THE DEAD ZONE (1983)
****/**** Image C Sound A
starring Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Tom Skerritt, Herbert Lom
screenplay by Jeffrey Boam, based on the novel by Stephen King
directed by David Cronenberg
by Walter Chaw Michael Kamen's score for The Dead Zone sounds so much like Howard Shore's work that if I didn't know better... Maybe something about Cronenberg inspires doomed Romanticism in his collaborators. What's sometimes lost in the focus on body-horror in his pictures is how like opera they are--so like opera, in fact, that The Fly was eventually turned into one. Each is in some way about the loss of the self to love and all those elevated metaphors for love like body transformation, breakdown, decay, death. He is a poet of liebestraum. His films are suffused with it, as well as--here's another German term for you--overwhelming waves of Weltschmerz. The Dead Zone was the first Cronenberg feature since 1979's Fast Company not scored by Shore; the two would never be separated again. In a CINEFANTASTIQUE article published at the time of The Dead Zone's release (1983), Cronenberg tells of producer Dino De Laurentiis desiring a "name" composer and discarding Shore before landing on Kamen, then fresh off Alan Parker's Pink Floyd: The Wall. I don't think Cronenberg gave up that kind of control again. The Dead Zone is an adaptation of a Stephen King bestseller and home to one of only a handful of lead roles for Christopher Walken, who's idol-handsome but, you know, off-tempo. A curious affliction for a trained, gifted hoofer, you'll agree. I used to refer to Cronenberg as an insect anthropologist, an alien observer, and that's true, I think. But as I grow older and, minute-by-minute, devastation-upon-devastation, immensely, geometrically wearier, I'm seeing Cronenberg as afflicted by a certain Proustian lost time. The more I know of grief, the more I hear that edge in Cronenberg's voice echoed in my own.
I read The Dead Zone not long after my first exposure to King in elementary school. Fifth grade. The prettiest girl in our school, Colleen Harrison, was reading Night Shift and so, naturally, I begged my parents to take me to the bookstore, looking for the same thing. King is a genius, it goes without saying, but a particular one. He can write people in a way so compulsively, intimately organic that there are times his prose isn't much like reading at all. The Dead Zone was maybe the saddest book I'd ever read. The plight of hero Johnny, stricken lame like a Greek seer but given the "gift" of second sight as recompense, became for me the framework for a life lived in thrall to a larger storyline in which I wasn't the hero but the cosmic punchline to a cruel, serially tragic joke. Like Johnny, I was doomed to know things, and, like Johnny, I was doomed to be alone with my knowledge. It hasn't worked out that way, not exactly, but my loneliness seems a terminal affliction, a hole in me I can't ever seem to patch. I rented the movie version a few years after its release and marked the differences (Johnny Smith, played by Walken, has his dalliance with his lost love, Sarah (Brooke Adams), in a barn loft, not his father's house; the Castle Rock Killer doesn't kill himself with a pair of scissors to the soft palate--that's a moment that's 100% undilute Crony), but noted the extraordinary precision with which Cronenberg nailed its oppressive anhedonia.
His next film, The Fly, I saw in theatres as an illicit dare but then rented to distraction before finally acquiring a shelf-worn VHS copy of my own. I recorded its dialogue on a couple of cassette tapes and listened to them every day on the way to school and back. I memorized the entire film. It taught me about love. The Dead Zone is about a small-town schoolteacher, Johnny, who's in love with another schoolteacher, the aforementioned Sarah. One night, after getting a little woozy with her on a rollercoaster, he drives home in the rain and gets into a terrible accident. It's important to note that Johnny, on this evening of his initial "death," declines to have sex with Sarah for the first time despite her invitation to stay over, and that the amusement park they visit appears to be on its final run before shutting down for the winter. Johnny wakes five years later to discover his girl married to another, his mother descended into religious mania, and his life throttled in its cradle. Johnny is regret. The Dead Zone is regret. Johnny's gift is a kind of concentrated sonder: he is fated to know the unknowable complexities of everyone else's lives as he, himself, is emptied of his own. Every time he uses his "gift," Johnny observes, "it feels like I'm dying inside." The more he knows the world, the more the world punishes him for his knowledge of it. Watch the little smile Johnny gives when his doctor, Wiezak (Herbert Lom), tells him that his constant headaches might be indicative of a progressive complication: "You mean I'm gonna die? How long?" He's glad, you see. He's glad.
Edgar Allan Poe wrote about his "The Raven" in an essay called "The Philosophy of Composition." He talks about how melancholy is the purest of emotions because it exists as a reaction to beauty's temporariness. I mention this not merely because Cronenberg gets it, but also because "The Raven" is the poem Johnny's teaching as the film opens and then again when he takes a job as a private tutor for young Chris (Simon Craig), whom he saves from drowning in what will prove to be the penultimate use of his power. Canvassing for mad Senatorial candidate Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), Sarah, by chance, comes to the door while Johnny is teaching. (I used to like to imagine "The West Wing" as the realization of Stillson's dream of becoming President and that the series would end with the manifestation of Johnny's vision of Stillson starting a nuclear war.) Sarah's appearance is manifold in its cruelty. Johnny meets his "rival," Sarah's husband (Barry Flatman), the couple representing his stolen chance at happiness. Moreover, she's campaigning for someone we know is a monster. When they leave, Johnny slumps against the door and cries. He hugs Chris in a moment of forgetfulness. In so doing, he sees Chris's preventable death. The connection between Johnny's heartsickness and his gift is inextricable. Indeed, his gift is his heartsickness. He is a superhero whose superpower is triggered by knowing that he is physically untouchable and, in his omniscience, ironically unknowable. Wisdom is pain.
The arc of The Dead Zone is a fairy tale. The sad thing that happens to the happy couple; the hero who sleeps, awakened and burdened by his difference; the call to action; the confrontation with the beast; the martyr's death. It's not a fable, because there isn't a moral--just warnings and wisdom. These few lines from William Blake's "Auguries of Innocence" sum it up:
Some are Born to sweet delight
Some are Born to Endless Night
We are led to Believe a Lie
When we see not Thro the Eye
Johnny is born to Endless Night. The happiness available in this life is not his--his lot is but to facilitate the happiness of others. There's no "happy" ending for Johnny beyond dying for the happiness of others. He only saves this terrible world because he understands by the end that this is his function in it. He is Moses. He can see the Promised Land; he just can't enter it. Johnny's first vision is of a child caught in a burning house. "Go home," he tells his terrified young nurse (Chapelle Jaffe), "your house is on fire and your child is all alone." It's a nursery rhyme, of course, and later, Johnny is seen teaching a young girl to read "Sleeping Beauty"--another tale of a long sleep, a change, and a curse. After closing the book on "The Raven" (the story of a man who, having lost his one true love, asks an insensate beast that has learned just one awful word if he'll ever see her again), Johnny assigns "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" to his class. In that one, something terrible happens to a teacher on his way home one night. Johnny never gets to teach that lesson plan, but he does get to live it. The Dead Zone is a fairy tale as well in the naive sense of the term: When Stillson's followers see him as a venal lunatic, they reject him instead of buoying him on a wave of ignorance and hate into the most powerful post in the country and then celebrating as he destroys our institutions, our sense of society, our every notion of self-respect and hope. The world is a much darker place than the bleak emotional hellscapes of The Dead Zone, and I'm not sure, in the end, that it's worth saving.
There's a scene early in the film when a press conference with Johnny becomes contentious and some asshole challenges him to "see" something in the reporter's life. Johnny, roused, asks if the guy would like to know why the reporter's sister killed herself. In Night Shift, King wrote a beautiful story called "The Last Rung on the Ladder," about a man who can't save his sister from killing herself. I wonder if this is what's being referenced here, though it doesn't have to be. I don't know why others kill themselves, of course, but I know I want to kill myself because it feels like I'm in thrall to an epic, melancholy storyline where I am not, you know, the hero--where I might be the villain, and maybe you don't know that, but you will. The Dead Zone hits me hard. All of Cronenberg's films hit me hard. He has a way with doom and the profitless accumulation of wisdom. In a crowded field, he is our most religious filmmaker, erecting churches of the new flesh; of the plasma spring from which one must drink deep to know thyself; of the gods that marry flesh to metal like Anne Sexton's lonely masturbator marries herself to her bed. Every creation is the product of some species of love. Although I have always loved The Dead Zone, I've seen it perhaps as an anomaly in Cronenberg's propulsive sermon. Revisiting it in 2020 reveals its place high among Cronenberg's run of masterpieces. It's the bleakest American folklore from an artist obsessed with these tales of our collective mutation: devolution for some, transcendence for others. The last line of the film is "I love you." The price of Johnny's happiness is death. The reward for it is our lives and others'.
God Appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in Night
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day
We get to live, but only if we kill the best things in us. I get it now.
STEPHEN KING'S SILVER BULLET (1985)
***/**** Image B+ Sound A-
starring Gary Busey, Everett McGill, Corey Haim, Megan Follows
screenplay by Stephen King, based on his novelette Cycle of the Werewolf
directed by Daniel Attias
by Bill Chambers The one thing indisputably missing from Stephen King's Silver Bullet (hereafter Silver Bullet), which Stephen King adapted for the screen from his "novelette" Cycle of the Werewolf, is some kind of cinematic equivalent to Bernie Wrightson's colourfully baroque illustrations. Daniel Attias, a television journeyman directing his first and only feature to date, was effectively handed an instruction manual and a skilled DP (Armando Nannuzzi) who had previously worked with Luchino Visconti and Sergei Bondarchuk, but as the saying goes: you can't make 'em drink. Consequently, the material shed its EC Comics vibe on its way to the screen, though it recouped some of that loss via King's embellishments to his original story, particularly his upgrading of the central character's manual wheelchair to a motorized one--a gas-powered contraption imbued with a whiff of Christine's psychosexual charisma. Actually, young Marty Coslaw (Corey Haim) drives two motorbike/wheelchairs in the film, Bullet and its muscle-bound sequel, Silver Bullet, and as a wheelchair kid in the '80s, 10 when the picture came out, I coveted both. My chair in those days emitted a high-pitched squeal in motion, spilled battery acid on steep inclines, and performed poorly on any terrain that wasn't in the linoleum family. The surprise was seeing abled classmates of mine drool over Marty's custom rides as well--they had, in their preposterous unconventionality, impressed upon my peers something I could not: that a wheelchair liberates rather than confines the user. (The movie stops short of playing "Born to Be Wild" when Marty takes to the road in the Silver Bullet for the first time, but you can hear it in the subtext.) That Silver Bullet was a sadistically violent werewolf flick only multiplied its credibility as an arbiter of cool.
Still, the script could've been better--and maybe at one point was. Phantasm creator Don Coscarelli almost directed it; in his chummy memoir True Indie: Life and Death in Filmmaking, Coscarelli says that cheeseball mogul Dino De Laurentiis rejected his attempt at adapting Cycle of the Werewolf but that King himself addressed the screenplay's issues brilliantly in a document De Laurentiis promptly chucked over his shoulder. ("He had just been handed a gift from the greatest writer of our generation," Coscarelli notes wryly, "and was happy to trash it.") Coscarelli was unceremoniously dropped from the project, and he suspects that De Laurentiis's schlocky instincts kept the film from reaching its full potential, even though King wound up writing the script himself. (Coscarelli, for instance, wanted to keep the werewolf offscreen as long as possible, Jaws-style, while De Laurentiis believed in giving the people what they came for without beating around the bush.*) There is a lot in the film that feels curiously vestigial, as if certain zigs were later zagged without due consideration for the road already paved. While the decision to have Marty's 15-year-old sister Jane (Megan Follows) narrate the film as an elderly-sounding woman despite Silver Bullet taking place less than a decade before its year of release (1985) is bizarre enough, there is something elegiac in her tone. When Adult Jane (voiced by Tovah Feldshuh) says, "I couldn't always say it but I can say it now: I love you, Marty" over the final fade-out, she seems to be addressing the departed (and to be fair, the premature death of Corey Haim does steal this sign-off a bit of poignancy), but Marty is all smiles at movie's end and hardly destined for the mortuary.
Maybe he was slated to be the werewolf's last victim and the filmmakers got cold feet. Or maybe we're supposed to believe Marty died in the interim because that's just what disabled kids do to realize their tragic purpose. It annoys me that Marty didn't record the voice-over for his own story; it "others" him far more than the character's (uniquely honourable) depiction. Marty's a bright, resourceful young man who appears to be well-liked by his peers and has an able-bodied girlfriend, Tammy (Heather Simmons), he escorts home from school. He's not a saint--he's introduced playing a mean prank on Jane--and he's not a martyr. When he pulls up to a gas station, he patiently puts up with the attendant's wisecracks about checking under the hood; there will be a lifetime of dad jokes from guys like this ("You're gonna get a speeding ticket!" is the one I heard most frequently, whether or not I was going fast), whom I suspect overlap with men who tell women to smile on the Venn diagram of seasoned kibitzers. Most importantly, Marty isn't morbid, although the film can't resist the de rigueur moment where he watches kids play baseball and the camera imposes pathos on his P.O.V. by focusing on their legs. Understand, as a kid I identified with everyone from Ralphie in A Christmas Story to the Explorers trio. I was, after all, merely another middle-class suburban white boy who watched too much TV. But it was extremely gratifying to see myself represented more literally in a genre movie, especially one that didn't target me for harassment come Monday morning. (Looking at you, Mac and Me.)
Silver Bullet is, for the most part, pure escapism. For the most part. Much as King can't resist that "woe is me, stuck in a chair" business, a sop to an audience bound to feel reassured by this glimmer of self-pity, he also relents to having Marty's mother kvetch to her booze-swillin', broads-lovin', possibly unemployable brother Red (Gary Busey) that she fears Marty will one day "give up," whatever that means, without better role models than Red. It's an incongruous spiel, again what writers write to placate the morose view normies have of anyone in a wheelchair--something Coscarelli himself falls prey to in his autobiography, using words like "doomed" to describe his perception of Marty. On the other hand, I can't deny I've come to enjoy scenes like this for their voyeuristic frisson, their Tom Sawyer funeral quality; there was an episode of the cancelled ABC series "Speechless" where the family of the disabled JJ meets in private to discuss what will become of him in the event of the parents' death that made me realize my mother and father probably had this conversation with my brothers behind my back, too. Similarly, I recognize the unmalicious burden Marty's special needs place on Jane as his de facto caretaker--exacerbated by an unequal regard for Jane's well-being at the parental level--and empathize with both of them. I love it when Marty gives her money for the pantyhose he helped ruin; and I love that she gives him change.
King largely eschews disability commentary, though--a wise tactic, given his propensity to stereotype (see: just about any Black or mentally challenged character in the Stephen King canon). Marty is an Amblin-ready hero, a precursor to the latchkey adventurers of "Stranger Things" for whom a path is cleared of quotidian obstacles. He gets to participate in a car chase, complete with that classic contrivance, the faulty starter. It's glorious. Disabled protags doing Joseph Campbell shit is the sort of thing that should've been normalized in the '80s--when even R-rated cinema, like Silver Bullet, made a decisive shift towards catering to adolescents (and adolescence)--to jam the capitalist meat grinder before its appetite for the oppressed became insatiable. As a self-professed "Monster Kid," I truly could not have asked for something more my speed than Silver Bullet, in which Marty takes on the werewolf of Tarkers Mill, ME, whose human alter ego, as Gene Siskel lamented, is telegraphed early on, but whose confused agenda is worth an essay by itself. Since I don't know how to do this without revealing the werewolf's identity, the spoiler-phobic should check out now: the Reverend Lowe (the great Everett McGill, who absolutely savours the name "Marty") knows he turns into a werewolf and does his pious best to make lemons out of lemonade by, say, tearing a pregnant woman to shreds before she can damn her soul via suicide--the very reason Lowe refuses to take his own life, incidentally. This does not, alas, explain why, well before he and Marty are on each other's radar, he kills Marty's best friend Brady (Joe Wright), or Tammy's father (who's ableist in the way that white-trash cannon fodder in King's work is typically racist or sexist), which results in her leaving town. It's as if murdering Marty's social life were a holy crusade in itself to remove Marty from polite society; is the Reverend Lowe by any chance Calvinist?
Silver Bullet has more than its fair share of silliness--it's the movie that gives the werewolf a supplemental baseball bat, the hat-on-a-hattest thing you will ever see. The local barflies decide to avenge Brady's death, the werewolf snares them in a Scooby-Doo-esque fog trap, and the ensuing massacre seems to send barely a ripple through Tarkers Mill, save a cheeky cut to a row of coffins in a church that turns out to be part of Reverend Lowe's guilty nightmare. Carlo Rimbaldi's werewolf design is disappointing on the heels of The Howling and An American Werewolf in London (it does indeed resemble "Smokey the Bear with a terrible hangover," per Vincent Canby), though a bigger issue for me is the anticlimactic climax, with Marty, Jane, and Red--the three little pigs--defending their fortress but never moving beyond the living room. Earlier in the film, Marty rides a stairlift--do something with that. From the name "Coslaw" on down, Roger Ebert found the whole thing very funny, and on "At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert" he speculated that it's a satire, pulling an old critic's trick of giving a picture too much credit in order to own it. For what it's worth, I've been watching a lot of "Siskel & Ebert" lately (my Proustian pandemic indulgence), and if they have a blind spot it's for genre fare in general, specifically where the appeal may be rooted in representation. (Siskel lists "The child's ailment is exploited" among the reasons to avoid Silver Bullet--to paraphrase Moonrise Kingdom: Gene, I love you, but you don't know what the fuck you're talking about.) They didn't see the point of Gary Sherman's rad Lisa, to cite a later example, when the point of Lisa is that 14-year-old girls were getting left behind in the horror boom. Bottom line? Silver Bullet delivers some fine set-pieces--Marty's face-off against Lowe on a rickety covered bridge is so riveting that it's almost a shame McGill ever transforms into something else--and is, on balance, the best of the self-scripted Stephen King adaptations.
Originally published April 17, 2019:
PET SEMATARY (1989)
**½/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B
starring Dale Midkiff, Fred Gwynne, Denise Crosby, Brad Greenquist
screenplay by Stephen King, based on his novel
directed by Mary Lambert
"Machado would have traded every word, every poem, every verse he ever wrote for one more hour with his beloved. And that is because when it comes to grief, the normal rules of exchange do not apply, because grief transcends value. A man would give entire nations to lift grief off his heart, and yet you cannot buy anything with grief. Because grief is worthless."
-Jefe (Rubén Blades), The Counselor
by Bill Chambers A VICE UK review of the recent Happy Death Day 2U came in for a shellacking on social media because of a click-baity tweet suggesting it was the "first" slasher movie about grief, a claim that only demonstrated a lack of expertise while making a sacrificial lamb of Happy Death Day 2U (which scarcely benefited from the bad-faith attention). Neither the headline nor the subheader of the review itself is as boldly specious, but there in the body of the piece is this: "Christopher Landon's latest, Happy Death Day 2U[,] might be the first slasher that actually centers on dealing with grief." (The headline--"'Happy Death Day 2U' Is More About Grief Than Horror"--nevertheless bothers me, too, incidentally: grief is horror.) So often accused of cynicism because they're formulated to maximize a body count, slashers are engineered to comment on the capricious nature of existence, and the best ones seize on this to acknowledge the toll of loss on the survivors (Black Christmas (1974), Rob Zombie's Halloween II)--while even the most mediocre ones tend to have a killer motivated by a deep and incurable sorrow (see: The Toolbox Murders (1978), the first Friday the 13th).
That's not to say that adolescent viewers don't thrill to the blood and tits or take dark pleasure in the ritualized murders of people who could be their peers, but those who carry these films into adulthood with them cherish the pathos at their core. They evolve into hang-out movies with a funereal bent, facilitating a vicarious response to the tragedies one accumulates in life. They're about endless death; grief would be a difficult subject to avoid! If we sometimes find ourselves imposing it on the text, well, that still says something significant about the genre. Even giving the writer of that review, George Griffiths, the benefit of the doubt by making "actually centers on" the crux of his argument, 1989's Pet Sematary decisively refutes it. Indeed, what makes Pet Sematary unique among slashers is that grief itself is the villain. Once the hero learns of a cursed place that can resurrect the dead, grief does nothing less than taunt him.
Now comes the semantic debate about the term "slasher," I suppose, but when a movie's players queue up to meet untimely ends, sometimes at the edge of a surgical blade, it' s a slasher by any other name. Granted, Pet Sematary is short on that sense of commiseration I spoke of, and this is doubly true of Stephen King's novel, the utter nihilism of which came as a shock to its own author, who tried to, well, bury it, until contractual obligations forced his hand. King had written it to exorcise his fears of being unable to keep his children out of harm's way, but all he really did is sharpen them to high-definition. Child death following animal death is a lot to unload on the human psyche, and if you're masochistic enough to be revisiting the material, whether in book or movie form, you're going into it with a feeling of low-key dread that never abates.
The film, though (that is to say, the 1989 film, directed by music-video auteur Mary Lambert), doesn't leave the grungy psychic residue the book does, in spite of having been adapted by King himself. Or maybe because it was adapted by King himself, whose film and TV career has largely proved that screenwriting and prose are different disciplines. King inevitably streamlines the material, and some of his alterations are savvy in principle but have their own unforeseen side effects. When I finally got around to reading Pet Sematary a few years ago, I found King the screenwriter's decision to jettison Norma Crandall from the narrative to be a wise one: her husband, Jud, is more intriguing as a mischievous loner. That being said, because King gives Norma's conversation-spurring death to the Creeds' new housekeeper (Susan Blommaert), Creed matriarch Rachel's no-show at the funeral looks even wimpier than when she demurred from paying her last respects to a maternal figure and elderly neighbour with whom she'd grown quite close. I'm not sure the character ever recovers, especially since, as embodied by Denise Crosby, she seems to have few winning qualities besides, and remembers laughing hysterically after her meningitis-afflicted sister Zelda choked to death while Rachel was feeding her. Ah, Zelda--now there's something that should have been left on the page. King is not great with disability (although the hero of his Silver Bullet, tearin' shit up in a gas-powered wheelchair, buys him a lot of credit with me), but at least when you read about one of his freaks of nature it's usually through the abstraction of another character's perspective. On screen, subjectivity vanishes, and a Zelda, or a Moonlight Man from Gerald's Game, becomes an ableist sideshow. To make matters worse, to maximize her uncanniness a man (actor Andrew Hubatsek) played Zelda, adding a soupçon of transphobia to an already fetid stew.
Then there's the character of Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist), an accident victim who tries to help the protagonists from the Great Beyond in gratitude for Dr. Louis Creed's alleged efforts to save his life--which are so truncated in the film (and apparently in the current remake) that Pascow's motives become inscrutable, if not suspect. Indeed, he sort of leads Rachel to her doom, though in her Pet Sematary audio commentary Lambert says she sees him as the "good" angel to Jud's "bad." (Why are they both angels?) Mostly, he feels like a supernatural hat on a supernatural hat. As with Zelda, King probably clung to this rhetorical device of an all-seeing ghost for its visceral qualities. (Pascow's a rotting corpse with an exposed brain.) Not all his literary conceits are so fortunate, but one that he drops--the constant quoting of "Hey ho, let's go!" from The Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop" as Louis really begins to lose it--Lambert fascinatingly picked up, hiring The Ramones, who were friends of hers (allegedly vouching for Lambert in the eyes of King, who had director-approval and was a big fan of the band), to write and perform the movie's closing theme, preserving their role as the patron saints of Pet Sematary. Instantly iconic in that Ramones way, the song's underlying genius is that it identifies with the deceased. While most of the lyrics are of the "Monster Mash," Halloween-jam variety ("Ancient goblins and warlords/come out of the ground, not making a sound"), the chorus--"I don't want to be buried/in a pet sematary/I don't want to live my life/again"--can keep you up at night with the starkness of its pessimism. Exactly like King's book. The Ramones get Pet Sematary.
Lambert, who replaced George Romero (no stranger to the undead, he) after a production delay, gets Pet Sematary, too. She made the Ramones connection. She insisted on casting Fred Gwynne as Jud in what is merely a perfect marriage of actor and role, and her faith that toddler Miko Hughes would have some savant-like ability to play out the arc of young, doomed, and eventually demonic Gage Creed was entirely justified. She captures the autumnal chill that seeps out of the pages of the novel and into the reader's skin. Alas, Lambert's up against not just a notoriously tin-eared screenwriter who's fearful, nay, contemptuous of his own material, but also the crass commercialism of a studio regime that put out a Friday the 13th sequel every year and changed the ending of Fatal Attraction to turn Glenn Close into a garden-variety psychopath. And, I think, she's up against her own inexperience (she'd made only one feature before this, the bizarre, kinky Siesta)--she doesn't have the tools to rescue a truly wretched lead performance from itself, nor the film from it. The mind's-eye vision of Louis Creed does resemble actor Dale Midkiff, to be fair; if this were one of Lambert's wordless music videos, his generic-everyman aesthetics would more than suffice. Unfortunately, Midkiff has to talk, and an actor with the emotional range of celery is tasked with portraying the many shades of fatherhood and matrimony, from joy to bemusement to, of course, aching despair.
I struggle to imagine The Ramones playing in Midkiff's head during the homestretch like the book's hero. There's no rock-'n'-roll in him, certainly no punk. Midkiff's line-readings are impossibly synthetic, practically disembodied. On those rare occasions he turns up the volume, like when he transforms tossing-and-turning into an Olympic sport, it's bewildering. (Lambert, again in her yak-track, notes that this scene, of all scenes, nearly spelled curtains for Midkiff.) One of the dominant themes of the book--introduced in its opening lines, as Walter Chaw says in his review of Pet Sematary 2019 (see below)--is that Louis "never expected to find a father as he entered his middle age, but that was exactly what happened" the instant he met Jud. Midkiff is either uninterested in or incapable of playing this card, and in fact his stiff, stilted manner effectively rebuffs Gwynne's paternal overtures, introducing a sour note into this adaptation as Jud is denied a reciprocal surrogate son. Still, their scenes together are the movie's best. Crosby, who did decent work in 48Hrs. and Miracle Mile, seems to be doing what women have done since time immemorial, i.e., lowering herself to a man's standards to minimize his embarrassment, whereas Gwynne neutralizes all his co-stars' shortcomings with his generosity of spirit. Drawing on hand-rolled cigarettes in blue overalls (a sartorial echo of little Gage's yellow ones, yoking the two in an unspoken way as only cinema could), pouring his buttery baritone on King's corn pone dialogue in a pitch-perfect Maine accent, Gwynne is Jud incarnate, though this isn't glorified cosplay. The part fit him like a glove--or, as he told Lambert, like a pair of overalls, possibly because he identified with Jud's deceptive intelligence as a man of letters better known to the world as Herman Munster. Too, they share a folksy charm of the sort that got Gwynne hired as an Arby's pitchman in the mid-'80s.
But Gwynne was a consummate performer, and there's a regionality to the character that rings true, sometimes painfully so, regardless of whether it had any personal resonance for Gwynne. I love that Louis is always trailing behind Jud on their perilous hike to the burial ground, barely able to keep pace with that famous New England gait of the older man. I love the slight stoop of his head, as if the weight of the community's sordid past is draped across his neck like an animal carcass. I love his ghoulishness--you see it in a lot of lifelong residents of a place who enjoy the novelty of exploring metaphysical planes. Mostly, however, I love Gwynne's majestic face, those soulful baby blues and those deep-groove smile lines; when Lambert cuts to a closeup of anyone else, it's as though she's working around some flaw, but when she cuts to a closeup of Gwynne, it's to drink in his integrity and gravitas. (He's the subject of her lone Spielbergian push-in.) While I used to believe that Midkiff was a good reason to remake Pet Sematary, I've come around to the idea that Gwynne was a better reason to leave it alone. There's a moment that is excerpted and discussed in one of the Pet Sematary Blu-ray's special features--the tragic irony of Louis having to murder his own son after wishing him back to life--that is very powerful in isolation (even Midkiff nails it), yet the reductiveness of King's script and the cumulative weightlessness of Midkiff's characterization trivialize this bleak crescendo in context. Instead, it's the premature loss of Gwynne that inspires the cathartic response one seeks, perhaps unfairly, from a Pet Sematary movie, and its intensity is not to be underestimated.
STEPHEN KING'S THE STAND (1994)
*/**** Image A- Sound B- Extras B
starring Gary Sinise, Molly Ringwald, Jamey Sheridan, Rob Lowe
teleplay by Stephen King, based on his book
directed by Mick Garris
by Bill Chambers It's a stretch to call Stephen King's The Stand--or his The Dead Zone, for that matter--prescient, since there will always be new viruses (and lone-wolf presidential assassins) to contend with, but both the novel and the 1994 miniseries made from it undoubtedly take on added resonance during a real-life pandemic. The early scenes of this four-episode/6-hour adaptation from Sleepwalkers director Mick Garris, the Arthur Hiller to King's Paddy Chayefsky, are quite triggering in 2020. They show how one infected person becomes 10 becomes 100 and on and on. We see the military spread disinformation, debates about the utility of masks, people partying in abject denial. The tongue-in-cheek use of Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper" over a main-titles montage of dead lab techs is no longer mordantly funny (if indeed it ever was)--just grim. It gnaws at that cherry pit in your conscience that Republicans are born without. Given that we're currently living a version of Stephen King's The Stand (hereafter The Stand), I'm sure King could see the forest for the trees a little better were he to write it today. It doesn't seem to have occurred to him to check in with the President, although he based the villain's M.O.--exploiting the partisan divide to amass a following of reprobates--on Nixon, a.k.a. Trump 1.0.
While the first instalment, the one with bona fide albeit uncredited movie stars (Ed Harris! Kathy Bates!), is clearly where the money went, The Stand never does transcend that early-'90s ABC patina I associate with The Bedford Falls Company ("thirtysomething", "My So-Called Life") to fulfil King's apocalyptic vision. It's not even Irwin Allen. Still, it's because The Stand kinda works initially that the rest has come to feel like a special betrayal, a profoundly unserious Tolkien riff that soon reveals the superflu responsible for the extinction of 99% of the population at the outset to be a mere deus ex machina that intervenes again and again, mainly in the form of dreams that propel the immune survivors towards either the supernaturally good Mother Abigail (Ruby Dee) or the supernaturally evil Randall Flagg (Jamey Sheridan). The idea of cult leaders filling civic vacuums is a promising one, but King's vision of the next Reconstruction is at once more grandiose and more drably binary than that, pitting faith against technology, Boulder against Vegas, God against the Devil. Whatever gnarly prog-rock appeal this held for me in high school, when conflicts are established before they're justified, rings hollow now. The Stand finds King crystallizing his archetypes (the gang's all here: Magic Negroes, Magic "Feebs," Incels) and shuffling them around on a human chessboard to masturbatory effect. He has admitted that he struggled with the characters' "complacency," leading him to blow up half the cast midway through, but what King is really resisting is an organic response to death and suffering on a mass scale. As Wendy's pitchwoman Clara Peller might say, "Where's the grief?"
The Stand was King's first doorstop, clocking in at 800 pages--the maximum number Doubleday's printing press could handle at the time. (In 1990, Doubleday republished it in an 1152-page hardcover restoring cuts forced on King's original manuscript.) When it was established that King could sell tickets as well as books, it fell to Hollywood to figure out how to adapt his fatter tomes without butchering them, and the solution was the once-popular miniseries format. The first and best of these long-form telefilms was Tobe Hooper's Salem's Lot: the source material's "Peyton Place" energy thrived on the small screen, and Hooper's knack for deceptively graphic horror imagery didn't feel like a compromise. Things went downhill fast, with The Stand following Tommy Lee Wallace's skin-deep It and John Power's abysmal The Tommyknockers. The problem was that network TV could shoulder the burden of the novels' length but not their content, too nasty in the case of It, too unruly in the case of The Tommyknockers, and too monumental in the case of The Stand, which first George A. Romero and then John Boorman had laboured to turn into a feature film. The latter would've starred Robert Duvall as Randall Flagg.
The Stand suffers from a lack of scale; virtually every facet of the production suggests not the best, but "the best we could do." Most of the casting appears to have been accomplished by catching free-falling actors--Molly Ringwald, Rob Lowe, Parker Lewis--in a net and assigning them parts like it's junior-high Shakespeare. There's hardly a whiff of gravitas between them, not because they're bad performers, per se, but because they're chafing in roles that aren't tailored to their strengths--although Ringwald does spend the first instalment reliving the father-daughter dynamic from Pretty in Pink and is once again saddled with a Duckie. (The real exceptions are Gary Sinise, who brings the same sturdiness and quiet authority to the blue-collar Stu that made his John Steinbeck heroes so distinctive, and a heavily made-up Dee, who almost manages to make sense of Mother Abigail's inexplicable detour into self-flagellation.) If the upcoming streaming version of The Stand, directed by Josh Boone (late of The New Mutants), has nowhere to go but up, the ideal method of adaptation would still be to airbrush it on the side of a van.
Originally published April 5, 2019:
PET SEMATARY (2019)
*½/**** Image A- Sound A Extras A-
starring Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, Jeté Laurence, John Lithgow
screenplay by Jeff Buhler, based on the novel by Stephen King
directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. The best adaptations understand the totality of an author's work, while the worst try to drag something kicking and screaming from one medium into another, largely incompatible, medium. The famous Frank Zappa quote--writing about music is like dancing about architecture--applies, except that it is possible to dance about architecture if you're a brilliant dancer and understand the essence of the architecture you're taking as inspiration. I think Zappa knew that, being Zappa. I like to believe he actually meant that it's possible, but hard. Stephen King's Pet Sematary is exceptional. I reread it for the first time in thirty-three years before watching the new adaptation from co-directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer. I remember, as a child of thirteen, the visceral fear of those last twenty pages or so (and the hot sex scene); now I'll remember it for the extraordinarily observant and sensitive portrayal of grief and loneliness in the novel's first couple-hundred pages. Indeed, the first sentence, talking about how men sometimes meet the man who should have been their father in the middle of their lives, immediately reduced me to tears. Both the Lambert and the Kölsch/Widmyer adaptations focus on the twenty-page payoff, not the two-hundred pages of poetry.
Still, Mary Lambert's affectionately-remembered 1989 film does a slightly better job of humanizing its characters--enough to forgive in the rearview its otherwise mortal pacing, performance, and script issues. Fred Gwynne's folksy, warm, manifold take on next-door neighbour Jud Crandall is one of the '80s great mentor characters, something John Lithgow in this iteration never really has a chance to match. What Kölsch/Widmyer's picture lacks is a single relationship that registers as loving or complicated. No one really acts like a person in this Pet Sematary, just pieces moved around perfunctorily by the impersonal needs of a clockwork plot mechanism. Late in the game, a major character leaves for no coherent reason, then returns for no coherent reason aside from the film thinking it needs her to do so--but it doesn't. Worse, because not enough has been done to humanize anyone, there aren't any stakes to anyone's position in the narrative. She didn't need to leave, she doesn't need to come back, and the script's inability to explain either action illustrates the corner into which the film's painted itself. If there aren't people in trouble, who cares what happens to them?
Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) is a university doctor who has moved his family to rural Maine for some hazy reason. His long-suffering wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz--just so, so good), stays at home with daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and toddler Gage (twins Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) while dealing with some post-traumatic stress over the childhood death of her big sister, Zelda (Alyssa Levine). Between this and Mike Flanagan's "The Haunting of Hill House", it's been a bad run for dumbwaiters as Rachel, whenever something bad happens, thinks she hears her family's ancient food elevator cranking up. It's a pretty effective gag, but that's all it is. When the family cat Church gets creamed on the deadly road in front of their new place, neighbour Jud (Lithgow) shows Louis a secret burial ground where everything laid to rest comes back to life. The book references W.W. Jacobs's "The Monkey's Paw" often and impactfully throughout, and sure enough, when the dead return, they've changed; and sure enough again, one of the Creed children is inevitably going to be resurrected. But before that happens, it's important to know the kids. Ellie is a sketch played by an outmatched kid actor not given enough help. Watch her first reaction in the film, standing in front of her family's new home. Her eyes track everywhere. The direction was most likely, "It's your new house, look at everything, you're excited," and the result is a kid boggling in a way that feels unnatural and rehearsed. It's a community-theatre performance asked to anchor the emotional centre of this picture.
If you're familiar with the source material or the previous adaptation, you know the doomed kid is Gage. Kölsch/Widmyer make the very good decision to kill Ellie instead. Having an older child play an inhuman monster opens up all sorts of possibilities, including a fantastic image late in the film of Ellie dragging something big behind her. No accident that young Laurence's peculiar, broken performance suddenly makes sense post-resurrection. A scene where Louis gives his living-dead daughter a bath is frankly wonderful. For a few minutes after her return, Pet Sematary threatens to pull out of its cold, disconnected death spiral--but alas, without established relationships, there's no tragedy to Ellie's dehumanization and rampage. It's almost clinical.
There's a ghostly, zombie guardian angel character (Obssa Ahmed) à la An American Werewolf in London who says at one point, "I'm helping you because you tried to help me"--except that Louis didn't much try to help him. Jud says Ellie is the only thing that's touched his heart in some time, except we don't see that, and she is in fact an ill-behaved sketch of a little girl who would be very difficult to like. Then there's Jud, a mentor character who mentors no one, the friend who is not befriended--a character so underwritten that all of his lines are ported directly from a book from which the film decides to deviate sharply. There's a thing with masks early on that isn't paid off, making it a handy metaphor for how Pet Sematary is about looking the part more than it is about taking the time to earn its conclusion. The picture's not a total failure (partly thanks to Seimetz), but it's hollowed-out and insubstantial. The cat's good, though. Small wonder it earns the film its only vaguely emotional moment, abandoned somewhere by itself next to a gate that I think is a reference to The Mist. Or The Stand. Maybe not.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The good news is that Paramount has finally released The Dead Zone on Blu-ray in region A (i.e., North America); the bad news is twofold: at present, the BD is only available as part of the studio's "Stephen King 5-Movie Collection", and its presentation of the film itself leaves something to be desired. While Paramount has been on a winning streak all year, reissuing classic titles in vivid new editions either on Blu-ray or directly to 4K UHD, The Dead Zone evidently didn't warrant any special treatment from the bean counters' perspective and so makes its Blu-ray debut in a 1.78:1, 1080p transfer that's a throwback back to the early days of HD. I took the film grain in the opening titles as a promising sign, but once the movie proper gets underway, the grain stays frozen in place--something you used to see at the dawn of the format, particularly when HD video was encoded as a VC-1 or MPEG-2 stream. Although this is an MPEG-4 encode, the compression used in the initial authoring was obviously sub-optimal, and on a number of occasions well-defined edges, such as the outlines of Sheriff Bannerman's satin jacket, are weirdly fuzzy, the likely result of an algorithm that's trying to minimize grain while leaving fine detail alone. Blacks and dark colours meanwhile have a tendency to crush, swallowing shadow detail. Only the least demanding viewers will see this single-layer disc as anything other than a stopgap solution to The Dead Zone's absence on the format. Fortunately, the lossless audio (5.1 DTS-HD MA) provides a significantly less problematic showcase for David Cronenberg's first Dolby Stereo mix, something he took a lot of pride in at the time. Michael Kamen's opening theme sounds fuller and more distinct than it ever has, while the bassy, immersive war flashback proves the modest depth of the rest of it is an aesthetic choice. No extras.
It is very curious to see Silver Bullet back under the Paramount banner less than a year after Scream Factory put out a Collector's Edition Blu-ray, especially since the studio's Graveyard Shift and Thinner weren't similarly reclaimed from their current licensees for this set. The disc apparently utilizes the same 2.35:1, 1080p transfer that previously graced the Scream Factory and Umbrella Entertainment releases, and its ripe colours and boosted contrast give it an overtweaked though not unattractive appearance. For an anamorphic source, the image is sharp enough, though fine detail is a little thick. I suspect it should all be a tad grainier, yet at least it lacks The Dead Zone's processed glaze. Once the volume is turned up on our end, the attendant 2.0 DTS-HD MA mono track sounds crisp and muscular. If the chugging of Marty's wheelchairs is prominent on the soundtrack in a way I'd never noticed before, it's in perfect balance against the music and dialogue. Sadly, none of the Scream Factory supplements survived Silver Bullet's return home.
I covered the 1989 Pet Sematary last year, when it came out on 4K, and the comments I made then about its accompanying BD apply to the platter on offer herein, a marked improvement on the 2012 Blu-ray. (In that review, I also went over the disc's bonus content.) Still, if you're a superfan and 4K-capable, you'll want to hold out for the irreproachable UHD alternative. Because it was originally finished in standard-def and wouldn't have looked any better in HD, The Stand was treated to a new scan of the 16mm negative for Blu-ray. Kudos to Paramount for signing off on expensive and time-consuming remasters like this, which require reassembling the movie from scratch and recompositing or recreating computer-generated titles and effects; in all probability, the studio will have to keep repackaging The Stand like this to break even on the effort. Those moments meant to simulate the P.O.V. of a video camera seem to have been ported over from the broadcast master, as do a smattering of shots where the only logical explanation is that the original film elements were lost or unsalvageable. With grain and sharpness restored to the image, The Stand looks paradoxically cheaper and higher-end than it did in 1994. Colours are significantly bolder in this incarnation, increasing the visual flair of not only the dream sequences but also the Vegas and Times Square backdrops, and the CG loses its motion-smoothed quality. The dramatic increase in resolution, however, costs the project some benefit of the doubt by drawing attention to its cut corners in lighting and set design. Though it's slightly surprising the miniseries wasn't retrofitted for 16:9 (The Stand maintains its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1), it's noble, I guess, that DP Edward J. Pei's squarish compositions are preserved intact. Audio gets short shrift with a lossy DD 2.0 soundtrack that never threatens to envelop the viewer. Dialogue is loud and clear, at least, but even for television from 1994, this is one uninspired mix. Cramming six hours of video content onto a single dual-layer Blu-ray Disc perhaps has its price.
The Stand contains a full-length commentary from 1999 featuring Stephen King and Mick Garris plus sporadic contributions from editor Patrick McMahon and members of the cast, including Rob Lowe, Jamey Sheridan, the late Ruby Dee, and the late Miguel Ferrer. I must confess that after enduring The Stand itself, I found the prospect of listening to a six-hour yak-track too daunting, but the bits I sampled were convivial and informative. Near the top, Garris mentions ABC's resistance to the casting of Sinise, an unknown quantity to middle-America at the time (within a year of The Stand airing, he would be Oscar-nominated for Forrest Gump), while King recollects the project's lengthy development, crediting the 1990 It with persuading him to do it for television. They frankly discuss limitations in budget and technology (not that it necessarily exonerates them), along with editing challenges related to the medium. For what it's worth, where Lowe comes across as chirpy and nostalgic for one of his earliest television gigs, audio commentary was definitely not Dee's forte. On board, too, is "The Making of Stephen King's The Stand" (5 mins., SD), a textbook mix of B-roll and talking heads whose true utility is that it demonstrates how bad The Stand once looked.
The 2019 Pet Sematary is the most recent film as well as the most recent disc in this set. Although the 2.39:1, 1080p transfer is more than adequate, knowing there's a 4K UHD alternative out there puts a damper on my enthusiasm. The image is dim, but its glassy clarity is appealing and shadow detail doesn't suffer. It's joined by a Dolby Atmos soundtrack that still has the power to jolt in its 7.1 downmix--those trucks ain't playin' in this remake. Outdoor ambience is unusually immersive and in harmony with both the dialogue and Christopher Young's score. HD extras launch with seven deleted/extended scenes (16 mins. in toto), eight counting the alternate ending (9 mins.), that are unfortunately presented without insight into their removal. The Zelda sequence is much longer here and a nice showcase for actress Amy Seimetz; one of the things about Pet Sematary 2019 is that it's choppy, and these elisions suggest that its performances and characterizations might've benefited from a tad more breathing room. As for that alternate ending: different but same--the filmmakers were undoubtedly committed to their radical revisionism from the get-go.
Additionally, "The Tale of Timmy Baterman" (3 mins.) has John Lithgow's Jud Crandall pulling up a log, lighting a cigarette, and telling us the story of the eponymous soldier who returned home from the war in a pine box but didn't stay dead for long. This tale as told by Fred Gwynne was a highlight of Mary Lambert's Pet Sematary, so it's jarring to see it repurposed in this meta fashion and, despite Lithgow being a gifted raconteur, with infinitely less poignancy. In that same vein are three "Night Terrors" (5 mins. collectively) that depict nightmares from the point-of-view of Louis, Rachel, and Ellie Creed, each of which conveniently takes place in the same patch of swamp as Lithgow's Timmy Baterman monologue. Finally, Keith Clark's making-of "Beyond the Deadfall" (61 mins.) is split into four "chapters" with titles roughly analogous to the movie's structure: "Resurrection," "The Final Resting Place," "The Road to Sorrow," and "Death Comes Home." Revelations therein are arguably wilder than the plot of Pet Sematary. We learn the film was shot in rural Montreal and that the Creed home happened to already be there in the middle of the woods, camera-ready inside and out, with a real-life pet cemetery in the backyard. (They didn't use it but it felt like kismet all the same.) 400 metres down the road was Jud's house, similarly ripe for the picking. Ben Wheatley's DP Laurie Rose is praised for his ability to wed the real with the fantastic but he himself admits he isn't as conversant in the horror genre as he let on, though he does cite The Exorcist as a template he used for capturing familial intimacy. "Beyond the Deadfall" is a model of the form that answers virtually every question one could conceivably ask about the production and is blessedly high in cat content to boot. "Stephen King: 5-Movie Collection" is region-free save The Dead Zone and Silver Bullet, possibly to discourage export.
- The Dead Zone
104 minutes; 1.78:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English 5.1 DTS-HD MA, French DD 2.0 (Mono); English, English SDH, French subtitles; BD-25; Region A; Paramount
- Stephen King's Silver Bullet
95 minutes; 2.35:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English 2.0 DTS-HD MA (Mono), French DD 2.0 (Mono); English, English SDH, French subtitles; BD-25; Region A; Paramount
- Pet Sematary (1989)
103 minutes; 1.78:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English 5.1 DTS-HD MA, English DVS 5.1, French DD 2.0 (Stereo), Spanish DD 2.0 (Mono), Brazilian Portuguese DD 2.0 (Mono), Italian DD 2.0 (Mono), German DD 2.0 (Mono), Japanese DD 2.0 (Mono); English, English SDH, French, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, Italian, German, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Japanese subtitles; BD-50; Region-free; Paramount
- Stephen King's The Stand (1994)
359 minutes; 1.33:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English DD 2.0 (Stereo), Spanish DD 2.0 (Mono), German DD 2.0 (Mono); English SDH, Spanish, German, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish subtitles; BD-50; Region-free; Paramount
- Pet Sematary (2019)
101 minutes; 2.39:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English Dolby Atmos (7.1 TrueHD core), Engish DVS 5.1, French DD 5.1, French Canadian DD 5.1, Castilian Spanish DD 5.1, Latin Spanish DD 5.1, Brazilian Portuguese DD 5.1, German DD 5.1, Italian DD 5.1; English, English SDH, French, French Canadian, Castilian Spanish, Latin Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, German, Italian, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish subtitles; BD-50; Region-free; Paramount
*Coscarelli did make one lasting contribution to the project: the title, Silver Bullet, was his invention--he felt Cycle of the Werewolf sounded too much like a biker movie.