31 Days to Scare ~ Thinner (1996) 

The Facts:

Synopsis: An obese attorney is cursed by a gypsy to rapidly and uncontrollably lose weight.

Stars: Robert John Burke, Joe Mantegna, Lucinda Jenney, Michael Constantine, Kari Wuhrer, Stephen King, Walter Bobbie

Director: Tom Holland

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Starting with the release and huge success of Carrie in 1976, author Stephen King has enjoyed seeing the profits for numerous adaptations of his work come his way.  Studios began scrambling to buy the rights to his work and bring his tales of terror to life which is how we’ve come to have solid titles like The Shining, Christine, Cujo, Firestarter, The Dead Zone, and Misery in our libraries.  To talk about the good adaptions, you must also talk about the bad and King’s work has produced far more duds than hits…such is the case with Thinner from 1996.

Originally published under King’s pseudonym, Richard Bachman, Thinner hit bookshelves in 1984 and when it was discovered the King was Bachman isn’t wasn’t long before a studio attached themselves to the grim morality tale.  Condensing the 300+ page novel to 90 minute movie, director and co-screenwriter Tom Holland (who also wrote Psycho II and directed Fright Night) removed the, uh, fat from King’s tome and produced a slick but slack horror thriller that is passable entertainment but feels like everything about it was second-hand.

When overweight attorney Billy Halleck (Robert John Burke) accidentally runs over and kills an old gypsy woman and then gets off scott free, he incurs the wrath of a gypsy king (Michael Constantine, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2) who puts a curse and him and others that covered up the crime.  Each person cursed has their own personal hell to endure and Billy’s is that no matter how much he eat,s he continues to lose weight at a rapid pace.  At first, that’s good news for the man that has tried for years to shed pounds and his beleaguered wife (Lucinda Jenney, Matinee) who has kept him on a strict diet.  When the weight loss begins to accelerate, and his friends start dying in horrible ways, Billy must track down the gypsy clan to get the curse reversed.

Arguably, there’s a nice concept at the heart of Thinner and had this been given a bit more money and prestige I’d imagine it could have been a sleeper hit.  The problem is that Holland never quite figures out is how to make his characters (any of them) the least bit sympathetic so we have someone to be invested in.  There’re literally no “good” people to be found, everyone has an ulterior motive to their actions or spits their lines out with such overstimulated venom you have a hard time feeling sorry when they are killed off.

It also doesn’t help the leading man is such a bore.  Burke had infamously taken over for Peter Weller in RoboCop 3 and even under that heavy costume with his face obscured he managed to overact.  He does the same thing here, saddled with a fat suit and unconvincing make-up at the beginning and eventually turning skeletal as he continues to lose fat and muscle.  I’m not sure if the make-up did this to him but Burke has this smile/grimace on his face when he’s heavier that is truly unnerving…and not in the way Holland intended.

If I’ve forgotten to mention Joe Mantegna (House of Games) up until this point he should count himself lucky.  As a tricky mobster client of Billy’s, Mantegna plays up the wise guy role to the point of parody and acts as a silly means to an end in helping Billy connect the dots to the origin of the gypsy curse.  If there’s one actor I didn’t mind, it’s the always reliable Jenney who seems to know she’s in a turkey so opts for such a small performance that it has the effect of letting her scene partners look like they’re overacting.

Not surprisingly, this was a huge box office bomb but it didn’t stop the King adaptations from coming.  It would be three years before The Green Mile would be released and in 2017 there was the one two punch of the remake of IT and the dandy Gerald’s Game for Netflix.  It’s clear the best was behind the King work at that time and while Thinner wasn’t bad enough to make studios think twice about taking a dip in the King swamp it’s prospects of being much better are keenly felt two decades later.

Down From the Shelf ~ House of Games

The Facts:

Synopsis: A psychiatrist comes to the aid of a compulsive gambler and is led by a smooth-talking grifter into the shadowy but compelling world of stings, scams, and con men.

Stars: Lindsay Crouse, Joe Mantegna, Ricky Jay, Lilia Skala

Director: David Mamet

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  I recently noted in my review of the trailer for Now You See Me that it’s hard to put magic onscreen because audiences don’t like to be cheated.  Especially in film, anything to do with magic or trickery can be doubly frustrating for a viewer than a live performance because we know that the actors/directors onscreen had the safety of an extra take to get it right.  House of Games is one of the rare exceptions where an audience will welcome the sleight of hand both visually and thematically that’s pulled on them and respect the magicians that pull it off.

Making his directorial debut in this 1987 trick of a film, Mamet has everything in order from the start.  What’s true of Mamet on the stage is also true of Mamet onscreen…he doesn’t tell you anything or show you anything he doesn’t want you to see.  That way, when you find the rug has been pulled out from under you (as Crouse does several times in the film) you only have yourself to blame because the clues were there from the beginning.

Though a tad less clever than some of his later films, House of Games stands out today as a highly respectable directorial debut of the master wordsmith and one of Crouse’s (the now ex-Mrs. Mamet) best performances.  She’s a psychiatrist that blindly gets in with the wrong crowd of people, led by Mantegna as a con man that practically licks his lips when he sees naïve Crouse enter the bar where he has set up shop.  She’s there to help out a friend that’s in trouble; he’s more than willing to show her why he’s not to be trusted.

To give more of the film away would really be a disservice for anyone with even a passing interest in the movie but let’s just say that the movie is has more twists than a bundle of holiday lights – just when you think you’ve unraveled it all you see that you’ve only gotten more tangled up.  I’ve seen the film several times over the years and it gets better with each repeat viewing.  It’s a mature film for adults that like their films smart, savvy, and clever enough to be interesting without being frustrating.