“This is the way the world ends…”
The Stephen King cycle has turned hot once again. With the enormous success of the two-part It feature at the box office, Stephen King is hitting the kind of popularity he had back in the 1980’s and 1990’s when it seemed anything he put his name to had to be made into a feature film or some other grand project. The trend led to mixed results. Many of the films couldn’t live up to the visceral detail that has become King’s trademark. To do this, his books have taken on a large page count that has been nearly impossible to fit into a 2-hour feature film window. It split the book into two very good films. The Stand has twice made it to the mini-series format. Paramount Studios have had their hands in the Stephen King pot on various occasions. So now they’ve put together an interesting collection from their own library. This 5-film collection includes Stephen King’s The Stand (1994), The Dead Zone (1983), Pet Sematary both (1989) & (2019) and Silver Bullet (1985). It’s a mixed bag, to be sure. There are some hits and misses to be found inside this collection. Each film or mini-series has its own disc with special features only reproduced on the two Pet Sematary films. Let’s take a peek at the films inside, shall we?
The Stand (1994)
The story opens with at a secret military base where biological weapons are being developed. There’s no time to investigate what these folks were working on or where it might have gone wrong. We jump in feet first as alarm bells are ringing and a gate guard flees to protect his own family rather than follow the order to seal the base. He and his family hit the road, but the genie is already out of the bottle. The family ends up halfway across the country in a little Texas town where they crash at a gas station. The plague spreads rapidly from there. As the song goes: “It’s the end of the world as we know it.”
The mini-series takes little time to show the spread of the illness. The next thing we know we have been invited into a world where a very small percentage of the population has survived. Civilization has fallen, and we’re left with just a few immune people to carry the torch for humanity. They stumble about this barren landscape and eventually get together in small groups. They are also each having very specific lucid dreams where they encounter an old woman named Mother Abigail (Dee). She encourages them to come find her, and clues are given to where she might be. The survivors are drawn to her location as if she were a beacon from God. But mother Abigail isn’t the only dream persona the survivors encounter in their sleep. There is also a dark figure who is often called The Walking Man, and he’s taken the human name of Randall Flagg (Sheridan). He is also compelling survivors to follow him. With the table set, we quickly understand that the survivors will be split into two camps. Those who follow Mother Abigail hope to create a safe place for them to continue. Others will flock to Flagg, who intends to bring a true hell on Earth to the devastated world.
Much of the series explores these factions and the individuals who make them up. On the Mother Abigail side you have:
Stu Redman, played by Gary Sinise. Stu was there when the base family crashed into the gas station. After being prodded by the government because of his immunity, he soon ends up on the road when it all falls apart. He’s a natural leader. Frannie Goldsmith is played by Molly Ringwald. She’s a small town girl who ends up by Stu’s side. She is going to have the new world’s first child. Judge Farris is played by Ossie Davis, and represents something of the order of the old society. Adam Stroke plays Larry Underwood, who was just about to become a rock star. His first single was climbing the charts when it all came crashing down. He was looking forward to living an irresponsible life of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, but finds an inner strength he didn’t know he had in this new reality. My Favorite Martian‘s Ray Walston plays Glen Bateman, a character with much more to do in the novel who becomes somewhat the emotional heart of this group dynamic. He’s a painter who along with his dog doesn’t really appear to have had his life changed much by the plague. Finally there is Rob Lowe as Nick Andros, a deaf/mute who befriends the simpleminded but bighearted Tom Cullen, played by Bill Fagerbakke. M O N, that spells Tom Cullen.
The other side starts with Miguel Ferrer as Lloyd Henried, a crook who ends up stranded in a prison cell starving to death when the plague hits. He’s rescued by Flagg and becomes his right-hand man. Matt Frewer is Trashcan Man, a pyromaniac who is tasked with setting oil tanks ablaze as he makes his way to Vegas where Flagg has planted his…eh…flag, so to speak. Laura San Giacomo plays Nadine Cross, who is tasked with seducing members of the good guys and becomes his inside lady. She ends up pushing Harold Lauder (Nemec) to the dark side when he sees Stu take Molly, who he thought of as his girl since they were kids.
The rest of the series slowly brings these elements together for what is promised will be a final showdown. And that’s where it all goes off the rails. The mini-series spends a great majority of its time getting to know these characters, and there are some great moments there, to be sure. This is a solid cast, and the characterizations are the best part of the show. The fatal flaw is that there isn’t enough time left to truly embrace the conflict and all of the things that happen to these factions. King does a wonderful job in his novel, but here he takes too much for granted, and we get awkward time jumps with no explanation or reference points. He expects us to have read the book, but it really doesn’t work that way, and the show falls apart. Things happen far too quickly, and the end is so anti-climactic. Without King’s own nuances, the ending appears rather pointless and certainly not worthy of the events that lead us there. Honestly, the good faction ends up having no real input into the finale that comes from an internal struggle of the dark forces.
I have some hopes for the new attempt. Another mini-series might be the way to go, but only because the landscape of television has changed quite dramatically since the 1990’s. There is cutting-edge stuff appearing on the cable networks, and the production tools available today are light years ahead of anything they had in the mid 1990’s. I hope they find a way to maintain this wonderful character development but also take us deeper into the story. This release is a good way to catch up on what came before, but this isn’t as good as I remembered. It didn’t quite hold up to the test of time. Mother Abigail, “How did you not see this coming?”
Pet Sematary (1989)
“Sometimes dead is better.”
From the rather twisted mind of Stephen King, Pet Sematary is actually one of my favorites of his horror novels. It’s scary to think the story was never meant to be published and only offered up to finish a contract with his earlier publisher. As has been the Stephen King plague at nearly every turn, something ends up lost in the translation. In the novel, the deeper subtexts that King is so adept at take several hundred pages to set up and ultimately pay off. Unfortunately a mere couple of hours of celluloid never …seem to scratch the graveyard surface soil. Pet Sematary is, sadly, a definitive example. While the original work taunts us with its mystic undertones that always seem far more believable than they ought to be, the film lays down a path as overgrown as the one leading to the titular graveyard. At first the two works are not so convergent, and a great deal of hope is to be had. Soon, however, the movie descends into the typical shock horror film so common in recent years. Startles and zombies begin to dominate the experience, while the story’s deeper and far more frightening elements lie as dead as the bones of the neighborhood pets.
The plot points are pretty faithful to the King work. For ages the kids in this suburban Maine neighborhood have been burying the remains of their beloved pets, often victims of a dangerous road, in the barren soil of the local Pet Sematary, misspelled by the countless kids who christened the field untold years ago. But beyond the pet graveyard is a more mysterious and foreboding place. It was here that Indians brought the dead back to life. Our unfortunate family is about to discover that perhaps “dead is better”.
The location and set design of the film are quite good and loaded with eerie potential. King’s own adaptation of the story also contains many fine moments. The acting is a great liability to the film. Denise Crosby has about as much acting chops as the cat corpse lying frozen in the morning frost. She must have worked cheap. At least I hope so. Dale Midkiff is only marginally better as the lead who must learn firsthand the consequences of his actions. The only true standout is Fred Gwynne. Forever Herman Munster in our hearts, Gwynne shows considerable range as neighbor Jud who exposes the family to the unholy ground. It’s a bittersweet performance, as it’s not hard to see he was getting up there and wouldn’t be around much longer. He eventually died just over three years later in 1993. King makes his Hitchcockian cameo as a funeral preacher.
It’s probably unfair to judge the film against the novel. All King works suffer this fate, and this isn’t a bad horror film at all. The child actors are actually pretty good as long as the girl isn’t trying to cry. The Maine locations which King insisted upon before selling the film rights were the best decision of the process. These places create a nice atmosphere for this particular play to unfold. In spite of the shortcomings, this is the same superb tale. “Well, almost the same.”
Pet Sematary (2019)
It’s an inescapable fact of life that some things get lost in translation. Italian poetry loses its imagery. War And Peace is apparently much more compelling in Tolstoy’s original Russian. And I’ve been told that Abbott & Costello is painful when told secondhand. You can add to that axiom that Stephen King really doesn’t translate very well on the silver screen. The notable exceptions are films based on non-horror works like The Shawshank Redemption and the barely horror-related Stand By Me. Both are wonderful films that manage to capture King’s knack for the absurd in everyday life. While some consider Kubrick’s The Shining a classic, you’ll find just as many King fans who hated it, “Here’s Johnny” and all of that. I’ve read most of Stephen King’s books and a couple of them multiple times. Pet Sematary is one of my favorites, and I’ve read it at least three times. When the 1989 film was released, I was eager to see it. That was a mistake, but an even bigger mistake was made by all involved in what was essentially a mess. I blame Denise Crosby, but then again I blame Denise Crosby for hurricanes and urban blight. I don’t blame Fred Gwynne. He was the only part of that film that reminded me even remotely of the printed word. Now writers Matt Greenberg & Jeff Buhler join directors Kevin Lolsch & Dennis Widmyer in a remake that while not the disaster of the 1989 film still fails to capture the imaginative prose of the novel. I think it’s a translation thing.
The story is essentially the same. The Creed family moves to rural Maine from the hectic big-city life. It’s a wonderful a scenic home… well… except for that small rural road where oil tankers go flying by like bats out of hell. It all starts when little kitty Church is the first to meet a tanker head on. Spoiler alert! Church loses that one. Friendly neighborhood Jud, this time played by John Lithgow, offers some homely advice. You see, there’s this ancient Pet Sematary (yeah, the kids spelled it wrong) where the town’s kids have been burying their Fidos for generations that just so happens to be part of the new Creed family estate. But just beyond said resting place is an extra special place where buried things come back. Jud just can’t stand to see the Creed kids crying over poor old Church, so he lets slip to Dad Louis (Clarke) about the section with the extra secret sauce. Church comes back from the dead, but he ain’t quite right. He smells funny. His fur is matted. Oh, and there’s the psycho-killer new ‘tude. OK as far as it goes. But you know the rest of the story. One of the young Creed rug rats has one of those tanker meetings, and Louis decides it’s a good idea to try the same thing on said deceased child. It all goes downhill from there.
This version of the film does add some of the supernatural elements from the novel, but not enough to really tell the whole story, and that’s honestly the crux of the problem with both films. Yeah, there was a direct-to-video version, but as our old dog Baby used to say: “I don’t want to talk about that right now.” Baby’s no longer with us, and we don’t quite have access to one of those special-sauce pet semataries ’round these parts. The gang responsible for the new version of this tale are lucky we don’t, because Baby with a psycho-killer bent wouldn’t have been as kind as I am, and that spells O U C H. (see Baby’s reviews to get that last part.) The point is that this story makes no sense unless you get the entire yarn. It’s nobody’s fault, mind you. Without all of those details it’s all rather silly, and that’s exactly what you get with the latest version of Pet Sematary.
The one strength this film has it gives away in the film’s trailers. If you want to get the most out of the twists and turns here, don’t watch the trailer. It spoils the best part of the movie. The cast is, for the most part, better than the 1989 film with the exception of missing Fred Gwynne. Still, John Lithgow puts in a perfectly good version of the character. Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz are overwhelmingly better than Dale Midkiff and Denise Crosby. Throw in an ultra-creepy Jete Laurence, and this film is a much better bet all around. The pacing is superior, and the miracles of modern f/x make it a better-looking film all around. Still, it’s missing something. Call it secret sauce, but I think something got lost in translation.
Now there is a way to enjoy this film. Forget the book and think more along the lines of the anthology film Creepshow that featured some Stephen King work. It’s coming back as a streaming series, and I hope I get a chance to see it at some point. The ending of this film reminded me more of that campy thriller than the novel I love so much. So, go. Eat some popcorn. Bring a date. And if you get a little bored, bring along a book. I have a recommendation. It is a better book than it’s given credit for. Lately King has been making quite a comeback. The first “chapter” of It was the best King horror film to date, and the second will soon be upon us. Television has been kind to the King lately, and there’s talk of a couple other projects coming down the pike. For some King classics, however, and you had to have seen this one coming from a couple of miles away: “Sometimes dead is better.”
The Dead Zone (1983)
As one who has a brother who is (or was) a bit of a Stephen King fanatic and loves goofy King adaptations like Pet Sematary, I’d never seen The Dead Zone, and I’m a Christopher Walken fan. I’m also a David Cronenberg fan. And now that I’ve finally seen The Dead Zone, I can consider myself having a fairly complete existence now.
Based on King’s novel and adapted for the screen by Jeffrey Boam, Johnny Smith (Walken) is a happy teacher in New Hampshire who is going to marry Sarah (Adams). But it all changes one night when he’s involved in a car accident severe enough to put him in a coma for several years. When he wakes from the coma, he has a tendency to determine a person’s death when he touches them. Sometimes it’s a family member, but still, creepy talent, yeah? The doctor treating him (Herbert Lom, who played Dreyfus in the Peter Sellers Pink Panther films) believes him and wants to try to help him however he can, even while Johnny’s helping the police chief (Skerritt) solve a series of crimes involving children. When Johnny meets aspiring politician Jeff Stilson (Sheen), he has a vision about him and feels compelled to do something about it.
What’s good about The Dead Zone is that Cronenberg is able to transform the film from some freak with morbid ESP powers into a story involving a man’s unwanted new knack for premonitions into more of a film where he attempts to deal with this “gift” when adjusting to his new life. Having never read the book before, I’m guessing that in between that and Cronenberg’s adept direction for the story, there’s a happy medium achieved that is widely enjoyed.
Many people who love King’s work have listed this among the better films based on King material, and I’ve seen a bunch of them and I’d be hard pressed to disagree with it. It’s suspenseful and tense while advancing the story, and Walken’s performance carries the film through. It’s still fun to watch after a couple of decades.
Silver Bullet (1985)
“This is Tarker’s Mills, where I grew up. And this is how it looked that spring, a town where people cared about each other as much as they cared about themselves. I was nearly 15 years old, and my brother, Marty, was 11. Marty was the cross I had to bear. He wasn’t so bad, actually. He was just constantly thrown in my face by my parents.”
This one was based on one of King’s shorter novels, The Cycle Of The Werewolf. The screenplay was also written by King, so there is much more continuity to the original material. This is the film that I think reflects the Stephen King I imagine once being 11 years old. That’s about the time he sent a 5-page short story written in his hand to Forry Ackerman, who was editor of Famous Monsters Of Filmland Magazine. I have seen the letter he kept in a collection of file cabinets in the basement of his famous Ackermuseum, really his home that was just a few doors downwind from the actual The House On The Hill. The reason I say this is because there’s a genuine child’s perspective here. Yes, it’s common in other works like It and The Body (Stand By Me), but this one is more than just a child’s point of view. I think it’s a young Stephen King’s point of view, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Silver Bullet, like many King’s stories, is somewhat autobiographical. Of course there are no such things as werewolves, and I’m sure young Master King didn’t encounter one from a wheelchair, right? I mean, it’s utter fantasy. King wasn’t in a wheelchair when he was a kid, after all.
Marty is played by young Corey Haim. He lives in the small Northern town of Tarker’s Mills. It seems the little town has a werewolf problem. They can’t rely on the small police force, so they take matters in their own hands with the 20th century version of pitchforks and torches: shotguns and pickup trucks. Of course, they don’t really know what they’re up against. Corey knows. But he’s a young boy in a wheelchair with an over-active imagination, a sister (Follows) who is tired of his getting special treatment, and a devil-may-care Uncle Red (Busey) who spoils Marty with fireworks and a souped-up chair they call The Silver Bullet. The town turns to their Reverend Lowe, played by Everett McGill, who isn’t going to be as comforting as he wants to be. He’s plagued with nightmares and a really killer secret.
The film went through a ton of production problems. It was originally directed by Dan Cascarelli, but he walked away due to that old Hollywood standby, creative differences. The truth is he and producer Dino De Laurentiis didn’t get along from the start. The werewolf design hadn’t even been completed when the film started to shoot and when Dino and King finally revealed their monster Cascarelli decided to walk. They brought in the credited director Daniel Attias during filming, and it’s amazing there’s still some nice emotional stuff still in the film today. Attias was a horrible choice. It was his first ever directing gig and would be his one and only feature film. He went on to do 30 years of television. No cut on Attias. He wasn’t ready for it all, and he just couldn’t take the pressure of the two egos of Stephen King and Dino De Laurentiis.
These films provide no new remasters or upgrade to the audio and video. Some of this stuff you can buy in 4K, so you’re not in it for the audio or the video. You just like having all of the essentials in one go-back just in case of emergency. And whose go-back doesn’t need some Stephen King. Important reminder. You don’t pack canned foods without remembering to bring a can opener, so don’t forget the Blu-ray player. You might open those peaches in heavy syrup with your canines if you get hungry enough, but you’ll look really silly trying to play a Blu-ray disc with your flashlight. OK. I’m busted. I’m treating it all very silly, a little like fun and games, but that’s the purpose for the release. It’s a little fun and games. You didn’t think it was to dip into that same source for a few extra bucks in the kitty, did you? “Why, shoot, it’s just a gag. I mean, uh, what the heck you gonna shoot a .44 bullet at anyway… made out of silver?”