Posts Tagged ‘Stephen King’

Well, whaddya know : Stephen King seems to be experiencing one of those mini-resurgences in the overall pop culture zeitgeist that happens for/to him every now and then (the last probably being in 2007 with the box-office success of both The Mist and 1408), usually just at the point where it looks as though all the material that the prolific (to the point of being ubiquitous) horror scribe has cranked forth from his apparently-bottomless imagination has been mined for all it’s worth.  Granted, new King adaptations are almost always debuting somewhere on TV, the silver screen, or various streaming services, but their sheer and constant volume pretty much guarantees that few, if any, will have much impact beyond the author’s admittedly-large fan base — which is usually more than enough to ensure that they make at least a nice, tidy profit, I’m sure, but I doubt that most Hollywood observers would have predicted that It would become the highest-grossing horror film of all time, or that its runaway success would have a “coat-tail effect” that would elevate the movie we’re here to discuss today, Gerald’s Game, well above the rest of Netflix’s  direct-to-streaming offerings in the public consciousness. And yet here we are — and I have to say, it’s not such a bad place to be.

But why are we here? That’s a good question, but on the whole I think the simple explanation is that when good directors get ahold of King-related projects, good things happen, and when mediocre or lousy directors get ahold of them, mediocre or lousy things happen — and both It and Gerald’s Game are very well-directed indeed.

In regards to Gerald’s Game in particular, though, what else would we expect from Mike Flanagan? I’ve gushed over a number of his previous offerings on this very site, and I’m firmly among the throng of thousands (if not more) who have struck him with the label, wanted or not, of “one of the most promising horror film auteurs to emerge on the scene in quite some time.” Hush, especially, seems like a perfect “dry-run” for a production of this nature that revolves around a small and insular cast and takes place in an equally small and insular location, so yeah — I had full confidence that he was the “man for the job” from the moment I heard that he’d landed it, and geez, it sure feels good to be right for a change.

Here’s the run-down : vaguely dissatisfied housewife Jessie Burlingame (played by Carla Gugino, and yes, everything you’ve heard is true — this is a career-defining performance for her) and her successful but sorta-asssholeish husband, Gerald (Bruce Greenwood, who gets more from a part that requires him to spend pretty much the entire film in his underwear than most other actors could manage) are headed for a weekend country-house getaway that’s intended to “spice up” their flailing love life when things, as they have a wont to do in flicks of this nature, go horribly awry. After handcuffing Jessie to the bed (now you know the “game” in question) and refusing to release her despite her protestations, Gerald sucks down one Viagra too many and drops dead of a heart attack. The keys are out of reach, so Jessie can’t free herself, but that might be the least of her worries when a hungry wild dog that she’d earlier taken pity on (and fed a raw $200 steak to) makes his way into the house and starts snacking on hubby’s still-warm corpse. And all this before the hallucinatory flashbacks start kicking in.

In her mind’s eye (one little boy, one little man — funny how tiiiiiime flieeees), Jessie is visited/confronted by not only a reanimated Gerald, but also by an idealized, more confident and liberated version of herself, and they both take her on a less-than-sentimental journey through her own troubled past that shows how the compromises she’s made with others and, most crucially, with herself led her to the predicament she finds herself in today. Her troubled mother (Hush star and Flanagan spouse Kate Siegel) and troubled and troubling father (holy shit! That’s Henry Thomas!) loom large here, and there’s some seriously disturbing shit that goes down, but rest assured, as we cut back and forth to current events, there’s no let-up — the emotional and psychological horrors of the past meet their counterpart in the visceral physical horrors of the present and if you feel the need to take a breather or two from the quiet-but-palpable relentlessness of the proceedings you’re sure to be in plenty good company : I’ll bet you anything that the only “button” on Netflix getting more action that “play” on Gerald’s Game  is “pause” on Gerald’s Game.

Gugino, as I believe I may have already mentioned, absolutely kills it here, and straight-up carries the entire film. She has to. And while she only bares, oh, about half her body, goddamn if her entire heart and soul aren’t on display throughout. It’s a nuanced performance that touches a lot of raw nerves, and the whole damn thing could probably use a “trigger warning” or whatever, but good God almighty can we loosen up the Academy’s rules finally and get streaming films some Oscar consideration? If so, she’d have “Best Actress” in the bag. The old “harrowing personal journey” has seldom been either this harrowing or this personal.

Other stuff worth a mention : Chiara Aurelia delivers a breakout performance as Jessie’s 12-year-old self; Flanagan himself both wrote the screenplay and did the editing; gore-hounds won’t walk away disappointed; oh, and Twin Peaks fans? Carel Struycken’s in here, too. And is, of course, cryptically awesome.

Are you sold on giving this a go yet? Because, really, you should be. Gerald’s Game is a film that takes you places — specifically, to places you don’t want to go. To places where you wish Jessie had never been forced to go herself. And it offers no easy answers as to her continued pattern of victimization. You’ll be wishing for her to get out of her handcuffs, of course, but she’s shackled by so much more — and the question of whether or not she can break those unseen bonds, reclaim her own identity, and redeem her existence is the real central conflict that Flanagan and Gugino are liming throughout the film. It hurts to watch, it really does — but you’re never gonna forget it.

 

 

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.