Stephen King

Summer Horrors 2017

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.

Our proto-Ripley, portrayed by real-life chameleon Katherine Waterston

Our proto-Ripley, portrayed by real-life chameleon Katherine Waterston

Alien Covenant

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.

Nicole ain't kiddin' around (I instantly regret that joke)

Nicole ain't kiddin' around (I instantly regret that joke)

The Beguiled

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.

/hardpass

/hardpass

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.

Hair on point

Hair on point

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.

Prop stolen from the set of 1997'S WISHMASTER

Prop stolen from the set of 1997'S WISHMASTER

Wish Upon

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.

"Hey, Hey, Hell."

"Hey, Hey, Hell."

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.

The Aslyum's mockbuster title: "The Succubus Mummy"

The Aslyum's mockbuster title: "The Succubus Mummy"

The Mummy

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.

Another /hardpass

Another /hardpass

Annabelle: Creation

“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!

- Micah

In the Snows of Stephen King's "The Shining"

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.

Those Wasps

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?

Roque One

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.

Boomtown

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.

Tobe Hooper's Dark Vacation to "Salem's Lot"

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.

The Tobe-ster - 1970s Edition

The Tobe-ster - 1970s Edition

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)

Artwork that famously adorned VHS copies at Blockbuster (R.I.P.)

Artwork that famously adorned VHS copies at Blockbuster (R.I.P.)

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.

"Scratch, scratch"

"Scratch, scratch"

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.

Bonnie Bedelia

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.

Bonnie Bedelia was a smokeshow

Bonnie Bedelia was a smokeshow

What Didn’t Work for Me

Straker
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.

Sorry, buddy.

Sorry, buddy.

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.

Stephen King, Forgive Me

"Sorry, pal." - Me

"Sorry, pal." - Me

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.

An early paperback cover.

An early paperback cover.

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.

Kurt Barlow in Tobe Hooper's adaptation of "Salem's Lot"

Kurt Barlow in Tobe Hooper's adaptation of "Salem's Lot"

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.

Favorite Characters

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.

Favorite Scenes:
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.

- Micah

The OG hardback cover

The OG hardback cover