I rarely cover movies by Stephen King because they’re predominantly mainstream horror hits, but considering most of his good adaptations hit in the 1980s, I figured I’d take on a bunch of stuff from the 90s in a 2-part blog, both consisting of 2 movies and 2 miniseries. The titles in this first blog are mostly a hit for me, with only one major miss.
THE DARK HALF (1993)
George Romero directs a faithful adaptation of one of my favorite King books, yet watching it again decades later, I realize it’s essentially just a smartly plotted slasher. I’m not saying that is a bad thing.
I just love the freakiness of this story. As a child, Thad experienced head issues, so doctors operated on him and discovered—EEK!—remnants of his unborn twin impacted in his brain.
Years later, Thad, played by Timothy Hutton, is married with kids. Having written nasty pulp novels under a pseudonym, he decides to have a literal burial for the fake author.
Turns out someone digs out of the grave and starts killing off all the important people in Thad’s life with a razor blade. And all clues point to Thad as the killer.
Several horror veterans deliver great performances (Amy Madigan, Michael Rooker, Julie Harris, Rutanya Alda), the killer is dark and creepy, and the death scenes are violent and bloody. But just as in the novel, I’ll never truly understand the point of the sparrows that play a major role in the story.
Tom Holland (Child’s Play, Fright Night) tackles another of my favorite King written under his Richard Bachman pseudonym, and it’s a good adaptation in terms of plot.
Holland infuses it with his slightly campy style, aided by the performance by Robert John Burke, who is in a goofy looking fat suit at the start of the film and speaks sort of like Max Headroom. It’s a bit unexpected based on the plot, but if you can get into its groove and go with it, it’s kind of fun.
It’s also an always timely plot about race and class. Burke is a lawyer with connections, so when he accidentally kills a gypsy in the road while driving…um…distracted, he’s cleared of any charges.
But the gypsies seek their own revenge, which causes the leading man to start losing weight rapidly. So he doesn’t have much time to make things better for himself. What’s so great about King’s writing here is that part of you is glad the Gypsies are making the white man suffer, but then the other part of you sides with the protagonist and you’re overjoyed when he uses the “white man curse” (isn’t that just the mere existence of the white man?) to get his own revenge.
Sadly overlooked horror queen Kari Wuhrer is great as one of the gypsy women, Stephen King of course makes a cameo, and the final zinger ending is delicious…but definitely makes the whole movie feel like an extended version of what could have been a shorter slice of cinema in perhaps a horror anthology or an episode of Tales from the Crypt.
THE TOMMYKNOCKERS (1993)
This is definitely one of the better King miniseries that also does a good job of adapting its source material. To me it captures the small town vibe of the Salem’s Lot miniseries from 1979 and the It miniseries from 1990, as well as including some kid character perspective, a staple of King stories.
There are plenty of familiar faces, including Robert Carradine, Joanna Cassidy, Traci Lords, and Jimmy Smits as our leading man. He’s an alcoholic, and also the one who starts to realize something is amiss in town when the locals start acting weird.
They’ve discovered a buried, green glowing spaceship in the woods, and they become obsessed with digging it up. As they do, it starts to affect them all, giving them special powers and creative capabilities.
The pacing is perfect considering the movie runs 3 hours long without commercials, and the atmosphere captures the perfect horror spirit of King’s fiction. While some miniseries can drag for the first night (see below), The Tommyknockers gets the curiosity going right from the start and actually delivers big time on the special monster effects in the second part, unlike some pretty bad effects in other King adaptations (again, see below).
THE LANGOLIERS (1995)
This miniseries is based on a novella from Four Past Midnight, a title released when I feel King was past his prime. It’s hard to believe horror icon Tom Holland directs this awful film a year before tackling Thinner, or that he and King co-wrote the script.
Several people fall asleep while on a flight, and when they wake up everyone else is gone. They spend a majority of the rest of the movie trying to figure out what the hell is going on as they land the plane in an empty airport.
Typical King caricatures abound: mild-mannered pilot, trendy young woman, geek, blind girl with some sort of psychic powers, gluttonous older dude, motherly woman, level-headed soldier, no-nonsense Black guy, and an arrogant, self-centered businessman.
Despite some very familiar faces in the cast, the acting is fucking atrocious…except one person, whose over-the-top performance saves the film, especially in part 2. That person would be fricking Balki from sitcom Perfect Strangers. He goes kind of psychotic due to their inexplicable circumstances, and he rules.
Other than him, the old school full frame tube TV aspect ratio is agonizingly claustrophobic and the film looks cheap—I swear it even switches sometimes into videotape footage of things like airplane gears in motion. That’s not the worst part. Not remembering the novella at all (an issue that plagues me with most of King’s work after the 80s), I don’t recall how much of a part the “Langoliers” actually play in the original story, but they appear for less than five minutes here, and they look like some evil animated versions of Pac Man with giant teeth. I’ve seen better cartoon critters in commercials for scrubbing bubbles and roach motels. The story is unnerving enough on its own without the unnecessary and irrelevant presentation of these things.
Perhaps the most entertaining part of the film for me was when my hubby asked of the handful of passengers stuck on the plane, “Why don’t they all go sit in first class?”