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Vadim Rizov

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A Closer Look at Stephen King: Film Critic

Not that Stephen King’s ever really gone out of public consciousness, but this week’s premiere of his latest longform TV endeavor — a 13-episode adaptation of his 2009 novel “Under The Dome” — and this fall’s forthcoming “Carrie” remake make this the biggest year for prominent/credible King adaptations since 2007, when both “The Mist” and “1408″ dropped. Famously happy to take a check for optioning off his work regardless of the quality of the resulting product, King nonetheless has strong views on movies, horror and otherwise. Here’s a breakdown of King’s film writings, broken down into three periods:

Genre fiend (1969-1981)

Before he was a published author, King began sharing his views as a college paper writer via “King’s Garbage Truck,” of which he wrote 47 installments from February 1969 to May 1970. These columns had King naming future “Mystery Science Theater 3000″ target “Attack of the Giant Leeches” as one of his favorite films, a so-bad-it’s-good kind of fondness he’d decry a little more than a decade later.

King’s views on the horror film were next most strongly expressed after he’d become a huge success. In a 1979 article for “Rolling Stone,” he ran down the past decade in horror, dubbing George A. Romero “the director of the Seventies; even more than Coppola, he gives us that exciting sense of a unified vision.” He had other nice things to say about “Apocalypse Now,” “Phantasm,” “Halloween” and “Alien.” (Information on these articles and much more can be found in Michael A. Collings’ “The Films of Stephen King,” which is pretty comprehensive up to its 1985 origin date.) These pieces are hard to find, but his most comprehensive statement on genre films is easily available in the nonfiction collection “Danse Macabre.” Published in 1981, it devotes around 100 pages to the topic in two essays. The lengthier of the two, “The Modern American Horror Movie — Text and Subtext,” is full of sound interpretations: 1951′s “The Thing” as an anti-appeasement, pro-military tract, 1979′s “The Amityville Horror” as a very dark joke about then-plunging real estate values being the ultimate horror for harassed homeowners. His evaluations are also mostly sound, even when approaching his own work, as when correctly recognizing that Brian De Palma’s adaptation of his fundamentally unpleasant “Carrie” is “lighter and more deft” than the original book.

Like any fanboy, King can get indignant when he feels his beloved genre is being marginalized in favor of more putatively respectable work: at one point, he provides short synopses of 20 different horror movies, then fumes that if you can’t name most of them, “you have been spending far too much time seeing ‘quality’ films like ‘Julia,’ ‘Manhattan’ and ‘Breaking Away.’” (No one watches “Julia” anymore and Woody Allen is an acquired taste, but what did “Breaking Away” ever do to King?) This kind of agitation mirrors his writing career, in which King has often been vocally aggrieved about what he perceives as his unjust marginalization by the literary establishment out of anti-genre snobbishness. Still, within his own terrain, he’s a good viewer: there’s a list of his recommended horror films from the past 30 decades (meaning since the ’50s in this case), and it’s a solid rundown avoiding America-centric parochialism and making room for British oddities like “The Conqueror Worm,” the gialli of Mario Bava and Dario Argento, and art-damaged oddities like “The Shout.”

A shorter essay steps away from discussing movies King believes to be of genuine merit to consider total trash. “The Horror Movie as Junk Food” shows King moving away from his collegiate enthusiasm for the brain-meltingly bad, concluding that their “only real usefulness” is to help viewers form standards and make judgments. After that basis of comparison is formed, “it becomes I think dangerous to hold on to these bad films [...] and they must be discarded” — a good call, and one often disregarded by those whose endless enthusiasm for the terrible leaves them with no time to contemplate the good. Throughout these essays, King often sounds a bit like Pauline Kael (when saying things like “a person who loves the genre’s genuine Waterford [...] finds a great deal happening in ‘Phase IV’”), and confirms that stylistic debt towards the end when noting that she “writes well” (and that “Gene Shalit demonstrates a certain rather tiresome surface wit”). It’s here that King additionally argues that even these writers “don’t know what they are seeing” when they go to a horror movie, a complaint genre fans still use to assail critics who disparage their favorites.

Praxis makes imperfect (1982-2006)

King was lucky enough to have some of the directors he’d cited as personal favorites to adapt his work, both with and without his collaboration. His first screenplay was for 1982′s “Creepshow,” which teamed him with Romero. Two screenplays in 1985 paired him with less distinguished directors — Lewis Teague for “Cat’s Eye,” Daniel Attias for “Silver Bullet” — followed in 1986 by his sole writer/director effort, the killer truck movie “Maximum Overdrive.” (Like a lot of his worst ’80s work, King’s blamed the film’s goofiness on his then-escalating cocaine habit.) There have been a few other undistinguished original screenplays (recall, or don’t, 1992′s “Sleepwalkers”), but few authors have both so consistently tried to translate their work to the screen and made such a hash of it.

“Silver Bullet” is easy to revisit (it’s on Netflix Instant), and it’s a key example of how a writer can get everything wrong about their own work. A condensation of his novella “Cycle of the Werewolf,” the premise is pure King: a small town, under supernatural siege, nearly implodes and tears itself apart, with both the evil and good people at risk. King’s main contribution outside of the script was to agitate for a werewolf costume mangier and less over-the-top than usual (a move that angered producer Dino de Laurentiis, but King had final cut so there was nothing he could do about it). As far as the great werewolf-transformation scenes of the ’80s go, “Silver Bullet” is passable but certainly doesn’t give any competition to “An American Werewolf In London” or “The Howling.”

King writes fast, and memorable dialogue isn’t his strong point; it’s all about a strong authorial perspective that’s sometimes taunting, sometimes downright mean and sarcastic, and (at its best) clearly committed to selling the story at hand. “Silver Bullet” has a lot of dialogue and (except for the bits Gary Busey ad-libbed) it’s all pretty bad. You can see King’s signature motifs occur, but this hews surprisingly generic; as so often in the adaptation process, keeping the plot and keeping the flavor aren’t the same thing, and this does neither. In his “Danse Macabre” essays, King noted that experienced genre viewers are in a position to appreciate the little grace notes that differentiate one seemingly routine horror film from another, but his own screenplays are shockingly lacking in these.

King’s also done a lot of TV mini-series, and they’ve all been kind of panned. It’s worth noting that for some reason, on these projects King always works with: his most frequent go-to collaborators are Mick Garris (director of “Critters 2″) and stuntman-turned-TV-guy Craig R. Baxley. The results are miniseries like 1999′s much-derided “Storm of the Century” and 1997′s little-loved “The Shining,” a chance for King to correct everything he hated about Kubrick’s adaptation. It’s as if King wanted to make sure that he was the strongest voice in what’s already famously a writer’s medium and wanted to make sure there was no risk of a strong director imposing a point-of-view that might possibly be contradictory to his own. A few shorts aside, King hasn’t had a high-profile screenwriting gig in a while; maybe he’s simply accepted it’s not his forte.

Film criticism reconsidered (2003-2010)

For this period we draw upon a seven-year archive of columns written for “Entertainment Weekly” — not solely film-fixated, since the whole of pop culture was his realm, but peppered with strong cinematic opinions throughout. In his debut column, King voiced his current likes (“T3″ and, less so, “28 Days Later”) and dislikes (“Anger Management,” “The Life of David Gale,” “Antwone Fisher”). In a column later that year, he focused solely on film, running down some all-time faves (noting “The Hustler” as “the first movie without monsters, shooting or slapstick comedy to entirely fill my mind and heart” — good choice) and revealing that he’d kept a film viewing log since 1994, though he could remember “almost nothing about 95 percent of the films in it,” including an inability to recall who starred in “Rumble In The Bronx” (who can forget Jackie Chan?!).

A follow-up column outlined much of what was to follow. Instead of analysis and cultural argument, King was so secure in himself that authoritarian opinion-mongering was pretty much all he was interested in offering. In this column he disparages “Kill Bill Vol. 1″ (“dull is still dull, isn’t it?” If you say so, self-dubbed Uncle Stevie), pretends to be poor (“Steve says you should remember that movie critics see movies free. Also, they don’t have to pay the babysitter or spring 10 bucks for the parking”) and instead extols the virtues of the totally non-dull “Mystic River” — the kind of juxtaposition that only makes sense or has interest because of the speaker and their drawing on personal experience.

Comparing these columns (there’s a lot of them) with King’s incisive, actually-argued horror essays from the ’80s is a revelation, and not the good kind. There’s an often-aggrieved populist note railing at unnamed snobs (in 2004, before the science of mediocre film blogging was well-established, he spent part of a column wondering “is ‘Spider-Man 2′ really a four-star movie?”) and at least two columns open with “I love the movies.” That’s not to say King doesn’t show himself to be a relatively open-minded viewer — his 2004 best-of makes appreciative note of Cedric Kahn’s overlooked thriller “Red Lights” — but also one who’s a sucker for the same kind of middlebrow pap (“quality”) he once decried (his number one film of 2004: “Maria Full Of Grace”). And while it’s fair for King to understand that he, rather than the movies discussed, is the star attraction, there’s an increasing cuteness of tone and a reflexive rehashing of the same motifs that grows wearisome. First there’s love and engagement, but finally there’s only feelings and assertions: King made his very own shift from the faux-civilities of print to the HEAR ME NOW bluntness of the internet, the worst kind of keeping-up.


Categories: Features

Tags: Stephen king, The Shining, Under the Dome, Vadim Rizov

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