Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Actress, deservedly so.  It’s uncomfortable to watch her in this flick because you picture yourself being in Paul’s place, not being able to get away from this maniac.

Yes, Misery is a must for your Stephen King collection.  If you haven’t seen this one (and I can’t imagine any horror fan worth their salt that hasn’t), please place this one on your Netflix queue.  You won’t be disappointed.

Sometimes They Come Back
Another made-for-TV film based on a Stephen King story was aired in 1991 on CBS and is actually a very good movie even though it played on television.  But Sometimes They Come Back is a very good, yet fleshed out and padded, adaptation based on King’s 1974 short story, found on the “Night Shift” collection.  It spawned  two subpar sequels after this one, which you should skip no matter what your inner Stephen King fan tells you.

Overall, the short story and film is about the same, a boy, Jim Norman, who is terrorized as greasers kill his brother, Wayne.  Jim grows up to be a school teacher and the greasers return—albeit looking the same age—to continue their terrorization.

In the telefilm, Jim is played by Tim Matheson and does a wonderful job as the teacher who was traumatized as a child and shows that distress when the lead greaser (played by Robert Rusler)—as well as the rest of the gang—shows up as a new student in Jim’s classroom.  From then on, the story plays out much like the short story, but adds quite a bit more to it.

One alteration from the book is that the greasers die after they kill Jim’s brother by being parked on railroad tracks as a train barrels down upon them, which they can’t drive off of because Jim has the car keys.  Also, when the gang returns, it’s because they need to bring Jim back to the tracks to reenact the crash—but with Jim being killed—so that they can avoid going to hell.  There are some other aspects that have been added, but it’s all for the better and not noticeable padding to lengthen the story.

Sometimes They Come Back is one of King’s better adaptations brought to film and it’s too bad this wasn’t released theatrically.  It’s a very good story with the potential to be a nice horror film and with TV’s standards at the time to not include too much gore or profanity; it really held back the prospect for a good Stephen King film.  Nonetheless, the movie is well done and deserves a place above many of King’s other theatrical adaptations.

In 1992, there was a big boom in films that featured the new technology of CGI.  Mainly, it was shape-shifting, as featured in Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” music video and James Cameron’s ground breaking Terminator sequel.  A lot of movies went ape-shit with it and featured this new special effects tech in their films, because it was pretty cool.  However, after a decade or so, the CGI in some of these films look very dated and a little silly.  Such is the case with Sleepwalkers.

Unlike most of the films I’ve mentioned, this one isn’t an adaptation, but a screenplay written by Stephen King especially for the film.  Sleepwalkers is also the first of many King adaptations Mick Garris has directed.

Well, the story is about Charles Brady (Brian Klause) and his mother, Mary (Alice Krige), two shapeshifting vampire cat creatures, who go town to town to find humans.  Once they get a human, Charles and Mary feed off of their lifeforce to maintain their own lives.  Now, in a small town in Indiana, having just fled California after draining and killing a young girl there, Charles meets Tanya (Mädchen Amick) and proceeds to pretend to be attracted to her in order to get her to his house so that he and his mother can feed off her lifeforce.

It’s a very simple, yet somewhat watchable, tale.  Looks like everyone involved had fun making this as we see a lot of cameos from people of horror.  We see Stephen King of course, as the obnoxious cemetery caretaker, and during that same scene Tobe Hooper and Clive Barker are there as well, playing forensic techs.  Also, there are cameos from John Landis and Joe Dante.

Yes, if you can get by the constant shapeshifting CGI work, which looks prehistoric by today’s standards, you’ll like this film.  It’s a little goofy here and there—like the cop who has a pet cat he patrols with (but I guess they needed to include that to introduce how the vampire creatures are terrified of cats)—but it’s an okay story nonetheless.

The Dark Half
Aaaah…this was another favorite of mine (am I saying that too many times during this retrospective?) from the master himself, Stephen King.

“The Dark Half,” published in 1989, was about an author named Thad Beaumont who had a nice series of money-making books, under the pseudonym of George Stark, about a violent murderer called Alexis Machine.  When Thad’s found out, he and his wife decide to go public with it and even stage a burial at the local cemetery for the alter ego, all photos and article about it published in a nationwide magazine.  Later, George Stark emerges from the grave to exact revenge on all who have went against the doppelgänger.  The book was a page-turner—very interesting from the start—where Thad, as a young boy, is found to have a tumor in his brain.  But it wasn’t a tumor…it was the remains of Thad’s absorbed twin.

All this was included in the 1993 film, which makes for a great adaptation.  I love how they included that aspect of Thad having a twin that was absorbed by him when he was in the womb.  It was quite freaky how they played that whole surgery scene out in the film, complete with the twin opening its eye when the doctors cut open that part of the brain.

Yes, once again, George Romero, working with a Stephen King story, does an excellent job in getting the book to screen.  I’m surprised King and Romero don’t work together more often, seeing as how the resultant work turns to gold.

Timothy Hutton as Thad/George does a wonderful job at playing the two characters—playing the clumsy and awkward Thad Beaumont, while being the cool and calculated killer George Stark.  And there’s a lot of violence once George Stark comes to play, as he uses his weapon of choice: a straight razor.

This is one of the few King films I don’t have on any type of media.  MGM only has the full frame bare bones DVD available for purchase, but I’m waiting out a Blu-Ray edition, or at least a widescreen DVD.  But for now, I occasionally rent the film from Netflix just to get a taste.  Because it’s bound to be released with a decent treatment…right?  Right?

Okay…another break in the action because I definitely need one myself.  Looking at the list in front of me, I see that I have 28 more films to go over.  Some of them I haven’t even seen yet, but you can bet I’ll give them a view in the near future.

Stay tuned for the fifth 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

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