Frank Darabont really loves him some Stephen King, having adapted and directed the writer’s work almost exclusively for the duration of his career. While The Shawshank Redemption may be Darabont’s most fondly remembered effort, The Mist, an under-appreciated creature feature, is our vote for his best.
David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his young son head to town for some groceries. Meanwhile, a tear in the space/time continuum (who’s to blame?!) opens a doorway to alien monsters. So Drayton, his boy, and a dozen or so other shoppers all find themselves trapped inside this glass-fronted store just waiting for rescue or death.
Marcia Gay Harden is characteristically brilliant. As the religious zealot who turns survival inside the store into something less likely than survival out with the monsters, she brings a little George Romero to this Stephen King.
In a Romero film, no matter how great the threat from the supernatural, the real monsters tend to be the rest of the humans. King does not generally go there, but he does so with The Mist and it’s what makes this one of his most effective films.
While Harden excels in a way that eclipses all other performances, the whole cast offers surprisingly restrained and emotional turns – Toby Jones is especially effective.
The FX look good, too, and let’s be honest, a full-on monster movie with weak FX is the lamest. The way Darabont frames the giants, in particular, gives the film a throw-back quality to the old matinee creature features. But he never gives into cheekiness or camp. The Mist is a genuinely scary film – best seen in the black and white version if you can find it.
Regardless, it’s the provocative ending that guarantees this one will sear itself into your memory. Though this is likely what kept The Mist from gaining an audience in theaters, it is a brilliant and utterly devastating scene that elevates the film from great creature feature to great film.
Back in ’86, Stephen King released the novel It, about a bunch of New England kids plagued by a flesh-hungry monster who showed itself as whatever scared them the most. Like, say, a clown.
The basic premise of It is this: little kids are afraid of everything, and that’s just good thinking.
Four years later, It made its way to TV as a miniseries, the first episode of which is one of the most terrifying things ever to grace the small screen, much thanks to the unforgettable presence of Tim Curry as Pennywise the clown.
It’s been 27 years, and as the story itself dictates, the time has come for It to return.
The Derry, Maine “losers club” finds itself in 1988 in this adaptation, an era that not only brings the possibility of Part 2 much closer to present day, but it gives the pre-teen adventures a nostalgic and familiar quality.
Though The Goonies this is not. Nor is it made for TV.
This version shares a lot of tonal qualities with one of the best King adaptations, Stand By Me. Both are bittersweet tales of the early bonds that help you survive your own childhood.
Bill Skarsgård has the unenviable task of following a letter-perfect Curry in the role of Pennywise. Those are some big clown shoes to fill, but Skarsgård is up to the challenge. His Pennywise is more theatrical, more of an exploitation of all that’s inherently macabre and grotesque about clowns.
Is he better than the original? Let’s not get nutty here, but he is great.
He and the kids really make this work. The young cast is led by the always strong Jaeden Lieberher (Midnight Special), and he’s surrounded by very strong support. Sophia Lillis charms as the shiniest gem in the losers’ club, and Finn Wolfhard (that is a name!) is a scream as the foul mouthed class clown Richie.
The almost inexcusably cute Jackson Robert Scott is little, doomed Georgie, he of the yellow slicker.
In keeping with that Eighties theme, both characters cast as minorities—the Jewish Stanely Uris (Wyatt Oleff) and African American “Homeschool” Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs)—are noticeably underwritten.
So, they weren’t perfect, but the team adapting for this go-round got a lot right.
The best Stephen King adaptations are those with writers who know how to prune and refocus. Luckily, newcomer Chase Palmer, longtime horror writer Gary Dauberman and, maybe most importantly, Cary Fukunaga (who wrote Beasts of No Nation) are on it.
The trio streamlines King’s more unwieldy plot turns and bloat, creating a much-appreciated focus.
Director Andy Muschietti shows great instinct for taking advantage of foreground, background and sound. Yes, It relies heavily on jump scares, but Muschietti’s approach to plumbing your fear has more depth than that and he manages your rising terror expertly.
So, there’s this tower, see. And it sits at the center of all the parallel worlds of the universe and as long as it stands, it keeps the monsters away. Why? How did it get there? No time!
Anyhoo, an evildoer (Matthew McConaughey) wants to knock it down, let in the monsters and rule it all. But there’s this kid – you know what, let me not summarize what amounts to little more than a summary in the first place. Suffice it to say, The Dark Tower is not very good.
There are a lot of bad Stephen King movies. But even Dreamcatcher, The Night Flier and Sleepwalkers (three of the worst) offered a sort of B-movie charm. The Dark Tower is not even the fun kind of bad. It’s tedious, lumbering and schmaltzy, visually unappealing, narratively embarrassing and a woeful waste of Idris Elba.
McConaughey, on the other hand, makes the most of his time onscreen as Walter – which is a much funnier name for the prince of darkness than Man in Black. As the antagonist, he brandishes a restrained evil and moves with a little swagger, plus there’s that wig. Glorious! Real Shatner – hell, even Travolta-esque.
But McConaughey and Elba – true talents, no doubt – are hamstrung from the beginning by the production’s meat-cleaver-and-band-aid approach to screenwriting.
Nobody is more convinced than I am that Stephen King uses too damn many words. Too damn many! Succinct he will never be. But to believe you can boil his multi-volume, many-thousand-page Dark Tower series into a coherent 90 minutes is just brazen idiocy. No offense to the team of writers working on the adaptation – some of whom have talent; the other one is Akiva Goldsman.
Director Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair– also credited with writing) is zero help, managing to take this Cliff’s Notes version of King’s prose and still produce something bloated and slow.
I remember reviewing the Tom Cruise debacle The Mummy earlier this year and thinking, this isn’t even any fun, it’s just bad. Dark Tower makes The Mummy feel like a rollicking good time.
But, hey, the trailers for It look great, don’t they?
How is it we haven’t done this one yet? So many to choose from – most of them bad. Grizzly? Or Grizzly 2: The Concert? You know how we feel about Monkey Shines.
But, an animal attack has to be the human’s most primal fear, and it is sometimes mined for real terror when the story is in the right hands. Though there are a handful that fell just off the list – Burning Bright, Black Water, Lake Placid, The Shallows – these made the most lasting impression. They left bite marks.
5. Cujo (1983)
A New England couple, struggling to stay afloat as a family, has some car trouble. This naturally leads to a rabid St. Bernard adventure.
But before we get into all that, we’re privy to the infidelities that undermine the marriage of Donna (Dee Wallace) and Vic (Daniel Hugh Kelly). Remarkably, it’s Donna who’s boning elsewhere. You might expect such behavior from her perennially shirtless husband, but no. Apparently dressing like Ma Engle is a real draw for New England boys.
This film is easy to write off. It dates terribly, from the heavy handed set up to the weak exposition to the inescapably Eighties score to Daniel Hugh Kelly’s ridiculous hair. Let’s not even get into this big, friendly St. Bernard covered in Caro Syrup pretending to be a menace, or the hillbilly family running the garage. (Stephen King will be damned if the South gets to corner the market on scary rural folk!)
Still, with all its many, many faults, once Donna and her asthmatic son (pre-Who’s the Boss Danny Pintauro) find themselves trapped in their broken down Pinto (What? Those seem like such reliable cars!) with a rabid dog (bigger than the car) attacking, the film ratchets up the tensions and rewards you for your patience.
Profoundly claustrophobic and surprisingly tense, benefitting immeasurably by Wallace’s full commitment to the role, the third of the film where we’re trapped in the heat inside that Pinto just about makes up for the entire rest of the picture.
4. Rogue (2007)
In 2007, Wolf Creek writer/director Greg McLean returned, again with the intention of scaring tourists out of Australia.
Australia – if I remember my Crocodile Hunter program, you know, before the deadly beasts of Australia finally killed him – is home to more man eating sharks, poisonous snakes, poisonous spiders, crocodiles and alligators than anywhere else on earth. It’s also the spot right under the hole in the ozone. I swear. The thing that seems to fuel McLean’s work is a bone-deep puzzlement over Australia’s tourism draw.
He’s not all anti-Oz, though. The aerial shots of his native nation’s North Territory inspire awe, and much of the film makes the rugged landscape a major character as riverboat tour guide Kate (Radha Mitchell) veers her group off course to answer another craft’s distress signal. Her boat’s quickly grounded when something bumps it, and she and her crew of tourists find themselves banked on a tiny mud island as daylight diminishes. Eventually they realize that inside that murky river is one mammoth crocodile.
One reason this film works as well as it does is that the croc looks cool. Another is that the performances are rock solid – Mitchell and Wolf Creek co-star John Jarratt, in particular, but look out for Sam Worthington in a small role. But the real star is McLean, who can ratchet up tension like nobody’s business. You know what’s coming, and yet still you jump. Every time.
3. Open Water (2003)
Jaws wasn’t cinema’s only powerful shark horror. In 2003, young filmmaker Chris Kentis’s first foray into terror is unerringly realistic and, therefore, deeply disturbing.
From the true events that inspired it to one unreasonably recognizable married couple, from superbly accurate dialog to actual sharks, Open Water’s greatest strength is its unsettling authenticity. Every element benefits from Chris Kentis’s control of the project. Writer, director, cinematographer and editor, Kentis clarifies his conception for this relentless film, and it is devastating.
A couple on vacation (Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis) books a trip on a crowded, touristy scuba boat. Once in the water, they swim off on their own – they’re really a little too accomplished to hang with the tourists. And then, when they emerge from the depths, they realize the boat is gone. It’s just empty water in every direction.
Now, sharks aren’t an immediate threat, right? I mean, tourist scuba boats don’t just drop you off in shark infested waters. But the longer you drift, the later it gets, who knows what will happen?
2. The Birds (1963)
As The Birds opens, wealthy socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) has followed hottie bachelor lawyer Mitch (Rod Taylor) to little Bodega Bay, his hometown, to play a flirtatious practical joke of cat and mouse. But you know what will eat both cats and mice? Birds.
Hitchcock introduces a number of provocative characters, including Hedren’s not-that-likeable heroine. Suzanne Pleshette’s lovelorn schoolteacher’s a favorite. But whatever the character, the dread is building, so they need to work together to outwit these goddamn birds.
The film is basically an intelligent zombie film, although it predates our traditional zombie by a good many years, so maybe, like every other dark film genre, the zombie film owes its history to Hitchcock. The reason the birds behave so badly is never explained, they grow in number, and they wait en masse for you to come outside. No one’s off limits – a fact Hitch announces at the children’s party. Nice!
Though the FX were astonishing for 1963, the whole episode feels a bit campy today. But if you’re in the mood for a nostalgic, clean cut and yet somehow subversive foray into fairly bloodless horror, or if, like one of us, you’re just afraid of birds, this one’s a classic.
1. Jaws (1975)
What else – honestly?
Twentysomething Steven Spielberg’s game-changer boasts many things, among them one of the greatest threesomes in cinematic history. The interplay among the grizzled and possibly insane sea captain Quint (Robert Shaw), the wealthy young upstart marine biologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and the decent lawman/endearing everyman Brody (Roy Scheider) helps the film transcend horror to become simply a great movie.
Perhaps the first summer blockbuster, Jaws inspired the desire to be scared silly. And in doing so it outgrossed all other movies of its time. You couldn’t deny you were seeing something amazing – no clichés, all adventure and thrills and shocking confidence from a young director announcing himself as a presence.
Spielberg achieved one of those rare cinematic feats: he bettered the source material. Though Peter Benchley’s nautical novel attracted droves of fans, Spielberg streamlined the text and surpassed its climax to craft a sleek terror tale.
It’s John Williams’s iconic score; it’s Bill Butler’s camera, capturing all the majesty and the terror, but never too much of the shark; it’s Spielberg’s cinematic eye. The film’s second pivotal threesome works, together with very fine performances, to mine for a primal terror of the unknown, of the natural order of predator and prey.
Jaws is the high water mark for animal terror. Likely it always will be.
It’s a line brimming with innocence and temptation, filled with the possibilities of good versus evil, predator v prey. It’s a nice start to a crime drama steeped in surreal, Miltonesque imagery.
Along with a good line, Horns boasts quite a fantasy/horror pedigree. Helmed by French horror director Alexandre Aja (High Tension), written by Stephen King’s son Joe Hill, and starring Harry F. Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), it’s sure to draw the attention of – let’s be honest – nerds. Like me. The beguiling if flawed effort can’t quite become greater than the sum of its parts, though. But it is a wild ride while it lasts.
Ig Perrish (Radcliffe) is commonly believed by his community to have murdered his much-beloved girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple). It’s a bit like Gone Girl, except that Ig’s crisis is compounded by the fact that he’s begun sprouting bony horns from his forehead. More than that, in the presence of the be-horned Ig, people compulsively confess their dark secrets.
Overripe imagery and symbolism inform a film that is comfortably over-the-top. It’s a glorious mess riddled with stiff dialog, and so tonally discordant – leaping from thriller to comedy to horror to mystery and back – that the effect is dizzying. Yet somehow Horns is utterly watchable.
Much credit for the film’s successes sits with Radcliffe, who seems utterly at home in a supernatural environment full of demons, tragedy, angst and earnestness. Temple also strikes the right innocent nymphette cord, and the young cast of the childhood flashback is especially strong.
The storyline itself carries the unmistakable odor of Stephen King, with the small town crime and flashback to the innocence of youth and the many untold dangers therein (Stand By Me, It, etc.) But King Senior never dove headlong into such blasphemous territory, while his son toys with recasting Satan, if not as hero, then as anti-hero.
Aja struggles gleefully to strike the right tone, and though his cast seems game, no one can quite overcome the symbolism gimmicks or stilted dialog.
Dense with color and texture, Horns invites you into a wild, often poorly acted and weakly written yet sumptuously filmed world of dark magic. It’s a fascinating mess.
The seminal film about teen angst and high school carnage has to be Brian De Palma’s 1976 landmark adaptation of Stephen King’s first full length novel, the tale of an unpopular teenager who marks the arrival of her period by suddenly embracing her psychic powers.
Sure, the film opens like a ‘70s soft core porno, with images created by a director who has clearly never been in a girls’ locker room and therefore chose to depict the one in his dirty, dirty mind. But as soon as the bloody stream punctures the dreamlike shower sequence, we witness the definitive moment in Mean Girl Cinema. The “plug it up” refrain, coupled with Sissy Spacek’s authentic, even animalistic portrayal of panic, sets a tone for the film. Whatever Carrie may do, we (the voyeurs, no doubt more like the normal kids than like Carrie) are to blame.
This film exposes a panic about the onslaught of womanhood. The same panic informs The Exorcist and dozens of others, but De Palma’s version offers more sympathy than most. King’s tale may link menstruation with female power and destruction, but De Palma mines the story for an underdog tale that more foreshadows Columbine than Jennifer’s Body.
Spacek is the perfect balance of freckle-faced vulnerability and awed vengeance. Her simpleton characterization would have been overdone were it not for Piper Laurie’s glorious, evil zeal as her religious nutjob mother. It’s easy to believe this particular mother could have successfully smothered a daughter into Carrie’s stupor.
Senior prom doesn’t go as well as it might have for poor Carrie White or her classmates. Contrite Sue Snell (Amy Irving) – who’d given up her own prom so her boyfriend Tommy (William Katt and his awe inspiring ‘fro) could take Carrie – sneaks in to witness her own good deed. Unfortunately for Sue, the strict rules of horror cinema demand that outcasts remain outcasts. Sure, Sue shouldn’t have been mean to Carrie in the first place, but being nice was the big mistake. Only bad things would follow.
De Palma and screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen wisely streamline King’s meandering finale. From the prom sequence onward, De Palma commits to the genre, giving us teen carnage followed by the profoundly upsetting family horror, finished with one of cinema’s best “gotcha” moments.
The last time Stephen King wrote a screenplay the results were, to be polite, disappointing. The film was Sleepwalkers and to be impolite, it sucked out loud.
But hey, that was 22 years ago, so let’s forget about the past and focus on how much better his latest screenwriting project turned out. With A Good Marriage, King expands his own short story into an intimate, no frills feature built on love, secrets, sex and murder.
Anthony LaPaglia and Joan Allen are Bob and Darcy, a longtime couple who are still plenty hot for each other, and who have the type of marriage others point to as being ideal.
The situation around their New Hampshire home is a bit more troubling. There is a serial killer in the area, and though news reports of the latest victim dominate the evening news, Bob and Darcy have family matters to attend to.
Their daughter’s wedding is at hand, and after the happy day, Bob leaves on a business trip. Alone in their big house, Darcy is tackling some household errands when she happens upon a secret stash of evidence that undoubtedly links her loving husband to a very dangerous double life.
From there, King and director Peter Askin have some fun with the thriller genre, leaving you unsure just how much of Darcy’s life with her now-suspicious husband is really happening. As you might expect, the two veteran leads take full advantage, with Allen especially delivering a rich performance that effortlessly swings between domestic bliss and survivalist cunning.
Scene-stealing honors go to Stephen Lang(Avatar) as an old-time detective tracking the killer. King gives him some juicy dialogue, and his scenes with Allen display a delicious back and forth tinged with a darkly comical mutual admiration.
In fact, it’s a shame A Good Marriage doesn’t explore its wickedly humorous edges more completely. It could have beefed up a story that’s stretched thin at times, and ridden three fine performances to even higher ground.
Back in ’76, Brian De Palma brought Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie, to the screen and a terrifying vision of persecution and comeuppance emerged. But that was almost twenty five years before Columbine, and the image of the bullied and confused wreaking bloody revenge at a high school has taken on a different tenor.
That’s no doubt why King’s tale made its way to television in 2002 with a fresh take on the horror. But things in high school have changed again, and the story of Carrie White takes on particular tragedy in a wired time where another innocent high school girl takes her life almost weekly due to bullying. Perhaps that’s what drew filmmaker Kimberly Pierce, whose Boys Don’t Cry also outlines the tragedy that befalls a young woman violently unaccepted for who she is.
In Pierce’s hands, Carrie offers more stripped down drama – none of the scenery chewing of the De Palma original. There’s no humor to be found in the reboot, but realistic performances and updated context give the film enough bite to keep you watching.
Chloe Grace Moretz takes on lead duties as the youngster whose first monthly flow triggers all manner of havoc, from the most unconscionable bullying to telekentic powers. Oh, and her mom tries to kill her. So, not the blessing those Health Ed books try to tell us it is.
Moretz has a big prom dress to fill, and though she has always been a reliable talent, her turn here is unconvincing. Sissy Spacek truly was that innocent, a girl so repressed by her religious mother that she had no conscious knowledge of appropriate social behavior. Moretz is a cute, shy girl the mean kids dislike. It’s not the same.
The always exquisite Julianne Moore actually has an even larger task cut out for her. The role of Margaret White is a juicy one. Even the TV version drew the great Patricia Clarkson to the project. And Moore is characteristically strong, clearly defining the role in a terrifying yet almost sympathetic way. But she’s no Piper Laurie.
Laurie brought such vitality and insanity to the role that the prom became almost secondary, and her chemistry with Spacek was eerily perfect.
The updated context casts a truly saddening shadow over the film, making a major thematic adjustment without even trying. Stephen King wrote a story about hysteria over the dawning of womanhood. But today, the story carries an even darker message. Carrie is a cautionary tale about sending your kids to high school.