|Posted by Aaron Dries on July 18, 2012 at 2:35 AM|
When you’re as prolific as Stephen King—and when the ravens of Hollywood have picked at your bones for over forty years—you’re bound to hit some home runs. Take Carrie (1976) or The Shawshank Redemption (1994) for example, films so superbly crafted they’ll garner Oscar attention.
And then there are those other films. The not quite so polished gems.
But here’s the thing… I actually like a lot of those flicks that folks discredit. In fact, I like some of them quite a bit. They proudly line the walls of my DVD collection. So, this is my opportunity to shine light on those ‘underappreciated’ works. You sadly won’t see any Darabont adaptations on this list, that’s for sure—this is a moment for the Bastard Prince’s of the King cannon to reign supreme. And I’m not embarrassed to say that I have a super soft spot for these films. A lot of them, for better or for worse, shaped the film viewer—and writer—I eventually became.
So without further adieu, here are my ten personally anointed Princes.
10. The Mangler (1995)
Don’t fuck with this iron folding machine, it’s likely fueled with hellfire. Just ask Detective John Hunton, who is trying to find out why workers are being chewed up in its jaws.
Perhaps more than any other film on this list, this is the one I’ve had to defend for the longest—although it’s not an easy task. Internationally regarded as a low-point adaptation in both the careers of King and director Tobe Hooper, this perverse, disgusting and grimy film has been condemned since the moment it was released.
And make no mistake, this is a seriously oppressive film, but one which plays with the cartoonish elements in the premise and runs with it like a bat outta hell. It’s not very good and it does make you feel dirtier just for watching it, but I get a kick out of it. And more than a lot of the other films on this list, it’s surprisingly faithful to the original story.
The Mangler oozes atmosphere. It looks, sounds and feels like maniacs crafted it. This is a fairly consistent thing for Tobe Hooper, which is why I’ve enjoyed the sensibility of his films for so long. And that’s the name of the game when it comes to horror films, even if they are as consistently stupid and delightful as this.
The Mangler in all of its oil-dripping, sheet-pressing glory is revealed, like some bastard child of HR Giger and the Spanish Inquisition. And then that poor blue-collar champ gets the chomp in the opening scene. Ouch, indeed.
9. The Graveyard Shift (1990)
A decrepit textile mill perched on a Maine hillside is home to more than unsatisfied workers. Not even the best unions on earth can keep their rat infestation under control. However, the vermin scuttling around are the least of their issues. Their biggest problem is in the basement, and it’s getting hungry.
This has got to be the only film on this list that people generally seem to hate (a little) less than The Mangler. But you don’t get to be baptized a Bastard Prince for being a masterpiece—let’s remember that.
Shot on location in Maine, this film, like The Mangler, oozes atmosphere. You can smell the stink of sweat, grease and bloodstained cotton. It’s a septic, almost depraved stench. Imagine finding a decayed rat under your couch—that’s the kind of mood this film evokes. It’s part fascination, part repulsion.
This isn’t to say the film is buoyantly gory (although it has its moments); it just has grit to spare. Similar to The Thing (1982) (only minus the classiness), The Graveyard Shift is a masculine film, which is a unique trait. But on the downside, it’s amateurishly constructed, and as a result, all of that hard-earned atmosphere plateaus out into mediocrity.
But damn, it’s loveable mediocrity! The effects are good; the industrial vibe played to the max; I admire the third-act plot twist, even though it doesn’t really work; and come on— it’s got both Brad Dourif and Robert Englund chewing up the scenery. And when it comes to scenery chewers, these guys have got dentures to spare.
Our devout crew—who’ve braved the dreaded graveyard shift—are in the mill’s basement. And it’s hot down there; sweat is dripping down their faces. And to top it off, their employer is obviously loosing his marbles. And one by one, they’re disappearing. And all of this is set to an eerie soundtrack of squeaking rats, the leathery rustling of giant wings and distant screams.
8. Sometimes They Come Back (1991)
A school teacher returns to his home town. Here, his younger brother was murdered by a group of teenage hooligans. But his brother wasn’t the only victim to die that fateful day; the gang was lost to a freakish train wreck... And now, all of these years later, these bastards have come back to haunt the teacher, one by one, in the guise of students in his classroom.
This is what made for TV horror is all about. Watching this, one is reminded of the Dan Curtis / Richard Matheson telefilm collaborations of the 1970s, ala Scream of the Wolf (1974) or The Night Strangler (1973). So if you enjoy streamlined storytelling and frill-less thrills, you’re in luck to begin with.
Sometimes They Come Back works because the short story was so well defined to begin with, easily lending itself to adaptation. There was little fluffing required. The film wisely climbs the ladder of King’s plot rung-by-bloody rung. Good move.
All of the eerie sequences in which the hooligans who killed the teacher’s brother, appear in his classroom. And then they start to sneer and taunt him in front of the other students.
7. Thinner (1996)
An overweight lawyer finds himself cursed by a gypsy after running down the old man’s wife. Now the lawyer is getting thinner; the pounds are dropping off day-by-day. But this dream come true is really a nightmare in disguise, because his weight loss is showing no sign of slowing... He’s getting thinner. And thinner. And thinner.
Thinner was a mixture of fable-like concept and nasty execution. And it’s great to see that these threads have translated from one medium to another (even despite the subdued ending). Thinner presents an idea—a house of cards—and then allows it to crumble, with all of the pieces falling in mostly the right ways.
The performances are good; there’s a nice King-cameo; and director Tom Holland, who also made Child’s Play (1988 ) and Fright night (1985), tells the story with an economy that has become his trademark. Like The Graveyard Shift, the film was also shot in Maine and the locales shine, offering an authenticity to King’s world that a lot of other adaptations lack. The makeup effects are second-to-none and the entire story is told with a wicked tongue held firmly in cheek.
On the downside, it feels a little padded (it’s only 92 minutes) and Kari Wuhrer is way too beautiful for her role (she’s too ‘90s hot’ in role that requires a rough edge). But these are minor drawbacks. It’s Thinner’s nihilistic streak that makes it tick.
This one’s a given. It’s the very last scene – hell, it’s the last shot. But I wouldn’t dare give it away. Cue evil laugh.
6. Desperation (2006)
In the middle of the Nevada desert, a maniac cop is snatching travellers off the highway and dragging their sorry asses back to the deserted town of Desperation. There they discover the remains of slaughter and a supernatural secret that will challenge their faith and will to survive.
The first of two Mick Garris adaptations to proudly snag a place on this list, Desperation is perhaps the most uneven of the bunch. Why? Because it opens so spectacularly and slowly collapses under the weight of its inferior second half.
Garris’ direction is solid, just as it was in The Stand (1994) and The Shining (1997) (two excellent adaptations) with many scenes beautifully blending pulp with prophetic biblical references. It’s occasionally scary and elegant, yet often incoherent and murky, so the flaws are evenly dealt. And there are a couple of great directorial flourishes, including the over-saturated color palette and the choice of wide-angle camera angles. These lenses propel the viewer closer to intimidating characters on the screen without ever being emotionally distancing. That’s tough to pull off, and Desperation succeeds at it.
The film contains a superb opening set piece, but sadly collapses under the impression of its first half. Left to scramble, inspiration dwindles—despite a number of wonderfully rendered scenes (the flashbacks are very well done). These faults asides, there’s a lot here to be enjoyed, not least of all Ron Perlman’s almost “Kubrickian” performance.
Desperation brims with a joyous energy; the cast is attractive; it’s beautifully shot; and Nicholas Pike’s score is sublime. There are haunting images of possessed animals (the coyotes lining the roads is particularly effective) and more than anything else, there are scenes of dread. Take for example, when young David Carver wanders the empty police station and discovers a dead body that gasps in a death rattle when he brushes against it. Awesome.
As mentioned above, the opening is a stunner, but there’s another scene that gets me every time for its combination of hokeyness and back-to-back thrills. It’s a literal triptych of frights. Steve and Cynthia take shelter in an abandoned Desperation supermarket. They seek distraction from the horror outside by playing with a novelty slot machine – only to have it spontaneously vomit blood. It’s illogical, but dammit, it got me good and it’s an image I never forgot. They delve deeper into the building and find dead bodies piled everywhere, covered in spiders. They make a run for it and escape through the front door, only to be swooped at it by a possessed raven. It’s like a trip to the Devil’s circus, where King is the crooning carny who checked your jacket.
5. Sleepwalkers (1992)
Charles Brady and his mother have a terrible secret: they are sleepwalkers, ancient creatures who can change their appearance at whim. But they are the last of their kind, and they need sustenance. And Charles has set his eyes on Tanya, one of the girls in his class.
Sleepwalkers is also directed by Mick Garris and was the first in a number of collaborations with King, continuing with The Stand, Quicksilver Highway (1997), The Shining, Riding the Bullet (2004), Desperation and Bag of Bones (2011).
To begin, this film is full of deliciously black humor and boasts the best use of an Enya song in cinematic history (yes, better than David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)). Also, Garris’ camera has a tendency to weave and gyrate, echoing Argento and evokes a color palette that reminds one of Spielberg’s Amazing Stories (for which Garris was a story editor and recurring writer – he even directed an episode that frighteningly predates the plot of The Green Mile). But it’s the performances that shine brighter than anything else here. Mädchen Amick is stunningly beautiful—as always—displaying the girlish vulnerability that made her so loveable in Twin Peaks. She’s an innocent virgin dancing through a world of adult, and often dangerous, eyes—a theme that’s embodied in a scene where she girlishly dances at work…
This isn’t a scary film, but it’s got childish energy to spare. It evokes the same sense of excitement I get when I watch Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985). It’s over the top and knows it. Yes, the strokes are broad and the violence is cartoonish, but it’s not meant to be anything but. It also contains a killer set of cameos. Yes, Stephen King, Clive Barker and Tobe Hooper all feature in the same scene—and keep an eye out for familiar faces like John Landis, Joe Dante, Mark Hamill and Garris’ wife Cynthia.
My advice is unplug your brain, tap into your inner child and indulge in some EC Comic-inspired thrills. Oh, and eat your vegetables. Otherwise you’ll get no dessert.
Charles has taken Tanya to Homeland Cemetery under the pretense of doing some headstone rubbings. Only what he’s really after is her soul, which he plans to suck out of her mouth and feed to his mother (via a truly bizarre sexual act). This entire scene sings—it’s well written and directed, and contains some great cinematic choreography. It’s a lynchpin scene, one that rips the viewer from one kind of film and dumps them in another… This latter just happens to be of the campy, blood-splattered kind. Fine by me!
4. Silver Bullet (1985)
The residents of Tarker’s Mill think they’re at the mercy of a psychotic murderer. Only it isn’t a man prowling those streets… Marty, the young handicapped protagonist believes the town is under threat from a werewolf. But who could it be?
Yet another badass performance from Gary Busey? Check. Wheelchair bound child actor who doesn’t manage to annoy the shit out of you and actually employs a high degree of emotional involvement? Check. Nasty werewolves running around in a rare (for King) whodunit plot? Double check. Other pluses are the sincere, small-town setting and a cast of curious characters that happily interweave through varying sub-plots, all the time spouting some atypical King dialog.
Sure, the creature designs look like Power Rangers in fur coats, but it all works. On top of this, it’s wonderfully filmed in the under-utilized JDC-Scope process, the score is solid and Twin Peaks/The People Under the Stairs’ Everett McGill has a solid part to sink his teeth into.
The supporting cast is peppered with famous faces (keep an eye out for Terry O’Quinn and Lawrence Tierney) and the baby-faced Megan Follows is an endearing narrator. And what do all of these plusses add up to? Well, the answer to this question is sadly, yet another Dino De Laurentiis financial flop that I just can’t help digging. Big-time. This film is To Kill a Mockingbird with claws—not a bad mix. I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s a misunderstood masterpiece, because it’s not. It’s just old-fashioned fun, and deserves to be seen.
The revelation of the werewolf’s identity, which comes after a day-long search for a one-eyed suspect… but I won’t say any more for fear of spoiling things for you!
3. The Dark Half (1993)
Thad Beaumont is a best-selling author who has written a number of novels under the pseudonym, “George Stark”. But after a blackmail threat from someone who has discovered his literary secret, Beaumont choses to come clean, and announces Stark’s fictitious nature to the world. Bad idea. People are dying. Mr. Stark ain’t happy.
The Dark Half was the second King adaptation directed by George A. Romero directed (though he did write Creepshow 2 (1987) and a segment of Tales From The Darkside: The Movie (1990)). It’s a tense and atmospheric exercise, one that contains some truly startling imagery. In many respects, it’s the final great Romero film (though there is a lot to like in his later work). Certain scenes embody an eerie, dreamlike quality with their depictions of rotting meat and shattering vases.
The film is given buoyance by fantastic performances, especially those of Timothy Hutton, Amy Madigan and Michael Rooker as Alan Pangborne (a role which would later be portrayed by Ed Harris in Needful Things (1993)). The theme of the doppelgänger and the shocks are both expertly handled. Watching this, you know you’re in the hands of a pro. You need only view that sequence of Technicolor bloodshed when the literary editor is stalked outside his apartment. And Hellraiser’s Christopher Young sets all of this to an oppressive, suspense-fueled score.
The primary flaw of this film is the pacing in the final act; it drags and grows repetitious when it should do the opposite. It also ends on an abrupt and strangely unsatisfyingly note, as darkest night closes with the potential for future dawns. But this sense of ‘hope’ isn’t enough to ruin an otherwise consummately made experience.
Pretty much any scene in which you hear Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” Trust me—goose bumps are guaranteed. You’ll never think of that song the same way ever again. And watch out for those sparrows, too.
2. Christine (1983)
Arnie Cunningham has fallen in love and that love is changing him. Everyone used to think he was such a geek, but now he’s becoming cooler and cooler. He’s also developing a bit of an attitude problem. He’s getting cocky. Overconfident. Possessive. But love can do that to some folks, right? Oh, and did we mention the love interest is “Christine”, a bright red 1958 Plymouth Fury?
Christine is a good example of editorial streamlining saved by great direction. And if you’re going to water down a balls-to-the-wall retro horror novel about a pissed-off Plymouth with the ghost of a decaying dead man in the back seat … well, you better get John Carpenter behind the lens.
Christine is one of those films, like De Palma’s adaptation of Carrie, which tonally captures the melancholy of adolescence, making Carrie and Christine kindred stories of isolation, of the pain and rejection we endure in our younger years. But without these emotions, we cannot grow.
This is an insidious film that’s full of great moments and performances. It showcases yet another fantastic electronic score from the director, superb cinematography (that manages to be stylish without ever being emotionally exclusive, as so many over-stylized horror films can be) and simple, yet effective, special effects. It’s never terrifying in the way it should, or deserves, to be. But don’t worry; Christine has enough John Carpenter set pieces to keep demanding audiences well and truly satisfied.
I’ve always felt that the football scene in which Dennis injures himself in front of his best friend, his new girl and the car was an emotional showstopper. It’s also draws together the film’s twain thematic themes: horror and the horror of change.
1. The Night Flier (1997)
Richard Dees is a tabloid investigative reporter on the heels of a serial killer who travels by private plane and stalks victims in rural airports. Dees has got a hot, young protégé with him, and together they discover that ‘The Night Flier’ may not be human.
It goes without saying that The Night Flier is underrated. Watching it, one would think Mark Pavia would go on to have an expansive career. Sadly, this is his only feature credit to date. And that’s a shame. Pavia’s directorial touch is assured and refreshingly confident. And this confidence infiltrates the eerie soundscape, the creeping camera work and the controlled pacing. On top of this, Miguel Ferrer is fantastic—as always—in a role that isn’t much of a stretch for him, although he imbues it with a pathos that transcends mere asshole behavior. Thankfully, he comes out genuine on the other side, and that’s a tough balance, considering the places King took the character—and Pavia only takes him further.
The film is a welcome alternative to the anemic vampire films of late, with one foot grounded in the modern world and the other in traditional Bela Lugosi lore. And unlike a lot of horror films (some of which are on this list), The Night Flier earns its deliriously gory finale. It’s almost cathartic in its fucked-up-ness.
A film about ‘opposites converging’ (characters, plotlines and genres), this is an adaptation that only now seems to be receiving the accolades it deserves. Word on the street is that Pavia is helming a King anthology that will combine Mile 81, The Reapers Image, N and The Monkey. And I think he’s got it in him to do these stories justice. But it’s The Monkey that seems the most controversial inclusion. Legend has it that this was Frank Darabont’s long-gestating property, and for those who’ve waited years for that version, this news may be met with disappointment. But I’m not worried. If this anthology develops wings, which I sure hope it does, it’s bound to fly with Pavia in the cockpit.
From beginning to bloody end.
-- Aaron Dries is the author of the award-winning novel, House of Sighs (2012). Available now through Samhain Horror.