So, this weekend just gone, like any right thinking person with a horror sensibility, I had myself a fest of movies made from the work of Stephen King.
Needful Things (1993)
If memory serves, this was the book in which King trashed the town of Castle Rock, the setting for many of his previous works. The film, perhaps owing to budget constraints, doesn’t do such a comprehensive job, with quite a lot left standing at the end. It starts when Leland Gaunt arrives in town and opens old curiosity style shop Needful Things, where people can find the thing they wish for the most – Bobby gets a long sought after baseball card, Polly finds a cure for her arthritis, Nettie gets a china figurine just like the one her arsehole husband broke before she killed him, and so on – but there is a price to be paid. Gaunt, who is the Devil, or at least that’s the implication, asks them to help him out by joining in a series of practical jokes, but there is nothing funny about his jokes, which are intended to tear this vulnerable community apart. It’s up to Sheriff Alan Pangborn, who is dealing with demons of his own, to stop Gaunt before things go too far.
I have mixed feelings about this, just as I did the book. Though it never occurred to me before, the central plot conceit is very similar to that of a Richard Matheson story, “The Distributor”, where mischief making aims at social disintegration. Initially, with an aerial view of Castle Rock, the camera sweeping in and its arrival paralleled in that of Gaunt’s minatory black car, the film seems to be aiming at a similar vibe to The Shining, but after that we cut to a more minimalist take, the wide open spaces abandoned in favour of scenes set in offices and private houses, coffee shops and police stations. The drama also becomes much more personal, with Gaunt finding the achilles heel of each character. Max von Sydow is outstanding as Gaunt, his voice cool and seductive, sounding eminently reasonable as it beguiles both victim and viewer, but he is the only one who really convinces in an ensemble cast that has its work cut out for it with characters that are more caricature than anything else. Ed Harris as Pangborn barely registers, while Bonnie Bedelia as love interest Polly is simply going through the motions, to the extent that at no point did I feel these two were actually in a relationship. The other characters were badly drawn stereotypes – the greedy businessman, the goofy deputy, the nervous madwoman, the angry madwoman etc – and most of the performances so over the top as to be running low on oxygen, with special mention to J. T. Walsh, who seems to be suffering from the delusion that he is Jack Nicholson, while proving with every line delivered that he’s not. Worth seeing the once, or even twice, but a rather mediocre King adaptation.
Stand By Me (1986)
Now this is much more like it, a touching rite of passage story based on King’s novella “The Body” (and, at the risk of being controversial, it seems to me that King often produces his best work when he writes ‘mainstream’ stories with an element of horror, rather than horror itself). Four boys tell their parents they’re holding a sleepover for the night, but in actual fact they’re out on a trek to view the dead body of another boy who has gone missing. Along the way they have to deal with their own insecurities – Gordie’s parents shun him and think he should have died in the place of his elder brother, Chris is judged a criminal because of his family background, Teddy is crazy – along with more tangible threats such as bloodsucking leeches, the ferocious guard dog Chopper and a gang of older boys led by the thuggish Ace. Undercutting it all is a painful awareness of the inevitability of death and change – for Gordie the dead boy comes to represent his brother, while for Chris there’s the knowledge that soon these friends will go off in different directions, that these are end days, and by way of bringing all that home the film has as a framing device the grown up Gordie, now a successful writer and father, reflecting on Chris’ death.
It’s a brilliant film, and it works because the characters are real, because they are presented to us warts and all, but in a way we can identify with, picking up on feelings of loss and ambition, hopes and fears that are almost universal. The story is an updating of Bradbury’s Green Town, Illinois depictions of childhood, much darker, but perhaps more true, less idealised. The actors are excellent, especially Will Wheaton as Gordie, back before he had Wesley Crusher roped round his neck like albatross, a young man in denial, both of death and the reality that moments such as this won’t last forever. River Phoenix, superb as ‘rebel’ Chris, plays counterpoint, the kid who is damned by his background and yet rises above his situation, shown as older and wiser than his years. And in Kiefer Sutherland’s vicious, swaggering Ace, we have an example of the true thug, the man who believes that he can do whatever he wishes, not realising that life is waiting to trip him up. At heart what we have here is a story about growing up and accepting what you cannot change – those who can, those who can’t, and those who simply won’t – packed with incident but never losing sight of what truly matters. It also has a great soundtrack.
The Shining (1980)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Jack Nicholson, this is one of the great horror movies, grabbing the attention right from the start with its view of a car driving through a spectacularly beautiful mountain landscape, at the heart of which sits the Overlook hotel, brooding like a spider in the centre of its web. Writer Jack Torrance (Nicholson) is employed as caretaker at the hotel for the winter months, taking up residence with his wife and son, but the Overlook is a place where the tragedies of the past seep over into the present, infecting the vulnerable Torrance and eventually sending him mad, so that his wife and child are placed in danger. Son Danny has the gift of the ‘shining’, the ability to see impressions of what has taken place before, allowing him to sense the terrors of the Overlook, but also warning against them.
The film is beautifully shot, with each scene given a painterly quality by director Kubrick. In part this helps underline the insignificance of human beings – the small scale of the Overlook against its mountainous backdrop, the way in which the characters rattle around in the corridors and chambers of the vast hotel. Each of the three leads is perfectly cast. Nicholson seems a little over the top at the start, but as the film develops this starts to make sense, a sign of his fragile ego. He is a man who desperately wants to succeed, who craves the adoration of others and blames everyone else for his own shortcomings, and that is what makes him so open to attack by the malevolent spirits that reside in the Overlook, but there’s also the option to conclude that it’s all inside Torrance’s head, a case of writer’s block and/or cabin fever taken to extremes. His madness comes to dominate the picture, Nicholson screeching and gurning to beat the band, giving us the portrait of a man who is lost, both to his family and his humanity. Shelley Duvall as Wendy has mostly to react, and does so splendidly, her wonderfully expressive face that of a woman who continually needs to walk on tiptoe for fear of setting off her husband, but not somebody who is completely broken, a character who will fight back when driven to it and with her son’s life at stake.
The supernatural elements are deftly woven into the plot, giving us plenty of shock moments, such as the creepy voice of ‘imaginary friend’ Tony, with which Danny croaks the word ‘Redrum’, and the look on Wendy’s face when she finally sees Jack’s manuscript, disbelief turning to horror. Then there are the two dead girls, the woman in room 237, Jack’s ego massage conversations with bar tender Lloyd and previous caretaker Delbert, who chopped up his family with an axe. Unlike the book, the film doesn’t fill in the entirety of the Overlook’s history, instead giving us images and impressions, leaving imagination to provide the rest, to impose a pattern and attempt to make sense of what is taking place on the screen. And then there is the magnificent finish, with the by now totally crazy Torrance going after his family with an axe, culminating in a gripping chase round the snow covered maze in the middle of a howling blizzard.
At the end Torrance dies, and his spirit is incorporated into the ghostly gestalt that infests the Overlook, the film giving us a final, despairing image of defeat – having failed in all else he has become a leader of the damned.
Okay, what’s everyone else’s favourite King movies?