The Bottom Shelf
Not long ago, your humble movie janitor was vacationing at the Von Doviak ancestral manse on the rockbound coast of Maine, enjoying a much-needed respite between screenings of Bratz: The Movie and Mr. Bean’s Holiday. Some friends were coming up from Boston for the weekend to enjoy a lobster picnic, and after leaving the interstate, they called to get directions to my remote locale.
“We’re being chased by a killer dog, a possessed car, a pack of vampires and an evil clown. Are we close?”
Yes, despite our renowned potatoes, breathtaking vistas and unassuming nickname (“Vacationland,”) my home state’s, er, main claim to fame is Stephen King, the author of fifteen squabillion novels of horror and suspense. In his books, King has shown us time and again that beneath the quaint exterior of small-town New England lurks a shadowy underworld of telekinetic teens, zombified pets and perhaps even Satan himself. And why not? Cape Cod is far too touristy for the Prince of Darkness these days.
King’s supernatural shockers have always been a natural match for the big (and small) screen, but all too often it’s been a match made in hell. For every cult classic or critical favorite like Carrie and The Shining, there are a dozen Children of the Corns. (I exaggerate, of course. There are actually only seven Children of the Corns, including Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror and the immortal Children of the Corn 666: Isaac’s Return.) This is without question Bottom Shelf territory, so what better subject for the “Places” issue than my home state, as seen in movies based on the work of America’s favorite horrormeister?
Maine hasn’t always fared badly in Stephen King adaptations; in fact, the early ones tended to ignore the author’s preferred locale altogether. The Shining was set in Colorado; Carrie could have taken place in Anytown, U.S.A.; and even one of King’s more personal efforts, Stand by Me, was transplanted to the Pacific Northwest by director Rob Reiner for no particularly good reason. (That Reiner would go on to name his production company Castle Rock, after King’s favorite fictional Maine town, almost reeks of penance.)
As King amassed more Hollywood clout, however, he was able to throw his home state a little more business. As a condition of selling the screen rights to Pet Sematary, he insisted that the production be shot in Maine. As it happens, director Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation was largely filmed within a few miles of my own hometown. It’s hard for me to attach too much nostalgic value to the resulting movie, however, since most of the action is confined to two farmhouses on a remote stretch of road. Aside from a few brief glimpses of picturesque Frenchman’s Bay, it could be rural Arkansas for all the downeast flavor Lambert wrings out of the location.
The story, adapted by King himself, concerns Dr. Louis Creed (played by the almost surreally bland Dale
Midkiff), who has moved to the area with his young family to take a job at the nearby university. The Creeds’ only neighbor is overall-clad Jud Crandall (ex-Munster Fred Gwynn, boasting an impeccable Pepperidge Farm accent), an old salt who warns them about the steady stream of 18-wheelers that turns their otherwise quiet road into a Frogger-style hazard. When Creed family cat Church is run down by a big rig while Louis’s wife Rachel (Denise Crosby) and kids Ellie and Gage are out of town, Jud shares a local secret with the newbie. The recipe for Pepperidge Farm Black & White Milano cookies? Alas, no. It’s the hidden Micmac burial ground in the woods, where pets go when they die and return from a few hours later with smellier fur and nastier dispositions. When the cat comes back the very next day, Louis asks Jud the inevitable question: “Has anyone ever buried a person up there?”
Louis answers that query himself when toddler Gage is sent ass over teakettle by yet another truck, this one driven by a Ramones-crooning mullethead. (The Ramones also contributed the movie’s theme song, featuring the catchy chorus “I don’t want to be buried/In the Pet Sematary/I don’t want to live my life again/Oh no.”) The perpetually inexpressive Louis buries his son’s improbably intact corpse in the cursed ground, and the boy soon returns as a pint-sized killing machine reminiscent of Chucky the Child’s Play doll.
Pet Sematary is an admittedly crude yet effectively creepy page-turner, but Lambert’s movie is a plodding, lifeless dud devoid of killer instinct. King’s insistence on shooting in Maine may have provided a brief boost to the local economy, but the resulting drab visuals don’t exactly scream “Vacationland.” So much for the tourism bureau’s planned “Come for the delicious seafood, stay for the Indian burial ground” campaign.
A more typical picture postcard view of the Pine Tree State can be found in Needful Things, adapted from one of the gassier tomes in the King oeuvre. The so-called “last Castle Rock story” is a bloated Twilight Zone riff about a devilish shopkeeper who turns the townspeople against each other by supplying them with their hearts’ desires. Former son of God and demon exorcist Max Von Sydow plays against type as Needful Things proprietor Leland Gaunt, purveyor of antiques and curios.
Mr. Gaunt will be happy to sell you that rare baseball card or magical arthritis-curing necklace, if only you will agree to do a deed in return. Such deeds include but are not limited to: throwing rocks at a neighbor’s windows; skinning a neighbor’s dog; and pasting citations for “embezzlement,” “fraud” and “cornholing your mother” all over a neighbor’s house. In each case, a longstanding grudge or unresolved dispute will result in the offended party blaming the wrong neighbor for the deed, such misunderstandings inevitably escalating into violence. Before long, the entire town is in chaos, and it’s up to Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Ed Harris) to save Castle Rock from destroying itself.
Since this is, after all, the last Castle Rock story, you can’t like his chances. Especially since Gaunt can’t resist dropping coy hints that he just might be Ol’ Scratch in the flesh. (At least, subtle quips like “You’ve been having a devil of a time” or “I have a tendency to turn up the heat” tend to support this reading, although with all of Hell at his disposal, you’d think Satan could enlist a better gag writer.) Much of the town goes up in flames, but while Castle Rock may have a long, rich history on the page, director Fraser (son of Charlton) Heston’s filmed version of Needful Things exists in a vacuum. Readers of the book could amuse themselves by charting the connections to
other King works — “Hey! It’s Ace Merrill from The Body! And isn’t that the bandstand from The Dead Zone?” — and perhaps the accumulation of these references supplied some weight to the apocalyptic events that transpire, but little or none of this makes its way into the movie.
Instead, the Castle Rock of Needful Things is a town that could only have been imagined by someone who once glanced through a glossy Maine wall calendar. It’s all colorful autumn leaves drifting past white-columned porches and swooping helicopter shots of waves crashing upon rocky shores illuminated by lighthouse beacons. There’s nothing about the place that feels lived-in, which is a problem since the story springs from long-simmering resentments boiling over in a tight-knit community. Few of the characters seem to be occupying the same planet, let alone the same small town. (As usual, Amanda Plummer makes her contributions from somewhere in the vicinity of Pluto.) Don’t even get me started on the kid in the Yankees cap who kicks off the action by dealing for a Mickey Mantle baseball card, an egregiously counter-intuitive revision that must have left lifelong Red Sox fan King choking on his popcorn.
Having dispensed with Castle Rock, let’s continue our little road trip through Stephen King’s state of mind with a pit-stop in Derry, the author’s fictionalized version of his hometown of Bangor. This is the setting of It, another butterball of a novel which became an ABC miniseries — pardon me, ABC Novel for Television — in 1990. The two-night event was equal parts Stand by Me and The Big
Chill, both movies I think we can all agree could only be improved with the addition of a malevolent supernatural clown. The story centers on the same group of characters in two different time periods: schoolmates in 1960, adults reuniting in 1990. As younguns, the self-proclaimed Losers are outcasts who band together for survival against not only the town bullies, but Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Tim Curry). Only the kiddies can see this terrifying balloon-wielding harlequin, who leads his victims into the sewers beneath Derry and devours them. He’s sort of a magical, shape-shifting John Wayne Gacy, with better dance moves.
When Pennywise kills his younger brother George, Bill Denbrough leads the rest of the Losers down into the sewers to do battle with the evil clown. They emerge victorious, but their triumph is a temporary one. Thirty years later, the Losers have all grown up to become successful and famous, not to mention instantly recognizable to regular TV viewers. Bill is John-Boy Walton in a dorky ponytail, and among his old friends are Venus Flytrap, Jack Tripper and the wacky judge from Night Court. When they finally get back together, it’s like a team reunion from an early-’80s edition of The Battle of the Network Stars.
There’s little time for grooving to ’60s favorites before the adult Losers must once again descend into the bowels of the city for a final showdown with their old nemesis. At the time It initially aired, many viewers were disappointed with the climactic scene in which the embodiment of evil is revealed to be a rickety stop-motion spider. Watching it again for this column, I actually found the low-tech monster to be sort of endearing, considering that our contemporary creature features all seem to be computer-rendered down to the last curly hair on King Kong’s nutsack.
Still, the cheesy effects work is emblematic of the limitations intrinsic to the network miniseries format. Curry has his creepy moments, but overall this is a homogenized horrorshow, drained of blood and guts and all too ready for prime-time. In cooking a kilo of pages down to a tidy four hours (including commercials), director Tommy Lee Wallace neglected to make the city of Derry itself an important ingredient. All jokes about its girth aside, the novel It is built on a firm foundation; anyone familiar with Bangor will recognize landmarks like the Paul Bunyan statue, and echoes of the city’s history, such as the ripped-from-the-headlines gay-bashing that opens the book. The miniseries substitutes a pedestrian, white-picket-fence burg of indeterminate size, contours and personality. The only attempt at local color is the inclusion of a cop who chirps blarney phrases like “For the luvva Mike!” in a lilting Irish accent. If this is the best they could do, it’s just as well they didn’t bother.
Despite these shortcomings, It was the beginning of a long marriage between author and network, spawning multi-night adaptations of The Stand, Tommyknockers and an ill-advised re-do of The Shining, among others. In 1999, King took ABC’s “novel for television” designation to heart and bypassed the book-writin’ altogether with Storm of the Century, penned specifically for the small screen. For better and for worse, it’s probably the most accurate translation of King’s voice from page to screen — even though there is, in this case, no actual page.
On the “for worse” side of the ledger, Storm offers the full array of familiar King tics: the folksy, cornball humor, the repetition of sing-song catchphrases (“born in sin, come on in”), and characters with the irritating habit of calling each other by their full names (“That’s about enough out of you, Robbie Beals!” “Don’t you be sassing me, Ursula Godsoe!”) It also shares the author’s tendency towards bloat; no one who skipped the middle segment of this three-night affair would find it terribly difficult to fill in the gaps.
The plot is basically one long delaying tactic. A mysterious stranger named Linoge arrives on Little Tall Island in advance of a powerful winter storm and commits a seemingly random murder. Town constable Mike Anderson (Tim Daly) locks him up, but Linoge’s powers extend beyond the bars of his cell in back of the general store. He knows all the dark secrets of the townspeople and shares with Leland Gaunt of Needful Things the ability to turn them against one another. “Give me what I want and I’ll go away,” he vows, over and over again. If not, he will bring down a cataclysm that will wipe out every resident of Little Tall Island. So what does he want? This is the question that’s meant to hold our attention for the first five hours, even though the townspeople themselves don’t seem to be in any hurry to find out. What if he simply wants some waffles? The whole matter could be cleared up rather quickly, but it is not until the third night that we learn his demands. It’s a credit to King’s storytelling abilities that the answer is almost worth the wait.
Linoge (you Jumble players have already deduced that his name is Legion) demands a child to carry on his legacy, and a twist on Shirley Jackson’s lottery is held to determine which one will be sacrificed to save the rest. Only the square-jawed constable protests, and ends up paying the biggest price. The diabolical final act of Storm finds King doing what he does best, using the supernatural to amplify domestic and community dramas. Here he flips over the stoic New England platitude (“We’ve always stood together on the island”) to reveal the bitter reality hidden beneath (“Better you than me, buddy”).
Few of the accents in Storm are convincing, but the overall production is more than decent, as Southwest Harbor, ME exteriors blend more or less seamlessly with Toronto stage work. Director Craig R. Baxley and his team are at their best integrating the weather as a prominent character (as it always is during the Maine winter), using icy blue filters and generous helpings of soap flakes, packing peanuts and other snow substitutes.
As several references to the title character make clear, Storm shares its setting with Dolores Claiborne, King’s experimental stab at writing in the female first person. Essentially one long monologue by a surly housekeeper attempting to explain the violent death of her wealthy employer, the novel is easily one of King’s least cinematic offerings. Taylor Hackford’s 1995 adaptation of Claiborne is clunky and overlong, but it’s perhaps the most successful realization of the Maine landscape — both physical and mental — to reach the screen. When Dolores (Kathy Bates) is accused of murdering mean old Vera Donovan, her estranged daughter Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh), now a New York journalist, returns to the island to aid her mother’s defense against Detective John Mackey (Christopher Plummer). Selena is reluctant to do so, as she and Mackey are both convinced Dolores murdered her husband (and Selena’s father) Joe some 20 years earlier.
As we learn through flashbacks, Joe (David Strathairn) was an abusive drunk with an unseemly interest in his daughter. Dolores arranged for him to fall down a well during a solar eclipse because, as Vera Donovan insists, “Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold onto.” A crude brand of feminism to be sure, but in this case, a highly effective one. The bulk of the movie is a two-woman show about the reconciliation of mother and daughter, but it’s the stuff around the edges that’s more pertinent here.
Strathairn totally nails a particular Maine type, possessed of a stony meanness brought on by hard work, little money, boredom and drink; his resentful sneer of an accent is pitch-perfect. (Embarrassingly enough, Leigh is another recognizable type that hits your faithful movie janitor where he lives: the artsy kid who can’t wait to flee the state and start posing as a pale, black-clad urbanite. I’m over it now.)
In its detailing of the housekeeper’s relationship with her boss “from away,” Dolores Claiborne hints at the thorny relationship between Maine natives and the summer people — the rich folks who invade for a few months, clog up the roads, dump some cash into the local coffers, and vanish with the fall foliage. Claiborne shows us the world they leave behind: a frigid gray landscape of isolation, all barren trees and boarded-up houses. It’s the flipside of Vacationland, and it has a lot to do with the taciturn demeanor and dry, bleak humor (often directed at those summer people) so often associated with the Maine character. In the dead of winter, when the sun goes down in mid-afternoon and the harbor fog creeps in, it’s easy to think that Stephen King could have come from nowhere else. It’s a world you won’t find on advertising brochures, but it’s there in his books. The same can rarely be said for the movies they spawn.