It's Day 6 of our 31 Days Of Halloween, and today I thought I'd talk a bit about Stephen King. King's one of my favorite authors, and a guy who made me want to write in the same way that people like Mark Twain and Madeleine L'Engle did. Like those two worthies, he made reading and writing something I wanted to do not because it would garner me knowledge and fame and wealth but because it looked like a lot of fun, and he made me want to tell stories, which is something that not a lot of writers do, in my opinion. At least not anymore.
Because of his success in the publishing world, Hollywood thought that Stephen King would be a natural for horror movies. But here's the thing: King had enough pulp roots to know how to keep a good horror tale going, but he was also just literary enough in terms of his talent and writing to ensure that most of his stories would be epic in scope. This meant that many of the best elements of his stories were often completely eschewed in the films, and it also meant that a Stephen King film was instantly classified as "not gonna be that great." Eventually Hollywood figured it out and got him better directors (witness Pet Sematary, Stand By Me, Misery, Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile) but for a long time Stephen King films were their own genre: scary enough to be watchable but not great enough to be cool (with some notable exceptions, of course--I mean, who could not like Creepshow?). But there were some hidden gems in the early films, and here's three: Cat's Eye, Silver Bullet and Creepshow 2. (I include this last one because it is one of the few sequels that I actually like, and I think it gets an unjust rap in horror circles. I'll explain more about this in a few minutes.)
Cat's Eye (1985) links two King stories from the book Night Shift with an original tale written for this movie, "The General," in which the titular cat is prominently featured. The cat is the linking device for the first two stories, "Quitters, Inc." and "The Ledge," in which he is found and cared for briefly by characters in those tales before he continues his quest to find a certain little girl (Drew Barrymore). In "Quitters, Inc." a man (James Woods) who is trying a last-ditch attempt at quitting smoking goes to a doctor (Alan King) whose methods are "experimental" and also exceptionally brutal. In "The Ledge," the cat encounters a businessman (Kenneth McMillan) who forces his neglected wife's adulterous lover (Robert Hays) to walk a narrow ledge around his high-rise penthouse apartment. The cat completes his quest in the final story "The General", finding the girl and becoming her pet, and saving her life from a six-inch-high murderous troll who is attempting to steal the girl's breath each night. All the stories are directed well and overlap perfectly, with "Quitters, Inc." being the best of the lot due to the interplay between King and Woods.
Silver Bullet (1985), based on King's illustrated novel Cycle Of The Werewolf, stars Corey Haim as Marty Coslaw, a crippled boy living in the small town of Tarker's Mills, which is suffering from a spate of vicious serial killings. After four unsolved murders are committed, the townspeople consider mob-style justice but are calmed by the Reverend Lester Lowe (Everett McGill) who is himself tormented by dreams of brutal slayings. Meanwhile, Marty is given the gift of a custom-built wheelchair/motorcycle by his alcoholic but good-hearted Uncle Red (Gary Busey, in the film's best role), along with a quota of fireworks. When Marty goes to set off the fireworks that night, he encounters a werewolf and shoots it in the eye with one of his fireworks. Though no one believes Marty's protests that the killings are being done by a werewolf, he and his sister Jane (Megan Follows) conduct a search to find who in Tarker's Mills may be the werewolf, and discover that it is Reverend Lowe. The film then becomes a cat-and-mouse chase between Lowe and Marty as Marty tries to stop the killer. The werewolf makeup for this movie is fairly standard, but the performances by Busey, Follows, McGill, and even Haim (who at the time was simultaneously much-loved and reviled like all teen actors) are solid, making this a good little werewolf flick that stands up to its cousins An American Werewolf In London and The Howling. Also, if Gary Busey has ever done a performance that can be described as heartwarming, then this is probably it. It may seem strange to say that about a character who is portrayed as very flagrantly alcoholic and a committed ne'er-do-well, but his Uncle Red shows genuine concern and love for Haim's Marty.
Finally, we come to Creepshow 2. My main reasons for including this film are that while it's not my absolute favorite King film (that title goes to Salem's Lot), it's not as bad as people make it out to be, and I personally happen to like it. Also, it's sort of an underdog: when it came out fans who were so taken with the original Creepshow film (King writes! Romero directs! E.C. Comics-framing-style devices are used!) were expecting more of the same, despite the fact that Hollywood had already stopped doing that "more-of-the-same" thing somewhere around 1970. This time only three stories are shown, one of which is "The Raft," taken from the Skeleton Crew collection and often touted as the best of a bad lot by critics of this film. "The Raft" relates the tale of four college kids who go to an isolated lake on a swimming trip, only to be attacked and trapped on a dock in the middle of the lake by a mysterious oil-slick-like creature. The other stories, "Old Woodenhead" and "The Hitch-Hiker," were written for this film, and feature a decent amount of black humor and creeps if not real outright scares. The stories are connected by an animated wraparound tale that relates the exploits of a Creepshow comics fan (very obviously based on Stephen King's son Joe, who appeared as Billy in the first movie) who escapes from a group of bullies in a very unorthodox and horrifying manner.
So there's my sleeper hits of Stephen King films. Incidentally, one should check out Joe King, who has now grown up to be Joe Hill and written two great books, Heart Shaped Box and 21st Century Ghosts; he has learned his dad's lessons well. Hill's latest project is writing IDW Publishing's horror-fantasy comic series Locke And Key. Perhaps Hollywood will consider making some Joe Hill movies at some point.
POST-MORTEM: To avoid confusion among our readers, we thought we should mention that the Sci-Fi Channel is also doing their own 31 Days Of Halloween. The difference between the Sci-Fi Channel's 31 Days Of Halloween and our 31 Days Of Halloween is that we're trying to do actual Halloween stuff.