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STEPHEN KING - THE 1990's


King finds his perfect match as a director - Frank Darabont


The most terrifying monster can only be defeated with cheese
1990 saw a trio of King-based horror films. Graveyard Shift was an unremarkable stretching out of the short story about giant rats infesting an old mill. Brad Dourif's role as the exterminator was one of the few enjoyable parts of the film. There are some grisly deaths and an impressive giant rat with bat wings, but overall you're better off reading the story.

Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (a feature length version of the TV show that had already featured adaptations of King's stories) featured three stories by different writers, with a wraparound tale starring Deborah Harry as a witch.

The stories, which include tales about Egyptian mummies and gargoyles, are fun if predictable. King's story, The Cat From Hell (which was considered for Creepshow 2), was directed by George Romero and features an OTT turn from the late, great William Hickey as an old man with a grudge against cats. In the memorable ending, the loveable moggie forces its way down the throat of the hitman assigned to kill it.
Now that's a hairball!
The best of the King films that year was undoubtedly Misery, with Stand By Me director Rob Reiner showing he was equally adept at filming King's more chilling stories. Featuring superb performances from James Caan and Oscar-winner Kathy Bates, the film is very cinematic despite the stage bound quality of the story. Many big actors turned down the Paul Sheldon role before Caan, probably due to how inactive the character is. The story of an obsessive fan was allegedly inspired by a man King met that he believes was Mark Chapman.

Despite toning down some elements of the book (Annie breaks Paul's foot instead of cutting it off, though it's still a wince-inducing scene) the film is genuinely scary. It was a big hit and even led to a stage version.

The release of The Lawnmower Man (1992), based on the short story in the Night Shift collection proved controversial. The initial cinema release featured King's name prominently, but after he saw how little the film, a tale of virtual reality gone wrong, had in connection with his story, the author demanded his name be removed from the credits.

Ironically, while the only scene featured in the story that makes it into the film is a telepathically controlled lawnmower killing someone, the movie is still closer to the spirit of King's books than many more "faithful adaptations". The theme of a misfit with strange powers getting revenge on society goes right back to Carrie, of course, while the sinister organization in the film, The Shop, has featured prominently in several King books. The screenplay is also similar to the film Charly (1968), based on the story Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes.


See what they did there? Bless 'em!
The film opens with a now humorous message that virtual reality would take over the world by the turn of the century. It was actually billed as the first virtual reality film, though aside from some gloopy computer effects (including a virtual sex scene) it features nothing that hadn't been seen in previous films like Tron. After trying to take over the world, the formerly mentally challenged Jobe escapes into the inernet and hero Pierce Brosnan gets an instant family. A tenuously-related sequel followed.
The same year saw the release of Sleepwalkers, featuring an original screenplay by King. The story of an incestuous mother and son who transform into fearsome beasts and are afraid of cats (that old one) had an interesting cast (including Mark Hamill and cameos from several big name horror filmmakers), but was an unremarkable horror film. The effects were also terrible. Nice music by Enya, though.
He would think twice about not putting out kitty treats next time


One of the stunning effects from Sleepwalkers. Terminator 2 eat your heart out!


Can you spot the subtle clue to the movie's theme?
In 1993, an adaptation of The Dark Half was released, directed by George Romero. Despite its interesting premise of a Bachman-inspired pseudonym coming to life and going on a murderous rampage, the book is one of King's weakest and the film reflects that. However, it does have some good performances and some creepy scenes. The film avoids gore for the most part (a surprise from Romero). Interestingly, the writer Thad has twin children, hinting at the revelation that his psychotic alter ego is actually his twin who was absorbed into his body before birth.
The same year saw another disappointing King novel turned into a film - Needful Things. Fraser Heston (Chuck's son) did the best he could with the overlong yet shallow tale of evil shopkeeper Leland Gaunt turning a town against itself and the film probably had a better cast than it deserved. Ed Harris played the same sheriff Michael Rooker portrayed in The Dark Half and the always-impressive Max Von Sydow is a hissable baddie.

The consequences of the evil deeds the customers have to perform to pay for their ultimate gifts are softened (for example, the boy who shoots himself lives, unlike in the book). There's even a line that could have come right from NRA spokesperson Charlton Heston himself - "Guns don't kill people, people kill people". It all ends in a way too serious speech from Harris and Sydow escaping to peddle his wares another day. Apparently, things made more sense in the longer version of the film that was later shown on TV.

The next few years saw filmmakers scraping the bottom of the barrel with several unremarkable horror films based on King's work: The Mangler (another short story padded out to feature length) is watchable only for Robert Englund's performance.

Thinner (a concept which worked better in the Richard Bachman book) was entertaining mostly for Joe Mantegna's brill performance as kind-hearted mobster Ginelli ("He was a mook, but he was my mook") whose fate is left unclear in the film (he gets murdered in the book, rather unconvincingly).

King once wanted the late John Candy to star in the film as Richie, the lawyer who loses weight from a gypsy curse, stating that it'd save his life. The role ended up going to Robert Burke in a fatsuit.

The author (who has his name above the title of the film) has another of his obvious cameos, this time as a pharmacist. The film shortens the best part of the book (Richie tracking down the gypsies and getting Ginelli to terrorise them) and adds a gorier ending.

The Night Flier was one of the better films of this period, about a journalist (played by the always reliable Miguel Ferrer) tracking down a vampire who likes to fly in a private plane.

There aforementioned sequel to Carrie (The Rage: Carrie 2) had little connection to the original apart from a cameo by Amy Irving.


Who says suave vampires are a thing of the past?

The 90's also saw a large number of King's stories (especially his longer books) turned into TV miniseries, including It and The Stand. While these TV versions are not without their appeal, the restrictions of network TV mean they all lose much of the depth and intensity of the books they are based on. The Stand was quite impressive, but King should probably have listened to his own advice when he said, "I just can't see the end of the world being brought to you by mouthwash and toilet tissue".

The exceptions to this slump were two films by Frank Darabont, who had made a short film of King's The Woman in the Room (based on King's own experience with his mother dying from cancer) back when he was an amateur filmmaker. The first of his feature films was The Shawshank Redemption (1994), based on the non-supernatural tale Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption from Different Seasons. The prison drama wasn't a big hit at the time, but has gained a huge following since and regularly turns up near the top of lists of the best movies of all time.
Darabont followed it in 1999 with an adaptation of King's serialised novel, The Green Mile. Darabont was eager to adapt the story as soon as it was published (he had to wait to read each instalment just like everybody else). As with Shawshank, Darabont stayed extremely faithful both to the story and King's prose. While some changes were made (such as Paul learning of Coffey's innocence through a vision rather than detective work) most elements were kept, including the prologue and epilogue (with an immortal mouse, Mr. Jingles). Some of the changes make for a more satisfying story, such as Wild Bill being awake when he receives his just desserts.
The only problems with the film are the same ones the book had (namely, why don't the guards try a little harder to save the life of a man who is not only innocent but also a miracle worker?). The story is also somewhat unoriginal, bearing a remarkable resemblance to the Amazing Stories episode Life on Death Row (coincidently directed by frequent King collaborator Mick Garris).

The ensemble cast is uniformly excellent, with Tom Hanks giving another effortlessly layered performance. Originally, they planned to put makeup on Hanks so he could play the older version of his character, but the decision was made to go with an older actor instead.

Michael Clarke Duncan was nominated for an Oscar (interestingly, even though Duncan was recommended by friend Bruce Willis for the role, he had to take acting lessons to convince people he was right for it). Duncan was made to look taller through such old school tricks as standing on boxes.

While some critics found the film too similar to Shawshank, and therefore a disappointment, it's quite a different film (though there were many jokes about Darabont getting typecast as a director of Stephen King prison dramas). King attended the premiere of the film, despite almost dying in an accident just months earlier. The film was the box office success that Shawshank wasn't.


Now don't be making no more bad Steve King movies, ya hear?

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