Spooktober Day 11: It (1990)

For most of us cinephiles, we remember the first time we saw a movie, whether it be in the theater, or at home. If the film shakes you, positively or negatively, there’s a residue left that seeps into your memory and makes it challenging to let go. Well, I don’t want to- so I’m going to highlight some Kristy horror history for this wonderful, special, month of October.

Yes, it’s time for another King adaptation on this Spooktober, and no, it’s not the newest adaptation of his popular novel, It. Nor, if I’m being completely frank, will it probably be the last (still think this deserves a larger, limited series platform). Is it the best? No! Most well-acted or conceived? Umm, no. But, was it influential and impactful for not just my horror history, but most my age? Hell yes. There is a lot wrong, packed full of that 90s TV movie feel inherent throughout, but it still has some golden moments of unease that make for a reasonable argument for why this movie/miniseries is worthy of viewing by any Stephen King fan.

It genuinely ruined sewer grates for me, for forever (because they were so important to begin with). Kids are impressionable, and many in my age range were scarred by this TV movie nugget, me- though? It kind of made me the freak I am. Even when I was irked, I was also intrigued, and appreciative of this experience that had me looking at clowns, and potentially what they could be in all their forms, more intuitively. What was It? Good question.

They all float

If you don’t know It, the story follows a group of friends “the losers club” who fight off an ancient evil that returns every 27 years to the small town of Derry, feeding off fear and murdering children. The miniseries doesn’t split the time-periods like the newer remake does, instead it often pivots from their childlike selves to adult, forcing harsh memories to flood back, as they reunite once more to fight evil. Or rather, Pennywise the clown, in one of Its many forms.

Warner Bros. Television Distribution

Yes, this miniseries leans heavily on the side of cheesy, and is often playing it safe but it doesn’t change the fact that Kings voice echoes through, loud and active. Directed by Tommy Lee Wallace this two- part series, only begins to scrape the barrel of King’s novel.

I’ve done video essays on the comparable factors from novel to adaptations on my other site, Film Inquiry, as well as diving into King’s many visions in film (and you can bet there will be one another mentioned here before this month is over). I chose this one in particular because it marries the youth in me with the person I am now. I don’t know that I would be who I am without It. This is an intimate part of my history. Film lovers know what I’m talking about. It is in our DNA. It’s like this undeniable focal point, with each movie, that inspires and influences who we become.

Yes, I recognize all of the issues with this miniseries. There are many, sometimes blindingly so. There are a lot of talented actors here, but sometimes the dialogue comes across as hokey, and it seems overacted. I find myself giggling at many moments, but then I think about how this was on network TV in 1990, and I consider how -despite all of this- it is still creepy at times. Honestly, a lot should be owed to Tim Curry. He’s so good at Pennywise, zany and disturbing. The makeup, costumes, and practical effects (at least in the first half) still stand. When I watch now I even still feel diminutive in particular scenes, in a mental fetal position, as I unwrap all that is happening here.

More than anything It falters in the tone and pacing, which wants to be terrifying (and still is at times) but ends up being a deflated balloon of inconsistency. Still, there’s a partnership of charm and an eerie semblance that makes Derry a place I have frequented over the years.

What do I love about It? It’s all about fear. It’s the basis, the starting point that allows our imaginations to run wild, into murky unspeakable places. It can be anything, as we have our own personal horrors. What’s more potent than that? It is the epitome of the genre. In many ways It is what inspired my podcast (Go On, Scare Me) because it ruminates on just that.

Warner Bros. Television Distribution

I am always struck by King’s genius here. It seems so obvious, borderline simplistic, in a way that can’t be duplicated. A story of fighting our personal fears and the enduring power of friendship, It is more than just a scary story, it’s a vestibule into our psyche, and maybe, a little, into our hearts.

Spooktober Day 4: Misery

For most of us cinephiles, we remember the first time we saw a movie, whether it be in the theater, or at home. If the film shakes you, positively or negatively, there’s a residue left that creeps into your memory and makes it challenging to let go. Well, I don’t want to- so I’m going to highlight some Kristy horror history for this wonderful, special, month of October.

So much of Misery’s “charm” lies in the subtleties, in the obscure corners. While you might be thinking “Wait, what? Annie Wilkes is about as subtle or charming as a… [enter potential expletive here] it’s really quite true. Let’s consider this: Misery is primarily in one central location (nearly just one room) with a focal point of two main characters who try to psychologically outdo the other, and yet, it never feels forced. For this kind of a setup to work, a lot has to come together, and in many ways, the smaller- less obvious parts, are what makes it so great.

Stephen King knows how write an epic story. And, Rob Reiner knows how to make a King adaptation work (see, Stand By Me). Misery proves this as he delivers a suspenseful, unsettling, film. It isn’t always a guarantee when adapting the imaginative work of King, but when it clicks, it clicks.

source: Columbia Pictures

Famed writer Paul Sheldon (James Caan) has just finished his newest piece, enjoying the high that comes from completion, heading back to NYC from within the snow covered mountains. When his car goes off the road during a storm he’s rescued by his number one fan (how lucky!) Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), a nurse who wants to make sure he’s back in tip top shape. Mhmm.

Misery Love Company

I first saw Misery as a young teenager, and I was pleased to say that I was adequately disturbed. It had this admirable blend of tones that had me feeling as confined and confounded as Paul. I was also impressed because the performances were just so stellar. I had known Caan from my love of The Godfather, and Kathy Bates from Fried Green Tomatoes, and this was nothing like either. I was sold on these portrayals, and I’m not surprised, but quite pleased, that Bates won an Oscar for it.

Despite the fact that Misery is most certainly a horror, it’s also never skimps on the humor. In a discomforting way, it makes the terror even more potent. Every time I laugh watching it, the film reminds me moments later why the laughter will eventually die out.

This dual-sided title (another one of King’s wonderful wordplays) is not only shown, but felt. There’s a tension that festers early, and only builds as we discover Wilke’s real intentions, and the scope of her capabilities. Soon, we notice her mood swings, her intense anger, and the extent of her delusions. As an audience, the sinking realization arrives just as it does for Paul.

This is not good.

source: Columbia Pictures

Her duality is deftly delivered as Annie can offer warmth and the idea of sanctuary in one hand, while the other wields a sledgehammer. Annie’s idolization of Paul is disorienting. She wants the book she feels fans deserve, not what he has written. This makes her hostile, violent, and ultimately- tragic. Both of our main actors are transformed in these roles, with a nearly hypnotic push and pull between the two. It makes it difficult to not be wrapped up in this suspense filled examination of fandom gone, very, very, wrong.

A smile and a hobbling, what’s more horrifying than that?

There’s such a perceptible anxiety that feeds the psychological cat and mouse. There’s something scary about a person that can turn on a dime as fast as Bates does (and there are certainly some sinister scenes). As a viewer you are on the edge of your seat, wondering what she’s going to do next. She becomes obsessively dependent on what Paul writes, and what happens to the title character, Misery. The demand of her brand of “art” straight from the artist, eludes to King’s own expectations that have been put on him by fans. While there’s a lot of dark comedy and Bate’s unique choice of expressions “The Cock-A-Doodie Car”, expect a growing unease to form in your stomach, and in one particular scene… jump up into your throat.

Ouch.

I have to give kudos to the cute bickerings between the sheriff Richard Farnsworth and Frances Sternhagen, as his wife, providing brief intermissions of comic relief. The script by William Goldman ensures that this King’s adaptation is done its justice, giving this character study its bones, with the memorable performances as the lifeblood.

Utilizing close up shots of Bate’s masterful spin on the female villainy (sometimes too much), Misery works because it hits the gas, let’s go of the wheel, and sees what happens. It’s engaging, taut, and miserable…in all the right ways.

Can the finale of THE STAND save the entirety?

If you are going to have an entire section devoted to an icon, why not have it be Stephen King? A personal literary hero of mine, I’ll be tackling some of the best and worst of the adaptations (and let’s just say- there’s a lot) with more to come. All hail the King of horror.

I reviewed the series for Film Inquiry recently, and the trajectory of my enjoyment went from thrilled to disappointed. This was one of my favorite novels, and so the bar was already high. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite hit the marks I was hoping for. When I wrote the review I had only seen the first six episodes and as they were released, I was really excited to see what was to come next. Would it be enough?

Can the finale of THE STAND save the entirety?

I know it’s a common remark (and even a joke made in the most recent It: Chapter 2) that King has trouble with his endings. Well, for me, in this particular novel, that wasn’t an issue. Still, this series seemed to have been filled with amazing content, terrific casting, and lots of potential- so why wasn’t it working? There were three episodes left to go and I was filled with anticipation, trepidation, and a mess of curiosity.

This is the End, My Only Friend, the End.

Stephen King wrote the finale (Coda: Frannie in the Well) which changed the ending of the novel (and also subsequently the previous miniseries). There were aspects of the new close that I liked, so, overall, it left an impression. Mostly? A yearning for more.

Frannie (Odessa Young) is one of my favorite characters, especially within the miniseries, so I was thrilled that it was shown that she wanted to brave the roads again to head back to her hometown in Maine. As the finale (spoiler) showed, the focus of the episode was their trip across the country, and her eventual run-in with Randall Flagg (Alexander Skarsgård) as she is faced with a choice. Without spelling out what that was or pointing out some of the more ridiculous elements of Flagg’s request, I’ll just say that she proved to be exactly what we thought she was: resilient and strong.

In its closing moments, which finds us also getting another perspective from Mother Abigail (Whoopie Goldberg) we also see, what was one of my favorite aspects of this new take, was the potential future for Flagg. That fascination made it worth it, for me, in the end. What else can/will he do?

But was it enough? Did it save the miniseries that had so much initial promise? This is a story (and I feel- still, It is another that could benefit from a longer form) that needs more time, that needs more backstory, that has so many weaving tales and intriguing characters. Therefore, this truncated version of this massive undertaking, just… isn’t enough.

It breaks my heart, but, this is one adaptation that wasn’t saved, even by the King himself.