Posts Tagged ‘Stephen King’

As a general rule of thumb, when you give Stephen King material the “Spielberg Treatment,” good things happen — just ask Rob Reiner, who did it twice and found critical and box office success on both occasions. Admittedly, the opportunities to make nominally “family-friendly” populist blockbusters based on novels by a guy billed as the “Master of Horror” are few and far between, but still — when you can find ’em, you gotta take ’em. Especially when there’s (for reasons I can’t really fathom, but that’s neither here nor there) a bona fide 1980s revival going on. So, yeah, in a very real sense, director Anthony Muschietti’s cinematic adaptation of It has all the pop culture stars aligned in its favor. And yet —

Plenty of other sure-fire “successes” that were served up equally easy slow pitches over the middle of the plate somehow managed to swing and miss, didn’t they? Not that it entirely deserves its decades-long slagging, but we’re still talking about Ishtar to this day with barely-stifled mockery and condescension. Every single obituary written for the late, great Michael Cimino just had to bring up Heaven’s Gate. And having the “hottest” couple Hollywood ever saw (at least at the time of its release) as its two co-stars wasn’t enough to convince anyone to spend their hard-earned money on a ticket to see Gigli. None of these films have much in common on paper, I suppose, other than the one thing that matters most — studio execs were absolutely sure they were going to be not just big, but huge  (and they were willing to spend a lot of money to prove how right about that they were), but audiences just didn’t care. There’s no such thing, in the final analysis, as a “guaranteed” cultural phenomenon.

And let’s face it — in the time between me seeing It and finally getting off my ass (or on it, as I guess would be more technically accurate) to review the damn thing, “cultural phenomenon” is precisely the status it’s graduated to. I saw it on Monday, it’s now Saturday, and in that short six-day span it’s gone from being one of the rarest creatures found in the Tinseltown jungle — a genuine fall season blockbuster — to the highest-grossing horror film of all time, surpassing the total cumulative take of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist in just its third weekend of wide release. That’s just plain nuts.

Astute followers of this site could be forgiven, then, at this point, for assuming that a negative review was forthcoming here as a matter of course — if most people like it then I probably won’t being a pretty fair summation of how things usually work around these parts — and I’ll be the first to admit that my inner cynic was battling hard against my largely- (and thankfully-) repressed sentimentalist streak for about the good first half or so of the film, but then something funny happened : my inner cynic, uncharacteristically, just gave up the fight. It had me beat. I shut up (not that I ever really talk during a movie, much less to myself), went with the flow, and damn near loved the thing.

And, hey, why not? Sure, I already knew the story — an evil clown (let’s be honest, they all are) who hangs out in a storm sewer (okay, they don’t all do that) named Pennywise (played by Bill Skarsgard) abducts a kid named Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott), kicking off a big ole mystery wherein Georgie’s older brother, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) and his gang of misfit friends decide to get to the bottom of not just the recent spate of disappearances in their hometown of Derry, Maine, but all the freaky and evil shit that’s been happening there for centuries — but the story, dare I say it, is almost surplus to requirements here. Flicks like this are all about invoking heavy-duty atmosphere, and it’s on that score that Muschietti and his small army of screenwriters come up trumps.

What sort of “atmosphere” are they shooting for, though, I hear you ask? Well, that by and large depends on how old you are, and the fact that you can see exactly how and why It would appeal to the two disparate age groups it’s geared towards is the surest sign that they got this film more or less exactly right. For the teens and tweens, everything here is metaphor for loss of innocence, the inevitable onset of puberty (and, eventually, adulthood), and all your other standard “coming-of-age” stuff (look for the most painfully obvious and overblown “fear of menstruation” scene you’ve ever seen in your life, with a whole goddamn bathroom full of blood), while for the grown-ups the whole thing is a bittersweet nostalgic lament for all we lost when we made the highly questionable decision (not that nature gave us much choice in the matter) to grow the fuck up. If you’re thinking “hey, that just sounds like E.T. or The Goonies with a creepy-ass clown,” I’m not going to say you’re wrong, but — really, it does work. I promise.

Much of that’s down to the cast, of course — child actors Lieberher, Scott, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard (who did this exact same thing already in Stranger Things), Wyatt Oleff, Jack Dylan Grazer, and Chosen (really? You’d do that to your own flesh and blood?) Jacobs all do superb work (particularly Lillis, who navigates her role as the lone girl in the group amazingly well), but the script gives almost all of these kids a bit more in terms of backstory than we’re used to in movies of this sort, probably owing to the extra “fleshing out” that the film’s “R” rating allows for. None of the Goonies kids were being molested by their fathers, for instance, as Lillis’ Beverly character is here, and there were no potential love (or at least crush) triangles among Elliott’s group of pals. Injecting these decidedly downbeat and “adult” themes into a movie of this sort could be trouble, of course, but you know what? Muschietti and his cast strike just the right notes with even their most combustible sub-plots and you end up liking these kids all the more precisely because of the sympathy you feel for them being forced to grow up too damn fast. Oh, and far as junior psychopaths go, Nicholas Hamilton’s Henry is the best we’ve seen in a popcorn flick in a long time — and even he’s given the dignity of some explanation as to why he’s such a disagreeable little bastard.

Still, even for all this effusive praise, who are we kidding? When you crank out a review this late in the game, chances are that anyone reading it has already seen the movie in question — and it seems like everybody in the world has already seen It. So, yeah, even if you trust my judgment as a critic implicitly (as if), nothing I say here is going to get you out to the theater to give this a look because 90-plus percent of the folks reading this have already done so. Tell you what, though — there’s surely no shame in seeing something this well-done again, is there? And the more I think about It, the more I become convinced that I’m probably going to end up doing exactly that myself.

 

This has been a rough week indeed for comics fans. Already reeling from the too-soon departures of underground legends Jay Lynch and Skip Williamson, just hours ago news broke of the death of Bernie Wrightson, whose lavishly creepy illustrations haunted the imaginations — and found their way into the nightmares — of generations of readers. Arguably (hell, maybe even inarguably) the premier horror artist of our times, the esteemed Mr. Wrightson was a pre-eminent innovator and consummate craftsman whose painstaking attention to even the smallest of details made all the difference in the world and elevated his work from being “merely” great to being both great and memorable. But don’t just take my word for it, feast your eyes on some of his grimly lush renderings and decide for yourself :

As you can clearly see, Wrightson (who for many years omitted the “e” at the end of his first name and signed his work “Berni”) was a master of all mediums, from the brush to gray markers to pen-and-ink to washes to duotone paper to painting — you name it, he tried it, and always with resounding success. He really was just that good.

Wrightson began his professional career in 1966 working as an illustrator for his hometown Baltimore Sun newspaper, but after meeting legendary comics and fantasy artist Frank Frazetta at a convention he felt sufficiently inspired to give comics a try, and in 1968 was hired on by DC, where his work began appearing regularly in the House Of Mystery and House Of Secrets horror anthology series. Similar work for Marvel followed on “of-a-piece” titles such as Chamber Of Darkness and Tower Of Shadows, but his “big break” came in 1971 when he and writer Len Wein created the most famous “muck monster” character of them all, Swamp Thing, for a one-off Victorian-era story in House Of Secrets #92.  The strip proved to be so popular that Swampy was given his own series, complete with a revamped, then-modern origin, and Wrightson illustrated the first ten issues of Swamp Thing before signing on with Warren Publishing in 1974, where he put his then-positively-exploding talents to use on both original stories and adapted works (most notably of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft) for legendary black-and-white mags such as Creepy and Eerie.

The mid-’70s ushered in a new chapter, with Wrightson and studio-mates Jeff Jones, Barry Windsor-Smith, and Michael W. Kaluta expanding their reach beyond comics and into commercial art, but he never left the funnybooks behind completely, and his 1983 graphic novel adaptation of George A. Romero and Stephen King’s Creepshow led to a sustained and productive working relationship with King that saw him produce original illustrations for the books Cycle Of The WerewolfWolves Of Calla, and the restored edition of the classic The Stand. 1983 also saw the publication, via Dodd, Mead, and Company, of a deluxe edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein complete with nearly 50 pen-and-ink illustrations that Wrightson had spent seven years producing and that many consider to be the pinnacle of his masterful use of line and shadow. Here’s just a sample :

In 1985, Wrightson and writer Jim Starlin oversaw Marvel’s Heroes For Hope, an all-star “jam” benefit comic for African famine relief, and in 1986 they did the same for DC with Heroes Against Hunger, beginning a long and fruitful collaborative partnership that saw them team up on the highly-regarded mini-series The Weird and Batman : The Cult for DC and The Punisher : P.O.V. for Marvel in ensuing years. A wide range of card game, film design, and commercial work followed on from there, as well and continued comics work for publishers such as Heavy Metal (the character of Captain Sternn in the Heavy Metal film was a Wrightson creation), Dark Horse, IDW, and Bongo until his retirement this past January due to health issues following brain surgery.

Bernie Wrightson — incomparable talent, winner of too many industry awards to mention, and delineator of gorgeous grotesqueries for  a half-century — lost his long battle with brain cancer on March 18, 2017, aged 68. He is preceded in death by his first wife, undergound comix cartoonist and “Big Two” colorist Michele Wrightson, and is survived by wife Liz, sons John and Jeffrey, and stepson Thomas. He cast a long and darkly beautiful shadow over the lives of comics and horror fans around the globe, and his untimely passing casts the longest one of all. Thank you, good sir — may you rest in peace as surely as your work will continue to cause sleepless nights for years to come.

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It has to be said — Netflix instant streaming has been keeping me busy this Halloween season (yes, we now have a “Halloween season” just like we’ve got a “Christmas season” — the key difference being that this is a season I actually like), and late last night I indulged in another round of horror nostalgia by watching Children Of The Corn, a movie that positively terrified the living shit out of me when I was a kid, for the first time in — Christ, I don’t know how long.

I figured it probably had to be worth another go, right? After all, it wouldn’t have spawned a veritable army of tenth-rate direct-to video sequels and prequels — the most recent being 2011’s truly atrocious Children Of The Corn : Genesis — if there wasn’t at least some kernel of coolness or creepiness buried in there somewhere, right?

And maybe there is. In Stephen King’s original short story. But not in this limp flick.

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To be sure, adapting this for the big screen probably seemed like a no-brainer back in 1984 : the name “Stephen King” was box office gold at the time, and the glut of poorly-done movies based on his work really hadn’t hit yet. When we thought “Stephen King film” back then, we thought of CarrieThe Dead ZoneChristine, or, best of all, The Shining. The key difference being that each of those was helmed by a genuinely great director, a title which sadly can’t be applied to Children Of The Corn‘s Fritz KIersch (even if Tuff Turf is, admittedly, pretty fun stuff). Given a crackerjack idea to work with — boy preacher convinces all the kids in a small Nebraska corn-farming community to rise up and kill all the grown-ups — Kiersch somehow manages to make a sow’s ear out of a silk purse and delivers a lifeless, tepid celluloid translation of what’s probably the best of all the tales of terror in King’s seminal best-seller Night Shift.

Poor casting doesn’t help matters much, either — okay, sure, John Franklin is solid enough as chief “bad seed” Isaac, but beyond that the pickings are pretty slim : Courtney Gains, who plays his right hand-man (excuse me, boy) Malachi, can stand there and scowl pretty well but never should have been allowed to open his mouth, and as for the young couple who wanders into the midst of this murderous heartland revival, well — let’s just say that Linda Hamilton (well before hitting the jackpot in the biggest divorce settlement in California state history) is a long way from her career-defining turn as Sarah Connor here and Peter Horton comes off as the kind of smug yuppie asshole you’d like to kill personally (and slowly and painfully, I might add) — you know, just like he did on thirtysomething.  Fair enough, “smug yuppie asshole you’d like to kill personally” describes every character on that show, not just his, but still —

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Isaac is compelling enough to keep you at least mildly interested in the proceedings throughout, along with the hope slowly burning in your heart that, even though it seems unlikely, Horton might die a gruesome death, but by the time “He Who Walks Behind The Rows” awakens and the corn comes to life, the whole thing starts to seem too — well, corny to take very seriously. Which would all be fine and good if Kiersch were playing things tongue-in-cheek throughout, but given that he opts for the straight-forward approach, the film’s “climactic” final act just comes off as being uninspired at best, embarrassing at worst. I might even call it cringe-worthy, to be honest, but cringing would require a level of active viewer involvement that this movie just can’t bring itself to have the power to muster up. It’s all too rote, clinical, and lazy to manage to elicit any sort of a reaction whatsoever.

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Maybe I’m being a bit harsh on a film that, for some reason, a good number of horror fans consider to be something of a minor “classic,” but when I wrote about movies that don’t stand the test of time particularly well in my review of Jack’s Back the other day, this is exactly what I was talking about.  I probably should have left well enough alone with this one and just allowed by childhood memories of it to continue to shape my adult perceptions.

Oh well. Too late now.