Movie Review ~ King On Screen

The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1976, Brian de Palma directed Carrie, the first novel by Stephen King. Since then, more than 50 directors have adapted the master of horror’s books in more than 80 films and series, making him the most adapted author alive. What’s so fascinating about him that filmmakers cannot stop adapting his works?
Stars: Frank Darabont, Mick Garris, Mike Flanagan, Tom Holland, Vincenzo Natali, Greg Nicotero, Mark L. Lester
Director: Daphné Baiwir
Rated: NR
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Though the first movie adapted from a novel by Stephen King came out four years before I was born, I was thankfully alive, awake, and alert for the heyday of the author’s books being turned into movies and television series. One of the most recognized names in literature and film, King has been scaring the pants off consumers for over five decades and is still going strong. His reach and influence in pop culture are well known. While his repertoire has been touched on as part of documentaries covering the overall horror genre or specific films, there hasn’t been a significant examination that gathers all of his movies into one ghoulish delight.

Enter Belgian documentarist Daphné Baiwir, who has taken on this task and delivered King on Screen, a solid, if unspectacular, look into the various projects that have sprung from King’s novels back to the original Carrie from 1976. Through interviews with several dozen filmmakers (all male) that have been behind the camera, viewers are taken through an abbreviated timeline that leans heavily on the expected titles (Christine, Misery, IT, The Shining), barely mentions some (Firestarter, Needful Things, Salem’s Lot, Silver Bullet) and skips over others (The Lawnmower Man, Graveyard Shift, Apt Pupil, Dreamcatcher) altogether.

There’s no doubt that the content of King’s works could have filled two or three documentaries, and maybe this would have been an ideal project for a multi-episode arc on a streaming service instead, where time is of little issue. I mean, if you are going to cover King, cover King. Leaving out movies, even the lesser known/regarded ones, puts them in some naughty corner that can make fans of those entries feel somewhat alienated. Of course, we all love Stand by Me, Pet Sematary, and Dolores Claiborne, but do we have to leave out discussions of The Tommyknockers and The Langoliers as a trade-off? 

If Baiwir loses some points for content by the end of King on Screen, she’d already earned a hefty bonus off the bat with a positively delightful opening that is filled with so many King Easter Eggs that you’ll want to have your remote handy to pause/rewind to catch them all. Casting herself as a traveler bringing back a unique antique to a recognizable shop in a familiar (to King readers) town…scour every detail you see for callbacks to previous movies/books and pay attention to each of the townspeople you run into. They’re all linked to the King universe somehow. It’s an ingenious way to get the ball rolling, and while it has absolutely nothing to do with the interviews, playing more like a short fan-made King tribute, it’s a lot of fun.

Any King fan worth their salt will want to check out King on Screen. However, if you’re like me, who appreciates King’s full oeuvre, even the deep cuts, you’ll likely miss the titles that aren’t mentioned. Even so, hearing the various directors discuss their influences and how other filmmakers (some interviewed here) informed their approach to making a King adaptation is insightful. None of it is likely to be new information, but it makes for an easy watch that knows its target audience well.

In Theaters on August 11th
and available
On Demand and Blu-Ray on September 8th.

31 Days to Scare ~ Pennywise: The Story of IT

The Facts:

Synopsis: A documentary surrounding the 1990 television miniseries It, based upon the Stephen King novel of the same name, featuring a notorious villain known mostly as Pennywise.
Stars: Tim Curry, Seth Green, Richard Thomas, Emily Perkins, Dennis Christopher, Richard Masur, Lawrence D. Cohen, Tim Reid, Michael Cole, Brandon Crane, Ben Heller, Tommy Lee Wallace, Adam Faraizl, Richard Bellis, Norman Cabrera, Gene Warren Jr., Bart Mixon, Bret Mixon, Brent Baker, Mark Tillman
Director: John Campopiano & Chris Griffiths
Rated: NR
Running Length: 126 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: The television miniseries must seem a bit archaic for a generation that has grown up with streaming services at their fingertips. Even thinking about it now, it looks like a massive commitment that might not even pay off in the end. What if you devoted multiple days/weeks to a project that fizzled out by the conclusion? I’m old enough to remember the heyday of the television events that occupied our Sunday evenings and stretched throughout the following week. Sometimes you’d be lucky and start with a two-hour movie followed by one-hour installments or multiple two-hour segments without a break. The real nail-biters ran weekly, meaning you had one chance to watch, and if you missed it or forgot to set your VCR and account for an afternoon football game that ran late, there was no DVR to save you. 

By now, most of you out there should be acquainted with Stephen King’s ‘It’. Published in 1986, King’s 22nd novel was a nearly 1200-page doorstop of a narrative that alternated between time periods, all centered around a group of friends from Derry, Maine. Bonded by a terrifying childhood event, when the same evil surfaces thirty years later, the adult group is called back to face their deepest fears and a most vicious supernatural villain that knows which buttons to push. Taking the form of a deranged clown named Pennywise, the King’s novel was both a feverish page-turner and an old-fashioned look back into a time readers could still grasp easily.

While ‘It’ would find its way to the big screen in two good movies (Chapter 1 in 2017 and Chapter II in 2019) and the town of Derry will live on in an HBOMax series with plot details under wraps, it’s the first adaptation of King’s work that is most burned into the memory. That’s the basis for directors John Campopiano & Chris Griffiths’s documentary Pennywise: The Story of It, an exhaustive look into the history, production, and legacy of that 1990 television miniseries with a focus on its most recognizable asset.

Airing on Sunday, November 18, and Monday, November 20, 1990, It was shepherded to the small screen by producer/co-writer Lawrence D. Cohen when the project landed at ABC, who was lucky to land the piece during King’s late ‘80s/early ’90s hot streak. Conceived as a 10-hour miniseries (this was before Netflix made that long-form sit truly palatable), the teleplay eventually parsed it down to its two-hour form. By that time, original director George A. Romero was out, and Halloween III director Tommy Lee Wallace had signed on, also considerably revising Cohen’s massive script. Wallace assembled the cast, an array of familiar names in television at the time, with stage and screen star Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) taking on the role of the menacing clown Pennywise.

The rest is, of course, history as Curry’s character became synonymous with not just the miniseries but with the nightmares of many children and their children after. Campopiano & Griffiths go to great lengths to break down every facet of the production, covering the topics fans would want to hear about. Crew and cast are interviewed with only a few missing participants (frustratingly, Annette O’Toole declined to be included), but the real prize is Curry. Suffering a stroke in 2012, Curry hasn’t been much in the public eye, but his recollections from the set and his process are gold. 

There’s no commentary in Pennywise: The Story of It on how well the miniseries has held up over the years (ehhh…), and the general impression you get from everyone on screen is an experience preserved in amber. In that respect, it’s always lovely to hear that a movie existing in your head as an exciting time of your life was mutual for the people who made it. I can recall exactly where I was and what was going on in my life when I sat down to watch this miniseries, so each time it gets brought up, many good memories come flooding back. With experience in these types of retrospective documentaries on cult/fan favorite films, Campopiano (Unearthed & Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary) and Griffiths (You’re So Cool, Brewster! The Story of Fright Night) again deliver a near-comprehensive look back that floats above the rest.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)


The Facts:

Synopsis: A newly engaged couple have a breakdown in an isolated area and must seek shelter at the bizarre residence of Dr. Frank-n-Furter.

Stars: Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, Richard O’Brien, Patricia Quinn, Nell Campbell, Jonathan Adams, Peter Hinwood, Meat Loaf, Charles Gray

Director: Jim Sharman

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: To truly appreciate a show like Richard O’ Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show, you have to see it live on stage.  That’s really the only way you can get the full-on experience of how O’Brien originally conceived it and see it for its clever ode to the schlock cinema from the ‘50s and ‘60s.  Set to O’Brien’s undeniably catchy tunes and lyrics that range from the divine “Dana Andrews said prunes gave him the runes” to the make-it-work “Planet, schmanet, Janet!”, the stage version premiered in 1973 in a small UK venue and gradually moved up through larger houses as word-of-mouth buzzed through town.  American producer Lou Adler caught the show one night, saw $$$ after the recent success of Jesus Christ Superstar on stage and screen, and began the musical’s journey to cinemas at the same time it was crossing the pond to take on the U.S.

By the time The Rocky Horror Picture Show opened in 1975, the stage show had played a successful run of nine months in L.A. (with original London star Tim Curry and future movie cast member Meatloaf), transferred to Broadway with the same players, and closed after an infamously short run after a disastrous NYC reception.  In between the two bi-coastal runs Curry and Meatloaf flew to London to make the movie which was planned to be released while the Broadway run was enjoying a warm reception and oodles of awards.  Sadly, only the mononymous Chipmonck was recognized with a Tony nomination for his lighting design of the 4 previews and 45 performances at the Belasco theater in March and April of 1975.

That was the stage show and the movie is a different beast all together, one that found a its own kind of status over time.  At first, though, it looked like the hope for Rocky Horror finding longevity was slim.  Opening in August 1975, director Jim Sharman’s film version is bound to be a strange experience for anyone coming in cold to the show.  The title has such a history attached to it, with the legendary tales of midnight screenings and groupies that dress up like the characters and act out scenes in front of the screen while audience members talk back to the actors in the film.  Toast is thrown, as are rolls of toilet paper, rice, cards (for sorrow), cards (for pain), and make sure you have a newspaper with you because someone will absolutely be squirting water during a rainstorm scene early on in the film.  This all happens if you attend one of those packed screenings that still exist, but not as frequently as they had in the past.

I’ve seen the show multiple times in a movie theater and onstage but rarely at home with just myself and the television and watching it with my partner for his first time it was odd to have it so…quiet.  Where were the people yelling back at Brad (A**hole!) and Janet (S*ut!)?  Why was I the only one standing up doing the Time Warp?  It did give me a chance to appreciate how nicely made most of the movie is, with several sequences edited with such immense precision it give me goosebumps (take a look at how sharp the opening to “Touch-a-Touch-a-Touch-a-Touch Me” is timed).  True, the storyline is still a bit flouncy and drifts away every so often only to have O’Brien reel it in as we round the corner to the finish line, but it’s immense fun for the most part. 

The chief reason why the movie worked then and continues to work now can be summed up in two words. Tim. Curry. All the recent hoopla about Ben Platt recreating his Broadway role in the film version of Dear Evan Hansen for no real reason should use a performer like Tim Curry (Clue) as an example of why sometimes it is the best choice after all to have the OG star in the film.  20th Century Fox pushed to have Barry Bostwick (Tales of Halloween) and Ride the Eagle’s Susan Sarandon (having an absolute ball here) cast in the roles of the virginal couple that get lost in the rain and find themselves mixed up with Curry’s party of weirdos but it would have been a death sentence for the film if Curry hadn’t been brought along from the stage show.  No one has ever come close to beating him in the role and it’s so important that a performance of this magnitude has been preserved like this forever.  Same goes for O’Brien, Nell Campbell, Jonathan Adams, and Patricia Quinn (The Lords of Salem), all original stage stars appearing in the movie with only Adams not playing the same role he did onstage.  Quinn, in particular is impossible to not watch every moment she’s onscreen…like a demented Bernadette Peters she’s always up to something.

It’s easy to throw around the term “cult” and randomly apply it as the status of a movie, but few truly earn it.  The Rocky Horror Picture show is more than worthy of being bestowed that honor and while it went up in smoke during it’s early run in theaters, I think it wound up doing just fine over the last 46 years.  The last count was that it has made over 170 million dollars in box office returns – not bad for a movie that cost 1.4 million originally.  If you can’t make it to the theater to see it live, give this one a try at home.  A bonus: you likely have the most important props (toast, newspaper, toilet paper) close at hand!