Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - A Good Marriage

A Good Marriage is a fairly short story in the middle of King's book Full Dark, No Stars, but it doesn't take long to stay with you.  It tells the story of Darcy Anderson, who thinks she has a happy home life and, while not perfect, certainly doting husband, until one day she finds something hidden in the garage that makes her realize he is actually the serial killer Beadie, a vicious murderer who rapes and tortures his victims before killing them.  King took inspiration from the real life story of Dennis Rader, a serial killer whose family had no idea who he was as well.  While Rader was caught by the police, in this story Darcy finds out first and decides to take action on her own rather than allow her family's lives to be ruined by being associated with the killer.

While Darcy's choice may not be the most realistic, I think King does a great job of making her logic sound.  You follow her through her pain and confusion and you really sympathize with her.  I really loved the way her husband comes home in the middle of the night and tells her he knows she's figured it out, and the two of them have a calm though also absurd conversation about it all.  King really does a great job of portraying a serial killer properly.  They're not madmen like Jack Torrence running through the Overlook Hotel, these are cold, calculated people who know exactly what they're doing.  The quiet moments the two of them spend together before Darcy finally goes about getting rid of him are chilling in their own way, and the moment when she finally pushes him down the stairs is appropriately tense and gruesome.  I also liked the appearance of retired detective Holt Ramsey at the end, a man that Beadie was so sure just thought of him as an "innocent witness" but in fact was really close to bringing him down.  His conversation with Darcy is both amusing and tense, and it's nice that he allows her to get away with her crime and have her peace.

I'm naming all these specifics in the story and talking about how they work because the film adaptation, with a screenplay written by King,  is incredibly close to the story and contains all of these elements.  The changes are small, like Darcy being addicted to eating Tootsie Rolls rather than Baby Ruth bars.  Ramsey shows up almost from the beginning of the story, watching over them, I suppose to create some form of tension that Beadie may be caught soon.  A new character is added, their neighbor Betty, who stands in as a model example of the type of women Beadie usually goes after and works to help remind Darcy that Bob will never truly stop this obsession with "snooty" women.  Bob also has a habit of leaving her notes around the house in the film, which I think is a nice clue to show the kind of controlling personality that psychopath's can have.  The film largely plays out exactly as the story does, with only an extra bit of evidence for Darcy thrown in as Bob gifts her the earrings of one his victims.

Unfortunately, despite these similarities, the movie has none of the tension of the story.  Things go by in a super quiet manner.  Joan Allen does a good job portraying Darcy's inner turmoil, but there's nothing about Anthony LaPaglia's performance that feels particularly threatening or dangerous.  We see him stalk women, but I just don't see enough of a detached, chilling manner from him to really show us he's Beadie.  There are a few scenes of Darcy imagining things or dreaming where they portray him as menacing, but they feel so unconnected from the rest of what we see in the film.  The film just sort of progresses along until it reaches the end.  They change around the ending slightly, having Darcy go see Ramsey in the hospital where you think for a moment she might suffocate him in his sleep so that he doesn't tell anyone what he knows, but that tension passes so quickly that you barely get to feel it.  I feel like a lot could have been done with the score, the editing, and the direction to try to make this film far more dynamic and tense.  I couldn't help but think of What Lies Beneath, another film where a woman suspects her husband is a murderer that manages to keep the tension strong throughout.

While I strongly recommend the short story (along with the rest of Full Dark, No Stars) I'm afraid the movie is simply a bland, lifeless adaptation not worth the watch.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - Mercy

This is technically the second post covering the short story "Gramma," which was previously adapted into a new Twilight Zone episode.  If you missed that post, read it here.
As I mentioned there, Mercy had been filmed but shelved by the studio for a while, and was finally quietly released via On Demand and DVD earlier this month.  Given the nature of the release I was not expecting too much, but as a fan of The Walking Dead I was also hopeful that Chandler Riggs might also make this a film worth watching.

Straight off the bat, the movie both shows us that it's making some changes to the original short story and gives us an idea of the type of horror we're in for.  While in the story it is said that young George's grandfather lived to a decent age and kept working up until a heart attack killed him, here we see Mercy (the given name for the grandma) cradling a baby and speaking softly to it while her husband walks up behind her with an axe in hand.  While you initially think he's going after them, he in fact turns the axe around and plants it straight into his own forehead.  If you somehow weren't paying attention, don't worry, there will be flashbacks to it multiple times for the rest of the film.

So while the grandma of the story had nine children before stopping, here she only gives birth once to triplets, and gets her reputation of doing dealings with demons pretty much right away.The other major change is that George has pleasant memories of his grandmother, calling her his best friend growing up.  She eventually becomes sick, has to live in a home for a year (the R. L. Flag home for the elderly in fact) and only returns home because she is dying and the home will no longer care for her.  It is established pretty early on that the demon is overtaking her body and this is the cause for all the odd things going on.

While this introduces some changes, it doesn't really hurt the story.  What we see in the original is really only enough to fill up approximately half an hour's worth of screen time, so making George's older brother Buddy a foodie who loves to cook is a strange but okay addition.  Dylan McDermott's role as a childhood friend of their mother who clearly cares for her tries to make the plot more in depth, but in reality largely just fizzles out toward the climax.  This movie is really all about Mercy and George, which is really as it should be.
The story of the movie in and of itself isn't really the problem as much as the execution of it all is.  I lost count of the jump scares contained within the film, as they are practically constant, and become basically telegraphed after a while.  If you see a character standing somewhere quietly for a moment, you can expect either a jarring jump cut to something else or a person grabbing them from off screen, or in the absolute worst of them, a car barreling down the road at full speed to kill them.  One character in the film is a painter, and her designs are truly creepy, but sadly that's the only form of horror that is effective in the film.  The design of the demon that overtakes Mercy is not remotely Lovecraftian, and is clearly just lazy design, being mostly a cross between a living shadow and Swamp Thing.  I'm usually one to get freaked out at overly elongated people twitching unnaturally, but when Mercy's body starts doing it during the climax it did nothing for me.  And when George talks to the shadow creature standing behind her, asking it a question, and it literally takes her head and nods it, I laughed.

Near the beginning of the film, we see George talking to a young girl, and then find out that no one else can see her.  It doesn't take long to figure out that this is Mercy's spirit, trying to save him from the demon that wants to eat his heart so it can continue to live.  This is a pretty dramatic change from the story, where either Gramma or perhaps Hastur simply want George as a vessel to keep on living.  But this movie did want to attempt a happy ending, so instead George defeats the creature - just don't ask me how.  The story makes mention of Gramma's books, and they tried to incorporate that here with a book that will show you how to achieve what you want if you cry over it.  They even seem to take a page from the Twilight Zone adaptation by the fact that George finds the book under the floorboards.  However the story contradicts itself quite a bit because instead of George seeing how to save Mercy as he cries over the book, he just keeps seeing himself killed.  Yet somehow, while the demon is holding Mercy like a puppetmaster and has George backed up against the wall, his tears on the book kill the demon or at least make him go away.  It seems more like they wrote themselves into a literal corner and didn't know how to get out of it.

So sadly, I can see why the studio wasn't too pleased with this film and didn't think it was suitable for mass audiences.  While the cast is decent, there's just too much nonsense and poor direction here to make this film enjoyable in any way.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - Storm of the Century


I had seen several works by Stephen King before Storm of the Century debuted. I saw The Shining, Children of the Corn, Mangler, and the incredibly faithful adaptation that was The Lawnmower Man [Angie's note:  Grrrr!]. I believe I also caught at least part of the '97 The Shining miniseries when it aired. I'd even read a couple pieces by King, albeit early Bachman books The Running Man (picked up because I liked the film, and didn't know until halfway through it was written by King) and The Rage, as I was among the angsty teenagers its rawness spoke to (in some ways, thankfully not the ways for which it's famous). So I had known of Stephen King, but it was all for work I just happened to check out peripherally based on the works themselves catching my eye, and it was seeing Storm of the Century when it aired that made me actually sit down and seek King out as an author, renting The Stand from Blockbuster a few weeks later, and finally reading Carrie, The Shining, Salem's Lot, Night Shift, and more. I never became a die-hard fan of the man's work, but I've always enjoyed dipping in for a stretch now and then, when either the fancy strikes me, or when a friend is doing something I can follow along with. Hey, Angie! :) [Fine, I forgive the Lawnmower Man comment! :)]

Storm of the Century focuses on the fishing town of Little Tall Island off the coast of Maine. It's such a typical King setting that they directly reference the events of Dolores Claiborne as having been set there. The series takes place 10 years in the past, in 1989, as a nigh-apocalyptically feared "storm of the century" nor'easter is rolling in, with hurricane winds and foot after foot of snow. Over the course of things, the storm will take out power lines, blow out windows, sweep away the docks and fishing boats and lighthouse, and completely isolate the sheltered populace from the outside world as they all gather in the basement of the town hall.

I don't know how regionally authentic it is, but King likes to pull the trick here of having everyone reference everyone else by both their first and last names. So our lead isn't just Michael, he's always "Michael Anderson". King does this with the entire town of folk, as though this is the only way the audience will be able to remember who everyone is and who has familial ties to who. I'll be honest, it doesn't work very well, and while the distinctive cast and direction helped me keep everyone straight visually, I can't tell you who a good three quarters of the peoples names are.

Most prominently, we have Michael Anderson (Tim Daly), the town constable who also runs the local market where everyone is hording stock in prep for the storm. He's always looked to as the level-headed voice of reason, much to the consternation of town manager Robbie Beals (Jeffrey DeMunn), a control freak who barges into situations he's not suited for so as to assert responsibilities beyond what he's been elected for. We've also got Hatch (Casey Siemaszko), Michael's trusty deputy, Molly (Debrah Farentino), Michael's wife who's helping organize the town hall shelter, and Ralphie, their young son. Remember Ralphie. It all hinges on Ralphie. And then there's everyone else.

Into their midst comes a stranger, Andre Linoge (Colm Feore), who makes his presence known by beating an elderly woman's head in with his silver wolf-handled walking stick, then calmly waiting for the scene to be discovered and Michael to arrest him. I haven't read nearly as much of King's work as Angie has, but Andre very much fits the ancient "wizard/demon" mold of Randall Flagg. Linoge is a much colder, calmer figure than what little of Flagg I've experienced, with an austerity to how he manipulates situations, but it's very much through the expected systematic chaos involving visions, telekinesis, trans-dimensional abductions, and mind control. He drives multiple people to commit suicide, a strained boyfriend/girlfriend couple to turn on one another until he's dead and she has the bloodied walking stick in her hands, snatches people out of crowds into the snow until only one returns, her black hair now white and with a tale of everyone flying over the island which the children soon also fall prey to. And then there's the dream, where everyone sees the entirety of the town led off the end of a pier to never be found like the Roanoke of old.

And the biggest weapon in Linoge's arsenal is the truth as he plucks the most personal failings of each person he sees and waves them before all their neighbors. Like Robbie ignoring his family and a mother on her death bed so he could shack up with a prostitute. Or the three fishermen who savagely beat a young gay man because he had the gall of looking attractive to them. Or the dude with bales of marijuana tucked behind the warehouse. Or the reverend who molests his young nieces. He wields the truth to prove a point: that this town has secrets, and keeps those secrets, and will continue to keep those secrets.

While Linoge is a villain who's long stuck with me, and I love Feore's performance and simple look, his character is not without problems, mostly relating to his backstory. The ties to the Roanoke colony feel too cheap and simple, with the word "Croaton" thrown around for no real reason than to cement things further. And then there's the revelation that "Linoge" is an anagram of "Legion", leading Michael to relate the story of demonic possession from the Bible, yet this doesn't fit how Linoge is actually played. He's a wizard. He casts spells and has a staff and (plot point) is looking for a protege to whom he can pass on the legacy of his knowledge and studies. He's not a demon, and certainly never once indicates being possessed by multiple ones. Also, when we see him in Wizard form, the makeup isn't all that great. Slightly better are bits where Feore's padded up as a televangelist and a news reporter, but even those bits feel unnecessary.

And the biggest problem, and I know from batting some DMs back-and-forth with Angie that she agrees, is that it takes Linoge nearly the entire miniseries to reveal why he's there. Yes yes, I know. "Mystery". But when your villain has the catchphrase, "Give me what I want and I'll go away," don't have a character ask - as early as part 1 - what it is that he wants unless you actually plan on answering it. By not doing so, you're just being an ass to your audience. Yes, I do like the escalation of events, as Linoge starts terrorizing and killing his way through people so as to sap all hope of taking him on. That's good. But by withholding his ultimatum until the last possible minute, he removes the potential of defiance, of people saying no and trying to stand up to him, only for that to drive the escalation which quashes them down until they have no choice. He just escalates up front, then drops the bombshell and watches as they all say yes. This isn't, in itself, a bad thing, but when you're spreading it out over several hours of a miniseries, it does create an obvious artifice to King's desire to pad out the plot.

And here's where we get to the old complaint about King: his pacing and disinterest in editing. This could have been a killer 2 hour movie, or even a rich 2-part miniseries, but like The Shining adaptation two years earlier, there's no reason at all to make this a 3-parter beyond King just wanting to for the hell of it. There just isn't that much story there, and what story we get is drawn and padded and stretched so that basic scenes can go on for 10-20 minutes. We get a line several times of "Hell is repetition", and I guess this is hell as we keep visiting the same crime scene over and over again, have conversations repeat among all the cast, numerous scenes of people just staring at a caged Linoge as he pantomimes his spells, Robbie repeatedly pulling the same ass tactics and making the same threats, and constant use of "I'm a Little Teapot", which is itself pointless as you never have the connective thread of the woman who discovers Cat hearing Linoge also sing it in the jail, going "That's it! That's what she was singing when I found her!", leading the rest to fuse those strands together in their realization.

However, there's still many positives that come as a result. With the extra time, I did get to know the characters better (even without remembering their names) so that certain fates have an extra punch when they hit and the big climax earns a lot of dramatic weight. I even like how certain characters will go through horrific events, but then enough time will pass that we see them refocus and get back to the rhythms of their regular lives, such as with the young woman Cat, or the white-haired woman who witnessed the flight, or the others, the one who lost her husband and the one her mother. They're still dealing, but there's stuff going on they can settle back into. Routines, distractions, community. And it all takes a nice twist at the end as Linoge reveals his desire to find a protege.

So yes, what will make him go away is giving him a child whom he can raise as a little Legion Jr., meaning this becomes a tale of sacrifice, of everyone banding together to make one of their own give up their offspring to save everyone else. To its credit, I actually like that there is no victory for the town, no moment where they suddenly twist events around on Linoge and beat him away. No, they lose. They give in to his threats and stage a mockery of a town hall meeting and vote through the drawing of stones. And Michael, he can't even look at these people anymore. I love Tim Daly's performance throughout the series, but his absolute disgust at how the town capitulates, buries its secrets, and moves on is absolutely fantastic, especially as he doesn't even raise his gaze from the floor as his is the only hand defiantly lifted in dissent during the vote. And remember Ralphie? Yeah, it's Michael's son who's selected. Because we absolutely didn't see that one coming.

But it still works for me as this is another of King's tragedies, where even foregone conclusions can't be evaded and all the survivors can do afterward is try to figure out how to live with the choices they've made. I actually love that we get an extended epilogue, showing the fates of many of the main townsfolk as some fall apart and others pull together, and Michael gets as far away from them all as he can, only to run straight into Linoge and a now teenaged Ralphie, already sporting the canine fangs of his adopted wizard.

Another reason I really dig this series is the revelation that was Craig R. Baxley's direction. Baxley's been an industry vet for a long time, first as a stunt supervisor in the 70s, then a 2nd-unit director in the 80s (Predator!), then making his debut with Action Jackson before settling into a career of TV movies. King was quick to latch onto Baxley, as we'll see over the next few projects, and it's not hard to see why. There's much of his directorial style that reminds me of Mick Garris, especially in the long tracking shots and focus on characters, but where Mick is clumsy, too crisp, and painfully obvious, Baxley is focused, rich, and full of nuance. Though mostly on a soundstage, this feels like a real town full of real people with a realistic progression of their stressed out states. The cast and design are well handled, and even moments of horror like the suicides and murders, and bits like Linoge's glowing red eyes and bared fangs, are pulled off with a skilled hand. There are some effects shots that don't hold up - CG morphs, a few bits of the wolf's head cane, some water layers over the lighthouse collapse, the flying bits - but I chalk those up to technical and budgetary limitations. When this was made, there was a very clear divide between how things looked on television and how things looked in films, and I think The Shining emphasizes this divide well. For the most part, Baxley's direction is very cinematic, with a strong sense of scale and depth, a washed out blue to the color scheme, and a steady flow and tension to the editing as we drift from scene to scene. One of my favorite recurring bits is the pharmacy whose window blows in, letting the snow gradually drift up on the floor like sand in an hourglass counting down the length of the storm.

So while it has problems, some bits that don't work, and all the usual pacing issues we've come to expect from King, I still strongly recommend this miniseries. Just as when it first aired, it captivates me from the opening scene to the end, drawing me into these people, their town, their struggle, and their capitulation. I love the setup, I love the tragic end, and while there's way too much in the middle, I still love and go with the great majority of it.


While I don't enjoy this mini-series quite as much as Noel, I do still think the good outweighs the bad overall.  The pacing is definitely the biggest issue, and by the end of the second part, I was really feeling tired of the whole thing.  The instance of the constant use of "Give me what I want and I'll go away" yet refusal to name it really does hurt it.  It seems to me like the more obvious choice would have been for him to make that request early - let the whole town be horrified by the question, refusing to give up any one of their children, and then slowly have the tide turn as the tragedies and death begin to pile up.

One thing about the pacing that occurred to me as I read Noel's review is that we're not thinking about another factor in all this, and that's the networks asking for these mini-series.  King's name has a lot of pull, and putting "Stephen King's" at the beginning of a title is guaranteed good ratings, and also guaranteed good ad revenue.  So whether the network said "We want a 3 part mini-series" from the beginning, or King gave them the bloated script and no one demanded re-writes because one more night of ad revenue wasn't worth giving up for a tighter story, I think they need to share some of the blame here.

The main thing that keeps me going through those first slow dragging two parts is Linoge's method of uncovering the town's dirty secrets.  It's a pretty common thing in King's writing, but I've always loved it.  Everyone has secrets they hide, things they don't talk about, and in tiny communities like this, everyone knows each other's business but ignores it.  Seeing these people literally fall apart just because someone has the guts to speak it out loud is fun to watch.  What's not so fun is the annoying whispering chant Linoge does as he manipulates people, or the constant repeating of "I'm a Little Teapot" for no good reason.

I'm a little more okay with the Linoge/Legion tie in, though primarily because it's not something that Linoge himself acknowledges from what I remember.  We see that Michael Anderson is the type of person who has memorized many passages of scripture, so it makes sense that he might come to that conclusion, even if it isn't exactly quite right.  It also helps to create the strong divide between him and the rest , that he is absolutely convinced this man is a demon and refuses to give in despite his very real threats.

Another thing that gets me through it all is the cast, who are just overall really stellar.  Jeffrey DeMunn brings the right amount of annoying to Robbie Beals and Tim Daly manages to portray Michael Anderson as just the right amount of good guy without stepping into a realm of too good to be realistic.  Even the child actors give decent performances and feel like true little kids.  It was great to go back and watch this and recognize Becky Ann Baker after falling in love with her performance on Freaks and Geeks, and while her role is fairly small she really brings everything to it when she's there.  About the only person who falls flat is Deborah Farentino as Molly, who always seems to have the same purse lipped expression no matter what is going on.

So while I think the first two parts could have easily been condensed into one with no issues, the third part is really strong, especially as we finally get the town making their decision in the town hall.  You feel for Michael Anderson as everyone in the town stands against him, but you can also relate to the others after all the horrors they've been through.  While it's pretty obvious from the moment he runs into him in the store that it will be Ralphie who will go, I also feel like the whole thing is really determined when Molly goes against Michael and allows him to be "sacrificed."   I was also glad when Michael left afterwards, because I couldn't see any way in which their marriage could survive that.  I'm not sure I needed as long of an epilogue as we got - I don't really need every little detail on what happened to the townsfolk, but I do really like Michael seeing Linoge and Ralphie again.

Ultimately, I do recommend the mini-series, as long as you go into it expecting that slow start.  Baxley's direction goes a long way in keeping the horror present as Linoge unleashes himself on the town, and the ending is strong enough you just might forget all you had to sit through to get there.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Mini comic reviews - misc Vertigo titles, mainly from The Books of Magic series

4 Horsemen - This mini-series was released at the beginning of 2000, and was apparently a bit of a joke related to all the hysteria that was happening related to the Y2K bug.  The premise is that the four horsemen of the apocalypse show up to  bring about the end of the world, and no one really cares because we're all jaded now.  I only have issues 1 and 4, 1 is Famine and 4 is Death.  Famine's issue involves him talking to a woman who worked at an abortion clinic, then left and became a pro-life extremist, then left that and eventually became a mother.  It was trying to make some kind of point,but also couldn't seem to commit to any side and therefore failed.  The Death issue was basically incomprehensible.  There was some kind of story about either terrorists or some kid stalking a rock star or I don't even know.  I literally gave up a few pages in because it was just a mess and I couldn't follow it.

Flinch - This is a horror anthology series, with three short stories per issue, all by different writers and artists.  As you would probably expect, that means they are a pretty big mix of quality.  One thing I also noticed very quickly is that the cover is also its own separate piece that has no relation to any of the stories inside - just another chance for artists to show off some horror work.  Given that the first issue features a guy about to stab himself in the eyeball, I was very, very glad for that.  I can't say there were any particular tales that stuck out to me as great.  There were a few that were clearly too complex for the short length, because they ended with me wondering just what exactly happened.  Ultimately, unless you find them super cheap I can't really recommend this collection.

The Books of Faerie: Auberon's Tale - While I had seen Auberon in one of the Sandman comics, this story is about his origin and therefore shows him as a youth.  It's a simple fantasy tale about the struggle for power after the death of the king in the land of Faerie, and there's also two tangentially related stories at the end of the volume.  Not a whole lot to say about it other than it was simple to follow and the art was nice.

The Books of Faerie: Molly's Story - I only have 2-4 of this mini-series but there's a recap in the beginning of the issue that tells you enough to get you going.  This series ties heavily into the Books of Magic series, which I had not read yet (this is what happens when you go in alphabetical order) and so I had no emotional ties to the main character Molly.  It also didn't help that I really didn't care for the art style at all.  Everyone was bended and distorted, which I'm sure was a style choice since this is set in Faerie, but I didn't like it.  The story itself is just okay.  I liked Molly's cat.

The Books of Magic: Bindings - This is the beginning of the ongoing series, written by John Ney Rieber.  There was a mini-series written by Neil Gaiman before this that set up the story, but I have not read it.  That said, it was not too difficult to follow this volume about young Tim Hunter and his confusion when he learns that the people who he thought were his parents are not.  He tries to pursue his real father and gets caught by a manticore along the way.  Because the manticore has a powerful poison, he ends up spending some time with Death of the Endless in her apartment before he is saved from it.  You can definitely tell this is not Gaiman writing her, as she's missing just a little bit extra of something that he normally brings to her.  But she's not so far off to be out of character, and Tim is your usual confused and fussy teenage protagonist.  I also thought the times with the manticore brought just the right amount of creepy horror to the story.  There's a story at the back of Auberon's Tale that actually works as an epilogue to some of the elements of this volume, so while I read them out of order I read them close enough together to put the pieces together.

The Books of Magic: Reckonings - This is the third volume of the ongoing series, so I'm not sure what I missed in the second.  The main plot here is that a demon kidnaps Tim's girlfriend Molly and brings her to hell, so he goes and rescues her.  There's also this weird stuff with another demon who wants to control him, and we see flashes of the future (specifically 2013, which was fun to read now) where Tim has become a bit of a mess and eventually chooses to live his life as a dragon.  The one thing I wasn't particularly clear on is if this hell is supposed to be the same as the one in the Sandman series.  I suppose you could say that hell is so vast these are just areas we haven't seen before.  But it definitely looks very, very different than what we saw there.  That said, it was a nice little tale with an interesting cast of characters.  I enjoyed it.

The Books of Magic #66-69, 71-75 - This section of the comic is from the time when Peter Gross took over as writer and artist for the book.  The gap in story was initially a little confusing for me as Tim is in hiding using a necklace to appear as a girl and no longer has any of his magic powers.  The stories feel a little more in line with Gaiman's Sandman universe, however, and as such I felt a little more "home" with these stories.  It's a good tale of a boy learning to accept who he is and trying to do some good with what he has.  He also wraps up the details of the future that we saw in those early stories as well.
I still have a couple other books in this series to read namely The Names of Magic and Hunter: The Age of Magic, but I found myself really wanting to read X-men comics instead.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - X-Files' episode "Chinga"


My memory of The X-Files is a little hazy these days.  I remember jumping into the show somewhere toward the end of the first season, loving it passionately at least until the movie came out, and then falling out with it, probably around the time David Duchovny left.  But I haven't revisited the show since, and due to the mostly episodic nature of the series it gets hard to remember most of the details.  I'd like to revisit it eventually, but have so many other shows out there I'm trying to get to in the meantime.  So it was nice to at least briefly get back in touch with paranormal investigating FBI agents Mulder and Scully for this one episode, originally written by Stephen King with some rewrites by series creator Chris Carter.

Chinga is an ultra creepy antique doll owned by young Polly Turner who lives alone with her mother Melissa in a small Maine town.  After Polly's father's death via freak accident, the town has started calling Melissa a witch.  Agent Scully is technically on vacation, but can't seem to avoid getting tangled up in the strange incidents that keep occurring whenever Polly gets upset.  Agent Mulder meanwhile is sitting back at home in D.C. and apparently taking his own downtime.  The episode creates a fun role reversal for the two agents, as since usually skeptic Scully is out and viewing these unexplainable events alone, she's forced to consider the paranormal, while believer Mulder is able to try to find natural, scientific explanations at home (though he's clearly teasing her as he comes up with them).

King's stamp is pretty evident on the episode, even beyond the Maine small town setting.  Local sheriff Jack Bonsaint answers every question with "ayuh" and seems a bit embarrassed as he slowly reveals the town's dirt to Scully.  Jane Froelich who ran the daycare center and once saw evidence of Polly's odd behavior is King's classic town busybody and religious freak.  And the doll's menacing message of "I want to play" reminds me so much of young Gage in Pet Sematary menacing his father after he's returned from the grave.

Director Kim Manners does a great job bringing out the horror of the episode, filling the whole thing with dread.  The doll they created for the episode is also fantastic, with just the slightest bit of a smirk on her face that makes you think she really is evil.  Toward the end, it can get a little maddening that Melissa decides to take as drastic a measure as killing herself and her child rather than just taking out the doll that is obviously the problem, but the pacing of the episode is quick enough that it never feels too drawn out.  In the end, seeing Scully burn the doll up in the microwave is so satisfying.

There's apparently some doubt as to just how much of this episode is King, and how much is Carter coming in and cleaning it up.  Did he just modify Mulder and Scully's characterizations to make them fit better, or did he actually change the core story itself?  In the end, I think there's enough here of King to still shine through. Besides, given what we've seen so far of King's scripts, if Carter also changed the pacing and tone a little bit to fit the screen a little better, I don't think he harmed it in any way.  Overall, it's just a great episode.  Probably not a good one to start your X-Files viewing with thanks to the role reversal, but definitely a classic episode to revisit for those who know the series.


I never followed The X-Files to any significant degree. It was a fun show, but I'd only catch the occasional episode here and there, kinda liked the first movie even though I didn't understand a lick of it, and would absorb bits of the show through the cultural osmosis of having some die-hard fans among my high school friends. I've probably seen a season's worth of episodes, maybe a hair more. Most were okay, a few really stuck with me, some were crap, and "Home" freaked me the shit out and gave me nightmares for a month. Like Angie, it's a show I definitely intend to thoroughly revisit at some point, it's just not top priority on my list at the moment.

"Chinga" was one of the episodes I saw back in the day, and this fresh viewing does largely live up to memory. It's a very typical King story, with everyday small town affairs and suspicions and people just trying to get by pleasantly enough, all coming to a head as a supernatural item swoops in. The doll is very spookily done for the most part, with some nicely constructed King sequences of people being driven to self harm and suicide. The attack on the teacher is especially straight out of King with the use of "Hokey Pokey" on the record player, and I like that their use of an actor dressed as the doll is never over-played or shown full on.

I actually do like the moment of Melissa being driven to the point of trying to end the life of herself and her daughter, in that every other avenue has been taken from her, and no less than three loved ones have met brutal ends, one right before her eyes. I think the psychic visions of the deaths is an extra detail we didn't need, and also something typically King, but it does further explain her mindset.

We could get a little more exploration of Polly, though, as writing her behavior off with the basic stamp of "autistic" feels a little cheap, and I feel more could be done to play up the mystery of whether it's her or the doll. Had this been a stand-alone short story, I could see King going one of two ways: 1) increase the conflict between Polly and the doll at the end until the girl rises above the evil force, or 2) Melissa actually does just torch them all. Scully actually feels very peripheral to the story, mainly just pulling out some exposition on who people are and where the doll comes from, but the central conflict doesn't feel like her's to resolve, so her saving the day feels a little unearned. I do like the staging, with Melissa going at herself with the hammer until the doll fries in the microwave, but more could have been done to either better integrate Scully into the story, or not have her be the one who solves things in the end, just observes it.

As for King's script, I have a copy of his draft, but it's boxed away following my move from earlier this year, so I can't directly comment on it in this post. I have read that the majority of Carter's rewrite was due to Mulder having originally joined her in the small town, but Carter wanted to make it a Scully solo story, so he had to come up with other ways to keep Mulder occupied. And come up he did, as Mulder is making a lovable ass of himself with basketballs, pencils in the ceilings, and a porno tape he brushes off as a nature documentary. Both he and Scully are played with a surprisingly light smirk throughout (Scully and the lobster), which also actually adds to the King feel, where things are often terrifying and tragic, but he also loves to have a good laugh now and then. And this has me even more curious to get deeper into this project, as this episode reminds me a lot of the few episodes of Haven I've seen, to the point where I wonder if this was looked at as their initial template.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - Sleepwalkers


Sleepwalkers are an ancient race that's lived alongside humanity, a reptile/feline hybrid ancestor with an ability to cloak themselves and other objects into other forms or invisibility, and feed on the life forces of the virtuous while running from cats, their only natural predator whose scratches are poisonous to them. We learn all of this in the first 5 minutes, thanks to a text screen and opening credits over sketches from ancient texts going back to Egyptian times, because somebody doesn't have a clue how mysteries are meant to be built. This is one of three major flaws I have with the film, as the first half is full of interesting bits of suggestion and slow reveal, but someone said "fuck it", tied that to a brick, and tossed it out the window as they decided to put bright, blinking lights over everything before it even gets to happen.

Our main characters are Mary and Charles Brady (Alice Krige and Brian Krause), a mother-son team of Sleepwalkers who just abandoned the latest of a string of small town homes as they settle in Indiana (despite a reference to Castle Rock being a neighbor). Mary and Charles are striking, attractive, enticing individuals. They also have sex. With each other. Both in human form and in very poorly done full body lizard/cat suits. I'm not sure why. I get them making out, as Charles seems to be the only one who can drink the life force of people, so he has to feed part of what he drinks to his mother, but the sex seems to be there just because it's ooky and King wants to push some buttons.

My jokey attitude and the inserts of the text and opening title sequence aside, I actually really like the first half of the film. If you ignore what they shouldn't have given you, there is a nice, twisted playfulness to the way they gradually reveal what's going on with Mary and Charles, as we see him as a wholesome teen listening to an old record player and reading the yearbook... then carving the first letter of a girl's name into his arm. Then he and his mother dance and glare out the window at cats before revealing they're far closer than they ought to be as he sweeps her up to the bedroom. I have my issues with Mick Garris, but he can be very nice at directing character moments, especially when he clicks with certain actors. He clicks with most of the cast here, and his specific angles and flowing tracking shots bring a nice air of casual unease to the skewed mundanity, which, along with the lazy 50s guitar record Charles always plays, does a much better job of capturing the spirit of Twin Peaks than King managed with Golden Years. Almost makes me wonder how Golden would have turned out had Mick been involved, as I think that story could have mixed well with his style.

Though it also helps that King is far tighter in the writing this time around than he usually is. I read a draft of his screenplay in prep, and it's also much leaner and focused than what I'm used to from his scripts. There's nothing elaborate in the descriptions, no long-winded backstories or extended characterizations that ultimately serve no purpose other than adding color. It's especially noticeable after the bloated drag that was Golden Years, and feels like a breath of fresh air in its wake. Who knows, maybe it was a breath of fresh air for King, too, as he did this right after coming off of that project and probably wanted something to shake that experience out of his system.

That's not to say it's a great screenplay, as there really isn't much story here. Within a week or two of settling in (set decoration could have had some boxes around the house to make it look a little less unpacked), Charles is already locked on a beautiful and "pure" girl, Tanya (Madchen Amick, which also rings some Twin Peaks bells), and starts seducing her into a date in a secluded location. He's also had a run-in with a sheriff's deputy (a fun but not overly hilarious Dan Martin) and the officer's pet cat/office mascot Clovis, who run into him again at the secluded date spot, and from then on, it's pretty much hell breaking loose for the entire second half of the movie as Charles is beaten nearly to death by Tanya and Clovis, and it's up to Mary to hunt her down so the girl's lifeforce can heal her son. Which involves no cat-and-mouse tactics, just Mary showing up at the girl's home, smashing through cops and her parents, and dragging her off by her hair in a stolen police cruiser. There really isn't much to the story, just half introduction and half everything paying off, with no real developments or arcs to any threads, or anything complex going on structure-wise.
And yet, that doesn't bother me all that much, as it's a simple story that, once it tips the hand of what's really going on, doesn't dance around issues any more and just runs with them, going from a son trying to feed his mom to a mom trying to keep her son alive, while everyone else lives long enough to wonder just what in the fuck it is that's suddenly exploded on their lives. Moments are drawn out, but don't feel padded. Characters have distinction, but don't have it spelled out in detail. It all comes in at a lean 91 minutes, and while there isn't a huge amount of depth to the writing, I'll gladly take this over what I usually get from King. Actually, the story reminds me a lot of "Sometimes They Come Back," in that it feels like you could turn it into prose and publish it without going beyond that 30-40 page count, as they just let moments hang instead of trying to staple extra meat to the bones, like that story's adaptation did. And this isn't all Mick, as aside from a page-and-a-half scene of dialogue, there's nothing that was cut from that draft I read. They filmed it as is. Then fucked it up by adding the text and credits sequence, but still, this is King being lean in a way I'm not used to outside his early stories and Bachman books.

However, we do still have two major flaws to discuss. I've praised Garris' direction quite a bit here, but he's also a part of the problem as he's still unable to pull off scares or moments of horror. In scenes like the teacher (Glenn Shaddix!) having his bloody encounter with Charles, or when Charles assaults Tanya in the graveyard, or when Mary is smashing through parents and cops, Mick gets so giddy for each scare that he ends up playing it for camp, complete with monsters going "Boo!", spring-loaded cats, and withered corpses that scream for no reason as they drop into frame. He handles most of the story well because it's not supposed to be weird, it's supposed to be a mixture of mundane and odd, normalcy that's become off-putting. He handles that well, but any time we get to a scare, it's eye-roll time and the shocks fail to deliver. The third act is still impressive just because of the scale of Mary's slaughter, a large portion of which is due to the chilling way Krige saunters through it all, but it's also very clumsy and doesn't work half the time.

And the third flaw is the Sleepwalker makeup. I find it hilarious that Ron Perlman suddenly shows up in the second half, because the cat faces Charles and Mary don when partially transformed are totally swiped from his Beauty and the Beast days. The script describes them as being more reptilian, with translucent skin and soft, white fur, and their transformations have a rippling static effect as, instead of morphing, they're literally shifting perceptive fields of reality around themselves. You see those photos Tanya took of Charles? That's somewhat closer to the effect. Here, we just get some prosthetics we've seen better done elsewhere, and basic, early CGI morphs. The bit where Charles first sees Clovis and goes through a number of transformation is laughable, especially the giant infant head he has for no reason. And those full-body suits of their true form. Oh good lord, no. I'd rather they just stick with the Vincent vamp-face.

It's an uneven film. Ultimately, I might recommend it, which I didn't to expect going in, as my memories from a decade or so back were very vague and not so positive. It has its issues, and the story is not only a bizarrely unexpected reworking of the "General" tale from Cat's Eye, but runs through what it has so briskly that it doesn't leave much impact or impression beyond what's on the surface (probably why the memories were vague), yet I enjoyed watching it. The cast is good (love Amick being introduced through her dance number), what it lacks in depth it makes up for by just running full tilt wherever it's going, and for all the deserved crap I give Mick, his direction actually tips more into the realm of really clicking with the material here than I'm used to. It's not a strong recommend, but enough that I look forward to forgetting most of it again over the next ten years before sitting down for yet another fresh watch. That said, you kind of have to let yourself ignore the info dump up front for it to be effective, which isn't a fair expectation to hold audiences to, and a definite strike against whoever put that on the film.

As a final note, Mick is having a blast playing the cameo game here. Love the completely superfluous moment of Stephen King acting the hell out of that toothpick as the graveyard owner huffing between forensics men played by director Tobe Hooper and author/director Clive Barker. And when those photos are developed, those are directors John Landis and Joe Dante as the technicians. And need I point out an uncredited Mark Hamill rocking that police 'stache as the sheriff in the opening?


Things I liked about this movie:
  • Cats are the heroes!
  • Andy and Clovis, buddy cops!
  • Stephen King's cameo (sadly, I did not recognize most of the others Noel mentions, beyond the obvious one)
  • Ron Perlman showing up in the final act and basically stealing every scene he's in.
  • This is the last King/Garris co-production I'll ever have to watch.  Woohoo!
I tried so hard to defend Garris once, I really did.  Not everything's he's done is awful, and if it wasn't for his version of The Stand I wouldn't be doing this project right now because I wouldn't care about King at all.  But now I simply groan and wince along with everyone else at his poor excuse for scares.  Enough with the jump scares.  Enough with the poorly executed way too brightly lit to be realistic gross out sequences.  Enough with the hammy acting performances.

Of course, not all of that is Garris's fault.  It's also King's fault.  I'm not going to say that incest can never be handled appropriately in fiction, as I've seen some instances where you can at least understand the characters even if it repulses you.  And on the surface, a long lived race on the border of extinction could end up that way.  But the constant love scenes between them are so awkwardly done that while they may start off off-putting they quickly devolve into annoyance with overuse.

I have to disagree with Noel on the pacing, as the film is only 90 minutes long and happens over the course of a few days, yet still manages to feel painfully slow at points for me.  I see King making some of the same mistakes here he made with Golden Years, just in a more condensed form.  Repeated scenes of the cats in the yard, repeated scenes of their flirtations, repeated scenes of Mary stressing to Charles how important it is that they feed soon.  Perhaps if we had spent a little more time on Charles and Tanya getting to know each other, create an actual feeling like maybe he might want to leave his mother behind rather than just her imagined jealousy, this could have worked as something dynamic and interesting.  But as it stands it's two miserable people who make a string of bad decisions and then die for it.

The creature design is also absolutely horrible. The mid-transformation of the cat-human hybrid is okay, but the full fledged Sleepwalker form looks ridiculous.  And why are they so shiny?  If you wanted to go for something close to an anthropomorphic hairless cat, this was not the way to do it at all.  The effects are mostly decently executed, I'm just confused by the design choices they made.

A couple other thoughts:
  • While I recognized Lyman Ward as Ferris Bueler's dad immediately, Cindy Pickett looks so different I didn't realize she was Ferris' mom.  It's an interesting nod to that film, anyway.
  • What the hell is up with that one awkward moment where the cop asks the sheriff if the parents have been informed that their daughter avoided being raped?
  • I have some kind of strange blinders for Alice Krige, where every time I see her in a movie I have to go look her up because I know her voice but I can't remember where else I've seen her before.
  • Death by corn on the cob?  No.  Just no.
  • While this isn't a particularly notable appearance of Glenn Shadix, it's always fun to see him show up regardless.
  • Seeing Mark Hamill play a cop in the opening scene gave me The Guyver flashbacks, and that's not a good thing.
So unlike Noel, I feel pretty confident in not recommending this film.  I last saw it about 20 years ago, and managed to forget everything but the incest.  I don't think I'll need that refresher in another couple decades to confirm I don't like this one.
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