Posts Tagged ‘stephen king’

Pet Sematary (1989)

I have a contentious relationship with Stephen King. I enjoy his plots, and often the films based on his books, but his novels themselves tend to go just a little too far for me, shifting from pleasurable horror to uncomfortable sadism sometime in the final quarter. But there’s no doubt that King crafts some indelible narratives that get right to the core of fear, and this is thanks, in part, to the films based on his books. Pet Sematary was actually the first King book I read (and permanently fucked up my ability to spell “cemetery”) so I turned to Mary Lambert’s 1989 film version, scripted by King himself, to remind me of my childhood fears.

Dale Midkiff and Denise Crosby are Louis and Rachel Creed, recently arrived in a little Maine town with their children, Ellie (Blaze Berdahl) and Gage (Miko Hughes), to start anew. Their house is idyllic, even if it is on a road with a number of fast trucks, and even if it does have a creepy burial ground for pets in the woods beyond. When Ellie’s beloved cat Church is struck by a truck, their neighbor Jud (Fred Gwynne) kindly takes Louis beyond the Pet Sematary and onto an ancient burial site to bury the cat. Church comes back to life, but he’s not the same cat he once was, and Louis’s exposure to resurrecting the dead will eventually have dire repercussions for the family.

Pet Sematary is very much about the nature of grief and the lengths to which people will go to avoid the realities of death. Jud’s initial offer to Louis to help with Church is well-intentioned—he doesn’t think that Ellie should have to be exposed to death at such a young age. But of course, it’s a bad idea. Church isn’t Church anymore, and Ellie is troubled by the cat as a result of her father’s unwillingness to explain loss to her. This becomes more problematic as the film goes on – Jud tells about the things that happened when people are buried in the burial site, and speaks the (now classic) line that “sometimes, dead is better.” The narrative problem with the film is the same as the narrative problem of the book – how to render grief so convincing that it actually makes sense for someone to behave in such a fundamentally stupid manner and unleash all the horror that he does. The book mostly gets this right, but the film stumbles a little, due mostly to the performance of Dale Midkiff, in establishing a convincing tone.

Pet Sematary is a very 80s film, with a very 80s aesthetic. The music – including the Ramones! – pulses to the beat of the narrative, and there are moments of extreme hokeyness that all but undercut the dour, serious nature of the story. But those hokey moments, and even a few jokes, also help to lighten what could be a depressing slog. This is a story about grief and death and darkness, so there needs to be a few moments of levity, dark humor though it may be. Lambert deftly combines the story with grotesque imagery and hallucinatory violence that becomes an approximate visual rendering of King’s often fantastical creations. The story of Rachel’s sister Zelda, her first encounter with death as a young girl, is suitably terrifying, as is the creepy, mocking voice of Gage nearing the end of the film.

The standout star here is Fred Gwynne, whose turn as the possibly malevolent neighbor Jud keeps the film on an even keel, evading either dipping into campiness or into self-serious horror. There’s just something inherently creepy about Gwynne’s thick Maine accent, as though he’s doing a good impression of Kate Hepburn. He mostly plays it straight, but there’s a hint of sinister glee in his performance, especially as the film begins to draw to a close. He’s earnest and likable and just a bit frightening, and that makes all the difference.

Pet Sematary may not have aged well – it’s stuck in its time period, and the practical effects are occasionally unconvincing. But it’s still a nice piece of 80s nostalgia, ably directed and a more than adequate adaptation of King’s work.

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It (1990)

it-1990

I will confess something: I’m not a fan of Stephen King. I’ve read a few of his novels and there’s always a point at which he becomes sadistic in the treatment of his characters. I had to finally abandon Salem’s Lot for just this reason, and Pet Sematary stands as one of my least favorite books. But somehow, I’ve always enjoyed the adaptations of King’s books far more than the books themselves.

The 1990 miniseries It is based on King’s 1000+ page novel of the same name. It tells the story of a group of kids in Derry, Maine who face a nameless evil in the form of the diabolical clown Pennywise (Tim Curry). Pennywise has been slowly picking off the kids of the town one by one, luring them down into the sewers with promises of balloons and cotton candy. The Losers Club – seven kids who face different kinds of bullying from the local toughs – band together to stop Pennywise once and for all.

Like the novel, the miniseries spans thirty years. The final member to join the club Mike (Tim Reid) is also the only one to stay in Derry, acting as the local librarian. He’s the one who calls them all back together when a series of killings reminds him of Pennywise. As each member of the group filters back to town, their stories are revealed.

It suffers somewhat from its overlong, episodic structure. Rather than going in chronological order, the constant flashbacks as each Loser remembers his or her past becomes a wearing device, bouncing the viewer back and forth between the past and present day. It also slightly confuses some of the plot elements that are deemed important in the second half of the miniseries, when the Losers finally get back together in Derry. They all claim to have limited memories of what happened, yet the flashbacks, told from the perspective of each character, are very clear.

It might have worked better as a shorter film, cutting down on some of the episodes and allowing the story of friendship and loss of innocence to develop over time. There are quite a lot of themes that are only cursorily touched on here – including what “It” is, exactly, and why it has chosen Derry – yet the miniseries still feels overlong. Nor is it always clear that It manifests itself as something that each child fears. Apparently Beverly is afraid of sinks backing up?

The first half of It is saved by the presence of Tim Curry, who makes one hell of a scary clown. Curry’s peculiar brand of indulgent, delicious evil is well-suited to Pennywise, a sadistic trickster as well as a manifestation of evil. Pennywise isn’t just content with eating children every thirty years – he wants to scare the bejeezus out of them first. As he torments the children and their adult selves alike, his presence becomes something to look forward to. It’s rather disappointing, in fact, when It’s true form is revealed…

It is a serviceable film that nonetheless would play better, with all its flaws, as a two hour movie and not a 3+ hour miniseries. A little whittling down of the story – or at least making it less episodic – would have gone a long way to making even this TV version higher quality. To that end, a new version of It is currently being produced as a two-part film, which is both interesting and a little worrying. I’m not sure that clowns need any more bad rap at the moment.

Salem’s Lot (1979)

salems-lot-1979

It’s my favorite time of year! With autumn finally arriving in all its pumpkin-spice flavored glory, it’s time to settle down with some good, old-fashioned scares. First up is Salem’s Lot, the 1979 TV adaptation of Stephen King’s vampire novel starring every late-70s character actor ever, and James Mason.

Last year I made it exactly halfway through King’s novel before hitting what I usually call King’s “sadism wall.” Every single Stephen King novel I’ve ever read arrives at a point where King begins to take bizarre enjoyment out of torturing his characters. While I’m all for a bit of nasty horror, it’s something different when an author actually enjoys making his readers nauseous. So I abandoned Salem’s Lot as I had abandoned Pet Semetary and Misery before it – which is a shame, as I was really enjoying the scary vampires.

The 1979 Salem’s Lot could have done with a bit more of that sadism, though, because it’s one of the most aggressively un-scary movies I’ve ever seen. The tale centers on Ben Mears (David Soul), a writer who returns to his hometown of Salem’s Lot to work on a book about the creepy, potentially evil Marston House. He encounters the slightly weird small town inhabitants and strikes up a relationship with Susan (Bonnie Bedelia), the local schoolteacher. But something is wrong in Salem’s Lot and it all has to do with Mr. Straker (James Mason), an elderly gent who has moved into the Marston House with his business partner Mr. Barlow – a mysterious man who seems to go on a lot of business trips to Europe. After a little boy goes missing in the woods, deaths begin to pile up, leading Mears to suspect that there’s something vampiric going on at that evil old house.

Salem’s Lot cleaves very close to King’s book, with some important differences; what it doesn’t manage to adapt is the scares. Director Tobe Hooper spends much time setting up the small town life, but tension dissipates with every slightly weird or sudden cut from one scene to the next. Plot threads are introduced to be summarily discarded; other threads are picked up without the least bit of narrative consistency. What happened when the sheriff got ahold of Straker’s black coat? Where did the priest come from, and what happened to him? Can vampires be destroyed by fire? What actually did happen at the Marston House? What the hell is going on?! For a three-hour TV miniseries, there are too many unanswered questions and too many extended scenes in which nothing happens. The entire cast speaks in monotone – all except James Mason, the sole bright light in the murky mirage. Mason is having a great time snacking on the scenery and tossing veiled vampiric threats at everyone in sight. Thank God too, because otherwise I would never have sat through the damn film.

One thing I will say for Salem’s Lot: the vampires are proper vampires. There’s no sparkling, no gentleman counts, no erudite discussions about how we misunderstand the poor baby bloodsuckers. These are evil motherfuckers who want to drink blood and destroy civilization from the inside out. I miss those kinds of vampires.