For a while I’ve wanted to write a series of articles about the now legendary writer, Stephen King, but instead of his more famous and critically-acclaimed stories, the films and lesser-known pieces that he had some hand in producing, some based on his many books, some not. We’re all somewhat familiar with the more famous and, crucially, renowned King adaptations – The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Stand by Me – but what may be telling is that these films tend to be a width outside the novelist’s usual horror remit. (Stand by Me began life as a horror novella: The Body, one quarter of the Different Seasons anthology which also contains Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. Director Rob Reiner, however, removed the horror and focused more on the coming-of-age, old-timey Americana elements.)
Even those adaptations which are based on horror novels often deviate wildly from their source materials. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a cold and cynical film about cabin fever, a world away from the fiery Gothic chiller King envisaged (King himself, who to this day dislikes the film – for the record, I enjoyed it – noted that the book ends in fire and the film ends in ice). To my mind, the best and most faithful of the lauded King horror adaptations is Brian de Palma’s Carrie, though even that veers away from the excesses of the novel in its climax. As for the rest, the horror adaptations which aren’t particularly famous or renowned, which lurk in the ether recognised mostly by fans (like myself) and B-movie buffs, are the lesser-known Kings with whom I will be grappling.
I may also branch out into some of the lesser-known stories and novellas, like the uniquely disquieting “It Grows on You” – the last of the stories set in the fictional township of Castle Rock, Maine (other notables: Cujo, Needful Things, and The Body) – and King’s bleak reflection on pornographic pulp magazines, Apt Pupil. For this inaugural article, however, I’ll tackle some easy targets: first, three slightly sludgy, dime-a-dozen, almost painfully 80s suspense movies, which typify how long and arduous the road from page to screen can be for a Stephen King story.
Part of the problem, I think, is that where on paper King’s work is compelling and suspenseful, when translated for the screen it often just comes across as ridiculous. But a much larger and more pressing issue, in the 90s-and-previous moves that King himself had a hand in, is that when it comes to adapting his own material, he can’t seem to resist the urge to kid it, to dip down into camp. This is probably due to the fact that, let’s be honest, Stephen King was born to be an author, not a filmmaker. He even said once, I’m sure of it, that he ultimately prefers books to films, but I can’t for the life of me find the exact quote on Google, so you’ll have to take my word for it (or not). In the end, he’s a film fan and even a buff, but he just wasn’t built to support the silver screen. That’s not to say that a large chunk of the films he’s handled aren’t worth-watching and entertaining, though. Three great examples are collected in this box set:
The DVDs are bare of features besides scene indexes and, for Overdrive and Bullet, trailers, which is probably why I got it cheap. (It’s been a few years, but I got it on Amazon.co.uk and it’s currently listed at under ten pounds, used and new, minus postage and packaging.) But these three films exemplify King’s filmmaking style. As of the time of writing King hasn’t actually directed a film since Overdrive, the only one for which he has directing credit. He readily admitted that he got the job because of his name and not his directing skills, and that the film was made during a phase in his life when he was doing, like, all the cocaine.
He’s called 1986’s Maximum Overdrive a “moron movie”, and when asked why he doesn’t direct films tells the interviewer to watch it, and they’ll know. It was even nominated for two Golden Raspberry awards: Worst Director and, for star Emilio Estevez, Worst Actor. (It lost both to Prince for Under the Cherry Moon.) I still think King’s a little hard on himself, however. While Maximum Overdrive doesn’t reach anywhere near the scary experience its Hitchcockian trailer promised*, it is a thoroughly amusing, well, moron movie.
What’s hilarious about that trailer, by the way, is that King promises to “scare the Hell out of you”, and says that so many people have made films based on Stephen King stories that he finally decided, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. Well, people have been more respectful and made better films of your genuinely brilliant stories, King, though I think you realise that. Overdrive was very loosely based on the short story “Trucks”, collected in the still great début anthology Night Shift. “Trucks” was a crisp and serious, apocalypse tale which didn’t try to explain why the eponymous vehicles suddenly gained sentience, then turned on their masters. It also didn’t attempt big set-pieces. It was set almost entirely within a gas station diner where the cast of strangers, from a young couple to a trucker and a Bible-salesman, are trapped by the circling, gas-guzzling behemoths. It starts long after the trucks have begun their rampage, and ends on a distinctly nihilistic note.
Alternately, Maximum Overdrive begins in the middle of a hot summer day to the tune of a thumping AC/DC song, “Who Made Who”, after King himself, in a cameo, tries to withdraw money from an ATM and is called an asshole by the digital readout. You see the territory we’re in. King’s always had a dark sense of humour, but this leaps overboard into John Pink Flamingos Waters… erm, waters. Estevez plays a kind-hearted ex-con trying to make a living as a truck-stop fry-cook, beneath odious, cigar-chomping boss Pat Hingle (better known as Commissioner Gordon in the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher Batman films). In this version of the story all mechanical appliances are going beserk, not just trucks, so a waitress is assaulted by an electric meat-cleaver, and in my favourite scene a Little Leage baseball team is mown down by a coke machine. The only other actor of note is Yeardley Smith, who went on to voice Lisa Simpson in The Simpsons. Here she plays a screeching harridan whose shrill, nasal voice makes Janice from Friends sound like Queen Elizabeth.
Seen here looking like Pope Benedict in drag.
1985’s Silver Bullet is based on Cycle of the Werewolf, the only King book I’ve read that I didn’t care for. It’s a strange comic-book/novella hybrid; great illustrations by Bernie Wrightson are dotted throughout. They’re vivid and lurid with strong, pungent colouring. The story, however, feels like a lot of King cliches and stock scenes loosely tied together to form a narrative. It comes across to me as the first draft of a short story, and the film isn’t much better in terms of plot, but unlike the book it has an entertaining self-parodic edge. The late critic Roger Ebert gave Silver Bullet three stars on the tentative theory that it was made as a comedy: “Stephen King’s “Silver Bullet” is either the worst movie ever made from a Stephen King story, or the funniest.”** I can certainly understand the thinking there.
If you watch Bullet as a serious attempt at a horror film it’s beyond embarrassing. Not only is the werewolf, which stalks a small town and is investigated by a wheelchair-bound little boy (Corey Haim) and his sister (Megan Follows), ridiculously fake and overexposed when viewed today, but the acting is histrionic (surprisingly, Gary Busey gives the sanest performance as the boy’s drunk-but-lovable uncle), and the “scary” set-pieces enough to make the cheesiest Hammer-horror crapfest blush. (A dream sequence in a church*** is fleetingly effective, in its contrast between a cosy lighted sermon and a dark mass-metamorphoses, but even that is punctuated by shots hammier than a ham sandwich. Where the bread is actually gammon steaks.)
Again, Gary Busey gives the sanest performance.
Silver Bullet is ultimately an improvement on its source material, just because, if you view it from the right angle, it has a self-aware edge which the novella lacked. (Though it’s worth noting that even “bad King” is leagues better than, say, “good James Patterson”. Or am I just a King fanboy? I’m sure Patterson fanboys, if such peculiar creatures exist, will be able to tell me.) Also, the film contains the immortal line, quoted in the Ebert review, “Are you going to make lemonade in your pants?” You have to love a horror film brave enough to use a line like that.
Also in 1985 came Cat’s Eye, an anthology film comprised of three loosely interlocking stories, the first two based on ones from Night Shift, “Quitters, Inc.” and “The Ledge”, and the third, “General”, written fresh for the film. The eponymous eyes belong to the so-called General, a stray cat which looks in the window of a New York City shopfront, and receives a telepathic message from a little girl (Drew Barrymore) in danger. The cat then wanders into “Quitters, Inc.”, a story about a smoker (James Woods) trying to quit who happens across the titular establishment, which promises total freedom from his habit, not through a program of medications or exercises, but threats. If one of the organisation’s many agents catch him smoking, his loved ones will be subjected to increasing torments.
Following this, “The Ledge” observes a sick bet dreamed up by a sadistic gangster (Kenneth McMillan) whose wife has been having an affair with a tennis pro (Robert Hays): Hays must feel his way around the outside of a high hotel-storey with only a thin ledge to stand on. If he survives, he gets the gangster’s wife. Finally, the poor bedraggled tabby arrives at the home of little Drew Barrymore, which is frequented by a tiny troll who lives in the wainscoting.
Of the three films in the collection, Cat’s Eye comes closest to genuine, edge-of-your seat suspense. The anthology style has a Twilight Zone appeal, and you get the sense that screenwriter King is trying, if not to scare, then at least keep us guessing. As is the way with much of King’s 80s/90s cinematic output, however, a lot of the characterisations are broader than they were in the source material. Kenneth McMillan’s gangster is particularly one-dimensional; all he needs is a top hat and a swirlier moustache. Funnily enough, the third story captures the original spirit of King a little better than its predecessors, despite having the seeming disadvantage of not being based on a short story. The troll is an amusing little fellow, and the final fight scene between it and the cat is very entertaining. Also, “The Ledge” was well-staged enough to excite my vertigo and make me nauseous.
Pictured: The vivid epitome of “Nope.”
Lastly, I’d like to briefly talk about “Chinga” (1998), a fifth-season episode of the paranormal TV-series The X-Files, of which King was a fan and requested to write an episode for. It’s your standard “scary doll” story, and it’s been said that King’s original script was revised beyond recognition, though personally I see his fingerprints all over it, not just in the more obvious fan service (like the opening shot of a Maine licence-plate), but the more subtle imagery and tropes.
I have mixed feelings about the “scary doll” trope. Undoubtedly, my favourite such story is Susan The Woman in Black Hill’s Dolly, a novella in which the doll was more the tool than the bringer of evil (the story hints at voodoo practices in 19th-century-England). In recent years, however, the trope hasn’t been overused so much as used lamely. The 2014 horror film Annabelle, for instance, whose titular doll is so obviously designed to be frightening that it’s anything but. The reason Victorian dolls are creepy is because their affected innocence is at odds with the notion of a never-blinking, china-white, perfectly groomed child. If you remove those affectations, instead giving your doll garish make-up and split-ends, you get something distinctly non-threatening.
She looks less likely to kill you than attend a hentai Sailor Moon convention.
The doll in “Chinga” captures the unsettling faux-innocence of Victorian dollies pretty well. It’s creepiest in the scenes where, through what I imagine is some kind of astral projection (the precise nature of the episode’s threat is never strongly explained), the doll appears before a victim and psychically forces them to commit suicide. A blurred reflection of the doll in the door of a supermarket freezer, as it utters the catchphrase “I want to play”, is especially good. The King influences are clear in the discussions of such topics as the Salem witch trials, and the use of popular music to haunting effect, which culminates with a scene at a nursery where a woman finds that her vinyl records have been strewn about the playroom. This image may well be a conscious nod to the novel The Shining, which also uses the image of scattered and broken records to convey destructive, paranoid fear.
All in all, “Chinga” is a relatively shallow “Monster-of-the-Week” X-Files story. It’s driven by gore, New England comedy-of-manners, and trope-ish horror scenes. But it’s a fun and suspenseful little thriller, pitched somewhere between the unadulterated cornball of early King cinema, and the more faithful attempts to adapt his thrillers. In conclusion, then, all of the works I’ve reviewed here are worth a watch, but moreso if you’re looking for trashy escapism, as opposed to the rich seam of terror King’s literature mines.
Believe it or not, this goober can be really fucking frightening.
*Maximum Overdrive trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ggWS4tTzs60
**Roger Ebert’s review of Silver Bullet: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/silver-bullet-1985
***Silver Bullet scenes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zzNPeHQCwEQ