Horror Films and Stephen King (Part Five)

Note: What follows is a full analysis of the entire film, all other parts of this essay are fairly spoiler-free with regards to the film but this is not. You’ve been warned.

Maximum Overdrive begins with a title insert basically stating that the earth will be stuck in the tail of a rogue comet for about a week. The insert seems a extraneous to me and takes away from the story to a certain extent, however, King may have stated his reasoning in an earlier writing “…any horror film (with the possible exception of the German expressionist films of the teens and twenties) has got to at least pay lip service to credibility” (Danse, 156). One will note that even Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street give their slashers traumatic pasts they must exorcise. In this film the explanation comes early and removes a necessary suspense element I feel would’ve helped the story out. One may also notice that the picture of the earth used in this sequence is backwards meaning Egypt now looks out on the Atlantic. I don’t know how no one caught that.
    

The film is set in Wilmington, North Carolina for the duration of the story. The only other time King set a tale in the south was The Green Mile. He’s set tales in Nevada, Pennsylvania and had a few go across some states but usually relied on atmosphere or people he could sketch reasonably well, which is Maine. The characters in this tale while are sometimes sketched and drawn out by King, to the extent he could with the limitations of the film but they’re acted like caricatures in most cases.
 (Note: This geographic note was correct upon the original writing. Since then King has taken to wintering in Florida, thus his fiction goes there sometimes too).    

We first see the way that the comet affects machinery on the streets of Wilmington.  First, we see a news ticker over a bank that constantly displays the phrase “Fuck You.” Then we get the early King cameo in which, he’s a bumpkin who’s called an “Asshole” by his ATM machine, this is humorous but nowhere near as good as his role as Jordy Verrill in Creepshow.  These small details may add a bit of eeriness to the beginning but as is the theme throughout this film we get a lot more humor than fright. In this sequence all the laughs are intended.

After this we get what might be one of the more frightening sequences of the film, unfortunately no one really escapes this scene unharmed. There is no protagonist who makes their way out of this wreckage and moves on to where a bulk of the action takes place. Instead, what we get is quite an effective crash scene that shows that all machinery can now think and the drawbridge lifts even though all the cars got the green light. The bridgemaster and his assistant look befuddled and the bridge is a disaster area. Everyone is stuck at the base of the lifted bridge. A motorcycle rider flies off the edge, this is the source of the big continuity error one man slides of his motorcycle and we see him seemingly go in two directions, and also go out the gap which hasn’t opened as big as camera angles would have us believe later. This huge mistake is also surprising considering Evan A. Lottman, who edited The Exorcist and Sophie’s Choice worked on this film. This scene is somewhat freaky but is also a little extraneous.
    

We then cut and see the Happy Toyz truck, it’s adorned with a huge demon face on the grill and has a slogan emblazoned across its broadside (“Here Comes a Load of Joy,” King’s ability to come up with clever and humorous slogans is uncanny). It is driven by Andy (J. Don Ferguson) who stops at the Dixie Boy Truck Stop. We get our first good shot here it comes when Andy’s talking to one of the gas jockeys, it’s a medium from the inside of the truck and we get a hint that soon there’s going to be some trouble.
 

We’re introduced to our protagonist next, Billy played by Emilio Estevez in his first role outside of “The Brat Pack.” Someone should have told Emilio that it is very difficult to flex your acting muscles and make a name of yourself from one horror film. Inside the Dixie Boy we now see that the pinball, coffee and cigarette machines are going crazy in the game room and we get a bad performance out of Videoplayer (Giancarlo Esposito) who is quickly killed off.

The first act’s pace is relentless as soon after Duncan (J.C. Quinn) is outside filling the Happy Toyz truck and the pump has mysteriously stopped. He removes the nozzle to check what’s going on and gets sprayed in the eye with diesel. At this moment we get our first sample of the score, the true score and not any sort of source music. While the score like so many is reminiscent of Hermann’s Psycho we only get this stabbing music on a few rare occasions. A few old AC/DC songs were used for this film along with a new one entitled “Who Made Who?” I happen to know that Stephen King is a big fan of AC/DC but I feel that he knows enough about horror to not have left most of the music track in this film dead. There is a lot of silence and it wasn’t very effective at all. AC/DC provided the wrong kind of mood with their high to medium Heavy Metal riffs. It makes me wonder if most of the budget wasn’t diverted towards pyrotechnics and Emilio’s salary further taking away from the film’s quality.
    

We’re later introduced to Bubba Hendershot (Pat Hingle) who shows himself to be the human villain in this tale. He is unscrupulous and uncaring. His character is quite well played. Then we see King’s first big touch when we see a headline about the comet. Prior Duncan and Joey (Pat Miller) had been talking and it was more subtle and many people won’t realize that the “Mickey Mantle” they were referring to is Deke (Holter Graham), Duncan’s son. In this film King had a little more than 90 pages and too many characters to deal with in that allotted time.
 
   
Our next two mechanical attacks work in different ways and introduce two more characters. A hand-held electric saw attacks the waitress Wanda June (Ellen McElduff) gets her forearm sliced into this is quite a gross moment and also establishes Billy as the protagonist. Then we cut to the baseball field and Deke’s team has just won and the coach is attacked by soda cans shot out of the vending machine. There is some great makeup work in this scene and it’s also pretty funny along with a shocking steamrolling shot that literally made my jaw drop. There are more characters to get to though.
    

We are in a car and getting a radio report about the odd occurrences a la Night of the Living Dead, but more subtle, and are introduced to the Bible Salesman (Christopher Murney) and Brett (Laura Harrington) a hitchhiker he has picked up. The Bible Salesman actually ends up being quite a good hypocritical character in this tale carrying a briefcase with has gold leaf on it and has “The Holy Bible” scrolled across it. Brett is going to be the love interest and this party like Deke are heading to the Dixie Boy. Laura Harrington should have gotten an Oscar…thrown at her, she was so terrible in this film. As a matter of fact the casting in this movie for the most part is rather weak; I wonder why in the closing credits the Casting Director got top billing. A director should know his actors limitations and should have reworked his characters accordingly.
  

Staying in the mode of less than satisfactory acting we switch over to Curt (John Short) and Connie who are a newlywed couple. Connie (Yeardley Smith) who went on to make a name for herself on The Simpsons as Lisa, is so annoying in this role it is nearly impossible to sympathize with her. John Short is one of the actors who ruins some of Stephen King’s great dialogue by having no idea how to deliver it. This is where King should have stepped in and altered the dialogue. It does pain a writer to change effective and intelligent dialogue for simple, pedestrian dialogue but it should be done when the actors sound stupid saying these lines.
    

Along Deke’s journey on bike to the Dixie Boy we see the wrath of the machines has left many dead bodies splayed all over the place. We get an eerie feeling again with a guitar riff for each corpse that is found. If there is one thing that can be said for this film is that all the effects are well done; as we see the trucks maneuver, drive and terrorize people. When these vehicles are on the move on their own they even drive better than real people in film they did quite an admirable job in that respect.
    

Perhaps the best dialogue King has to offer us in this film is when the Bible Salesman is trying to sell some editions in the Dixie Boy. This is also where we see Wanda June start drinking it may be the most well written scene of the film capped off by the salesman saying “This Bible has everything from the creation of this beautiful world to the fall of mankind.” This is the closest we come to seeing the implications that King had intended to impose, aside from a painting of the Last Supper we see for a few seconds, in the short story and there isn’t enough emphasis placed on this scene in my opinion. I also feel it’s a humorous commentary on how the salesman doesn’t know his scripture because all Bibles, regardless of denomination, include those tales.
    

Right before Duncan goes out to be killed we see how the blood has escaped his burned eyes. It’s a rather creepy shot that reminds me of one of King’s favorite films X – The Man with X-Ray Eyes. This death occurs in minute 32 and already we’ve seen so many characters. The Bible Salesman is later sent flying into the sewer after he charged the truck that smashed his car. King, being one who doesn’t believe in any one Christian doctrine, throwing a Bible Salesman into a gutter is a great touch. The truck that decks him also rolls over his Bible briefcase which I liked. When the body is returned to the truck stop we get another good piece of dialogue Bubba says, “He’s dripping all over my floor.” to get the people moving.
    

Stephen King also usefully employs the sewer in the attempted rescue of the Bible Salesman who we find many minutes later is clinging to life in the gutter. This provides the film with it’s only truly good looking and dark cinematography. John Short also displays his inability to deliver a great off-color line written by King in the sewer sequence (“What happened to the people who peed in this?”). The salesman we see is ultimately not worth saving when Deke finds him and the salesman says “Help me or I’ll kill you,” very Christian.
     

Just after the trucks smash a phone booth, we assume in order to effectively isolate them, and begin to angrily circle the truck stop instead of attempting to build some tension we cut away to Curt and Connie, who are chased by an eighteen-wheeler, it’s literally a cut to the chase situation. King had the opportunity to have a situational and somewhat atmospheric film but I feel that was robbed from him by producers looking to imitate many of the 80s poorer films.
    

The way in which these massive hunks of metal are fought most of the times is through gunfire, this is aided by the fact that Hendershot has a huge armory in his basement, which seems to hold everything from AK-47s to Bazookas. The only way in which the special effects fail in this film, being no ballistics expert I’m not sure, but the bazooka’s missiles are never seen in flight we only see the truck exploding. With something that big I’d go to the optical lab and add it even if it is technically inaccurate. 
    

King touches upon the flying airplane mentioned in his short story but this also comes out as comical. Once again we have a nice shot from the inside of the plane and can see the plane operating itself. It is turned humorous by the employment of Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries.”
    

Aside from the seemingly incessant presence of the comedy in this film we are also pestered by the lack of darkness; we are bombarded by light. “The dark, it goes without saying, provides the basis for our most primordial fear.” (Danse, 182). Cinematographer, Armando Nannuzzi, had done plenty of films in Italy for years on end and had most recently done quite an admirable job with King’s Silver Bullet. The nighttime footage in that film was effective in deemphasizing the low-budget werewolf but he seemed to thrive on the use of daylight to make some of his more impressive shots in Maximum Overdrive. In all fairness, Maximum Overdrive is a bright, pretty to look at film with sporadic good shots but it’s not quintessential horror. With the positive affect of darkness being so obvious one must wonder if budgetary concerns or perhaps weakness in the lighting department played into it. Even though much of the story is at day time in prose King must have realized he’d need more nighttime scenes for the film. He also knows that not only is it needed but the dark and night time is often heavily used in certain films. “All but approximately eighteen minutes of John Carpenter’s Halloween are set after nightfall.” (Danse, 186). Whereas after sunset we have but 17 minutes in the dark, and then we also have the interesting situation in which most of the human deaths occurred in broad daylight. In this film, the first scene to be set in a darkened place is in minute 48 and the sun only sets three minutes later more than halfway through the movie. Later on in the sequence, the truck stop also loses its power but this is not used in any sort of dramatically moving way and it comes back on before ever having taken any sort of toll on the story. And we are made well aware of it by a beautiful shot of the sunset.

Afterwards, we get the weird green effect in the sky which is larger in some areas of the sky than others. It was used at the beginning to symbolize the comet’s tail. In a poorly acted moment yet again provided by Laura Harrington, in the role of Brett, assumes the comet must be causing all this. It’s in a way also King’s most unfortunate piece of writing because the title card shown from the beginning is practically reiterated for the audience.  At night it seems that only Wanda June and Deke have been affected negatively. Billy is courting Brett, all others are unmoved by the celestial oddity. It’s very unusual that King with the understanding of character he has wouldn’t have gotten on these actors and told them they weren’t driving home the suspense and claustrophobic elements that should have been what was carrying the film.
    

Billy and Brett dominate this section of the film with their nighttime romance which I can only describe as filler. While I understand people can cling to each other in such a situation there was too much focus on the romance for my liking while I do applaud King for not being afraid to implement it. Wanda June dies an overacted death, she was completely drunk and yells the lines I least liked from King’s short story “We made you.” and if a film such as this can have a subtext she just blurted out part of it and she made this little speech more than once.

    
Another thing which constantly plagued this film was that it was very heavy with incident in the beginning and towards the middle of the film the action begins to taper off. The story becomes diverted to an extent.
    

Many times we are shown that Deke is the best drawn of all the characters. In the beginning we see him check on his injured coach, he’s then scared off by the salesman. He breaks down upon hearing about his father’s death, then the next morning has apparently regressed and is blowing bubbles. Not only that but when the trucks start beeping he not only realizes it is Morse code but translates it. What would have made this a better film was some more focus. At the end, when the great exodus of the Dixie Boy begins, we see eleven characters running, three of which I don’t think ever had their name uttered in the film but were perhaps named in the script.
    

The Morse incident is where the trucks admit that they need to be refueled. Billy’s reasoning eventually wins out. They pump gas for the truck because the dried out ones might call for one or many that can destroy them. A few more vehicles do show up including what appears to be a mini-flatbed with a machine gun set on a tripod, which in the end seems a little too beatable. During this sequence Emilio Estevez’s performance, which was nothing earth-shattering to begin with, also slips when we see him yelling at the truck, the Happy Toyz one with the Green Goblin face.
    

Towards the end we get an escape. The truck stop blows up. The Evil Truck which has been harassing the people and is the villain gets a bazooka in its open mouth. This moment is somewhat effective as we think for a moment maybe that one can’t be beat but then it explodes. We end with another annoying title card with a sappy finishing touch and some odd Soviet involvement in destroying a “weather satellite.” And the film closes on a comedic note with the last line of dialogue being Connie saying “Ooh, I think I’m gonna whoops my cookies.”
  
 
Maximum Overdrive is a film that has a few shocking and jaw-dropping moments. All the effects are well done and the cinematography is well-composed. What King ends up providing is a movie that ends up being a pretty good comedy/adventure, which is probably why he didn’t like it all that much. He should definitely give it another go because despite the bad casting there were some good performances in this film most notably those of Holter Graham as Deke and Pat Hingle as Hendershot. One thing King can be thankful for is that his film doesn’t ever tread into the so bad it’s good region.
 

Horror Films and Stephen King (Part Four)

The horror genre in film has attracted more than its fair share of crud-ass directors. Amazingly some of these people who lack in the fundamentals essential to filmmaking have managed to create scary films like David Keith’s The Curse, a modern day rendition of Lovecraft set in Tennessee, I dare you to watch it alone! Some, actually many, take a story that’s not all that bad and assemble a group of people who are just talent-less and waste a perfectly good premise, like in Richard Caesar’s The Calling. 

 
“The worst movie sends its own message, which is simply to say stay away from other movies done by these people; if you have seen one film by Wes Craven, for instance, it is safe enough, I think, to skip the others.” (Danse, 216). Contrary to King’s opinion people who begin their careers making junk as filmmakers can move on and make some damn good stuff. Case and point, Craig R. Baxley directed one of the most painful movies of all time Bad Day on the Block, better known as Under Pressure, in 1997 but quickly turned around to direct both Stephen King’s original mini-series (Storm of the Century and Rose Red).
 

And horror always seems to produce some of the worst films in the world, in America anyway, well, why? Stephen King puts it very astutely in his non-fiction examination of the genre “low-budget moviemakers are attracted to horror because it seems to be a genre which is easily exploited – an easy lay, like the sort of girl every guy wanted to date (at least once) in high school.” (Danse, 216).
    

Not only does the genre have to deal with low-budget moviemakers, which isn’t so bad, which the 90s have proven with the rise of the independents, but you also have to deal with rookie filmmakers working in what is likely the hardest genre to be effective in.
 

King approaches the horror genre in film with a very fair-minded and level-headed attitude. He understands that we’re not dealing with Shakespeare and every style has its standards. “I am no apologist for bad filmmaking but once you’ve spent twenty years going to horror movies looking for diamonds (or diamond chips) in the dreck of B-pics, you realize if you don’t keep your sense of humor you’re done for.” (Danse, 200). And one thing many people may not realize is that he is a very funny guy one of the few authors who doesn’t write humor who can make me laugh out loud. One of Maximum Overdrive’s “failings” is that it succeeds as being a comedy. There is some funny dialogue but the tone of the piece ended up being a little more lighthearted towards the middle and it feels totally unintentional.
 

“Once you’ve seen enough horror films you get a taste for really shitty movies.” (Danse, 200). This may be at the root of at least part of the problem with how Maximum Overdrive came out. While King understands the way horror works a more filmic approach was needed and is always needed when handling his tales. The concept of genre should be on the backburner. There were definitely attempts by King to try and build these characters through images but he may have run both out of time and cash to be completely successful.

Horror Films and Stephen King (Part Three)

The short story “Trucks” first appeared in Cavalier, a men’s magazine, in June of 1973, which probably means that no one actually read it, or very few people did anyway. It was later published in Night Shift, King’s first collection of short stories, in 1979. This was King’s first venture into automotive horror. It’s not a sub-genre many of us ever consider but as King demonstrates in Danse Macabre it certainly exists.
 

“Even such a much-loved American institution as the motor vehicle has not escaped the troubled dreams of Hollywood…” (Danse, 163-4) From this tone we can see we’re usually not going to be dealing with masterpieces even within the genre. He then goes on to discuss a movie starring James Brolin called The Car. “The movie degenerates into a ho-hum piece of hackwork before the end of the second reel (the sort of movie where you can safely go out for popcorn refills at certain interval because you know the car isn’t going to strike for another ten minutes or so).” (Danse, 164).
 

We later are given a sense of what would be a better tale and King makes reference to Spielberg’s Duel (164) but ultimately concludes that to find other interesting car stories one should look towards stories and novels (164).
 

So, if King was not actually told to do this story because it was the one that De Laurentiis was willing to buy from him, perhaps he thought he was better off going into territory that hadn’t been handled all that successfully in the cinema.
    

King’s tale is very short and obviously needed to be expanded upon in order to make it into a motion picture. While the short story isn’t perfect, there are areas in which it is much more successful than the film. First off, we get no moments of comedy in the tale, unless we’ve seen the film, and I like the way the characters interacted in prose better.
     

In the short story there was more of an emphasis on waiting it out and also on speculation of impact. The characters discuss how much food they have stored and start to fill jugs with water; these issues are not addressed in the film, it’s as if everyone knows they’ll only be trapped for two days at most. The impact of these trucks taking over may have plays itself in the mind of the narrator and occasionally through dialogue. When there is a debate over pumping gas; the issue of being slaves to the machines comes up. Billy imagines people all over the country pumping gas into driverless trucks. He imagines an escape to a cave a digression to near pre-historic times. The inability for the trucks to reproduce and the contrast of whether or not they were currently being assembled at that moment was also postulated. 
 

Where the story is similar in some places is meaningless because of the way King approached the short story. He starts with the people already stuck in the truck stop. Even if the studio would require the cockamamie comet excuse later on, fine but it is much more frightening without such an outlandish set up; a set up might I add that doesn’t logically lead to machinery working and thinking on its own. Another way in which the short story is superior is in the ending. Here’s the way it ends: “Two planes leave silver contrails etched across the darkening eastern horizon. I wish I could believe there are people in them.” (Shift, 142).  And it’s over. They’re stuck and it doesn’t look like they’re going anywhere. It’s a great ending, but obviously not one many film production companies will want to have, so King had to change.
 

Stephen King has always been a fan of the unknown and while he knows it’s difficult he occasionally likes to leave things opaque like in Dreamcatcher. It may have been better if he had been allowed to do that with this film.
 

In fairness to the film, the characters were more drawn out than they were in the short story. It was just a case of having too many and not having enough time to deal with them all.

Horror Films and Stephen King (Part Two)

Stephen King’s philosophy on how he approaches the horror genre as a writer is three-pronged. “I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out” (Danse, 25). He believes this to be a hierarchy system in which he has three methods of attack in which to impress the reader. He will, without question, attempt each of these tactics through the course of either his writing and/or filmmaking. 
    

In the novel Desperation, as in the film version of The Shining, I feel there is a tremendous undercurrent of terror running through each of these tales. Maximum Overdrive relies mostly on the gross-out as its means to scare the audience but that does not depreciate its aesthetic value. “But the gross-out is art, and it is important that we have an understanding of this. Blood can fly everywhere and the audience will remain largely unimpressed. If on the other hand the audience has come to like and understand – or even just to appreciate – the characters they are watching as real people, if some artistic link has been formed there, blood can fly everywhere and the audience cannot remain unimpressed.” (Danse, 189).
  
 
And we are impressed to an extent in watching the havoc that King has created in this North Carolina town. That gag reflex does work on us on occasion. We are drawn into certain situations. The drawback of the gross-out being so dominant is that it’s the only level on which this film worked and it’s the bottom level. The reason it doesn’t climb higher is because “the gross-out serves as the means of last-ditch sort of identification when more conventional and noble means of characterization have failed.” (King, Danse, 190).
  

One thing that may have been a challenge to King is that this was his first produced first full-length narrative screenplay. His first two screenplays were Creepshow and Cat’s Eye. The former is an homage to EC Comics, it tells five tales and is masterfully put together by George Romero. Cat’s Eye, which isn’t as good, but it is in the same anthology format. Stephen King had written many screenplays that weren’t used prior to directing his own film. Scripts for The Shining, Poltergeist, The Dead Zone, Children of the Corn and Cujo all weren’t used for various reasons. And he had previously given an idea to the Dino de Laurentiis Company for something called Training Exercises, which was never produced. This is likely what prompted King to finally direct but just because he was finally directing didn’t mean producers wouldn’t interfere.

Horror Films and Stephen King (Part One)

Plenty of movies reek, especially horror films, they may have their moments that stick in your mind and cause them to be somewhat memorable, but every once in a while a movie comes along that makes you say, “What the hell happened there?” One such case is Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive.
 

Stephen King can write just about anything he wants and make it work. Not only will it work but it will sell, as a book anyway. Due to the fact that King, through no fault of his own (if you call it fault), redefined popular fiction. Hollywood has always drooled at the opportunity to turn both his tomes and tales into film. They’ve done this with varying degrees of success, but have usually fallen on the lower end. Regardless of all that the films that have been made out of his literature have added to the already enormous King lexicon, a list of titles that is so huge that one can easily get lost and a few small unassuming films do slip by and are actually quite good.
    

While Maximum Overdrive hardly takes the cake as the best Kingflick it certainly isn’t the worst and it does hold the distinction of being the only one he not only wrote but also directed. Many things went wrong in the making of this film everything from production problems to distribution issues, which in my opinion contributed to making this film less than perfect. It ultimately led King to believe that his film wasn’t the greatest and he had better stay off the set for a while. I believe that what happened with this film doesn’t rest completely on King’s shoulders and there would be much worse things than having him direct again such as another Britney Spears movie (isn’t one painful enough?).
  


 
When we’re dealing with horror films onscreen there are certain conventions that some people will constantly follow. These conventions often come in direct conflict with the way Stephen King writes. The first thing we will recall is that most horror films rely on plots that are similar in construction to what King phrases as “The Tale of the Hook.” It’s a story we’ve all heard. Basically, it goes a little something like this: It’s the one with the guy and the girl who are making out in a car and there’s a report on the radio about a killer with a hook for his hand. During their make-out session the girl keeps getting distracted by a noise she hears. The guy persuades her that it’s all in her mind then when she gets dropped off at her house and slams the car door a hook is dangling from the door handle. It’s the stuff of urban legends that has been somewhat literally interpreted and turned into films such as Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer.
    

King is not simple-minded, however, and understands that the “Tale of the Hook” is a basic form for much of horror fiction in both film and literature. “The story of The Hook is a simple, brutal classic of horror. It offers no characterization, no theme, no particular artifice; it does not aspire to symbolic beauty or try to summarize the times, the mind, or the human spirit.” (King, Danse, 21). This is the type of plot construction that dominated the horror of the 1980s and pretty much defined the slasher sub-genre and in fact still does ‘til this very day.
    

This Hook Mentality is prevalent only in film because the genre is a completely different creature than horror in literature. Often the best horror literature is impossible to adapt because we delve so deep into character and wander into such supernatural areas that film can’t do it justice. The target audience for horror literature is usually much larger than it is for movies in terms of different demographics. Producers usually do whatever will get the kids to show up. 
 

And this is why the “Tale of the Hook” works for them: “Stupid, simplistic and transparent are also perfectly good words to describe the Tale of The Hook, but that doesn’t change the fact that the story is an enduring classic of it’s kind – in fact, those words probably go a long way in explaining why it is a classic of its kind.” (King, Danse, 139).
  
 
King rarely works with the hook picking at his brain. When we think of his novels and even films we often think of names: Jack Torrance, Gage Creed, Randall Flagg, Andre Lenoge, Roland, Bill Denbrough, Carietta White, Jessie Mahout Burlingame, Dolores Claiborne, Tak, Pennywise, Bobby Garfield, Bart Dawes; I could go on but I think you get the idea. King is about character first and foremost. He takes his time and builds them slowly and steadily allowing the plot to flow out of them. This tactic in film while it’s also effective is time consuming, costly and not easy to do. 
    

A mistake many filmmakers have made in handling his material is focusing on events and only slightly introducing characters and assuming the audience has an understanding of what makes these people tick. This is the case with Needful Things whereas in the book we always had a distinction between the characters, in the film things are blurred and many characters disappear. This is a question of logistics, considering that it was a novel that was 731 pages long and had to be transformed into a film script which at the maximum was 140 pages long. Aside from the condensation issue there were also certain unexplainable changes and bad casting decisions. 
 

While King contends to this day that he hates Kubrick’s version of The Shining (he even wrote a mini-series remake) one thing both King and Kubrick understand is that to adapt one needs to use the basic structure of a tale and expand on themes and not necessarily events. Adaptation is hard to do. That in mind one should be wary when venturing into a territory that has swallowed many a scribe whole. King can adapt his own stuff as he’s done it successfully in the past (Pet Sematary, Silver Bullet) but with this film I feel that he was under pressure because he would be required to shoot it. This may have caused him to emphasize the wrong elements in this tale, despite that fact that there is some structural similarity it doesn’t seem like King. When reading The Talisman, a book he co-wrote with Peter Straub, I remember thinking to myself ‘This all sounds like Stephen King.’ Yet in Maximum Overdrive the dialogue rang true to my ears like his but the story didn’t. In my mind I can just imagine an exec from the Dino De Laurentiis Entertainment Group phoning him up and saying, “Steve, I’ve got some notes for you.”
 

In this film, Stephen King made a real attempt at telling a multi-character tale on screen in his own way. In later years he would take on the role of producer in his mini-series’, and I think it’s the direct result of the difficulties he faced with trying to make this film the way he wanted. In this film, he did flesh out his characters more than he did in the short story but as we’ll see bringing them to life is another story.

 Note:
 This is a recapitulation of a paper I wrote in film school. It will be published here in installments.

Once Upon a Time in the 80s: Sociopolitical Overview (Part 2 of 17)

Photo Credit: Peter Turnley/Corbis, The epitome of hope in the 80s: The fall of the Berlin Wall

When we think of the 90s sociopolitically you can almost draw a parallel to the kind of films that were produced. With Clinton in office the stock market more than doubled it was prosperity galore and yet there was a generation (Generation X followed by Y, how original) that could care less. There were hardly any films that reflected the times we were in because that would be bourgeois, no one really cared they had money in their pocket. Yet there was also nothing to escape unless you count the laughable Lewinsky affair, so film stagnated aside from the occasional blip here and there.

While the 80s were not like the 60s in that there was an issue constantly looming over everyone like the Vietnam War. There were several crucial events in America’s history. Films are the products of our society and the people writing those films for the most part came of age in the 60s and thus, had a higher social consciousness than those who grew up in the culturally devoid 70s.

Being children of the 60s coupled with the fact that escapist family-oriented cinema was in demand for a great part of the decade lead to many of these films having a lot of pie-in-the-sky idealism in them.
The 80s socially and politically were a mess. There was always something. New York was a crime-ridden dirty hole, which is reflected in Ghostbusters, and to some extent Trading Places. At the beginning of the decade there was the hostage crisis and the decade ended with the beginning of the communist collapse. While there were many crises and negative events there was a national sentiment in the nation and a presentiment that gave people a feeling that we could change things, amid all the excesses of the ‘me generation’ there was Hands Across America, Farm Aid and Artists for Africa which were movements by musicians that we could change the world and films like Amazing Grace and Chuck reflect that sentiment.

It was undoubtedly a turbulent time but there was a wind of change in the air. Reagan’s short-sightedness in his term is paralleled by the studio heads. Reagan wanted to give the taxpayers a break immediately and it hurt in the long run while the studios wanted money immediately and slowly the quality of films they were producing would dwindle. Thankfully, the quality did keep coming out until the end of the decade. The political conditions were all aligned for good, even great films to be made. Great films never come out in abundance when the nation is affluent. Pre-packaged hit-me films do, the 80s were a great time to grow up in because you probably weren’t aware of all that was going on around you. Yet I do recall seeing the possibility for change and seeing that something good can occur in this world and I saw it plastered across a large silver screen every weekend.

Note: This is a recapitulation of a paper I wrote in film school. It will be published here in installments. This is part two you can read part one here.