To say, “I’m excited about this,” is the understatement of the year.
I’m deep into making two documentaries. Part of that process is watching other documentaries and immersing myself in the work of better filmmakers. Like Amy Berg, Errol Morris and Alex Gibney. So, we’ve created a website to talk about them.
Intro video below.
Follow along at Crimedoc.org, and tell me what to watch!
Spoilers below. Beware.
Sixty seconds into Predators and I'm already in mourning for the Adrien Brody action career we never got. He could have been Bourne. Or nipping at Bruce Willis's heels, appearing in every puncher and shooter that pops up on VOD.
Brody's grizzled voice works for me. It may not for everyone. It was certainly a surprise when he was cast in this film, but then again, many of his post-Oscar roles have been surprising. I was his assistant for a short time on a small movie, and he struck me as someone who searched for interesting roles, wherever they might be. And sometimes they're in bad movies.
Not that this movie's bad. I'd rank it above Predator 2 and both Alien vs. Predator movies. The original is still the series' standard-bearer.
By the time this film was made, the Predator mythology was a complete mess. Only the original film was well-reviewed and the most recent Alien vs. Predator films were fun, but glorified fan fiction. In many ways, Rodriguez and company made the right decision. By siloing this story away from the previous entries, they made the cinematic equivalent of a bottle episode. It's set on a "Predator planet" that works like an alien game preserve. Prey are parachuted in from the sky, and the predators park their spaceships to hunt them. Although production on this film did not start until early 2009, Robert Rodriguez actually wrote an early draft of the script in 1994.
Eight years ago, I vaguely recall being familiar with about half of Predators' cast. Now, it's easy to see how great it is. The 2010 group assembled by producer Robert Rodriguez and director Nimrod Antal is thick with now-famous faces. Alice Braga anchors her own television series, Queen of the South. Walton Goggins, who has long had an illustrious television career, made his mark on the feature world in Tarantino's The Hateful Eight. And Mahershala Ali has starred memorably in Marvel's Luke Cage - and in the little indy that could, Moonlight, which won best picture only a few years ago.
Rodriguez regular Danny Trejo is also a welcomed addition. He's in the same age bracket as the stars of the original 1987 film, and yet he could still hold his own here as a heavy from the Los Zetas cartel. The same will probably be true in twenty years. Trejo's badassery is boundless.
All the characters in this movie seem to be... mostly okay with the fact that they were thrown out of a plane. Into the middle of an alien jungle. I would not be.
Before we hit the fifteen minute mark, one character asks, "What if we are dead?" Raising the possibility that these characters have awakened in some sort of metaphysical purgatory. I'd be open to any theory along those lines. It's rumored that Shane Black's The Predator won't ignore any of the movies in the series. Rather, it's going to find some way to unite them.
There are several types of predators in this film and one is significantly bigger than the others. I'm curious how this will dovetail with the giant predator in Shane Black's new reboot/requel. We don't see a predator until about the forty minute mark. And the predator we do see is dead. It's an interesting choice to hide the most famous face in the movie for so long. I'm still drawing a blank about why this particular predator is alive and yet tied up like a hog. Later in the film, it's explained the larger predators hunt the smaller ones. But why wouldn't they just kill this poor guy?
The arrival of Lawrence Fishburne at the halfway point again reinforces how strong this film's cast is. And the near-immediate reversal that he's a threat is awesome. Fishburne is so capable of portraying a character with great strength of intellect. A bedrock of psychological health. Here, it's very entertaining to see him portray someone with psych issues.
The pairing between Rodriguez and Antal is a good one. I'd love to see another outing even if outside of the predators series. What other film features a sword-wielding yakuza in single combat with the predator? When Royce (Adrien Brody) makes a deal with the smaller predator, it's clear there's a little more going on here than you might expect. Plus, it allows us to have a predator versus predator battle. It's this fusion of plot and action that gives Predators a leg up over dumber action movies. There's an extra helping of story that keeps things interesting, especially towards the end.
The thing that makes Predator successful also ultimately makes Predators successful. Like Alien, it successfully unifies science fiction and horror. The result is essentially a very smart horror film infused with action.
You're up next, Shane Black.
Here’s an excerpt from a book I’ve been writing in between screenplays. When I wrote this first chapter more than a year ago, tensions with North Korea were far less pronounced than they are right now. It makes me excited to keep working.
The distant memories of books like My Side of the Mountain and Hatchet make their way into this story. Those books held my fascination as a young boy. I remember reading them in class, the book tucked just underneath my wood-and-metal desk so Mrs. Turner wouldn’t see I was ignoring her.
She saw anyway.
When young boys imagine making their way in the world, there’s a specificity to it that would surprise most adults. It wasn’t merely that Sam Gribley lived in the woods on his side of the mountain; it was the tools he brought with him and how, through trial and error, he taught himself to use them to make clothes and food. Using your hands, using your muscles and, above all, using your brain to anticipate needs and prepare for them.
In Hatchet, it was all of those things paired with added, more realistic danger that held me rapt. In Night Fighters, the boys live alone amidst the greatest danger. And unlike Hatchet, there’s no hope of rescue.
Max Frazier hit the bottom of his boot, knocking off mud. The rains of the previous night had tamed a month’s worth of dust. The daily trip to the tree line was much more pleasant without a dust mask, and he made the most of the morning walk by breathing deeply.
In his right hand hung a machete with a wide blade. The wooden handle was duct taped together and wide enough to be wielded with both hands. His younger brother Gordon followed on his flank, eyes poised towards the tightly packed old-growth trees. They formed a frontline on the edge of the property.
“Let’s cut ten from that patch,” Max said, pointing towards a crop of hybrid poplars.
They were indeed a crop. The cultivated trees could grow up to eight feet annually, if they got enough sun. This summer they’d enjoyed plenty. The boys planted many of them each year, replenishing the previously harvested patches of poplars. Wood was a renewable resource they could not survive without. Not easily. Max and Gordon’s father first planted with the intention of harvesting them for firewood each winter. The boys needed them for other reasons.
Gordon unsheathed his own blade, pulling it over his shoulder from a sling on his back. It was shorter than Max’s machete with a smaller handle easily gripped with one hand. It was tactical black from the tip of the blade down to the hilt. Only the sharp edge revealed gleaming metal, and even there, just a sliver peeked through. From a loop on his belt, he freed a splitting maul. It was a tool that featured a sledge-hammered head on one side. It tapered down into a wedge sharp enough to split a bull’s skull. A fat axe. He remembered calling it that as a child.
“These should be hard enough,” Matt said. “Like those others on the north side.”
Gordon nodded. He was the younger of the two.
The brothers assumed their now familiar roles. Gordon hooked his maul high around the young trunk of a poplar and pulled it down, wrapping a leather-gloved hand around it. Max squared off with his machete and chopped at the base of the tree. Chips of white and green wood flew, landing quietly on the forest floor as Max made his way around the base. His steel ate straight through the young tree.
With one poplar felled, the brothers moved on to trees two, three, seven, ten. That was their number for the morning and they reached it within an hour. Another twenty minutes was spent blading the baby branches from the thin trunks. Trunks that were too thin for firewood, or mending fences, or much of anything.
Each brother bundled five poplar trunks with leather straps, sheathed their weapons, and shouldered their half of the wooden load. The walk back to the house was two clicks down the mountain.
Max and Gordon sat on the roof of their two-story house. The rake was steep. To sit safely, they had built a long, roomy platform out of two-by-fours. It stretched across both sides of the roof, providing a high hideaway from the forest floor. The vantage point also gave them a clear line of sight down the mountain. From their perch, they could see all who approached, friend or foe. The last three years, only foes approached.
Each boy laid a poplar trunk across his lap and made quick work of chopping each end down to an angular point. It didn’t have to be perfect. Just functional. Sharp enough to stab.
“Is summer over?” Gordon asked.
“Yes, I think,” Max answered. “The heavy rains will come soon.”
The boys kept working.
They weren’t sure of the days, exactly. In the beginning, they hadn’t thought to count them. When Gordon was nine and Max thirteen, their parents withdrew from the world. It was something they had planned for a decade. In what their dad called the Second Atomic Age, fascist nation states across the globe became nuclear powers. North Korea, the Islamic State and the New Cossack Hetmanate were beating the drums of war, promising to annihilate any country that “violated sovereignty,” as one mutually issued statement declared. Although the language was vague, the threats seemed real, rising above the decades of posturing and bluster from North Korea. All three had the capability to deliver a nuclear payload halfway around the world. It was enough to convince the family to execute the plan.
The plan was to create a safe haven in the mountains of North California outside of Crescent City. After Gordon’s birth, they had worked to build a place of escape. It became the two-story house upon which the boys currently sat. Methodically, they built, adding amenities that could be maintained independently in the event of war. They chose a location near a subterranean creek, and in a muggy climate hospitable to farming. They stockpiled food rations, medicine, weapons and ammunition that would sustain and protect them in the event of a societal collapse.
They sold their house in the city. Their neighbors thought they were crazy. No war had reached American shores for almost a century. The United States took the fight to the enemy, not the other way around. The Axis Powers hadn’t toppled the U.S. and neither had the Soviet Union. And the world was more peaceful because of it. Global military hegemony had resulted in the greatest period of international peacetime in history, and the United States was a relatively benevolent hegemon. The time of total war had passed into history. The world economy was far too interconnected for another World War, and short of that, nothing could challenge the safety of Americans in the continental United States.
Max’s dad was labeled a kook. Everyone pitied his young boys, envisioning their bleak future at the hands of such an irrational man. A father who chose to spend their college fund on military surplus, heirloom seeds, diesel fuel and solar technology. Who created detailed plans to train his boys to fire small arms and light weapons and to fight with knives. To hunt and fish and live uncivilized. They would certainly die in a shootout with the federal government. If they didn’t shoot each other first.
Max blew on the sharpened end of a poplar, wiping it clean. He stood up and looked down, holding the spear in two hands. Arching back, he volleyed the timber javelin off the roof. It flew in a wide, flat arc before landing tip first and plunging into the softened earth. The tip pointed back towards him. It needed to point away.
“I’ll fix it later,” he said.
The neighbors had been wrong. After a year in their mountain home, the Fraziers had gathered for a family meeting. In a measured tone, Dad told them news that was spreading like wildfire. An intercontinental ballistic missile, armed with a nuclear warhead, had struck Washington, D.C. The Capitol was decimated and the President was dead.
Anarchy is coming, he said.
Their planning had not been in vain, and the boys’ training continued. Though the future was uncertain, they would know how to defend themselves, be trained to hunt, farm and fish, and by the time they were eighteen, their father would have them fully trained to survive in any scenario in which humans could live. He would pass all of his knowledge to his sons. All of it by the time they were men.
But both parents had died before Max was even sixteen.
It happened quickly. Their mother took ill. Antibiotics helped in the beginning, and antivirals didn’t seem to help at all. The life their dad had envisioned on the mountain began to crumble. As his beloved hovered near death, their dad made a radical decision. He had to seek help outside of the compound, down the mountain and deep into the unknown.
He left and never returned.
Max and Gordon cared for their mother as best they could. A week after their dad left, she died in her sleep. The boys buried their mother. Six months later, with no signs of their father’s return, they buried him, too. The brothers, then fifteen and eleven years old, were left to survive on their own. And they had managed to do just that for almost a year.
After transforming the rest of the trunks, Max led the way down in front of the house. In the oncoming path, ten javelins sprouted from the earth. The air stank.
“Closer than last time,” Max said.
Each boy grabbed a poplar pole and rocked it back and forth until freeing it from the ground. They re-staked each pole, slanting them in the opposite direction, away from the house, towards a legion of trees that towered down the side of the mountain. Their mountain. The new stakes were added to hundreds of other stakes. A wide garden of dead wood jutting out of the North California rock and dirt. An army wielding polearms to protect the young heirs of a forest fortress.
The stakes functioned like chevaux de frise, protective spikes used by medieval armies to defend against cavalry assaults. They surrounded the property on all sides in concentric ovals. The house was at the center, surrounded by a ten-foot high concrete wall. Then, inner ovals were comprised of the newest stakes, and each larger oval contained increasingly older wood, all pointing outward. The outermost stakes were proof of the scheme’s success. From them, dead bodies hung, their torsos run through. Some looked like they were still standing.
Scarecrows, Gordon called them.
Sometimes they still moved.
The brothers pulled back on ropes connected to a section of spikes that was ten feet wide. It was one of only a few sections that remained mobile, allowing access out of their parent’s property. They slipped through the opening with their weapons drawn.
They readied for an attack.
The outing was a routine. Each day, they walked along the south perimeter, looking for bodies. At night, all charged up from a day of sunlight, an enemy onslaught would run up the mountain towards the moon. They would meet the spikes at full speed, impaling themselves in the process. Sometimes a spike would catch them right in the face. Or the gut. They tried to position the spikes at a good height, knowing they were dumb enough to run right into them. If they ran past the first row, more spikes awaited, each whittled point eager to skewer them in the dark.
Max and Gordon walked along the perimeter, watching for movement.
One enemy showed signs of life. Run through at the shoulder, he hung down sideways, peddling his feet against the ground in a futile attempt to stand. His hair was red and matted with half-dried dirt, like roots dangling from a freshly pulled weed.
Gordon readied his splitting maul.
He walked over and looked in the hanged man’s face. The eyeballs were still intact. The jaw had been torn off long before, leaving only a rotten, leathery tongue to dangle from his throat. Gordon though he looked unique and, yet, he was simply the same as all the others. Same as all the dead who walked.
Gordon brought the maul sideways across the red-haired skull, shattering it.
They pulled the rest off the spikes and shoved them rolling down the hill.
Find out what horrors await you this summer on the big screen. Here’s a rundown of the fear-filled films I’m most looking forward to seeing in a dark, cold room.
After nearly forty years, Ridley Scott is back at the helm of a film called Alien. His landmark 1979 film of that name is one of my all-time favorites, a seminal film that synthesizes sci-fi with horror and then elevates that extraterrestrial lovechild into art. In 2012, Scott returned to this world with Prometheus, a very ambitious film that didn’t quite land everything it attempted. But it was entertaining nonetheless and it made me grateful to see Scott return to the world he created, this time with a blockbuster-sized budget. Alien Covenant will begin to bridge the time between Prometheus and the original Alien. And at 79 years old, Ridley’s still got it. I can’t wait.
This shot in my backyard, echoing earworms of plot details at me. I try to avoid being spoiled, but I did get a sense of what the movie might be, and the trailer for this film confirmed those whispers: this movie will be more horror/thriller than romance.
What is it? It’s a re-adaptation/reimagining (coughremakecough) of the novel A Painted Devil, a gothic romance novel about a wounded Union soldier taken in by a girl’s school in Virginia. It was famously adapted into a 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood. That flickerfest was ALSO called The Beguiled, a title so intriguing that the book was later re-published under the same name. This time, Sophia Coppola is at the helm and she, dear friends, is a different bird than the first film’s director, Don Siegel, who famously directed Dirty Harry. And it’s her take on this dark material that I’m most excited for.
It Comes at Night
Arthouse distributor A24 has earned my trust as tastemakers of the first order. They don’t specialize in genre films, but they’ve released some great ones, including The Witch, Ex Machina, Tusk and Under The Skin. That’s in addition to pulling down a Best Picture win for Moonlight earlier this year. So, they know what they’re doing.
Directed by Trey Edward Schultz, It Comes at Night stars Joel Edgerton as a father who has successfully protected his family against an unnatural threat while living in a remote cabin in the woods. They take in another family desperate for shelter. And paranoia creeps in.
Edgerton directed his own psychological thriller, The Gift, which turned out great. So I assume he also saw something great in this script. So, here’s hoping.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter
Another promising horror thriller from A24. I’m excited to see Mad Men actress Kiernan Shipka on the big screen alongside Emma Roberts. Both are incredible talents. I met Emma a few years ago while she was shooting American Horror Story in New Orleans and found her to be cool and super-sharp. She’s got a big career ahead of her and I love that she’s building it inside the horror genre.
I don’t know an enormous amount about this movie, but the trailer alone sells me. Also, A24.
This script made the 2015 Black List (the annual list of the best unproduced screenplays), and the trailer makes clear it’s a high-concept horror thriller. It’s directed by John R. Leonetti, the cinematographer who rode shotgun with horror master James Wan on The Conjuring, Insidious: Chapter 2, Dead Silence and Death Sentence before directing Annabelle, a prequel to The Conjuring. Can’t wait to see what he does with such a great script.
The Dark Tower
Was there any doubt this would make the list? I’ve avoided the trailers for this film so that it’s not in my head as I read Stephen King’s series. I don’t know how much this movie will spoil the books. It’s thought to be a mix of story from The Gunslinger and The Waste Lands with elements from The Wind Through The Keyhole. All I can do is enjoy the fantastic posters that feature Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, and keep reading.
I’d heard Universal was attempting to make a cinematic universe from their treasure trove of iconic horror characters - think Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolf Man, The Invisible Man - so, when I saw this film on their release slate, I assumed it would be another big-budget, origin-story entry into that budding world. So, surprised was I when cinema superhero Tom Cruise was cast - and the He-Mummy turned out to be a She-Mummy.
The trailer makes it out to be as much action as horror, similar to Dracula Untold, a film that took a critical beating, but I found a lot of bright points in it. I think Universal is still fine-tuning the look and feel of these films, but if you remember, so was Marvel in the early days. Iron Man was the first film that nailed the tone that has minted billions for Marvel, but go back and look at The Incredible Hulk. It’s technically a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but came before Iron Man and feels slightly different. I hope Universal finds their stride this time and we see a creatively and financially fruitful revival of their monsters. They’ve been stuck in a sarcophagus for too long.
“A prequel to a spinoff?” says you. “Hell, yeah,” says I. And a large part of my enthusiasm for this upcoming film is that David F. Sandberg directed it. Last year, he helmed Lights Out, one of my favorite theatrical experience of 2016. The trailer doesn’t give too much away, and I don’t want to know anymore. I love the idea of Annabelle and I’m pumped to see what suspense Sandberg brings to the franchise.
If I’ve missed some upcoming movies that you’re interested in, please tell me in the comments and I’ll check them out!
Director Jonathan Demme died this week. His long career is speckled with unique films across a wide spectrum of genres. But I loved him for two films: The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia.
While some critics may want to label The Silence of the Lambs a drama or thriller, it's really more than that. Yes, it's presented with the familiar trappings of a police procedural. But it is a horror film! With not one monster, but two. And if that's not enough to convince you that it should be on your shelf next to The Shining, then pay close attention to the violence and gore in the third act. Hannibal Lecter isn't just a slithering scarecrow. He’s a brutal killer that would give any slasher a run for their money.
And yet Silence isn't a slasher flick. It’s a different kind of horror. It’s a drama. And a thriller. And a character study of two star-crossed humans who end up needing each other. It’s a wondrous work of art that shows what can be done within the genre.
The horror genre gets a bad rap. It's dismissed as exploitative and gratuitous. And sometimes it is. Some of my favorite horror films are both of those things. When award season rolls around, you won't see many horror films among the nominees. There have been exceptions, most noticeably The Exorcist, which won two Oscars and a Best Picture nomination in 1973. It wasn’t until the 64th Academy Awards in 1991 that Silence of the Lambs became the first horror film to win Best Picture. In fact, it won all of the top five categories: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Demme was that director, and deservedly so. What he did with Silence was nothing short of amazing. He took a smart, terrifying book and turned it into a cinematic horror masterpiece. In the process, he brought to life two iconic characters: Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling. I’d argue serial killer Buffalo Bill is a third, given his resurrection by South Park and meme manufacturers across the internet. His scenes are certainly among the most quoted.
One of the film’s most prominent themes is the immoral way in which men treat women. Starling is repeatedly portrayed under the gaze of the men that surround her: her co-workers, her supervisors, and ultimately, Buffalo Bill. All of these men have advantages over her in head-to-head competition. In the most extreme example of this, Bill hunts Starling in the dark with the aid of night vision.
Law enforcement has long been a boys’ club. And yet Starling is a smart, driven disruptor, frequently outshining her fellows. Dr. Chilton, who heads the hospital where Lecter is incarcerated, is one of her creepiest admirers. He makes a pass at her that she declines. Yet, even though Chilton has 24/7 access to Lecter, it is Starling who truly connects with Lecter in only a few sessions. Starling is my favorite kind of feminist. She’s not trying to keep up with the boys; she beats them by just being herself.
The feminist themes of the film were well discussed upon its release, and in the quarter century since. There have also been accusations that Silence is homophobic, transphobic or both. Many of these accusations were targeted where almost all film criticism is targeted: the director’s chair.
And there Demme sat.
I think these accusations are demonstrably baseless. The film itself makes very clear Buffalo Bill is not actually transsexual. “There’s no correlation in the literature between transexualism and violence. Transsexuals are very passive,” Starling tells a caged Lecter, Bill’s former psychotherapist.
“Billy is not a real transsexual,” Lecter replies. “But he thinks he is. He tries to be.”
Further into the film, from beneath his now iconic mask, Lecter mentions to Senator Martin that Buffalo Bill was referred to him by another patient, Benjamin Raspail. “They were lovers, you see,” Lecter says, indicating that Bill might be gay. But later, when Starling enters Buffalo Bill’s lair, there are Polaroids of Bill with female strippers on his lap, offering more proof that he is not a simple, sexual caricature. Buffalo Bill may be a proper villain, but Demme did not craft him to ridicule gay men or transsexuals.
Rather, Buffalo Bill is more easily explained within the film’s more obvious feminist themes. Bill’s heinous acts are really an indictment of heterosexual men. Those men who cast their glares at little Clarice, the beautiful and small woman before them. Their glares are possessive: they seek to own her in some way, to exert authority or control over her. Buffalo Bill is the fullest, most horrible manifestation of this desire. “He covets,” as Dr. Lecter says. Bill wants to so thoroughly dominate women that he has to destroy their lives - the source of their will - to do it. It’s a trait Bill shares with real life killer Ted Bundy.
Remember all those male law enforcement officers that stare at Starling? They are the ones who created the nickname, “Buffalo Bill.” One of them explains the nickname by saying the killer “skins his humps.” They aren’t just calling it like it is. The nickname is an expression of their own misogyny. It’s based on their own thin misunderstanding of who the killer is. It’s also the reason they don’t solve the case. They’re too blind to see deeper into Jame Gumb’s psyche, accepting a knee-jerk, surface-level judgement about the killer as correct.
In author Thomas Harris’ book, there is evidence that corroborates Lecter’s statement about Buffalo Bill not being a transsexual, but thinking he’s one. A surgeon at Johns Hopkins is consulted about applicants for sexual reassignment surgery, and refuses to share the list with the FBI. We find out Jame Gumb did indeed apply for surgery, but was rejected because he hid violence in his past. It was determined that in the judgement of medical professionals, he wasn’t really a transsexual. Interestingly, there was a scene shot to this effect but it was ultimately not present in the final cut. (Which may have been for pacing reasons, rather than storytelling reasons…there’s no way to know).
In his Oscar acceptance speech, Demme remarked how fortunate he was to work with a story from Thomas Harris’s “extraordinarily moral and amazing book.” He thought he was making a picture with a clear moral viewpoint. And that view hasn’t changed.
In a 2014 interview with the Huffington Post, Demme is asked about the film and he speaks at length. “I regret that [in the movie], we weren’t clear enough. I know the information’s in there, but there’s a lot of information in there. Buffalo Bill wasn’t interested in…he didn’t wish to be another gender. He didn’t really have a sexual preference. He loathed himself….he wanted to transform himself so that there was no part of ‘him’ in the ‘new him.’ And becoming a woman…that was his method of doing it.”
Buffalo Bill (Jame Gumb) hated himself, and wanted to become something completely different.
In the aftermath of Silence of the Lambs release, Demme’s profile as a director grew. He could have made any film he wanted. He chose to make Philadelphia, the first major release to deal with AIDS and the injustices that surround it. Most of which affected the LGBT community.
It’s a film filled with tenderness and wit.
By all accounts, so was Demme.
I don’t remember the first time I saw The Shining.
I’ve seen Stanley Kubrick’s movie on the big screen many times, perhaps more than any other film. It is so visually compelling, wondrously operatic in its exploration of big spaces. And it’s always playing at midnight somewhere.
My instinct is to not say much here about Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. It's a topic that's been discussed to death. It's a film I happen to love and believe deserves discussion. It's also a film of such quality that it kept me from reading the novel for a very long time.
In fact, I’ve stayed away from reading many of King's greatest works because I've seen the film adaptations first. Now, I’m both embarrassed and proud to report that - after several failed attempts over the course of two decades - I finally made my way through Stephen King’s The Shining.
I'm going to focus on the many magical parts of King's novel that did not make it in to Stanley Kubrick's film. Yes, the faces of Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall rode shotgun with me on my trike ride throughout the Overlook Hotel. But there were also things that were new. Things now very special to me.
Ye Beware of Spoilers Below.
The Hedge Animals
They used to call the internet “The Information Super Highway.” Now, it’s the Information Spoiler Highway. And yet, I have somehow traveled untouched over the landmines buried just below its surface. From King’s first description of the animals, static and desperately in need of a trimming, I found them terrifying. And when they began to move, chasing Danny and Wendy and Hallorann, they became truly nightmare-inducing.
Why did Kubrick not include these? He was a gifted technician, and yet, even he would have had trouble with the technology of the day. Stop-motion techniques seem like they would be the best fit, or perhaps even animation. But Kubrick was such a perfectionist, I doubt these met his exacting visual standards.
What a powerful metaphor for evil. Wasps are creatures that cause great pain. And seemingly offered no benefit to the world. Bees produce honey and and pollinate flowers. Wasps are invaders that cause immense pain, and to children in particular. How many of you had a traumatic encounter with those winged demons as a child?
The wasp nest is such an effective analogy for both the hotel and Jack. Jack is a man who is sometimes filled with evil, particularly when he's been drinking. When we meet him at the beginning of King’s novel, he’s a man who has overcome that evil. But like the dead wasps that are still in the nest, Jack's demons are only lying dormant, ready to strike when you've written them off. In a similar way, the Overlook Hotel is a successful hotel. It's been in continuous operation for a very long time. But the many horrible things that have happened at the hotel (detailed in such vivid terms by King) lie dormant like dead wasps. “They, too, are dead,” Jack thinks. But the hotel's demonic history is not dead: and it lies in wait to destroy Danny and his family.
While the wasp nest is a powerful literary analogy, I don't know if it would be as cinematic as other aspects of King’s novel. And it would take up a great deal of screen time including the different beats of that storyline. And we already have the analogy of the Overlook Hotel itself to Jack Torrance’s psyche. Do you need another in a movie?
The game of Roque holds a certain fascination for me. It symbolizes upper-class life. It also seems like exactly the type of game middle-class people would play while on vacation at a hotel like the Overlook, imaging themselves to be upper class.
The Boiler, Baby
The boiler is an ever present nuclear bomb in the middle of the Overlook, ready to go off as soon as Jack allows. It is the physical manifestation of Jack's temper, a potentially fatal flaw that will kill anyone in striking distance - if Jack doesn't regularly keep it in check.
The Boiler Room itself reminds me of Freddy Krueger’s hellish home. There’s something so haunting about Jack finding the scrapbooks down in the boiler room, as if horrible memories are literal fuel for the hotel’s fire. It's a little on the nose, but I still found it terrifying.
Another major omission from Kubrick’s film is the explosion of the Overlook Hotel. This is the culmination of the boiler plot. While it is certainly a dynamic image, I don't think it is a particularly unique one. When I first started working in the film industry, I asked a producer, “What does everyone get tired of reading in scripts?” And he said, “Exploding houses.” It’s a filmic trope that’s been around since the silent era. So, I can understand why Kubrick wanted to rewrite it, taking the rest of the boiler plot with it.
"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."
The photos that you see above were not taken behind-the-scenes of The Shining. They are from my own childhood, taken by my father in the powdery winters of Wisconsin. Where I played as a child. Where we vacationed in the snow. So, when I watch The Shining, it’s as if I’ve lived there.
As if I’ve always lived there.
I did it. I finally tackled Salem's Lot. I can't think of another popular fiction property that I've known about for so long and yet…avoided reading. And Salem’s Lot isn't the only Stephen King book I've neglected. Read my mea culpa here.
After finishing my dark vacation to the Lot, I decided to remedy another ill. I'd never seen Tobe Hooper's 1979 adaptation of Salem’s Lot. I’d seen Dane Cook movies, but no Salem’s Lot. Disgusting, right?
(PS: Dane Cook’s been cast in American Gods, based on the Neil Gaiman novel. It could work. Cook was actually great in Dan in Real Life)
So, why should I watch Salem’s Lot? Because it’s not just based on a Stephen King book; it was directed by Tobe Hooper.
Hooper is a legend in horror cinema. In the early 1970s, he rewrote horror history with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a brutal and visceral film that gutpunched the sensibilities of 1970s moviegoers - and sixteen-year-old me. It now stands alongside Psycho, Halloween and The Exorcist as one of the most original films of all time. And I don’t have to mention Poltergeist, The Funhouse, Lifeforce and Invaders From Mars. The dude has made his mark, and he did it even before he directed this film.
So, it’s required viewing. For me. For you. For everyone.
(Beware Ye, of spoilers below)
The ’79 adaptation of Salem's Lot differs significantly from King’s novel. Even with a runtime of more than three hours, characters had to be combined and plot details rearrange. Some of the books most memorable scenes have been greatly condensed, sanitized for television, or omitted completely. And you have to expect that when the source material is as sprawling and detailed as this.
Although the movie is greatly constrained by its budget and the demands of 1970s broadcast television, it still worked for me to a great extent. The story’s roots as a small-town soap opera are evident (King was reportedly inspired by a super successful novel and tv series called Peyton Place), but when the film’s horror works, it really works.
What Worked for Me
You can fly, You can fly, You can fly
And you can’t beat Ralphie Glick floating up to scratch on his brother’s window. It’s a scene that’s haunted many childhoods. Even though I’ve seen the image before, floating around on the internet, it was still effective. Hooper draws out the scene, allowing you to really look at the kid, and it’s terrifying. It was clearly shot on a stage, and there’s minimal set decorations, but that lends to the scene’s effectiveness. There are no distractions. The audience is drawn into the dream-like visage as if we, too, are being bewitched by the vampire.
The Make-Up Design of Barlow
Kurt Barlow is transformed from a smooth, elegant, European gentleman into an outright monster. Though the look is clearly inspired by Nosferatu’s design, Barlow’s glowing eyes, spiked rabbit teeth and aging makeup really differentiate this vampire as something iconic in its own right.
The way Barlow operates in the movie is very different than in the novel. Hooper is definitely painting in broader strokes than King, and I don't blame him. Even though the runtime of Salem's Lot is over three hours, the space Hooper has to work within pales in comparison to the many pages King had. It makes sense that Hooper would have to condense, simplify and magnify certain aspects of the novel. And the most dramatic simplification was Barlow. Hooper took away his power to speak, which was used in the novel to great effect to seduce and psychologically capture victims. Now Straker speaks for Barlow, which is a perfectly fine adjustment to make. If you have the right actor as Straker.
Susan Norton isn’t given much to work with in the novel. She’s the love interest of our leading man, Ben Mears. I didn’t get enough time with her to really care about her. She’s turned into a vampire pretty early, staked, and her body disposed of - all in a way that felt so unfinished, I expected her to return in some capacity at the novel’s conclusion.
Casting Bonnie Bedelia as Sue was a great decision. She has the accessible beauty of a small town girl. Her performance is so gentle and sweet. It’s easy to see why anyone would fall in love with her. And Hooper really improves Sue’s character arc. It was brilliant to bring her back at the end for one final shot at seducing Ben Mears, only to have him stake her brutally in the heart. It’s a great stinger. I’m not sure Sue would have worked had a lesser actress been cast. It’s easy to see why she would later become Ms. John McClain in Die Hard.
What Didn’t Work for Me
James Mason was a fine actor. The man earned three Oscar nominations and also appeared in one of my favorite films, North by Northwest. But I think he was miscast as Straker.
In King’s novel, Straker arrives as a scary, ominous presence that portends the many horrors to come. His dialogue is some of the most compelling, and I found him even more terrifying than Barlow. Those early scenes between Straker and Crockett are mesmerizing.
Although Mason gives the role his all, he comes off as prissy and aloof. He doesn't portray the strong, stiff-backed and short-tongued Straker of the novel. This is even more problematic when you consider the major changes to Barlow. Rather than the dapper, quiet, bald gentleman that we find on the page, Hooper’s Barlow is a silent monster. And it is Mason who must speak for him. The result is that the misplaced performance of one actor is multiplied by two.
Hutch’s Mad Game
Ben Mears, played by Starsky & Hutch star David Soul, finds Sue reading his book in the park. And proceeds to creep on her with some of the worst pickup lines I’ve ever heard. I’m sure this scene made much more sense in the ‘70s, when David Soul was motorcycling through the hearts of every woman in America. But now it’s just bad. I did laugh at this scene. So, there’s that.
There’s also another television miniseries adaptation of Salem’s Lot, done for TNT in 2004. That version stars Rob Lowe as Ben Mears, Rutger Hauer as Barlow and Donald Sutherland as Straker. Might be worth a watch, but first I’ve got to time-travel back in time to 2004 to find it.
Next Week: The Shining. The book.
I am no Constant Reader. Although I’ve always had great love for Stephen King, I grew up primarily experiencing him through film, not through his novels. King’s knack for high-concept horror has translated well to film, and he’s been a favorite of Hollywood for many full moons.
I did read some. His short stories in Different Seasons and Skeleton Crew gripped my young imagination. But for some reason, I never ventured into much of his longer-form work. Perhaps it was because the greatness of films like Carrie and The Dead Zone spoiled me. I would be carrying the baggage of those great experiences with me. The characters already cast. The ending already known. Last year, when I did finally get around to really reading The Shining, Kubrick came with me. And yet, the stuff that never made it to the screen shone through. The hedge maze was mesmerizing. The insight into Jack Torrance’s psyche was terrifying. Though Jack still looked like Nicholson to me, I knew so much more about his madness.
The Shining was the beginning. I realized I need to read the master. To remedy this sad state of affairs. And so I begin my binge of all things King with Salem’s Lot, the novel that King wrote following the smash success of Carrie.
Carrie was unique. Its high concept horror premise made it a must read in the 70s. It's still provocative today. A quiet young girl, outcast by her popular peers and abused at home, lashes out at her bullies with telekinetic rage. Anti-bullying campaigns are currently a cause célèbre, but Stephen King conquered that menace forty years ago: by giving an awkward girl the mental abilities to wield the world around her. And no, I haven’t read Carrie yet. I’m in the shower. You can start throwing tampons at me now.
In contrast, Salem's Lot struck me as a straightforward tale of Gothic horror. A retelling of Stoker’s Dracula set in a small American town. Though its premise is simple – a town battles a vampire menace – King explores that town with a thoroughness I've not experienced in some time. Salem's Lot contains striking imagery, but the real success of the novel is the sense of place that King has created. Jerusalem's Lot, where our protagonist Ben Mears was born, is a forgotten town in the Northeast, the setting of many King stories. We get to explore every nook and cranny of the stale place, learning about the few inhabitants it has left, and about the Marsten House, a place that King gives such presence that it becomes a character in its own right. Even as the most common circumstances play out on the page, I was constantly aware of what dangers may lurk just beyond, elevating scenes set in bedrooms and graveyards from simply dark to truly horrific.
When a lonely hunchbacked graveyard gravedigger buries a child, King describes the sun falling down around him. A sense of overwhelming dread held me throughout that passage. And when dread matures, and the real terrors do come, they hovered just outside the window, or take the form of a loved one. A loved one who's feeling a bit off but will soon become terror itself. The sheer amount of detail that King packs into Salem's Lot can be considered tedious at times, but behind the minutia there is always menace.
And that menace is Kurt Barlow.
Sporting a fabulous name and a mysterious backstory, Barlow exists only in the mouth of his business partner, Straker, for the beginning of the novel. When he eventually emerges, Barlow is every bit the cold elegant creature we expect. He is not Dracula, but might be his cousin from some other old country in the Caucasus. Though Barlow has many memorable scenes feeding on the townspeople of the Lot, his character arc is essentially the same as every other vampire in literature: sleep during the day, rise at night, and slay, slay, slay. That’s enough for me to recommend this book any day.
Salem’s Lot isn’t perfect. I’ve been clicking keyboards long enough myself to see that King was still growing as a writer and, specifically, as a novelist. He was working things out. Learning by doing. It’s the only way. As William Goldman famously said, “No one knows anything.” You’ve got to find your own way, and that’s what King was doing.
I still really like it, though. In a book filled with so many characters, the question that resonated with me throughout Salem’s Lot is this: “Who will confront evil?”
I love that question.
Some spoilery stuff below, so proceed with caution.
Father Callahan: There’s something gentle and endearing about this priest, who easily has more depth than any other character in this novel. He struggles with alcoholism and yet holds a reverence for the power of God. He wields that power when he leads the daylight assault on the Marsten House, only to discover Barlow isn’t there. Callahan carefully considers how he will confront the evil that is Barlow. But in a head-to-head confrontation with the vampire, he falters. Because there are evils in his own life that Callahan didn’t confront first. He’s a wonderfully complex character.
Straker: Richard Throckett Straker, Barlow’s business partner, has some of the most distinct dialogue in the book: short, smart and memorable. He functions as Barlow’s “familiar,” a human who has pledged his life to a vampire in exchange for some benefit. Since he is not himself a vampire, Straker can come and go as he pleases during daylight hours, preparing the way into ‘Salem’s Lot for his master. I found Straker one of the scariest characters in the book. He isn’t someone unwillingly enslaved by Barlow. He willingly serves. There’s something terrifying in that.
Mark Petrie: Mark is such an awesome kid. He has his immediate and pure ability to recognize evil. And he confronts it. When others doubt, Mark acts! When no one else believes, he goes to the Marsten House alone to kill Barlow. He’s a clear-thinking kid who stands up to the bully, stands up to the vampire, and will stand up to you if you’re up to no good.
Barlow v. Callahan: I love this scene. It’s the book’s most complex character vs. its most simple. It’s good vs. evil. It’s crucifix vs. vamp-hand. It’s everything. And evil wins! Even though Callahan lives, and Barlow is ultimately destroyed, he leaves Jerusalem’s Lot infested with new vampires. Without a leader. In the sequel that we never got, was Callahan meant to take his place as their leader?
Jimmy Cody v. Knives: Didn’t see that death coming and I loved it.
Man w/ Boy: I really liked the prologue and the epilogue. They were just a joy to read and added greatly to the book’s scope. They seem to be a spiritual father and son, a self and younger self. When they return to Salem’s Lot at the end of the book, it repeats the motif of a man revisiting something from his childhood.
Next week, I’m going to remedy another personal ill: I’ve never seen Tobe Hooper’s film adaptation of Salem’s Lot. You know the one. Everyone knows it.
Everyone’s seen it.
Except for me.
Rumors about films in production entertain me. I’m not talking about the official Empire magazine previews, complete with photos perfected by marketing experts and approved by studio execs. I’m talking about the stuff that floats around before that: the pinch-sized summaries you hear on set. The sort that grips and PAs tell you at crafty, that magical place filled with coffee and tea and fruit and enough ammo to load up a PB&J between setups. The kind of rumor you received via text from a location manager looking for a rundown house, or an actor who’s just auditioned for a role. Before marketing pros get their hands on the finished film, unofficial sluglines convey what people think the movie will be. And often, the people telling you what they think haven’t actually read the script. They’re telling you what they’ve heard.
No one I spoke with knew what Get Out would be.
Last year, I heard Jordan Peele was in New Orleans filming a movie. I heard it was a comedy. Peele’s bread and butter has long been laughs, so it made sense that he would stay in his wheelhouse for his directorial debut. I heard it was “comedy/horror” and “a comedy with horror in it.” And of course, “something new.” Most didn’t seem to know what to make of it. Many people who work on a film never read the script.
Even those who read Get Out probably didn’t know what it would be.
In their final form, films often end up being very different from what was originally on the page. Things, major and minor, often change. Things often must change: for reasons creative, budgetary and beyond. Making a film is terrifically difficult even under the best circumstances. And when a great film is made by agile men and women, applying their craft under great duress, sometimes they don’t find out about how great it is until you do. They go out on a Friday night like everyone else.
So what is Get Out?
It’s a freaking horror film! It’s a tense, deceptively small tale that pries open the mind with smart scares. It’s brilliant. Many media outlets have focused on the film’s humor and the social commentary inherent in its premise, but in its essence, Get Out is a horror film through and through. And that is at the core of why audiences and critics have found it so satisfying.
Horror sells. And it always has. From the penny dreadfuls to Stephen King, from The Exorcist to Paranormal Activity, macabre makes money. There’s just something about scares that’s universal. The best scares tap into universal fears, even when seen through the portal of a person’s truly unique experience. And while no genre guarantees financial success, horror does offer an indemnity that other sections of the bookstore and Blockbuster (R.I.P) don’t. Like flood insurance, the horror genre offers financial safety in the event of disaster. And that umbrella gives the craftsman room to smuggle in other stuff: philosophy, religion, politics, lies, truth. The Great Ideas are as at home within horror as microcosmic personal experiences.
With Get Out, Jordan Peele and his team have made brilliant use of the horror genre in just this way. By knitting social commentary into the very fabric of a horror premise, they have made Get Out an outstanding success: a fun, smart, scary movie that’s profitable. That last part’s important: because it’s profitable, Jordan Peele will get to make another movie. And because Get Out is a $5 million dollar movie that has made over $155 million dollars to date, his next movie can be pretty much anything he wants it to be.
And why was it successful? Because it’s a good horror film. Sure, there are laughs. Sure, there’s enough material about society’s real-life subtext to fill twenty NPR interviews. But those are not central to its success.
Get Out is a box office success because of three reasons:
- It could be marketed as a horror film.
- It IS a horror film! Those fantastic trailers weren’t selling a false bill of goods. Audience members got what they paid for, plus a little extra.
- It’s actually a good movie. While the horror genre provides some insurance, you still have to make a good movie. I think we’re firmly in an era where Rotten Tomatoes matters, and no movie is truly review-proof. So, do the work in development. It’s worth it.
And why was it a good movie? Primarily because of two reasons:
- A passionate and talented filmmaker with a unique voice, Jordan Peele, made it.
- That filmmaker’s voice was supported by producers and hundreds of craftspeople from development through distribution.
I think there are some important takeaways here for creators. Art house cinema and elitist literature are not the only containers capable of holding thoughtful content. Even greats like Dickens worked within the popular medium of their time, shaping stories to the form that would reach the widest audience. If working within a genre - one I’ve always loved anyway - helps to reach a wider audience, that’s great.
Every artist has to eat. If all I need to do is drench my musings about time and eternity in blood and guts, so be it.