Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - Storm of the Century


Noel:

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.

Angie:

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.

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