Stephen King

New Podcast: MOTION PICTURES #4 – ‘Stephen King’s America’

The latest episode of my podcast about cinema I’ve launched with my friend and podcast buddy, Carl Sweeney.

Motion Pictures is designed to be more of an informal, free-flowing chat about movies, geared around a topic of the week. There will also be choice episodes around an idea, whatever takes our fancy really! It’s an exciting project.

In this one, with Doctor Sleep now out, we explore the enduring popularity of Stephen King as a writer of copious novels and short stories and how many of them convert successfully, or unsuccessfully, to celluloid – from Brian de Palma’s Carrie to Rob Reiner’s Misery to Andy Muschetti’s two-part adaptation of It, and beyond.

DOCTOR SLEEP: a Kubrickian xerox with soul and dark beauty

If it’s accepted fact that Stephen King hated Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, one suspects Kubrick would have hated Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of Doctor Sleep.

Primarily because Flanagan (celebrated in the horror community in recent years for projects such as Hush, Oculus & The Haunting of Hill House) doesn’t just put King’s 2013 sequel on the big screen, he actively works to continue the story from Kubrick’s cinematic version, which King has always attested is less faithful to his 1977 novel than the Mick Garris-directed TV mini-series from the 1990’s.

It does feel like King is wishful thinking about a lot of this, though, if you’ve read The Shining. Kubrick added a few of his own touches and flourishes but he sticks close to the plot, and often lifts dialogue from the book. Flanagan does the same here but the singular difference is that Kubrick wasn’t actively aping a director before him. Kubrick was innovating with The Shining. Flanagan is xeroxing. Intentionally, without a doubt, but he’s xeroxing nonetheless as he works to thematically and visually connect Doctor Sleep to the iconic 1980 horror film.

This ultimately works both to the advantage and the detriment of Doctor Sleep as a movie in its own right.

From the Vault #5: THE SHINING (1980)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from October 31st, 2012, revisited with Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep just around the corner…

I’m going to throw out there a statement that is controversial when you say it about any movie: The Shining is one of the greatest motion pictures ever made. There, I said it. That’s right out there and I’m standing by it.

Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s well-known psychological horror is a remarkable piece of work, operating on an incredible amount of levels. It’s the most chilling movie I have honestly ever watched; other movies have made me jump more, or squirm, but The Shining every time gets inside my bones, gets inside my head, and refuses to go anywhere. The sign of a truly great movie is one that won’t leave you when the credits roll, and Kubrick’s tale sits in a very select group of films that have done that to me, and continue to on repeat viewing.

Movie, TV, Book & Podcast Roundup: September 2019

Welcome to October! Because there’s not enough useless information floating around on the internet, I thought I would update readers of this blog as to what I’ve watched/read over the previous month, each month, in the form of TV, movies and books.

Some of this I will have reviewed on the blog but others I’ve just been watching for enjoyment with Mrs Black. This edition covers September which, well… ended up being quite a difficult month for several personal reasons, which means we’ve both digested far less than we normally would have. So this may be a shorter piece this time around!

Let’s start this month with Film *and* TV…

SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK: The Power of Unjust Narratives

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a film about the power of narrative, hence why much of the action takes place on a key night in 1968.

Just after Halloween, always a night popular with horror films as a setting, in 1968 saw election night of the next President of the United States, a night in which Richard Nixon finally was elevated to the position of Commander-in-Chief. While Andre Ovredal’s adaptation of the children’s book series by Alvin Schwartz is primarily concerned with the terrifying events swirling around bookish teenager Stella (Zoe Colletti) and her friends as they are haunted by the murderous stories of a tormented spirit, the story undulates with the ominous spectre of Nixon’s election looming over small-town America, the kind of latent 1950’s hangover, Midwestern town that wouldn’t go amiss in the world of Stephen King.

Schwartz’s original book takes place at the tail end of the 1960’s, a decade in which the counter-cultural revolution swept its way across the Western world, particularly the United States, though it seems to have passed Mill Valley, Pennsylvania by. Stella is haunted by her mother’s abandonment, perhaps to explore the big city world offered by the promise of the 60’s. Her friend Auggie (Gabriel Rush) is a middle-aged man in a young guy’s body, while mysterious stranger Ramon (Michael Garza) turns out to be a draft dodger – avoiding the senseless Vietnam conflict that killed his brother. These are not teenagers rushing headlong into a heady 60’s of abandonment, if anything they are anxious and rooted by their circumstances. This makes them far more contemporary and relatable than their period setting suggests.

Nixon’s re-election is a sign, given the US is now experiencing its most divisive and controversial President since ‘Tricky Dicky’, that Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has one eye on our current problem of confused, false narratives.

Forget the Past: MEN IN BLACK and Neutralising History

If we are great at one thing as a collective human species, it is forgetting our own history, often by choice.

It is easy to forget how Men in Black, one of the breeziest, cheeriest examples of B-movie science-fiction updated for a big-budget late-1990’s audience is built on one of the darkest and more sinister aspects of American folklore, urban myth and conspiracy theory. If you’re over 35, chances are you fondly recall the days when Will Smith was at his jaunty, Fresh Prince-coasting heyday as one of Hollywood’s biggest action stars, laying down hugely popular and catchy rap tunes to fun, explosive tentpole movies or, as in Independence Day, greeting an alien invader with a right hook and a pithy “Welcome to Earth!”. Building a franchise around Smith as the hip, young, cool streetwise guy who becomes a ‘galaxy defending’, super slick government agent made a world of sense, and serves as the perfect way to cloak how disturbing the legend and myth behind it all is.

In reality, the legend of the ‘men in black’ is one of the most pervasive and ongoing representations of an oppressive, repressive American underbelly which wants us to forget the sins of their forefathers.

Book Review: All My Colors (David Quantick)

From time to time, Titan Books are kind enough to send me advance copies of upcoming novels I express an interest in. When they do, I’ll be reviewing them here on Cultural Conversation.

You may have heard the name David Quantick over the years.

You may indeed have seen him as a talking head on more than a few clip shows providing a comedic or acerbic bent, but in reality he is one of the most quietly esteemed comedy writers in the UK of the last thirty years, from the influential and dark work of Chris Morris such as The Day Today, Brass Eye and Jam, through to a fruitful union with Armando Iannucci on The Thick of It and most recently in the US, Veep, which has seen Emmy Awards coming his way.

The latter two projects are mentioned on the cover of All My Colors, a title itself handily Americanised as this sees Quantick—in his first slice of prose fiction—playing in the American cultural wilderness as he brings to bear a caustic, snappy slice of satirical, melodramatic horror. The story of Todd Milstead feels like what would happen if you threw H.P. Lovecraft, The Twilight Zone, Stephen King and 80’s Richard Briers-starring comedy Ever Decreasing Circles into a blender.

Naturally this is, in no way, a bad thing.

The X-Files – ‘Familiar’

MULDER: Mass hysteria. Salem. McCarthyism. What happened to the precious presumption of innocence? Which is rooted in a very democratic ideal.

There is something familiar and unfamiliar about ‘Familiar’, one of the last truly stand-alone ‘monster of the week’ tales The X-Files will likely ever do.

Anyone who has followed Chris Carter’s series from its inception will be aware that his show was divided between the ‘standalones’ and the ‘mythology’ episodes. At the time, back in the 90’s, fans lived for the mythology, the ongoing story of Fox Mulder & Dana Scully against the conspiracy to cover up the existence of alien life, and far darker deeds beyond. Time and distance however, for many, have seen the standalone tales grow in currency; in a world now built on the kind of serialised storytelling The X-Files flirted with, while still keeping to a model ripe for syndication, fans have craved from the revival season a truly stand-alone story. One where Mulder & Scully arrive in a small town, investigate some weird deaths, and find themselves embroiled in the strange and spooky. It’s taken almost two revival seasons, but ‘Familiar’ gets us there.

Oddly enough now, however, what once was considered a standard, typical X-File, has become essentially the aberration. If you look at how experimental both revival seasons have been, from comedy episodes or Hitchcockian espionage homages, down to episodes like last week’s ‘Followers’ which pushed the envelope the furthest the show has gone in a long time, ‘Familiar’ stands out because it’s now *unfamiliar*. Benjamin Van Allen’s story is almost a throwback, a relic of the original series The X-Files was built on, and were it not for certain fairly indirect but potent allegorical references to modern-day political Americana, you could position ‘Familiar’ in one of the early seasons of the show. It might sit quite well nearby ‘Die Hand Die Verletzt’, perhaps its most intrinsic bedfellow. For that reason, alone, it feels uniquely old-fashioned.

Stranger Things, Lost and the Sudden Left Turn

The latest season of Stranger Things, Netflix’s nostalgic 1980’s-set adventure, took an interesting left turn toward the end of its run. The second season had built on the first, continuing the story of a group of teenagers in Hawkins, Indiana, 1984, after they uncovered a conspiracy of government scientists awakening psionic powers within innocent children, with the express means of opening a doorway into the ‘Upside Down’, a dark, demonic reflection of our world. Arguably the breakout star was Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven, an androgynous young girl raised by an amoral scientist she named ‘Papa’, before escaping and being taken in by teenager Mike and his party of 80’s geeks.

The Goonies meets The X-Files, right? That and about a dozen other touchstones, from Spielberg’s E.T. through to Stephen King’s Carrie. Eleven proved to be the character who leapt into the popular consciousness with a measure of innocent vulnerability and youthful verve, and it makes sense for creators The Duffer Brothers to give Eleven her own character journey across the second run, in far more of a pointed way than the rest of the ensemble. It’s through Eleven that we find an interesting narrative choice played out by the creators in the second to last episode.

Stranger Things season two operates in a logical manner, developing character arcs for the group – Dustin adopting a monstrous pet, Lucas’ teenage adoration for tomboy and new team member Max, Steve breaking out as the star of the second season, moving from popular jackass to true, underdog hero. So by the time we reach the end of the sixth episode, ‘The Spy’, the scene has very much been set for an epic climax to the story; Will is possessed by the ‘Mind Flayer’ shadow monster, Eleven discovers the truth about her mother and family past, and Hopper sees the government lab in Hawkins being to be invaded by legions of ‘Demi-gorgons’, the monster lap dogs of the Mind Flayer essentially. The first season had eight episodes yet season two has nine, simply for the fact the two-part climactic beat is forestalled in order to squeeze in an episode not originally part of the season tapestry – episode seven, ‘The Lost Sister’.