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STEPHEN KING


The King of Horror. Geddit?


Selected filmography:

Carrie (1976)
Salem’s Lot (1979)
The Shining (1980)
Creepshow (1982)
Cujo (1983)
The Dead Zone (1983)
Christine (1983)
Children of the Corn (1984)
Firestarter (1984)
Cat’s Eye (1985)
Silver Bullet (1985)
Maximum Overdrive (1986)
Creepshow 2 (1987)
The Running Man (1987)
Pet Sematary (1989)
Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990)
Graveyard Shift (1990)
Misery (1990)
The Lawnmower Man (1992)
Sleepwalkers (1992)
The Dark Half (1993)
Needful Things (1993)
The Mangler (1995)
Thinner (1996)
The Night Flier (1997)
The Green Mile (1999)
Hearts in Atlantis (2001)
Dreamcatcher (2003)
Secret Window (2004)
Riding the Bullet (2004)
1408 (2007)
The Mist (2007)

Like Steven Spielberg, Stephen King is such a powerhouse in his chosen field that little needs to be said about his background. Speaking of Spielberg, King tried to collaborate with the director on two occasions (first with an adaptation of The Talisman and secondly with a remake of The Haunting that King later turned into the miniseries Rose Red) but neither came to pass. King himself said he couldn’t work things out with Spielberg because he “wants all the marbles”.

Anyone with even a passing interest in the horror genre knows all about the man and his books (not to mention the many movies based upon them). Ironically, for the King of Horror, it has been his non-horror work that has tended to translate better to the screen. Many fans have complained about the filmmakers ruining the books, though King himself is less concerned. He often quotes author James Cain who, when told the film adaptation had ruined his book, The Postman Always Rings Twice, turned to the bookshelves behind him and said, “I don’t know – it looks the same to me.” King has also referred to himself as “the Big Mac and fries of literature” which doesn’t do justice to how layered his characters are – layers that are often removed when the book reaches the screen.

Anyway, I won’t waste much time on a bio - there are countless books and websites out there that already cover that territory. I will mainly be focussing on the films adapted from his work, though many of his books are also worth discussing, including the few stories that have yet to be transferred to the big (or small) screen. I won't be reviewing the countless sequels (many of them straight to video) that are only loosely based on his books, though. Okay, maybe I’ll waste a little time on a bio.


King was born in Maine (which remains his home and the setting for many of his books to this day) in 1947 and started writing from a young age. He grew up on monster B movies, and that influence can be seen both in his books and the movies based on them.

After publishing many short stories he finally sold his first novel, Carrie, in 1974. The famous story goes that King’s wife, Tabitha, actually fished the manuscript out of the garbage and convinced a dejected King to go on with it.

Following the success of the book, the young writer and his family went from living hand-to-mouth to being set for life. It didn’t take Hollywood long to notice this exciting new voice in horror (no surprise, since King’s books had a filmic quality right from the start), and the film of Carrie was rushed into production for release in 1976.

Brian DePalma was the perfect choice as director, since many had already dubbed him the new Alfred Hitchcock. He cast many up and rising young stars in the film (holding auditions the same time as his colleague George Lucas did for a little film called Star Wars).

Cast in the lead role of Carrie White, the tormented teen who strikes back with the power of telekinesis, was Sissy Spacek. Piper Laurie was called out of retirement to play her religiously psychotic mother (she later admitted she played the role as if it was a comedy). Rounding out the cast was a host of fresh faces, including John Travolta in his first major role.


The film only cost $1.8 million, but worked wonders with its budget. DePalma used many of the tricks he would become famous for, including split-screen (he later admitted that he regretted using it so much in the prom scenes) and even a rather ludicrous speeded-up scene where the boys try on their prom tuxes. Martin Scorsese suggested Margaret White dying from knives (unlike in the book where Carrie just makes her heart stop).
The film was quite shocking for its time, with the brazen nudity of the opening shower scene and the shock ending that has been imitated by nearly every horror film since (though it actually seems pretty tame now). The score was supposed to be by Bernard Herrmann, but he passed away before he could complete it. Pinto Donaggio provided the Herrmannesque score.

The film was released to mostly positive reviews and strong box office. Critics enjoyed the film for the most part, though few took it seriously. Typical of the reviews was this one by Janet Maslin: “Combining gothic horror, off-hand misogyny and an air of studied triviality, Carrie is DePalma’s most enjoyable movie and also his silliest . . . alternating between the elegant and the asinine”. Spacek and Laurie were both nominated for Oscars -unusual for a horror film even now.

The film remains something of a classic, and there was even a stage musical based on it, which failed spectacularly and was booed by Broadway audiences. It also led to a rather pointless sequel (The Rage: Carrie 2) and a TV version which took bizarre liberties with the story (Carrie lives!?). The success of the film undoubtedly helped propel King’s career, as he had his first hardback bestseller the next year with The Shining. Hollywood had taken notice of the young writer and producers would soon be scrambling to snap up every King property they could find for development.

The next King property to be brought to the screen would be for TV. Salem's Lot, King's superb take on Dracula set in smalltown Maine, was turned into a miniseries starring TV’s Hutch himself, David Soul. The director was Tobe Hooper, famous for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

While the three hour running time (not including commercials) would allow for more characters and subplots from the book to be included, the restrictive "standards and practices" of the networks would also cut most of the gore and disturbing imagery from the story. As King himself said in the Bangor Daily News, “TV is death to horror. When it went to TV a lot of people moaned and I was one of the moaners”. Unfortunately, this didn’t stop King later selling some of his best novels to network TV.

In the end, the miniseries turned out about as well as it could have at the time (bafflingly, at one point the execs wanted to change the title to “As Maine Goes, So Goes the Nation”). It features some fine performances (especially from James Mason as the vampire's human servant, Straker) and some genuinely unsettling images.
Many people who first saw the show as kids can attest to how terrifying the sight of the vampire children floating out of the mist to knock on their victim's window was. The kid vampires were generally scarier than the older ones.

Indeed, one of the most disappointing thing about the show was that the suave Barlow featured in the book was turned into a mindless Nosferatu clone.

Many of the other characters are left underdeveloped or changed from the book (Mark is four years older in the miniseries, which changes the dynamic between him and Ben somewhat) and we see far less of the effects of the vampiric plague on the town.

The miniseries was generally received favourably and was re-edited into a two hour version for release at overseas cinemas. While this version did feature some shots that weren't allowed in the network version, it was less successful since much of the character development and suspenseful build-up was missing. There were also plans for a regular series to carry on the story, but this fell through (much to King’s relief). There was an in-name only sequel released in 1987, though, and an even more unnecessary TV remake in 2004.

The Eighties would see movies based on King's books turn into a production line, with seemingly a new one out every week, and the first of the new decade would be a controversial classic by one of the great filmmakers.

NEXT CHAPTER: 1980's - THE SHINING AND BEYOND

   

 

 

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