Sunday, February 28, 2010

Stephen King on film: floating children and killer clowns

Today the oddly spelled SyFy channel played a couple of miniseries based on classic Stephen King books. First up was The Tommyknockers, followed by The Stand. The TV series are entertaining marathons, but the books were classics, two of my favorites by King. Pretty much all of King's work - especially his earlier books - were turned from manuscripts into screenplays and adapted to the big screen or small. Some people are surprised at a few of the movies that actually emerged from King's mind. Running Man, for instance, was a King story, though he wrote it as Richard Bachman and probably didn't imagine Arnold Schwarzenegger mumbling in the title role. The best movie to be made from a King story is Shawshank Redemption, which is actually based on King's novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. Stories like that - and The Green Mile - show King's range. But he remains best-known for his horror tales, and those are the ones that have made his work so attractive to Hollywood.

Two TV adaptations were probably the most frightening: Salem's Lot and It.

I've previously written about how Salem's Lot and The Shining scarred me as a kid, wounds that are probably still pummeling my subconscious. Here, again, the most infamous clip from the original Salem's Lot miniseries. Damn you, Danny Glick.

Raging and sensitive vampires are all the rage now, but they no longer interest me. Thankfully, they also no longer terrify me. Salem's Lot gets the majority of the blame, as does a thin, hardcover book in the Janesville Public Library I read countless times while growing up, which was a dumbed-down version of Bram Stoker's original. The Lost Boys also freaked me out. At carnivals I often found myself looking toward the sky, searching for a marauding gang of high-flying, hungry, ill-tempered and poorly behaved teenage vampires in desperate need for parental authority. Another frightening one: The Night Stalker, a 1972 TV movie that I caught late one weekend night.

It starred Darren McGavin, who's probably best remembered as being the dad who loves the leg lamp in A Christmas Story.

But look at that scene above, watch how part of the confrontation takes place on long steps. When we moved into our new house, the bedrooms were at the top of the steps. I'd hear creeks and picture a vampire creeping up the carpeted steps. That's what I imagined while sitting in my bedroom at night, or when we'd visit my grandpa on the farm in the old house that might have been haunted, at least according to family relatives who should no better but apparently enjoy terrorizing young people. My bedroom was the closest to the steps, meaning the demon of the night would take me before moving on to my sister and my snoring parents.

When a light came on and I could analyze the situation logically, I was able to tell myself, why would a vampire be coming up the steps, when it could simply fly through the window, or scratch the window and use his mastery of the dark powers to lure me outside? That thought process helped alleviate all my childish childhood fears, until the night my sister's boyfriend fired rocks at my window with the power of a Nolan Ryan fastball, not realizing he was attacking my room instead of alerting Lisa that it was safe to sneak out of the house for the night. So there I was, trying to sleep, as a loud thud kept hitting the window. Pitch-black outside, even darker inside. And all I hear is an overwhelming rattle at the window. I saw the undead floating outside, at least in my mind. Instead it was a teenage boy trying to corrupt Lisa.

At a certain point I came up with what I thought was the perfect plan to avoid the vampires that would one day rule the country with an iron, and frozen, fist. I vowed to become rich enough to buy a Concorde. Then, I'd use the jet to constantly fly to countries where it happened to be daylight. So if I was in Minnesota and the vampires came out at 9 p.m. on a warm summer night, I'd hop onto the Concorde, fly to California and be safe, since it'd only be 6 at night there with plenty of sunlight. If I happened to be caught in New York at 2 a.m. and the vampires were closing in, I'd call up my pilot Dominic, a former Blue Angels pilot - in the fantasy I didn't have my pilot's license, though that would have simplified the process. Dominic jetted us to London, where it'd be 8 a.m. and we'd have twelve hours of freedom and safety. I really couldn't find a single flaw with the plan, since I didn't have much respect for the flying ability of vampires.

All of that paranoia started with Salem's Lot. Blame Danny Glick's floating corpse and my own immaturity. Stephen King's imagination did that to me. Eventually I outgrew the fear, or maybe my own imagination simply dulled, to the point where I no longer visualized a world where people rose from the grave to haunt small-town children. Still, the original Salem's Lot - and not the Rob Lowe remake from 2004 - remains one of the best movie versions of King's work.

Some other notables:

It: The book is a thousand-page masterpiece, while the 1990 movie was a two-parter remembered primarily for the terrifying performance by Tim Curry as the killer clown Pennywise. It's a solid adaptation, only slightly harmed by some odd casting choices. Richard Thomas, aka John-Boy on The Waltons, played Bill Denbrough while John Ritter portrayed Ben Hanscom. Call them victims of typecasting, but neither guy could escape the past while playing the adult leaders of the Losers Club. But the movie did have Pennywise. I imagine 7-year-old kids who watched It were terrified into their teens, the same way Salem's Lot damaged me. Actually, the scary clown probably frightened just as many adults.

* Pet Sematary. Again, not as good as the book - standard disclaimer when discussing 98 percent of all movies converted from books - but still enjoyable, primarily because of another creepy, evil, cute child. Dad puts the little bastard down at the end, but dear ol' Mom makes a final visit.

* Misery. Outstanding book, superb movie, highlighted by Kathy Bates' stalker and James Caan as the writer trapped in her rural home. The most memorable scene is certainly the hobbling, which is ruined every time the movie is played on network TV or TNT or TBS, as they invariably cut away before Paul Sheldon's feet bend in a way usually seen on a football field while an announcer tells the audience to look away.

Oddly, that's not the scene I remember best. I saw the movie in the theater with a group of friends in 1990. Early in the movie, Caan drives down a mountain through a snowstorm. His car's headlights appear on the big screen. At that moment, a member of our group, Martin, who acted as our chauffeur because he got his license before anyone else and had a Suburban that could fit the whole gang, bolted up out of his seat and proclaimed, "I left my lights on!" It was a very strange association but ultimately saved his vehicle's battery, as he scrambled out of his seat and the theater to turn off his truck's headlights.

* Creepshow. One of the more underrated movies, it contained five short stories. One of the most memorable starred Ted Danson and Leslie Nielsen, before Danson became a star on Cheers and Nielsen earned fame in the Naked Gun movies. In the movie, Danson's sleeping with Nielsen's wife, so Nielsen had Ted and the gal drowned on the beach and sadistically tapes it so he can enjoy it later in the comfort of his own home. The movie's an early plug for the effectiveness of VCR's. Ted and the gal return - as if they were buried in Pet Sematary and not the beach - and give Nielsen the same treatment.

The most disgusting story in Creepshow involves a man who's more terrified of cockroaches than I was of vampires. Eventually they get the best of him, crawling out of his mouth, ears and every other place. This scene was easier to watch before I moved to New York City, the cockroach center of the world. Blech.

* Cujo. Not one of King's most memorable books and the movie's also fairly forgettable. An evil St. Bernard sick with rabies is still sort of lovable, even when slobbering on a dead body. King himself has said he barely remembers writing the book as he was drinking heavily at the time. To me, the book's memorable because after reading it, my mom swore off Stephen King books. She stopped reading him for nearly a decade. This was actually an official announcement; shortly after, I started reading him. The reason she quit? The little boy dies at the end of the book. Little kids aren't supposed to die, of course, unless they're evil and have popped out of a Pet Sematary. The kid lives in the movie. My mom was aware that it was a fiction book, but she gave up on the horror master for several years, though she eventually returned. But I think she still held a grudge.

Today most of King's books or stories become TV series, instead of big-screen films. I don't think he's any less popular with Hollywood, it's just that his more recent books aren't as easily adaptable. But in 10 or 15 years, TNT or FX or USA will remake Salem's Lot or It and another generation of children will be scarred. And I'll look into the feasibility of bringing the Concorde out of retirement.


Lisa said...

I would like you to know that it was not rocks being thrown it was my car keys. Ha. Thank goodness Brandi doesn't read these she would be more scared than she already is. They just don't make good horror movies anymore. The one that always got me was Burnt Offerings. I've watched it as an adult and it is not really that scary. Though the Grudge is freaky. The kids always say that the little boy in that is gonna swing down from the attic door. They were actually going to do that to me once. Probably would have had a heart attack.

Shawn Fury said...

Oh, keys. Well, that's so much better...

Burnt Offerings sounds like my reaction to American Werewolf in London. Watched it as a kid - I think at Mary Jean and Rick's actually - and was terrified. Rented it with Matt in high school and he remembered it being terrifying too. it was like a comedy, not funny, cool special effects, but mostly dark humor. But Salem's Lot, the original, still freaks me out if I see it.

Unknown said...

I dont know if you will read this but i would like to add the IT the movie did scare me from my childhood to my teens i just turmd 19 like 3 days ago and IT will be a reminder of my childhood forever i got to see the move as a child so when i got older i got to read the book and buy the dvd i loved both and cant wait for the remake and hopefully a 2ed book

Shawn Fury said...

The remake would be interesting. It seems like it wouldn't be as creepy today. Just as long as the casting is a little better.