Wednesday, 25 October 2017

October Nightmares III #25: Stephen King Special (Part 2) - The Stand (1994) & The Tommyknockers (1993) - A Pair of Kings

Tonight I present to you reviews of yet more Stephen King adaptations. I don't know what it was about the Nineties but apparently Stephen King was all the rage, particularly on ABC. And far be it for anyone to tell the studios that adapting his stories are a thankless task, like looking after your neighbour's houseplants. This instalment will focus on one adaptation which cost more than North Korea's annual revenue, and another which...well, I think there are tramps that are worth more.

The Stand

"Woo-hoo! M-O-O-N, that spells 'Nebraska'"!

Twenty eight million dollars. Twenty-eight-million. That's how much The Stand cost to make in 1994. What the hell did they spend the money on? Rob Lowe's jawline insurance? A mind boggling amount of money by any stretch; which may be seemingly justified when you consider the source material for this miniseries. The Stand is Stephen King's singular epic - 823 pages at first release in 1978, and 1152 pages upon its re-release in 1990 - an exploration of good verses evil played out across post-apocalyptic America.

Think of The Stand as King's Lord of the Rings as set in the 80's/90's. Not the swords and orcs epic you remember for the film trilogy version of Lord of the Rings; but rather, the boring book version with its endless hobbit songs and pages of nothing happening save for descriptions of Yorkshire inspired country. That's The Stand in a nutshell. Mick Garris' take on the book is like a bad Eighties hangover: with a brat pack-era cast containing Molly Ringwald, Rob Lowe, and Corin NemecMax Headroom (Matt Frewer) himself as an even wackier character, and Gary Sinise as the epitome of rugged masculinity. The sort of New Age masculinity where you only needed to be basically in-shape and you'd be guaranteed a spot in Play Girl. 

In a top-secret government facility, a weaponised version of the influenza virus is released. Within days pandemonium has overtaken the streets and the military and CDC struggle to contain the situation - like when an EDL march/carp fishing parade takes place in Chorely, Lancashire. Two months later and societal infrastructure has entirely collapsed and 99% of humanity has perished. This is where I call bullshit. Humanity has survived two world wars, the Black Death, the Yellow Fever, and god knows how many Black Friday sales; I'm sure it can survive a serve case of the sniffles.

The survivors - which include Gary Sinise, Miguel Ferrer, Rob Lowe, Ossie Davis, Laura San Giacomo, Molly Ringwald, Corin Nemec, Adam Storke, Ray Walston, and Matt Frewer - receive prophetic visions from two figures. One's a kindly Mother Theresa type, except she's black so she's extra kindly, called Mother Abigail (Ruby Dee); the other's the demonic Randall Flagg (Jamey Sheridan), aka The Man in Black from Dark Tower. He's pretty unrepentant as far as antagonists go, lording it over his followers like the corrupt sheriff from the first Rambo film. Though he loses points for essentially resembling James May, if James May was a Nineties thrash metal fan. 

Despite clocking in at a meaty 366 minutes, over four episodes, not at lot actually happens in The Stand. It's mostly about setting up the pieces to the final conflict, with nothing but soapy drama in between. Imagine intricately setting up a domino pattern, whilst arguing with your girlfriend, and by the end you can't even be arsed knock them all down - so you pick the dominoes up with your giant hand and put them away. Yes, that subtle reference was a dig at the infamous 'hand of god' ending, in which god's massive hand comes down and detonates Flagg's nuclear bomb, finishing the story right there and then. That's the end you go with when it's 3am and the cocaine stash has run dry.

Throughout, the upcoming conflagration is presented in such a pluralistic fashion that King's script doesn't even bother to attempt to portray the characters as anything other than all good or evil. In the original book, I'm told, the characters have all sorts of complex reasons for joining Flagg's Las Vegas community, and the good guy's Boulder Free Zone represents the labour and complexities which come with building a post-society community.
Here the characters are stripped of reason - the bad guys are simply bad, and the good guys are simply dull. Things happen and yet the effort involved is never shown; and the characters pretend to operate on faith but it's presented more as predestination. They're Stephen King characters so they're not up to much anyway - there's a simple man played by Bill Fagerbakke, who goes 'M-O-O-N that spells (insert unrelated noun) constantly, seriously this is how King thinks people talk.

In reference to my opening comments, I actually know where the budget went. The Stand can't do metaphor it's all literal. The hand of god is a literal hand (and what a hand, I dread to think how monstrous god's dick must be); Lowe's deaf character has a vision where he can hear and he blurts out “I CAN HEAR! I CAN TALK!” (wasn't that a line from Troy Mcclure's Planet of the Apes musical in The Simpsons?); and Flagg's machinations are never subtle, they always involving him appearing in visions and shouting his motivation. So yes, I know where the budget went. The Stand takes things so literally the Nigerian princes must have had a fucking field day with it.

The Tommyknockers

"Gard, let's experience it together!"

There's not much to say about this one, except this: did you know that Stephen King was an alcoholic and a coke fiend? I know, it never gets mentioned. Jesting aside, The Tommyknockers (the book) was essentially King's metaphor for his battle with drug and alcohol addiction. Bobbi Anderson, a wild-west fiction writer (fucking hell, how dated is this novel?) discovers a strange metal object in the woods; an object which transpires to be a buried UFO. After the UFO is uncovered a strange gas is released which causes intelligence, inventiveness, and practical-mindedness, at the cost of everything else which makes you human. I see what King's driving at here, with none-too-subtle allusions to the creative process, but I'd take that deal any day of the week.

As an adaptation, The Tommyknockers follows the same broad-strokes as the novel (in so far that it resembles a cross between The Colour out of Space and Under the Dome), and yet it loses some of its subtly. King's novel is philosophical and allegorical, which does not translate particularly well to the screen. In the novel the only developed characters were Bobbi and her alcoholic poet lover Gard (fucking hell, Steve), they're played here by Marge Helgenberger and Jimmy Smits respectively - as the only two competent actors on show despite the fact Smits is miscast and the script is simply not there. I know the miniseries is about an alien entity which slowly transforms a town's population into something from Invasion of the Body Snatchers; but I've seen more humanity on display on an episode of The Apprentice.

The legendary E.G. Marshall's here too, but really this existence of this series is just a blemish on his memory. He plays the maverick loner who figures out everything which is really going on and discovers the town's hundreds of years old history of death and destruction. Which I was confused about, as I was under the impression that aliens were causing the events, but then the writers bring in the whole Native American curse thing. Well which is it? 12 Angry Men must have felt so far away for Marshall.

In fact the whole aliens taking over the town, and the minds of those within it, thing doesn't seem so bad if you're the average Joe. You go from a one note character, like the sheriff, to a one note character who also gets to bang his hot deputy, like the sheriff.

It has its moments does The Tommyknockers - particularly early on when it doesn't play its hand straight away and reveal exactly what is in the UFO. And the green swirling mist and the Tommyknocker rhyme are creepy, I'll give it that. But this is a particularly bad adaptation. Part of the problem is that the Tommyknockers and the contraptions they townsfolk invent are so eldritch in the novel, that bringing it to life in a low budget miniseries was always going to be overly ambitious. For the inventions we're left with a lipstick-gun which vaporises people and an exploding vending machine. A deft callback to Stephen King's Maximum Overdrive days, maybe? But what I'd really like to know is, what the hell is a Tommyknocker?

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