(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) I first read Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game decades ago, but I was able to remember a surprising amount of it while watching its straight-to-Netflix adaptation. Thanks to writer/director Mike Flanagan (following up on a series of increasingly successful horror movies), the adaptation is surprisingly faithful, a feat made even more amazing given that the novel is as interior-driven as anything else in King’s biography. After all, how can you portray a woman being chained to a bed and left alone with her husband’s corpse for days? What Flanagan does, aside from the obvious use of flashbacks, is to literalize the heroine’s fantasies and delirious visions: Suddenly, the deceased husband gets up, talks to her and gets her to express her feelings. And then, later, there are other, more tangible horrors: A dog, then something else… And still, throughout, the terrors of being left to die alone. The thirst, the cold, the isolation. Carla Gugino is near a career-best performance in the lead role, being on-screen for almost the entire duration of Gerald’s Game and being asked to carry a wide range of emotions. Bruce Greenwood does get a mention for his not-so-brief time playing a not-so-good husband. The film is so close to the novel that it does share a few issues later on, namely the collision of a good-enough premise with a serial killer story that doesn’t entirely serve the rest of the plot. I was dubious about it when I read the novel so long ago and I’m still dubious about it now. Still, it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t add much, so what is left of Gerald’s Game is still remarkable. Flanagan has done much with little (the film has only barely a dozen roles in a largely single location), delivering quality chills and thrills in a compelling package. This is probably his best film yet, and it suggests even better things in the future.
(On Cable TV, July 2018) We’re in the middle of an interesting second-generation Stephen King cinematic renaissance, as long-time fans of the author are becoming filmmakers and producers with enough pull to propose and execute King-related projects. It helps that King writes enough books in a decade to rival another author’s entire bibliography, but recency is not a factor with It—a second adaptation of one of King’s landmark 1980s novels, a book so big and split in two eras that this first film only shows up the first half of the story. I, frankly, wasn’t expecting much: King adaptations span the whole spectrum of cinematic quality from silly to sublime, with most settling for middling horror. But this first half of It is actually quite good. It doesn’t try to be anything else but a straight-ahead horror film, but when it pulls the stops it gets surprisingly intense. Making effective use of a medium-sized budget through a lot of special effects, a large cast of main characters and a focus on a reasonable amount of plot in order to do it justice without cramming too much stuff in a too-short film. Director Andy Muschietti delivers a few inventive and iconic set-pieces (which always helps in distinguishing a good horror film from an average one) and gets good performances from his teenage actors. (The film also removes the most problematic scene of King’s book, saving us from endless debate about justifying a bad creative decision.) The result is enjoyable, spooky, nightmarish at times and feels somewhat complete even without the modern-era half of the book. I’m quite looking forward to the follow-up.
(On TV, May 2018) There’s something almost charming in quasi-classic Stephen King adaptation Pet Sematary. The way it doesn’t mess around in creating an atmosphere of overblown fear and suspense. The almost uncaring way the film uses familiar horror tropes. The abundance of straight-up “this is a bad idea!” reactions from the audience. The ultra-pitch-black ending. The novel is one of King’s bleakest and the film makes no effort at trying to be something else. The actors are almost forgettable (although Fred Gwynne plays his elder-advisor role with the false gravitas that the part requires) and the direction isn’t particularly polished. But then again, lack of polish is the point of this film—criticizing the characters’ incredibly dumb actions in the film is tempting but useless as we’re here for the thrills and chills. At least Pet Sematary know what it’s about and whatever artful moments it has (most notably in depicting the entirely predictable death of a child upon which the film pivots) are in the service of later shlock. As a result, it’s easy to dismiss Pet Sematary … but there’s not use denying that it works at what it sets out to do, and perhaps even more so today as a late-eighties horror movie now that the genre has evolved (well, in its best examples) toward a more artful and meaningful presentation.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) I’m not that familiar with Stephen King’s series (even though I’ve got most of it on my shelves, waiting for a sustained reading marathon) but you don’t need to be a fan to be disappointed by the low energy of this big screen The Dark Tower. Some of the film is worth defending: Idris Elba has never been less than interesting even in misfires such as this one. Matthew McConaughey can play evil very well. Some of the initial world building of the film is intriguing. There’s a great action sequence at the end. But beyond those things, The Dark Tower feels like a blend of several very familiar urban fantasy tropes remixed without much wit nor conviction. It does a poor job hinting at the grandeur of King’s series, and far too often goes back to familiarity when we’re here for the new and unexpected. I often complain about the Hollywood process that uniformizes whatever quirky source of inspiration comes its way, and that’s seldom as apparent as in here. Whatever may have been worthwhile in King’s source material is compressed in an extremely familiar three-act structure and plot moments that feel stolen from the past five years of YA urban fantasy. What’s left cannot be satisfying to audiences unfamiliar with King’s work nor his fans. The Dark Tower feels like a mess, and watches like one. Looking at the poor critical and commercial returns for the film, it’s fair to say that there will never be a sequel in that continuity and I’m not devastated by that idea.
(On TV, October 2017) While Cujo is not a bad movie in itself, it’s frustrating in that it misses being a much better movie by inches. The central conceit of the film is simple enough: a mom and her ailing son, trapped in a dilapidated car in the middle of nowhere by a rabid dog ready to tear them apart. It’s a powerful claustrophobic conceit, and recent movies such as Vehicle 19, Buried or Locke show that it’s possible to tell a full story under severe location restraints. But Cujo, coming from 1983, is too traditional to think about locking characters in a single location for 90 minutes: adapting Stephen King’s book as conventionally as possible, much of the film’s first half feels like one big prologue as we’re laboriously introduced to the characters, the setting, the situation and the dog. Anyone who knows anything about the film’s premise can be forgiven from feeling as if this is all a waste of time. It’s when all the elements are finally assembled and the action becomes constrained to the car (not air-conditioned, in heat-wave conditions) that the film finally clicks into higher gear. A good just-this-side-of-hysteria performance from Dee Wallace helps, even when the film does push things a bit too far during its overwrought climax. But much of it feels too little too late. While Cujo definitely remains watchable, it does feel half-hearted from today’s perspective.
(Second viewing, Crackle Streaming, May 2017) I’m not sure anyone else will make the analogy, but having re-watched the original The Karate Kid shortly before Christine has put me in a frame of mind to call this John Carpenter horror movie the dark pendant of the kind of high-school comedy exemplified by The Karate Kid. At their heart, they are both teenage power fantasies about fitting in and gaining some kind of power over one’s social environment. The Karate Kid goes light in showing the way discipline, training and kindness can win over the worst bullies. But Christine … oh boy. Here, the path to power is destructive, based on an unholy romance with dark forces as exemplified by an evil car. Bullies are not gently beaten in submission as they are run over, dismembered or set aflame by a malevolent supernatural entity. It’s strong stuff (tying into deep American associations between cars and teenage rites of passage into adulthood), and it’s significant that Christine is focused not on the teenage nerd who falls in love with an automotive demon, but his best friend watching the consequent carnage. I remember liking the original Stephen King novel quite a bit, but director John Carpenter truly nails the filmed execution. From the self-assured prologue showing the origins of evil to the “Bad to the Bone” echoing stinger, Christine is a thrill ride. As befitting such an extreme premise (evil car?!?), it never settles for subtlety when over-the-top will do: Why not hit viewers over the head with a great on-the-nose soundtrack? Why settle for running over a bully when the car can escape from an exploding gas station and set its teenage target ablaze? Why settle for keying a car when the group of antagonists can smash it to pieces with sledgehammers? And why soft-play the disturbingly aggressive final sequence of a masculine bulldozer climbing atop a car strongly gendered as female? Christine doesn’t mess around when it comes to shocking the viewer, and it’s exactly that kind of go-for-broke audacity that sets apart ordinary B-grade horror movies from the great ones. My memories of seeing Christine in the mid-nineties weren’t spectacular, but this second look reveals a much better movie than I remembered. It’s playfully aggressive, well-crafted and has a few hidden depths once you start poking at it. After a steady diet of upbeat depictions of high-school life, Christine is just dark and just good enough to be a welcome antidote.
(On Cable TV, November 2016) Horror anthology Creepshow may be uneven and thirty-five years old by now, but it does have a few things still going for it. Among them is a charming throwback to fifties horror comics, along with the tongue-in-cheek, slightly-sadistic sense of humour that characterized it. Another would be seeing Stephen King hamming it up as a rural yokel gradually colonized by an alien plant. Yet another would be Leslie Nielsen is a rather serious role as a betrayed husband seeking revenge. Creepshow also notably adopts a number of comic book conventions decades before comic-book movies, under the cackling direction of horror legend George A. Romero. A very young (but not young-looking) Ed Harris pops up in a minor role, while Hal Holbrook and Adrienne Barbeau have more substantial roles in another segment. Finally, “They’re Creeping Up on You” cranks up the ick-factor to eleven for those who are bothered by cockroaches—you’ve been warned. Otherwise, well, it’s hit-and-miss. Neither the laughs nor the chills are always evenly balanced, and there’s a repetition of themes and effect even in five vignettes—at least two, and maybe even three, end on a note of “the dead rise for revenge!” Some of the special effects look dodgy (although this is more forgivable in a semi-comic context) and one suspects that had a similar film been made today, the direction would have been quite a bit more impressionistic. Still, Creepshow is not a bad grab bag thirty-five years later, and it does sustain viewing satisfaction until the end. As with most anthology movies, it’s perhaps best appreciated in small doses, a segment a night.
(On TV, October 2016) The tale of Carrie and its remake is almost identical to the one of every other classic horror film and their remake. The remake is usually faithful to the overall structure of the story, but strips away most of the original’s rougher edges and leaves a shorter, slicker but generally featureless remake. Updating the references usually doesn’t mean much for the overall film (who cares if it’s uploaded to YouTube?), while the overall better technical credentials usually mean a less bumpy viewing experience. Seen back-to-back with the original, this Carrie remake is most notable for considerably speeding up the languid pacing of the original: despite being a minute longer, it often feels more evenly interesting than the original, with fewer digressions and dead moments along the way. (Witness the way two scenes featuring the other girls are combined early on as an illustration of how today’s scripts are far more efficient.) While the film is said to go back to Stephen King’s original novel, there’s no doubt that the original film is the template on which this remake is built. Chloë Grace Moretz isn’t bad as the titular Carrie, while Julianne Moore brings considerable credibility to the mother’s role and Judy Greer gets a more substantial role than usual as the sympathetic gym teacher. Kimberley Pierce’s direction is much flatter than the original, though, which helps this remake rank as technically better but far more forgettable.
(On TV, October 2016) The original Carrie has become a pop-culture reference, but watching the film nowadays is a reminder of both how good Brian de Palma could in his prime, but also how far more fast-paced movies are nowadays. Especially teen thrillers. (The remake, which I saw immediately after this original, clocks in at half an hour shorter despite keeping most plot pieces intact.) I’ve read the Stephen King novel too long ago to faithfully evaluate whether the film is faithful to the novel (I think so), but the main draw here is the way de Palma injects some movie magic in even the simplistic framework of a teen horror movie. Witness the long shots, the split screen, the editing…. It all comes together during the infamous prom sequence. Sissy Spacek is very good as the titular Carrie, sympathetic despite ending the film as a homicidal maniac. John Travolta shows up in an early role. Otherwise, it’s a fair period piece, often far too long for its own good, and overly dramatic in portraying its central mother/daughter conflict—culminating in an overlong climax. Carrie still works thanks to great direction, and the seventies atmosphere is good for a few nostalgic throwbacks.
(On TV, October 2016) Here’s an interesting factoid that may make you feel unbearably old: It’s now been longer since the release of Stand by Me in 1986 (30 years) than the span of time between the film and the events it depicts in 1959. Nostalgia sneaks up on anyone, even movies consciously built around that emotion. Stand by Me is now best remembered as “that non-horror Stephen King adaptation”, focusing on an affectionate novella published in Different Seasons (a book that also spawned The Shawshank Redemption and Apt Pupil). It’s a movie about kids, but the somewhat sombre framing device makes it a film for adults, and most notably baby boomers born around 1947 like King. As a look at the life of a young teenager in 1959, it luxuriates in a recreation of the era, complete with a near-perfect period soundtrack. It’s not much of a plot-driven film: The goal (“walk to the dead body”) is stated early on, and much of the film becomes an episodic string of events until the end. It even throws in a gratuitously disgusting fictional vignette that ends abruptly to protests. Much of the film’s charm comes from its young actors. Other than Kiefer Sutherland as a bully, Stand by Me does feature an extraordinary group with Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell. Remarkably enough, you can watch the film without being overwhelmed by the actor’s age—other than Sutherland, who already looks like himself, it’s as they are different persons. As a reflection of another era, Stand by Me unabashedly plays up the nostalgia to good effect—the liberties taken by the young character would be horrifying today, even though it’s hard to argue against the dangers they do face along the way. It ends up being a remarkable piece of cinema, still effective today, much later and for entirely different audiences.
(In French, On TV, July 2016) Stephen King’s Misery is a memorable novel (even and especially now, touching upon the themes of fannish entitlement that have grown so tediously familiar latterly), and its movie adaptation (partially thanks to screenwriter William Goldman) manages to be as good, in its own way, as the original book. James Caan ably plays a best-selling author who, thanks to an accident, comes to rest in an isolated farmhouse under the supervision of his self-professed “number one fan” (a terrifying Kathy Bates in a career-best performance) who turns out to be completely crazy in dangerous ways. What follows is so slickly done as to transform King’s writer-centric thriller into a horrifying experience for everyone. Director Rob Reiner is able to leave his comedic background behind in order to deliver a slick thrill ride, gradually closing off the protagonist’s options even as it becomes clear that he’s up against a formidable opponent. While the film does soften a few of the book’s most disturbing or gory moments, it does not lack for its own unbearable scenes. A solid, competent thriller, Misery easily ranks near the top of King’s numerous adaptations, and remains just as good today as it was a quarter of a century ago.
(On Cable TV, June 2015) I don’t think anyone can claim that Secret Window is a great thriller, but it’s a pretty enjoyable one in its own ludicrous way and I’m sorry it took me more than a decade to see it for myself. What makes the film almost-instantly recognizable as adapted from a Stephen King story is its focus on elements dear to King’s body of work: the writer-protagonist, the emphasis on the process of writing, the bloody escalation of horror, the gruesome violence, the touch of meta-fiction… Misery may top the list of typical-King movies, but Secret Window comes close. Johnny Depp is enjoyable as the writer-protagonist: his relatively normal performance here seems even more remarkable now that he has settled in a post-Jack Sparrow rut of eccentric characters. Writer/director David Koepp knows how to keep things interesting, and the gradually deepening mystery of the film eventually gives way to full psychological and then physical horror as the story reaches its inevitable conclusion. While the ending may repeat a crucial few lines once too often, the coda is pitch-black enough to make a mark. It’s not a respectable film, it’s not even a memorable film, but Secret Window is more than good enough to be interesting.
Signet, 1995 reprint of 1987 original, 380 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-16658-2
When it was first published in 1987, Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon seemed like a significant departure for the author. Occasional exceptions aside (such as the first novel in the Dark Tower cycle, or The Talisman), audiences had been conditioned, through the first fifteen years of King’s career, to expect adult horror fiction, not a fantasy fairy tale seemingly aimed at younger readers. Now, of course, King’s brand is associated with a variety of dark fantasy subgenres; The Dark Tower did much to expand his perceived repertoire, and it’s no accident if that series is closely related to The Eyes of the Dragon, all the way to a common antagonist.
And yet, nearly 25 years after its first publication, the distinctiveness of The Eyes of the Dragon remains, and so does its interest. From the first sentence (“Once, in a kingdom called Delain, there was a King with two sons”…), we understand that this is going to be a different kind of reading experience: The story is told as a fairy tale, by a narrator whose presence couldn’t be more obviously felt. Taking place a long time ago in a country far away, this is a story of a weak king, an evil magician, and two princes. Tired of waiting for his chance at power, the mage eventually frames the good prince for his father’s death, sets up the weaker prince on the throne and set about to take from the kingdom of everything of value. Fortunately, a cunning plan is in the works…
But plotting isn’t the main feature of this novel, which is best appreciated as a storytelling exercise. Reportedly adapted from stories King told his children, The Eyes of the Dragon sometimes feels like a self-imposed dare: different subject matter, different tone, and different rhythm. The narration becomes its own reason to read the book, as King spends the first half of the book providing us with the backstory, the characters and the motivations. The narrator is omniscient, but only to a point: He frequently addresses the readers to tell them that he has described everything as it happened, but the audience should make its mind as to what it means. Meanwhile, the story is told with its own special charm, and the novel quickly gains the trust of its readers from the start. It is, in other words, a lot of fun to read.
It’s also misleading to keep referring to this as “a fairy-tale for kids”: While the setting, vocabulary and sentence structure may seem destined to a younger audience, King doesn’t limit himself to simple sentiments or emotions in the telling of the story. The words are simple but the thoughts aren’t, and The Eyes of the Dragon may work better as a fable for grown-ups, creating a sentiment of nostalgia for bedside storytelling while managing to address adult concerns. There’s more depth to the book than expected, and a lot of sympathy for the fully-sketched characters.
Where The Eyes of the Dragon doesn’t work so well is in its pacing: Ironically, the novel gets a great deal less absorbing once the plot moves forward. Rather than focus on the protagonists and the palace intrigue, it dissipates by changing focus and following minor characters. Those characters aren’t so minor in that they are reportedly meant to portray King’s children in the story, but they do send the novel in another, less interesting direction just as it should move toward its conclusion.
Still, the overall impact of the book is strong, and it cements the notion that Stephen King is not just a gifted writer, but one who has continued to try new things along the way. King scholars will better understand the relationship between The Eyes of the Dragon and the rest of the King universe (most particularly his fantasy work) but you don’t need to be a King aficionado to appreciate this book and what it attempts to do.
Scribner, 2009, 1074 pages, C$39.99 hc, ISBN 978-1-4391-4850-1
Frankly, there’s just one thing you need to know about Stephen King’s Under the Dome: It’s big. It’s really, really big. Count the pages and recall the two other King novels of similar heft: The Stand and It. The page count shows that Under the Dome is King’s third-longest novel, and it certainly feels epic.
The premise is simple: When a small Maine town is cut off from the world by an invisible but impassable barrier, its residents struggle to understand what’s going on and survive the experience. But such a plot summary glosses over the totality of King’s presentation of the event. He’s got two thousand viewpoints to play with, and if the action wisely focuses on half a dozen main protagonists, at times it feels as if the omniscient narration gives us a glimpse of every single citizen of Chester’s Mill. The first chapter alone takes a kaleidoscopic view of what happens when the dome falls, with crashing vehicles, cut-off body parts, interrupted streams, accidents of fate locking some people in or out and other assorted phenomenon. The omniscient narration can be chatty, but it also goes quiet when it’s time to focus on the main characters.
Because there’s a lot more to Under the Dome than a town physically cut off from the rest of the world: Chester’s Mill has its share of bad apples, and they control the place. When media attention brought on the city following the fall of the dome threatens to expose secrets that the guilty would rather keep hidden, the dome itself becomes less dangerous than the people inside … Psychotic murderers, crystal-meth entrepreneurs, power-crazy policemen and panicked citizen all show their true colours during the days that follow the fall of the dome.
But it’s the details through which King tells his story that make Under the Dome such an impressive and frustrating book. On one hand, there is enough time and space here for elaborate plotting, reversals of fortune, copious inner monologues and ample character growth. When King activates his omniscient narration, it’s like floating above a small town and having direct access to two thousand minds in all their diversity. On the other hand, that amount of verbiage slows the action down and frequently makes readers wish for the next plot point. King pulls a bit too obviously on familiar plot threads about religion, serial killers, corrupt authority and civil unrest to avoid a feeling of familiarity throughout much of Under the Dome.
There is, however, quite a bit of allegory going on under the surface of the text. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to see the parallels between an isolated and paranoid Chester’s Mill and Bush-administration America. The division of power between a ruthless sheriff and incompetent politicians has real-world parallels, and much of the popular hysteria cuts a bit too close to headlines of the last decade to be entirely accidental.
Where Under the Dome doesn’t do so well is in its ultimate justification for the Dome. It moves the novel from the Horror to the Science Fiction genre. This is not by itself a bad thing, but it will make a number of more rigorous readers cringe given the thinness of the premise and the somewhat arbitrary way the novel is resolved.
Still, that ending is preceded by an apocalyptic sequence that leaves few people standing, so it all evens out. While Under the Dome can occasionally be exasperating, annoying and underwhelming, it’s also a novel that disappoints because it attempts so much: Even if he misses a few targets along the way, King still manages to hit plenty of them. The result may not have the quasi-mythical heft of The Stand or the tight focus of “The Mist”, but it’s the kind of wide-screen horror/thriller that has become a bit too rare lately. King being King, it’s also a book written with clean prose, compelling characters and a thicket of plot developments. It is, in short, a perfect book for those who want to sink into a lengthy reading experience and blink their eyes back to reality a long time later.
In its own four-pounds fashion, it’s also a powerful advertisement for ebook readers.
Pocket, 2003 reprint of 2002 original, 487 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7434-1768-2
At this stage of his career, Stephen King can take risks that a younger writer wouldn’t dare. Risks like a novel that consciously withholds complete satisfaction from the reader, wrapping everything in a preachy blanket of “there are strange things we’re not meant to understand”. No, I’m not talking about The Colorado Kid, but From a Buick 8, an uncanny novel that does things in ways few genre readers would expect.
Which is just as well, because a very superficial look at the novel immediately summons memories of another King novel: his Christine is the first example that comes to mind whenever talking about “evil car horror novels” for instance. But the similarities end there: In From a Buick 8, things are far more complicated than just a car haunted by evil spirits.
After all, it’s not even a car. When Pennsylvania State Troopers are called to a gas station to pick up an abandoned vehicle, they quickly find out that the object that looks like a Buick Roadmaster really isn’t: Not only do the details don’t match (extra decoration elements, oversized wheel, etc.) but the car won’t even move by itself. Never mind how it got there, or where its driver has gone: Soon enough, the Troopers discover that the materials used to build the car are quite unlike anything they know, and that the car self-repairs when damaged.
But wait: it gets worse. Periodically, the car starts bending reality. Temperatures next to it drop by several degrees and the inside of the car lights up with eerie electrical light. Soon after those events, things either disappear or appear next to the car. One trooper goes missing. Repulsive plants and animals pop up next to the car. Faced with such phenomenon, the troopers safely shutter the car in a shed. Years pass.
Don’t expect a tidy chronological third-person telling of the tale. From a Buick 8, also much like The Colorado Kid, is a novel in which a younger protagonist is told things by older, wiser people who have seen it all happen. In this case, a young teenager, whose recently-killed father knew the secrets of the Buick, prods and asks his father’s colleagues about the car he discovers hanging around the barracks. Their tale goes from 1979 to the early years of the new century, in bits and pieces given how they don’t want to acknowledge all at once the piece of pure strangeness in the back shed. The narration is one filled with regional expressions, jaded details, blue-collar vocabulary and homespun turns of phrase. The teenager wants to know everything as soon as possible, and have it make sense, whereas the older folks know that it’s impossible: The car has been in their lives for decades, and it’s unexplainable as far as they know.
In many ways, it’s a novel about storytelling and how it’s neater than messy reality. The Buick becomes an irrational part of the characters’ lives, to be locked somewhere in a shed and occasionally confronted as it takes out another piece away from their orderly reality, or spits out something that has no right to exist. It’s not a scary novel as much as it’s a quietly terrifying one as the characters come to terms with something that will never be explained. In that regard as well, it’s a precursor to the dirty trick that King would spring on readers with The Colorado Kid, presenting them with a tantalizing mystery that the author refuses to solve.
Yet From a Buick 8 is somewhat friendlier to genre readers than The Colorado Kid in that it does feature a decent amount of chills and thrills even before the conclusion, and that it does offer enough of an explanation and a conclusion to mollify most readers. The central mystery itself remains, but most of the smaller details are tied together in a final vision, and the epilogue offers a surprisingly reassuring way out of the strangeness.
It amounts to a strange and uncanny novel that works in ways that horror novels usually don’t. It’s a pleasure to read thanks to the narration and the accumulation of details about the life of state troopers, but it does eventually leads somewhere with its steady freak show of small-scale terror. The framing device works in large part because the conclusion jumps out of the frame and starts messing with the people telling the story. Writers will recognize the risks taken by King here, but readers should feel blessed to be in the hands of such a good storyteller. From a Buick 8 is not your average horror novel, and it’s all the better for it.