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STEPHEN KING - THE 1980's


Kubrick and Jack hang out


The next King book to be developed by Hollywood would be the most high profile yet. Legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick decided to film The Shining as his next film after Barry Lyndon (nearly all of Kubrick's films were based on books), reportedly to prove he could direct the ultimate horror film. The auteur's involvement would undoubtedly result in a film that was more Kubrick's than King's. Kubrick himself said "the novel is by no means a serious work".

The director even wanted to kill everyone at the end, though he was dissuaded from this idea (he did callously dispatch the old cook Halloran, a scene that is not in the book). He would apparently call King randomly late at night and ask him questions such as if he believed in God. Kubrick shies away from overtly supernatural events in the film - until the ghost lets Jack out of a locked pantry it could be argued all the images are in his and Danny's heads.


The film was shot in London with Jack Nicholson starring as the tormented writer Jack Torrance. The budget was $18 million and shooting lasted 27 weeks (The Empire Strikes Back and then Raiders of the Lost Ark were both waiting to use the sets, one of which burnt down during the production). Room 217 was changed to 237, possibly to placate the hotel (Timberline Lodge in Oregon) where exteriors were shot, since they didn't have a room 237. The scene in that room was changed from the book, to give it a more erotic tone.

Oddly, Kubrick didn't choose to shoot at his namesake, the Stanley Hotel, which was the location King himself based the book on. Kubrick used real hotel rooms as the basis for the sets. True to form, the filmmaker was a perfectionist on set, shooting eighty-eight takes of the scene between young Danny and Halloran in the kitchen (driving actor Scatman Crothers crazy).

When it was finally released the film met with mixed response from critics (Kubrick himself cut the original ending and later almost 20 minutes out of the film after the American release) though it did quite well at the box office. Nicholson's performance, while criticised by some as failing to show the humanity of the character before the Overlook Hotel drives him crazy, quickly became iconic, especially his infamous "Here's Johnny!" line. The scene where he just stares at the camera with his craziest expression is another great moment.

Shelly Duvall ("absolutely grotesque casting" in King's words) fared less well, though she did act appropriately terrified at the end. Her character is the least imaginative in the film, as she is the last to see the hotel's visions. On the making of documentary available on the DVD Kubrick frequently loses his temper with the actress.

The visual style of the film was of course stunning, with the use of steadicam creating some especially unsettling images. No one who sees the film can forget Danny riding around on his trike, or the dead twin girls. The dissonant score adds to the eerie feel of the film. As usual Kubrick adds some odd elements to the production design, such as the bizarre pictures of nude black women in Halloran's bedroom.


"Play with us, Danny."

King himself expressed displeasure with the film's changes from the novel. Though initially he still seemed to like aspects of the film, as evidenced by the following comments in his non-fiction book Danse Macabre: "(even when) Kubrick makes a maddening, perverse and disappointing film as The Shining, it somehow retains a brilliance that is inarguable", over time he seemed to become more and more unhappy with the film and its rejection of standard horror conventions, such as the lack of jump scenes. He called it a "big, beautiful car with no engine inside it".

It's no surprise that King was averse to Kubrick's style, since he's often said movies are just entertainment to him, such as in this quote: "I don't have any real reverence for movies. I go to see 'em because it's a way to check out my mind." While the book is one of King's most critically acclaimed, it's rather a dry read, and most of Kubrick's changes are frankly improvements. Eventually King would make his own TV miniseries adaptation (after promising to no longer bad mouth Kubrick's version). While undeniably more faithful, the new version was unfortunately amateurish and saddled with a ridiculously sappy ending.


The next King movie to be released at cinemas was also his first original screenplay. Creepshow, directed by George Romero (director of Night of the Living Dead and also a friend of King's) was an homage to the old E.C. horror comics that King had read in his youth. Romero had almost directed Salem's Lot years earlier, but this would be the first of several collaborations (including some that were planned but never made, such as a big screen version of The Stand).

The comics featured grisly tales of revenge and fell victim to censorship when the Comics Code was introduced in the 1950's. The last issue of EC famously stated: "We at EC look forward to an immediate drop in the crime and juvenile delinquency rate of the United States. We trust there will be fewer robberies, fewer murders, fewer rapes."

The movie featured five tales penned by King (one of them had already seen print as a short story) as well as a wrap around story involving a father's unwise decision to throw away his son's (played by Steve King's real son) horror comics. The first tale, "Father's Day" is a standard revenge from beyond the grave tale, with some nice Hammer-inspired graveyard sets. The "cake" at the end has the wrong head on it, though. Indeed, the undead father kills several people that had nothing to do with his death.
The second tale, "The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verril" is the most whimsical and stars King himself in a performance as broad as a barn. There are several imaginative sequences inside Jordy's head which help alleviate the one-man-play feel. When "meteor shit" turns Jordy into a waking plant it's hard not to feel a little sympathy for the doomed yokel, and the ending, where the weeds are seen heading to Castle Rock, is very bleak. King would reportedly go to a local mall in his weed makeup just to see people's reactions.

"Something to Tide You Over" is the only one that really stays true to the E.C. theme of revenge. When a cuckolded husband has revenge on his wife and her lover it backfires when they come back from their watery grave. It is also played mostly straight, despite the comedic actors involved.

"The Crate" is the longest of the tales, and while it does drag a little in parts, is quite a successful monster tale (involving both a large carnivorous and seemingly immortal creature and a shrewish wife named Billie). There's some great use of colours in the scary scenes. Some people may see misogyny in the ending where Billie emasculates her husband just before he feeds her to the beast, but that's probably reading too deeply into the story.

The final tale, "They're Creeping Up on You" is also the yuckiest. Anyone scared of bugs will be hiding behind the sofa as a Howard Hughes type businessman finds his spotless apartment overrun with roaches. The memorable finale features 25000 roaches. King said in an interview that "by the end of the film, the wranglers were so scared that if you'd slapped one on the back, he'd have gone straight to heaven".


In the final scene (watch for Tom Savini as a garbage man) we learn that the son has got his revenge on his conservative dad, thanks to an ad for a voodoo doll in the comic.

The tales all have their juvenile charm, and the eclectic ensemble cast (Ed Harris, Ted Danson and Leslie Neilson in the same movie!) is game for anything. The visual recreations of comics, right down to the panels, is superb. The film was scoffed at by serious critics, but it did well enough at the box office for a sequel to be commissioned.

1983 was a busy year as it saw the release of three King books (Christine, Pet Sematary and Cycle of the Werewolf) as well as three movies based on his work. The first of these was Cujo which concerned a rabid dog killing off several people before stalking a mother and son trapped in a car - a simple premise made even simpler in the movie. The film, competently directed by Lewis Teague (who replaced original director Peter Medak) added nothing new to the horror genre, but it was entertaining and became one of King's favourite movies based on his works.

It dropped much of the subtext from the book (such as Cujo possibly being possessed by the spirit of Frank Dodd, the Castle Rock killer) but kept much of the tone. There's a nice scene early on where the bedroom set was extended to add more suspense to young Tad being menaced by the closet monster. Half the film takes place in the car, and the claustrophobic feel adds to the horror. Unlike in the book, the boy lives, though Cujo comes back for one last scare.

The film was shot with a mostly Mormon crew. Many techniques were used to create the ferocious Saint Bernard, including men and Labradors in dog suits. Interestingly, the film resists showing onscreen violence against Cujo - audiences apparently don't like even rabid dogs to be mistreated. Jan De Bont was the cinematographer, and would later go on to a significant directorial career himself. There's a clever 360 degree spinning shot which used a periscope coming down through the roof of the car.

A far better film would me made from the novel, The Dead Zone. The Canadian director David Cronenberg, who had made his name with low-budget disturbing movies such as The Brood and Scanners, was chosen to direct. King himself was a fan, saying "Cronenberg blows Kubrick out of the water." King had written some earlier scripts (which apparently focussed heavily on the Castle Rock killer) but none of them were used for the film.

Christopher Walken was chosen to play troubled psychic Johnny Smith and Martin Sheen was cast as Greg Stillson. Sheen was at first reluctant to play the madman who will end up destroying the world unless his political career is stopped dead, since he thought playing a villain would affect his karma. Sheen's son (not one of the famous ones) played the photographer who takes pictures of him using a baby as a shield at the end. Cronenberg would fire a .357 Magnum to get Walken to twitch during his visions.

Dino DeLaurentus (who would produce five King films in total) was uncharacteristically hands off during the production. However, the producer did veto some casting decisions and wouldn't let Cronenberg use his regular composer Howard Shore. Michael Kamen did the score instead, and a lovely score it is.

The film has a very warm look and tone compared to Cronenberg's other films, with a Norman Rockwell-inspired design. Originally there was a prologue (taken from the book) with Johnny having an accident as a kid, but this was deleted. The idea of Johnny having his visions while on the roller coaster at the carnival was also dropped. The sequence with the serial killer Frank Dodd, and his brutal suicide, feels like the most "Cronenbergesque" part of the film.

The scene where Stillson threatens a newspaper editor is well acted but feels out of place since so much of the film is from Johnny's point of view (unlike the book, which follows both characters from the beginning and treats them like two sides of the same coin).

The film builds slowly and the final act starts far later than you usually find in a Hollywood movie. The emotional ending features perhaps the first and last sympathetic sniper in a movie. Stillson's final fate is a little too neatly shown, but apart from that it stays true to the melancholy feel of the book.

The film was Cronenberg's most mainstream yet and while it wasn't a big hit, it earned favourable reviews and remains one of the best King adaptations. As Douglas Winter wrote in the book Art of Darkness, "King has reserved judgement (on The Dead Zone) but time should prove it one of the most significant of the adaptations." It was later turned into a successful TV series, starring Anthony Michael Hall as Johnny Smith.

The third King film that year was Christine, which was rushed into production before King's book about a killer Plymouth Fury was even published. The film was released at cinemas less than a year after the book hit bestseller lists. John Carpenter directed with his usual competence, though it seems clear his heart wasn't really in it. The subplot of the car's previous owner, Roland LeBay, haunting the car and even possessing the new owner, Arnie Cunningham (the name was a nod to Happy Days), was dropped and instead the car was presented as evil from the minute it rolled off the production line.

The car itself has real character, and King said he chose the Plymouth Fury because it wasn't a well-respected car from the 50's. There's even a sexual element in the film, with Arnie watching Christine rebuild herself filmed like a sex scene. Having the windows of the car darkened when it is on the rampage, so we don't know if Arnie is inside is a clever touch. The ending, where Arnie suddenly jumps back to life, was a horror movie cliché even then.

The film is fun, and well acted, but compared with the previous King films (even Creepshow) it has no real vision. King summed it up by saying, "Christine is a good movie . . . but the book carries the film, to a certain degree; there is unfortunately very little of John Carpenter there". Carpenter himself was embarrassed by how many times his name appeared in the billboard for the film (though that didn't stop him putting "John Carpenter's" before all his subsequent films too).

Children of the Corn is, for many, where King adaptations started to go very wrong. Based on a short story in the Night Shift collection, it tells the tale of a couple who get lost while driving and find themselves in a town where religious zealot children have slaughtered every adult in worship to he who walks behind the rows (the opening scene where every adult is killed is actually tamer than most people remember it). A great deal of padding was needed to make the story fit a feature-length film, and the low budget shows through especially with the cheesy monster at the end.

The actors are unremarkable (only Linda Hamilton went on to better things). Despite this, the film does have some camp value ("We have your woman, outlander!") and a memorably creepy score featuring a children's choir. It became a cult classic in some circles ("Jaws for the Midwest" is how it is described on the DVD). Indeed, it was successful enough to spawn a seemingly endless supply of straight-to-video sequels.

King was not impressed, as is evidenced by this quote about the fate of adaptations of his work (comparing them to his children): "You hope she won't be raped at a fraternity party, which is really close to what happened to Children of the Corn".

Firestarter was considered another misfire by most. Originally, John Carpenter planned to direct it, which would have undoubtedly resulted in a much more interesting film, but that fell through. The plot was changed considerably from the book. In the novel, Charlie had telekinesis and her pyrokinesis was just a side effect of that, but in the movie her father has telekinesis as well as the ability to "push" people. Charlie just starts fires, and her hair blows for some reason whenever she does it.
"I'm a firestarter, twisted firestarter."
Drew Barrymore's acting is subpar and even actors like Martin Sheen (as the head of the sinister government agency, The Shop) and George C. Scott (as a Native American pedophile!) have little to work with. What little plot there is ends as Charlie burns down the Shop in revenge for her father's death - suddenly developing the power to send meteors at people! The film is watchable, but completely unremarkable. It was followed years later by a mostly unrelated sequel (are we detecting a pattern here?)

Cat's Eye was another anthology film, though aimed at a more family friendly audience than Creepshow. Dino DeLaurentus financed the film and Drew Barrymore appeared in her second King film. Two of the stories were based on works featured in Night Shift ("Quitters, Inc." and "The Ledge") while the third was an original story penned by King. Milton Subotsky (who had produced the famous Amicus anthology movies) had actually offered King the chance to write and direct a film based on several Night Shift stories back in the 70s, but it never came about.

After the main titles where we watch the cat traveling on its incredible journey, the first segment concerns James Woods as a man who seeks the assistance of Quitters, Inc. to give up smoking, but gets more than he bargained for when he discovers their gangster-like tactics. Drew Barrymore, in one of her multiple roles, plays his daughter. It all ends happily (kind of) and the kitty escapes to Atlantic City, seeing Drew Barrymore on a TV screen in a vision that is never explained.

The second story, "The Ledge", concerns a man who, after having an affair with a gambler's wife, finds himself forced to walk around a high-rise ledge to survive. You can actually feel the chill as he walks around it and faces psychotic pigeons.

In the final story, "The General", a supernatural element is introduced as the cat tries to rescue Drew from a little troll while also facing her cat-hating mother. This story is set in North Carolina (coincidently where Dino's studio was based) and while fun, doesn't really fit with the rest of the film. It does tie into the wraparound story of the film better, though.

There's a nice scene where Drew calls the general "non-violent" while the kitty stalks his prey. The fight scene between the troll and the cat is inventive, especially when the troll gets spun round on a turntable and then shredded by a fan.

An oversized set was built for the troll that proved very effective. The ending makes you think the General is going to steal her breath, but he doesn't.

Drew Barrymore gives a better performance than in Firestarter (interestingly, King first wrote the character as a boy). Originally there was a prologue that explained the history of the cat and how it failed to save another girl but it was cut, leaving many confused as to the nature of the ghost speaking to the cat from a TV. Of course, if it had been left in then people might have asked why all these different girls looked exactly like Drew Barrymore.

"Every Breath You Take" is memorably used twice in the film, but it's not The Police version. The score by Alan Silvestri is nice. The movie features good performances, some nice tension (especially in The Ledge sequence) and lots of in-jokes for King fans. Watch for the Cujo and Christine cameos in the opening. James Woods watches The Dead Zone and ponders aloud "Who writes this crap?"

Partly due to poor marketing, the film was not a hit. Reviews were mixed (a rather odd comment from Bill Warren was: "[the film] seems to have been written by someone who has cats but hates them".

The same year saw the release of Silver Bullet, based on King's slight novella, Cycle of the Werewolf. The book spanned twelve months in a town terrorised by a werewolf. The protagonist, a wheelchair bound boy, is not even introduced until halfway through the tale. This obviously had to be changed for the film, which has a more conventional narrative. The film also attempts to make the werewolf's identity a mystery, though it's pretty obvious early on that it's the priest (his werewolf dreams are a big giveaway).

In the original script the werewolf actually had some one liners, but this idea was dropped. The wolf also breaks with tradition by coming out even when there's no moon. The film seems pretty tame compared to previous landmark werewolf films such as An American Werewolf in London and The Howling. Gore and transformations are few and far between (the opening humorously cuts away from a decapitated head to a squashed bug).

The director reportedly didn't like blood and was forced to add it to the film. Despite its flaws, it's an entertaining little film with fine performances from the cast, which includes Corey Haim and Gary Busey (Quentin Tarantino once commented that Busey's performance was so good he was scared he was gonna die at the end). It deserved to be a bigger hit than it was.

By now King's many readers were becoming increasingly disillusioned by the films based on his work, which just didn't have that "Stephen King" flavour. Many wanted King himself to tackle an adaptation.

The writer finally got his chance when Dino DeLaurentus asked him to write and direct Maximum Overdrive, based on his short story, Trucks. In the trailer, King himself appeared and said, "Y'know, a lot of people have made movies out of my stories . . . but I thought it was time I took a crack at doing Stephen King . . . After all, if you want it done right, you have to do it yourself." This claim would soon be disproved in many people's eyes.

The film opens with various machines turning against mankind (an ATM machine calls King an asshole in his obligatory cameo) and we soon focus on a group of survivors stranded at a truck stop, played by Emilio Estevez, Pat Hingle, Yeardley Smith (the voice of Lisa Simpson) and a host of lesser actors. The script gives some back story to the tale by explaining that the machines coming alive was the result of the Earth passing through the tale of a comet.

The memorable big bad truck has the face of the Green Goblin. In a funny scene a little league coach gets killed by a coke machine firing cans and a kid gets run over by a steamroller. There's also a disturbing moment with an ice cream truck playing its jungle with blood on its grill. Some machines don't turn evil, for reasons that are never explained. King makes a nod to Apocalypse Now with an evil plane playing Ride of the Valkyries. The heroes escape the fate that the short story ended with (being forced to pump gas until they die) and we learn that the Russians destroyed a UFO (huh, there are aliens involved now?) and everything went back to normal.

The film was shot in North Carolina and the truck stop set was so authentic that many real truckers would stop there. The production was not without troubles for the novice director, including the cinematographer (Armando Nannuzzi) losing an eye to a wayward lawnmower. He later brought a lawsuit against King and the production. The film had to be cut significantly to avoid an X rating. AC/DC provided the rockin' soundtrack.

Despite its appeal as a "moron movie" (to use King's own term) the film understandably received scathing reviews and failed to make a dent at the box office. The story was later filmed again as the TV movie Trucks. King summed up the later adaptation thusly: "What if this is better than what I did? But it wasn't. It was worse actually. And that's hard to do."

Ironically, the same year would see the release of a film that King had no direct involvement with, but yet would be one of the most faithful adaptations yet - Stand By Me. Rob Reiner's film was also the first to be based on one of King's non-horror tales - namely The Body in the collection Different Seasons.

A coming of age tale told in flashback, it featured a talented young cast as well as Richard Dreyfuss as the writer (a last minute replacement in the role) who, as many have noted, turns off his word processor at the end without saving the memoir he has spent so much time writing. Though King's name was not featured prominently in the marketing, the success of the film did go some way towards dispelling the notion that he was nothing but a horror writer.

Two more films would be based on novellas found in the collection. One, The Shawshank Redemption (1994), would, after an initially disappointing release, become one of the most popular films of all time. The other, Apt Pupil (1998), was an interesting if flawed film by Bryan Singer. It would actually be the second attempt at adapting the very dark story - the first was aborted during production.

1987 saw the release of Creepshow 2. King and Romero were less involved in the sequel, to the detriment of the film. The first segment, Old Chief Woodenhead, is an unremarkable revenge tale about a Native American storefront statue coming to life.

The second segment is the only one of the three tales that really sticks in the mind (The Raft, also the only one based on an existing King story). It features a group of stupid kids menaced by a black oil slick on a lake which devours them one by one. Our hero manages to overcome his fear of the blob to cop a feel of his friend's girlfriend's boobs shortly before she too is consumed. The ending, where the creature leaps out of the lake, makes one wonder why it didn't just do that before when they were on the raft.

The third story, The Hitchhiker, is a rather pointless tale about a hitcher that keeps coming back to life no matter how many times a woman runs him over. Tom Savini plays the Creep when he briefly appears in live action in the epilogue.

There's a message at the end of the film from Colliers Magazine in 1949 stating that comic books are not to blame for society's ills.

The overall quality of the acting and production is subpar. It also lacks the comic book style of the first film. While the original was a fun homage to tackiness, the sequel is just tacky. It's no surprise that the stories were ones rejected for the first film, since they feel like bottom of the barrel tales. There was originally supposed to be a fourth tale, Pinfall, set in a bowling alley, but it was cut for time and money. Like nearly all horror anthologies, Creepshow 2 has some entertainment value, but King fans deserved better.

Also released in 1987 was The Running Man, which is notable as being the first film based on a book by King's pseudonym, Richard Bachman. The original director was fired after he wanted to set the whole film in a shopping mall. Director and sometime actor Paul Michael Glaser picked up the pieces afterwards.

After refusing to open fire on innocent women and children (as John Brosnan comments humorously in his book Primal Screen, innocent men are apparently fair game) Ben Richards finds himself imprisoned and forced to compete in a deadly gameshow where he will be hunted down live on TV.

The film has become increasingly relevant with the plethora of reality TV shows now on the air to distract the public from the ills of the world, though the movie can't be taken that seriously. The film also predicted the use of digital face replacement which would become standard in Hollywood in the next decade.

Despite starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as the "average hero" (Christopher Reeve was the first choice for the role) and turning the faceless villains in the book into WWF style supervillains, the film stays pretty true to the plot of the novel, though the ending is obviously more upbeat (the hero flying a jet into a building would have been bad then and a definite no-no in the post-911 world).
Dynamo - the terrifying opera-singing assassin!

The eclectic cast includes Mick Fleetwood as the leader of the resistance. The film received mixed reviews and was a minor success at the box office. To this day, most people don't even know it's a Stephen King film.

The eighties ended with the release of Pet Sematary, which was for a long-time considered one of King's grisliest books and almost unfilmable. King got the idea when his own son was almost run over on a busy road near their home. George Romero was attached as director for a while, but the final film was directed by Mary Lambert. It was shot in Maine and, with a script by King himself, stayed pretty close to the book and didn't shy away from the story's unrelenting despair.

A family with small children and a cat moves into a new home, not seeming to care that it's right by a highway where trucks zoom by at 100 miles an hour. Despite being warned by a gory angel, Louis Creed uses the Micmac burial ground when, first his cat and then his son are killed. Of course, they come back wrong. The evil toddler (who looks good for being run over) is quite chilling. There's a nasty scene where he severs Fred Gwyne's ankle tendon. The fight between the zombie baby and his father is quite ridiculous, though. The same truck that killed their son brings the wife back at the end (to her death).
The film is competently shot and acted (King himself has a cameo as a preacher). There are some cheesy effects, such as a face coming out of the rocks before the pet cemetery. The creepiest scene in the film is the flashback to the wife's sick and deformed sister, Zelda. However, aside from the black comedy of the decomposing angel, the film takes itself too seriously.

It was a big hit, earning around $60 million and leading to a loosely connected sequel. Critics didn't care much for the gore and bleak tone of the film. Typical of the response was Ralph Novak's review in People magazine: "Anybody who wants to see anything more vile and scummy than this movie will have to check out a neighbourhood septic tank".


How zombie cats say "do not touch"

PREVIOUS CHAPTER: THE 1970'S

NEXT CHAPTER: 1990's - THE FRANK DARABONT REDEMPTION

   

 

 

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