Category: stephen king

Oscars and Monsters and Poor Career Choices

The Revenant (2015): adapted by Alejandro Inarritu and Mark L. Smith from the novel by Michael Punke; directed by Alejandro Inarritu; starring Leonardo DiCaprio (Hugh Glass); Tom Hardy (John Fitzgerald); and Domhnall Gleason (Captain Henry): Set in early 19th-century Montana and South Dakota, The Revenant is an odyssey of survival and revenge for guide Hugh Glass, played almost silently by Leonardo DiCaprio in a role that won him his first Best Actor Oscar

There’s nothing wrong with that acting — boy, does Glass suffer, and boy is he covered in filth and wounds for most of the movie! Alejandro Inarritu won his second straight directorial Oscar (the first was for the previous year’s Birdman), and he certainly puts on a grimy, Sublime, haunting show of photography. Vaguely based on a true story, The Revenant is the Western as horror movie with more than a hint of a Republic serial re-imagined as being deadly serious yet, through the sheer accumulation of unfortunate events, almost comic as it reaches its end. 

Glass is a Beckett character, crawling through the muck, transforming into the vengeful ‘dead’ man of the title. Tom Hardy has never been better as pragmatic trapper Fitzgerald, Glass’ nemesis in the movie (though not in real life). Some trimming might have helped — by the time Glass and the horse go over a cliff, my suspension of disbelief had been exhausted. Recommended.

The Thing (1982): adapted by Bill Lancaster from the novella “Who Goes There?” (1938) by John W. Campbell Jr.; directed by John Carpenter; starring Kurt Russell (MacReady); Wilford Brimley (Blair), Keith David (Childs), Richard Dysart (Copper), and Donald Moffat (Garry): Alien (1979) was a great screech of cosmic horror mingled with body horror in the best Lovecraftian tradition. The Thing is its thematic sequel, taking fears of bodily invasion and transformation and making them even more horrifying and goopy. 

The Thing was adapted previously by Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks in the 1950’s as a sort-of Cold War paranoia thriller with an evil carrot rather than an evil, well, disease. This version is truer to John W. Campbell Jr.’s 1938 novella in terms of location (Antarctica, not the Arctic of the 1950’s version) and monster (a body-invading, endlessly replicating Thing rather than a vampiric, Frankensteinian Creature). The Hawks film was much truer to the character dynamics of Campbell’s novella, where manly, competent men met a terrible threat with overwhelming, intelligent, manly camaraderie.

Here, our heroes are fractious as per the model of the Nostromo’s crew in Alien. Given that the Thing could be any one of them (or even all of them — it’s just that invasive!), their paranoia is understandable. But they still team up to battle an alien invasion. One of the things that makes The Thing stand out even more now is the lack of references to the characters’ lives outside Antarctica: one imagines that, remade today, there would have to be some motivations assigned to the characters for their resistance to the invasion. 

Because people don’t do things in NuHollywood unless there’s a wife or child involved. This lack of ‘personal motivation’ makes The Thing bracing in my estimation — the men are trying to save the world with no possible hope of rescue or survival. And even the most grumpy among them realize the scope of the Thing’s danger and set to work. It’s almost like people can do things for the common good without specific personal motivation!

The actors (what a cast!) are great, the creature effects still chilling and awful, the scenery still Sublime, the whole thing still rousing and disturbing. What’s weird is that The Thing is hopeful about humanity in a way few horror movies allow themselves to be. But avoid the dopey 2011 prequel! Highly recommended.

Misery (1990): adapted by William Goldman from the novel by Stephen King; directed by Rob Reiner; starring Kathy Bates (Annie Wilkes); James Caan (Paul Sheldon); Richard Farnsworth (Sheriff Buster), Frances Sternhagen (Deputy Virginia), and Lauren Bacall (Paul’s Agent): Kathy Bates deservedly won a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Annie Wilkes, self-proclaimed “number-one fan” of historical romance writer Paul Sheldon. And James Caan is really good as Sheldon in a role that confines him to bed and wheelchair for much of Misery‘s running time. 

This is one of a handful of the sharpest adaptations of a novel by Stephen King, alternately funny and horrifying in a way that replicates King’s prose. King signed off on Rob Reiner directing after the success of Reiner’s previous King adaptation, Stand by Me, the movie from the novella that gave a name to Reiner’s production company (Castle Rock). William Goldman and Rob Reiner tone down some of the novel’s more gruesomely baroque moments (bye-bye lawnmower!), but there’s still lots of body horror to go around. Bates’ Wilkes is a menacing but at times oddly sympathetic character — it seems at times that she’s fully aware of what a monster she is. Highly recommended.

Sisters (2015): written by Paula Pell; directed by Jason Moore; starring Tina Fey (Kate Ellis) and Amy Poehler (Maura Ellis): What a dreadful movie, dreadfully wasting a talented cast in a misbegotten attempt to put smart comic actors Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in a raunchy attempt to duplicate a Judd Apatow film. Or maybe Seth Rogen’s Neighbours. It’s awful. An immensely talented cast is awful. The writing is awful. The desperate mugging and improvising by the cast is awful. There are laughs scattered throughout, but it’s agony to reach them. Possibly the worst ‘major’ movie of 2015. Not recommended.

Gods of Egypt (2016): written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless; directed by Alex Proyas; starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Horus); Brenton Thwaites (Bek); Elodie Yung (Hathor); Bryan Brown (Osiris); Chadwick Boseman (Thoth); Gerard Butler (Set); and Geoffrey Rush (Ra): That none of the major characters are played by Egyptian, Persian, or Arabic actors stirred something of a media firestorm. The moviemakers may have welcomed this — Gods of Egypt wasn’t going to get any buzz for actually being good. What the Hell happened to Alex (The Crow, Dark City) Proyas in the last 15 years? Great Osiris! 

The set design and CGI are the most interesting things in this movie which, like Disney’s Aladdin, riffs without credit on those two old Thief of Baghdad movies by centering its story on a thief (Bek) who gets caught up in wacky supernatural adventures. The cast keeps a straight face. They should get awards for that. Not the worst big-budget, CGI spectacular ever made — its dopiness is pretty much in line with about a hundred other gods-and-monsters movies from the 1960’s and 1950’s. 

The movie would be much more interesting if the Egyptian gods all had their animal heads for the entire running time rather than just when they’re fighting. And given that the gods have gold running through their veins (and I assume arteries), what’s their body temperature? For reasons unexplained, the great serpent Apophis looks an awful lot like a Dune sandworm on steroids, marking the sandworm’s second unlikely cameo in an 18-month period (the first being in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies). Lightly recommended.

Churchill’s Secret (2016): adapted by Stewart Harcourt from the novel by Jonathan Smith; directed by Charles Sturridge; starring Michael Gambon (Winston Churchill), Romola Garai (Nurse Millie Appleyard); and Lindsay Duncan (Clemmie Churchill): Prime Minister Winston Churchill suffered at least two debilitating strokes in June 1953, two years after being re-elected in 1951. The public didn’t know this until decades later, as it was covered up. This partially fictional film details Churchill’s recovery, with the narrative focused through a fictional nurse who cares for Churchill at his ancestral estate while he convalesces. It’s a typically fine BBC/PBS production with beautifully modulated performances throughout, most notably by Romola Garai as the fictional Nurse Appleyard and Michael Gambon as Churchill.  Churchill’s warts — especially his problematic family life — are on full display, though the entire effort really serves to humanize him. Recommended.

The Magnificent Seven (1960): adapted from the Akira Kurosawa film Seven Samurai by William Roberts; directed by John Sturges; starring Yul Brynner (Chris); Eli Wallach (Calvera); Steve McQueen (Tanner); Horst Buchholz (Chico); Charles Bronson (O’Reilly); Robert Vaughn (Lee); Brad Dexter (Harry); James Coburn (Britt); Vladimir Sokoloff (Old Man); and Rosendo Monteros (Petra): By my count, this is the second major Hollywood MetaWestern (after Shane). That is, what seems like an elegy for the vanishing American West of the late 19th century — so vanishing that most of the action takes place in Mexico! — is also an elegy for the American Western movie. In 1960, Westerns were well on their way out. The Magnificent Seven celebrates their strengths while also pointing the way towards the relatively brief renaissance of the grittier, grimier, more morally ambiguous Spaghetti Western that would soon rise and then quickly fade.

These are still the clean-cut cowboys of the 1940’s and 1950’s Western. But the early scenes that introduce protagonists Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner focus on how these two gunslingers really have nowhere to go in the increasingly civilized American West — the only job available for McQueen in the American border town at the start of the movie is as a grocery clerk. When three Mexicans from a village annually looted by bandido Calvera and his men meet with Brynner to offer him money to solve the Calvera problem, Brynner accepts. And has little problem rounding up the other six members of his merry band.

The rest, as they say, is movie history. There’s almost no blood or gore in the film. However, Sturges stages the deaths of those Magnificent Seven who don’t survive the final battle with Calvera in various, almost mournfully abject ways, never moreso than with one gunslinger who collapses into an upright fetal position against a wall. It’s not that much of a cinematic leap from The Magnificent Seven to the more graphic and downbeat The Wild Bunch, set even later in the Western period and offering a continuation and an amplification of this movie’s elegaic qualities while also offering a revisionist take on Western morals (and clothing styles).

This is a fine movie — stylistically still very much a last gasp of classical Hollywood cinema. The cast does lovely work, from Brynner and McQueen as the greatest of the enlisted gunslingers to Horst Buchholz as a young gunfighter from Mexican heritage. The musical score by Elmer Bernstein is also pivotal. This is the rare remake of a foreign film (Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai) that works beautifully on its own. Highly recommended.

Foul Play (1978): written and directed by Colin Higgins; starring Goldie Hawn (Gloria Mundy); Chevy Chase (Tony); Burgess Meredith (Hennessey); Brian Dennehy (Fergie); Dudley Moore (Stanley Tibbetts); and Billy Barty (MacKuen): Foul Play‘s writer-director Colin Higgins also wrote Silver Streak and Harold and Maude, and was writer-director of 9 to 5. That’s a pretty solid resume for Higgins, who died at the age of 47 in 1988. And Foul Play is still a lot of fun. Foul Play was slightly retooled to be a star vehicle for both Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase, the latter coming off his single, hyper-popular-break-out year on Saturday Night Live. I’m pretty sure Chase’s pratfalls in this movie were written for him. 

The movie itself is quite charming, though there are a couple of jarring bits of violence amidst the goofball stuff. And there are Hitchcock homages galore. Burgess Meredith slathers it on a bit too thickly as Hawn’s lovable Irish neighbour. Billy Barty and Dudley Moore have terrific supporting roles (this was Moore’s American movie debut), with Moore’s work pretty much getting him 10 and Arthur. I still think Dan Brown stole the Albino in The DaVinci Code from this film. I mean, there’s even a papal assassination plot and an anti-Catholic organization in this movie! And Billy Barty! Goldie Hawn is super-cute. Chevy Chase is Chevy Chase. Recommended.

Ghosts, Ghosts, Witches, Gremlins

Scrooge (aka A Christmas Carol): adapted by Noel Langley from the novella by Charles Dickens; directed by Brian Desmond Hurst; starring Alastair Sim (Ebenezer Scrooge), Mervyn Johns (Bob Cratchit), Michael Hordern (Jacob Marley), Francis De Wolff (Spirit of Christmas Present), and Michael Dolan (Spirit of Christmas Past) (1951): The 1951 version of Charles Dickens’ venerable holiday novella remains the gold standard, though I wish CBC would stop showing the colourized version on Christmas Eve. 

It has a real sense of horror about it, never moreso than in the scene in which the Spirit of Christmas Past shows Ebenezer Scrooge that all around people swarm the ghosts of those damned to impotently try to help people because in life they failed to help people. This is Hell. It’s also great because Alastair Sim is great. He’s convincingly angry and shriveled at the beginning, and he’s convincingly nutty at the end after his reformation. His giddiness suggests a sort of ecstasy that initially terrifies his housekeeper, in one of the funniest scenes in any Scrooge movie. Highly recommended.

Dolores Claiborne: adapted by Tony Gilroy from the novel by Stephen King; directed by Taylor Hackford; starring Kathy Bates (Dolores Clairborne/St. George), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Selena St. George), Judy Parfitt (Vera Donovan), Christopher Plummer (Det. Mackey), David Strathairn (Joe St. George), and John C. Reilly (Constable Stamshaw) (1995): Little Tall Island off the coast of Maine supplies the setting for this terrific character study, acted terrifically and generally directed and adapted successfully from Stephen King’s novel. 

While the direction and screenwriting are solid if a bit programmatic, the performances by Kathy Bates, Christopher Plummer, David Strathairn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Judy Parfitt should have netted the film a host of acting Oscar nominations. It’s a Stephen King adaptation that merits the sort of robust second life that The Shawshank Redemption received after its theatrical release. It’s also the most affectingly feminist of all King adaptations, the one most attuned to the casual humiliations of patriarchy. Nova Scotia plays Maine, btw. Highly recommended.

The Witches: adapted by Allan Scott from the book by Roald Dahl; directed by Nicolas Roeg; starring Anjelica Huston (Grand High Witch), Mai Zetterling (Helga Eveshim), Jasen Fisher (Luke Eveshim), and Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Stringer) (1990): Dark children’s movie made from an even darker Roald Dahl novel. Orphaned Luke and his grandmother must battle the Grand High Witch and all the witches of Great Britain in order to save the children of Great Britain from a terrible fate. The Jim Henson studio puppetry and animatronics are terrific. 

Anjelica Huston is comically terrifying as the Grand High Witch, while Jasen Fisher makes for an appealing and heroic boy hero. The movie is gratifyingly horrifying, though a tacked-on ending that isn’t in the book really needed at least a couple of lines of set-up: it’s perilously close to a concluding title card that reads ‘Poochie Died on the Way Back to His Home Planet.” And yes — that Nicolas Roeg!  Recommended.

Gremlins: written by Chris Columbus; directed by Joe Dante; starring Zach Galligan (Billy), Phoebe Cates (Kate), Hoyt Axton (Randall Peltzer), Keye Luke (Mr. Wing), and Polly Holliday (Mrs. Deagle) (1984): Gremlins is a blissfully nasty critique of capitalism, the commercialization of the American Christmas, ‘small-town values,’ and the American family in general. That it was a huge box-office success in 1984 seem remarkable, though having Steven Spielberg’s name attached to it didn’t hurt. He did produce it, after all, through his newly formed Amblin Entertainment.

But boy, does the small town of Kingston Falls ever get dismantled literally and figuratively! When Zach Galligan’s Billy gets the mysterious creature known as a Mogwai from his generally absent, incompetent inventor of a father (Hoyt Axton), he names it Gizmo and then pretty much ignores the three warnings about what one must never do with a Mogwai. 

His casual attitude leads to a small-town apocalypse that is, admittedly, really his father’s fault more than his: the Mogwai wasn’t actually for sale from Keye Luke’s mysterious shop owner. The shop owner’s grandson’s need to make some money off a Hoyt Axton desperate for a unique gift for his son to compensate for his lengthy absences from home — whew! — sets the whole disaster in motion.

And so it goes as all Hell breaks loose after an initially idyllic beginning with the lovable Gizmo, voiced by a cooing Howie Mandel. Once the army of Gremlins is unleashed, Christmas is ruined. Really, really ruined. Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates make for an appealing pair of leads, but it’s the real-world special effects of the Gremlins and the Mogwai that dominate the movie. They’re marvels from creature creator Chris Walas and his studio. 

The script from a young Chris Columbus is sharp and nasty (indeed, it was rewritten by Spielberg and company to tone it down). Joe Dante’s direction has a real sense of anarchic menace throughout, though he’s also very good at the quiet, slightly askew Norman Rockwell world of the movie’s first act, a ‘happy’ small-town mask that’s already slipping off as the movie begins to reveal the shiny happy skull beneath the skin. The mohawk on the chief evil Gremlin is one of a long string of signalling evil through a haircut generally favoured by harmless punk rockers and their fans at the time the film came out. Oh, culture! Recommended.

Adam Raised A Cain

Frailty: written by Brent Hanley; directed by Bill Paxton; starring Bill Paxton (Dad), Matthew McConaughey (Meiks), Powers Boothe (Agent Doyle), Matt O’Leary (Young Fenton), Jeremy Sumpter (Young Adam), and Derk Cheetwood (Agent Hull) (2001): Bill Paxton’s feature-length directorial debut should have resulted in more directorial opportunities. Set in a small town in Paxton’s home state of Texas, Frailty is easily one of the ten best horror films of the last twenty years. It also features Matthew McConaughey in his finest acting performance prior to the recent McConnaissance. 

But even with praise before its release from Stephen King, James Cameron, and Sam Raimi, Frailty never got the audience it deserved (and still merits). This is a genuinely great work of very specifically American horror, with that American-ness expressed in everything from the details of small-town Texas life to the peculiarly literal-mindedness of American fundamentalist Christianity.

McConaughey narrates events to FBI agent Powers Boothe in the (then) present day in order to explain the identity and origin of a serial killer dubbed “God’s Hand” who has murdered six people over the past few years. The bulk of the movie occurs in 1979, as McConaughey explains the role he, his brother, and his father play in the history of God’s Hand.

McConaughey’s widower father, a small-town auto mechanic, rushes into the boys’ shared room one night to tell them that one of God’s angels has appeared to him in a vision. The Apocalypse is close at hand, and Paxton and his sons have been drafted into the war. Paxton is to find three magical items and, having found them, await another vision that will tell him what to do next.

What comes next is a list of demons Paxton has to destroy (not kill but ‘destroy’). But the demons live among humanity and look like people. However, as Paxton has been given their names and the ability to not only see them for what they are but to also see the atrocities they’ve committed, he can track them down and destroy them. And Paxton’s character is convinced that his sons will also gain the ability to see the demons, as God’s plan also involves the boys carrying on this new family business.

So clearly Paxton’s character is a loon. And the revelation of the magical items — a pair of work-gloves, an ax, and a length of pipe — doesn’t make him seem any more believable. One son believes him from the beginning; however, McConaughey tells us in the narration, he himself never believed his father, and would eventually either have to find the courage to stop his father’s string of murders or at least run away.

Paxton’s direction isn’t showy, as befits the tone of the material: this is a tale of the normative surface of things under which, in men’s minds, swim terrible creatures in dangerous depths. The actual killings are never shown in all their bloody detail; Paxton leaves it to the mind of the viewer to imagine what’s happening just outside the frame. There’s a verisimilitude to Paxton’s depiction of the day-to-day lives of this strange family, a lived-in, working-class aesthetic to the way things look.

Everything would fail, however, without the performances of Matt O’Leary and Jeremy Sumpter as the two boys in 1979. Paxton gets terrific, believable performances from both of them. They anchor the movie. They also present the two sides of the mental conflict going on: one is convincing as a True Believer who loves his father, while the other is equally convincing as a horrified child who also loves his father, and thus finds it difficult to act against him at first. 

In the frame narration, McConaughey delivers a subdued, haunted performance, without a glimmer of that RomCom smarm that derailed his career for more than a decade. And as the initially skeptical FBI agent, Powers Boothe also shines. McConaughey’s detailed story gradually convinces Boothe’s character about the reality of the identity of the God’s Hand killer, leading to a strangely convincing conclusion that’s been carefully and fairly set up by everything that’s been shown and told to us.

In all, this is a great movie of horror and madness and the bonds of family. While much of the film plays out with growing, horrific inevitability, Frailty also presents some startling surprises, including a scene of awful pathos involving the family and the arrival of the town sheriff at the one boy’s request. Brent Hanley’s script is terrific, and there’s an attention to period detail that makes 1979 seem like 1979. Highly recommended.


A Book of Horrors (2011), edited by Stephen Jones, containing the following stories, all original to this volume:

  • A Child’s Problem by Reggie Oliver: Brilliant English ghost story in the tradition of M.R. James, with a neat extrapolation from a real painting and real-world historical events during the Victorian era.
  • Alice Through the Plastic Sheet by Robert Shearman: An increasingly surreal and perhaps a bit overlong tale of some very bad neighbours.
  • Charcloth, Firesteel and Flint by Caitlin R. Kiernan: Almost a vignette or mood piece of a woman who’s drawn to fires.
  • Getting It Wrong by Ramsey Campbell: Black comedy about trivia contests and a lonely, misanthropic movie buff.
  • Ghosts with Teeth by Peter Crowther: Enjoyable piece overstuffed with increasingly omnipotent ghosts. The flash-forward at the beginning negates much of the suspense.
  • Last Words by Richard Christian Matheson: Short gross-out. Maybe it’s supposed to be profound.
  • Near Zennor by Elizabeth Hand: Absolutely brilliant, muted piece that sends a widower on a voyage into rural England in search of answers about a part of his wife’s childhood that he was unaware of until she’d died. Both a lovely character study and a detailed, slowly building work of quiet but unmistakeable horror.
  • Roots And All by Brian Hodge: The Wendigo vs. Breaking Bad: The Road to Victory.
  • Sad, Dark Thing by Michael Marshall Smith: Sad, moving story of loss and depression.
  • Tell Me I’ll See You Again by Dennis Etchison: Typically excellent, under-stated, odd story from one of a handful of the greatest American horror writers of the last fifty years.
  • The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter by Angela Slatter: An interesting, unpleasant bit of dark fantasy set in an alternate world, or perhaps yet another world of The New Weird.
  • The Little Green God of Agony by Stephen King: The supernatural elements are a complete dud; the sections on physical rehab after a horrifying accident are excellent: this would be a lot better as a non-supernatural story.
  • The Man in the Ditch by Lisa Tuttle: Some very nice M.R. James-like supernatural events in a story that really lacks the sympathetic characters that can carry this sort of thing.
  • The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer by John Ajvide Lindqvist: Disturbing tale with some fascinating, Sweden-specific supernatural elements from the writer of Let the Right One In is also Lindqvist’s first story written expressly for English-language publication.

Overall, this is a top-notch, all-original horror anthology. None of the stories are terrible, and several (Reggie Oliver’s and Elizabeth Hand’s entries, to name two) are absolutely top-notch all-timers. Highly recommended.