Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Sh!#ting on the Classics: Stephen King Movies

by JB
When properly adapted, Stephen King’s books make GREAT movies, but I could not resist the temptation to shit on some of the AWFUL ones. I only hope that in doing this, I haven’t accidentally unleashed a murderous alien Poo Monster.

Stephen King has been called the McDonald’s of horror literature: not very nutritious and definitely not good for you, but tasty, filling, and you always know what you are going to get. One can hardly argue with his success. At 64, he has published 48 novels and innumerable short stories. In fact, King is so prolific, I often wonder if he writes these books in his sleep. That actually sounds like the plot of a below average Stephen King novel: while a famous author sleeps, boogiemen write his horror stories for him. Little goo-covered boogiemen… who kill!

More than 35 of King’s works have been adapted to the movies so far, and I am not even counting original screenplays, television miniseries, or sequels. Just like McDonald’s, the filming of his books has become a franchise: “Over 50 Billion Scared.”

Today, I will be shitting on what I call… The Dark Half.

Maximum Overdrive (1986)

Not just written by Stephen King, but directed by him as well!

Patrick and I spoke about this film on our Worst Horror Movies podcast a year ago. This film features bad acting, amateurish special effects, ludicrous dialogue, mean-spirited sequences, and a plot lifted from Night of the Living Dead. It might fall into the category of “so bad, it is good,” but this film is not “good” bad. It is not even “bad” bad. It happens to be “shit” bad. “Shitty shit shit bad shit bad bad bad bad” bad.

The film’s dumb premise: all the machines in the world go crazy and start killing people. In one of the film’s more risible sequences, a murderous Coke machine magically develops the ability to shoot its soda cans at cannonball speeds. In another gruesome scene, a rogue, driverless steamroller flattens an entire little league team. Someone named Bryan over at the IMDB wrote that the steamroller bit was his favorite scene, so we can all start praying for Bryan’s soul.

King now admits he was “coked out of his mind” when he made the film. If you have ever been curious to see a film from a director coked out of his mind, check out Maximum Overdrive. Or any film by Michael Bay.

The soundtrack is by AC/DC… because those guys only score MASTERPIECES.

Pet Sematary (1989) and Firestarter (1984)

Considering the sheer number of pages devoted to childhood in King’s works, these two awful films feature some incredibly callous violence against children. I expect the good people of Hollywood to scare me without harming children. When we go to horror films, we leave the children at home; let us also LEAVE THEM OUT OF THE FILM.

Pet Sematary spends twenty minutes convincing the audience that Gauge, the focus of the film, is the cutest little moppet who ever lived. The filmmakers then run him over with a truck. (“Second Best Scary Movie Scene EVER,” I imagine Bryan at IMDB rushing to post).

FULL DISCLOSURE:  Patrick considers Pet Sematary one of the scariest movies ever made, due to a subplot featuring the mom’s crazy sister Zelda. When we get a little closer to Halloween, I am going to publish Patrick’s home phone number in one of my columns, so all of you loyal blog readers can call him up late at night and try out your cool Zelda impressions. Deal? Say it with me, “Never get out of bed again! NEVERGETOUTOFBEDAGAIN!” What a hilarious yet innocent Halloween prank.

FULLER DISCLOSURE: I actually like the moment late in the film when someone stabs Zombie Gauge (spoiler alert—oops) and in a plaintive voice he cries, “No fair.”

Firestarter involves a pyrokinetic Drew Barrymore fresh out of rehab and a maniacally overacting George C. Scott (is there any other kind?) as a crazy Native-American Vietnam Vet (is there any other kind?) trying to kill her. You know you are in trouble when a movie’s plot revolves around a character’s wish to kill a child while STARING INTO THAT CHILD’S EYES AT THE EXACT MOMENT OF HER DEATH. I have not checked, but I am willing to bet that this is our IMDB friend Bryan’s third favorite Scary Movie scene. And the reason he is on a list somewhere.

Dreamcatcher (2003)

This film starts so promisingly: great cast, interesting premise, and some of the best cinematography I have ever seen in a horror film. It takes a full forty minutes for this film to go into the crapper—literally.

Those first forty minutes are interesting, as King’s previous works are thrown into a blender set to “frappe.” We get the men who have been lifelong pals (It, The Tommyknockers, The Body), the clairvoyant idiot man-child (The Stand, The Green Mile), the dangerously psychotic government employee (The Stand, The Dead Zone), telekinesis used by everyday shmoes (Carrie, The Shining, The Dead Zone, The Stand) the intrusion of endless flashbacks (The Stand, It, Apt Pupil), the inhospitable snowy setting (The Shining), dead dogs (Cujo), and the picturesque but quietly foreboding Maine setting (almost every goddamn book King ever wrote).

But this is a fundamentally schizophrenic film that begins as a tale of four good friends sharing a special gift and ends as the bastard mutant offspring of Outbreak, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Lethal Weapon, and CHUD.

These buddies go up to a cabin together every winter, but on this trip they meet a stranger hiding a poop monster. He sits on the toilet and the monster comes out of his ass. It looks like a turd with big, sharp teeth. The Poo Monster bites the genitals off the one friend obsessed with Viagra (because irony). The turd belongs to a space alien who wants to take over the world. The space alien possesses the body of one of the men so he can have Gollum/Smeagol-like conversations with himself in a British accent. Morgan Freeman plays an army colonel who is retiring tomorrow and wants to kill everyone. I am not making any of this up.

FULL DISCLOSURE: It is nice to see Morgan Freeman playing a villain again after twenty years of playing the avuncular narrator. In this film he has a weird “Army ’fro” and crazy, bushy eyebrows that make him look like a Dr. Seuss character.

One of the many reasons this film was not a success must be its unfortunate title, which has little to do with the film itself. The only significance of “dreamcatcher” here is that the boys once made dreamcatchers with their handicapped friend when they were all children.  I guess it is a METAPHOR.

BETTER YET: King adaptations Carrie, The Shining, Stand By Me, The Dead Zone, Misery, The Shawshank Redemption, and The Mist are all great films. Stephen King did not write the screenplays for any them. King has an uncanny grasp of what works on the page (like METAPHORS). Yet he has almost no concept of what works on screen.

(Like angry Poo Monsters.)


  1. I can't think of any movie that has a bigger drop off than Dreamcatcher. I loved the first half, but the second half is a catastrophe. I haven't read the book, so I wonder if it does the same thing. Keep up the good work; I absolutely love these Shitting on the Classics posts.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, JC. I promise to continue writing the column until my heart stops, and I become a zombie bent on your destruction.

  3. Great post, JB. The dichotomy of Stephen King adaptations has always baffled me. I've never read the source material, but I was shocked at how bad Dreamcatcher became. I mean it's co-written by William Goldman and Lawrence Kasdan for crying out loud. I guess it goes to show you that you really can't polish a turd (bad pun completely intended).

    1. Dreamcatcher is an interesting case.
      Yes, it´s schizophrenic and has loads of other flaws. Yes, it goes downhill after the first hour.
      Most disappointing to me was the handling of the inner library in which the real Jonesy hides. This was a great idea in the book that should have handled better for the movie.
      But, for whatever reason, I like this film, I own it and whenever I stumble upon it on TV, I have to watch this strange mess.

  4. I've gone through a love/hate thing with Stephen King. sometimes I really love his books and other times I am angry at the payoff (or lack thereof) after investing 1000 pages on good faith. I find movies based on his work to be similar. I agree with your list, at least with the ones that I've seen. I remember going to see Dreamcatcher hoping it would make more sense than the novel did to me, and being very disappointed.

    And here's my confession: I saw The Shining when I was around 18 or 19 and didn't get much of anything out of it. I didn't loathe it or anything, but I did not enjoy it. Maybe it's one of those things that you need a little age and maturity to appreciate, so I should revisit it. I don't think I had the experience and film knowledge to know what I was watching then. That movie is well loved, and Jack Nicholson is always watchable.

    I think I find both King's novels and the films that are adapted from his work to be more miss than hit, especially these days. But when they hit, they really hit. I have hopes that one day they'll make a film based on "Cell" and that it will be as enjoyable as I found the novel.

    Great thoughts, as always, JB. Thanks, sir.

  5. I disagree with you on Maximum Overdrive. It's a fun piece of drive-in trash. Bad for you in the same way that pizza and cheap beer are bad for you, but still enjoyable in its own context.

    You can laugh at it, you can have fun with it, and you can even admire how far over the top parts of it are. You shouldn't take is seriously, certainly no one making the thing ever took it as seriously as the critics who complain about it.

    It's not good, but watched with a certain sense of humor it's also not that bad. I'll admit, this is one of those places where it's a personal preference, but I still think it has some value.

  6. Heath - I'm with you on Stephen King's books, even though I usually end up really liking them despite the disappointing endings. And I was REALLY with you on The Shining, which for years I thought was fine but certainly not the classic everyone made it out to be. Rewatching it in recent years, though, it's become one of my favorite horror movies. It's worth seeing again.

  7. Weirdo - As you point out, Maximum Overdrive is a totally subjective experience and depends on what the viewer wants to get out of the movie. I agree that it's bad in an entertaining way, but that doesn't mean it's not really, really bad. I think its reputation for being terrible is exaggerated, too, because it was the only movie directed by Stephen King, and expectations were higher (which also gives some people even more satisfaction when the movie fails); if it was just any bad movie, it would be forgotten. I don't really think any of it works non-ironically, though, so I'm with JB in calling it one of the worst King adaptations -- again, even more notable because King himself was calling all the shots.

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