1922 (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 41 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Directed by: Zak Hilditch

Written by: Zak Hilditch

(based on the novella 1922 by Stephen King)

Starring: Thomas Jane, Molly Parker, Dylan Schmid, Kaitlyn Bernard, Brian D’Arcy James, Neal McDonough, Bob Frazer & Patrick Keating

Going into 31 Days of Horror 2017, 1922 was easily one of my most anticipated films to watch this month. Netflix has been killing it with their original content lately and the trailer for this adaptation of a Stephen King novella looked to be eerily effective. It’s also worth mentioning that this year’s Stephen King adaptations have already delivered in IT: Chapter One and GERALD’S GAME (another Netflix original film). I was hoping that 1922 might live up to those already high standards. While the film is undeniably flawed and about 20 minutes too long, 1922 mostly satisfies as a creepy ghost story with loads of atmosphere and a great performance from Thomas Jane as one mean son-of-a-bitch.

The year is 1922 (bet you couldn’t have guessed that from the film’s title) and gruff farmer Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) is hitting a rough patch in life. His unhappy wife Arlette (Molly Parker) is attempting to sell her 100 acres of property and kick Wilfred’s annoying ass to the curb, along with taking custody of their teenage son Henry (Dylan Schmid). In an effort to hold onto his property and his wife’s property, Wilfred convinces his overly gullible son to help him do away with the ol’ ball and chain. Unfortunately for Wilfred, the deceased Arlette doesn’t seem willing to let him live in peace. It appears that a curse now has its hooks around Wilfred and everything he loves. Rats start biting cows and people, things go to shit in all sorts of ways, and Wilfred suspects that Arlette’s decaying specter is coming for him.

Thomas Jane has previously starred in two other Stephen King adaptations (the well-received MIST and the not-so-well-received DREAMCATCHER). In both of those films, he played a good guy protagonist. In 1922, Thomas Jane plays a complete and utter asshole. Jane doesn’t succumb to the idea that a crackerjack farmer would automatically be an idiot too. Though he talks with a thick accent and doesn’t seem like the wisest man around, the character of Wilfred James is a scummy, conniving man who we have the unfortunate (or fortunate) view of following. Because Wilfred is such an irredeemable piece of human garbage, watching his well-deserved downward spiral is pretty damn fun and satisfying.

Therein, 1922 encounters a few flaws. This script was based on a novella (which inherently seems like it’s more suited to being a feature film than an elongated short story), but at the end of the day this story feels like an episode of TALES FROM THE CRYPT that’s been stretched to fill 101 minutes. That’s not to say that 1922 is bad, because it is a rather entertaining and occasionally impressive flick. The first half is especially interesting as we see how far Wilfred goes to cover up his wife’s bloody murder as a simple easily explained disappearance. This main character is diabolically clever in his evil deeds. However, the film does noticeably overstay its welcome during the second half, when events should have arguably been reaching the height of their terror.

On the positive side of things, 1922 packs loads of spooky atmosphere and freaky images. This film has the scariest rat scenes since WILLARD and Arlette’s ghostly apparition is present throughout various shots. There are certain scenes where you catch her out-of-focus form or shadowy outline in the background, which smartly places the viewer in the same uneasy mental state as the increasingly paranoid Wilfred. The more over-the-top scenes with Arlette’s bloody spirit placed front-and-center are a bit much, especially when one of these scenes arrives in a spot when there’s still a remaining 30 minutes to go. I also felt that the ending concluded this film in the best way possible, though the novella ended in a more ambiguous manner (evoking something like Edgar Allan Poe’s TELL-TALE HEART).

If you’re a fan of Stephen King and enjoy ghost stories, then I’d imagine that you’d probably enjoy 1922. This film has lots of great visuals, a spooky atmosphere, and Thomas Jane delivering a stellar performance. There is debatably not enough content in the source material to fill the entirety of the running time, but at least the film is entertaining. While there are undeniable problems that I have with 1922 and it’s easily the weakest of 2017’s three King horror adaptations (DARK TOWER doesn’t count), 1922 is worth a look.

Grade: B-

GERALD’S GAME (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 43 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Directed by: Mike Flanagan

Written by: Jeff Howard & Mike Flanagan

(based on the novel GERALD’S GAME by Stephen King)

Starring: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Chiara Aurelia, Carel Struycken, Henry Thomas & Kate Siegel

Director Mike Flanagan has quickly been carving out quite the career in the horror genre. Flanagan’s track record hasn’t been spotless (BEFORE I WAKE was shelved for good reason), but the man has delivered a tense home-invasion thriller (HUSH), a supernatural/psychological scarefest (OCULUS), and even made a OUIJA prequel into a loving throwback to 70s satanic panic flicks (OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL). Flanagan’s success has now led to the completion of a project that he’s been wanting to make since he was a teenager: an adaptation of Stephen King’s supposedly unfilmable novel GERALD’S GAME. Despite a set up that sounds like it could potentially get boring fast, 2017’s GERALD’S GAME (the third King adaptation in the space of this year) is a tense, dark, and gripping ride.

Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) are a troubled couple trying to save their failing marriage. The dysfunctional pair set out for a romantic weekend at a cabin in the middle of nowhere. Gerald reveals that he brought two “real deal” handcuffs with him and chains Jessie to the bed to play a kinky sex game. However, things go horribly wrong when Gerald drops dead of a heart attack and leaves a mortified Jessie handcuffed to the headboard. As hours tick away, Jessie finds herself trapped in a seemingly inescapable situation and facing a hungry dog that begins chowing down on her husband’s corpse. If she wishes to survive, Jessie must use all of her energy to think outside of the box and confront past demons that plague her memories.

GERALD’S GAME sounds like it could potentially be a rather boring movie, because (after all) we’re watching a woman who’s handcuffed to a bed for nearly the entire film. However, Flanagan plays with narrative tricks to keep things interesting the whole way through. As Jessie’s body begins to suffer from dehydration and insurmountable stress piles up on her psyche, she begins to hallucinate. These hallucinations include an alternate all-knowing version of Gerald and herself that give pieces of advice. This was a brilliant way of showing how Jessie’s thought process was functioning, as opposed to a simple voiceover or tedious silence.

There are also childhood flashbacks that are masterfully interweaved as we get more character development behind Jessie. These flashbacks don’t necessarily feel like cheap sequences of sloppy exposition either, because Flanagan weaves our adult protagonist into them in clever ways. One scene features a very creepy Henry Thomas (as Jessie’s abusive father) talking to the Jessie and some creative editing intercuts her adult self in place of her younger self. Touches like these show that Flanagan does indeed know how to make seemingly doomed projects (this novel was considered unfilmable for over two decades) into compelling cinematic experiences.

The cast is relatively small, given the premise, but these actors do an excellent job of drawing us in. Carla Gugino portrays her growing desperation in ways that have the viewer constantly on edge, while also interacting with herself and hallucinations in a convincing manner. These were not easy accomplishments and Gugino knocks it out of the park in her role! Bruce Greenwood is scummy as pompous lawyer/husband Gerald, but also gets to come off as more likable in Jessie’s imagined version of her recently deceased husband. There’s also the “Moonlight Man” (called the “Space Cowboy” in the novel) and the less I say about him, the better. He makes for a few very creepy scenes though.

GERALD’S GAME fumbles a bit during its final 15 minutes, which heavily rely on a cheesy use of voiceover that the rest of the film never lowered itself to. To be fair to the film’s finale, King’s book also concluded in a mishmash of messy plot revelations and felt out-of-place. The ending of GERALD’S GAME is easily its weakest point, but that doesn’t necessarily lessen of the well-built suspense and disturbing imagery that came before it. There’s one squirm-inducing sequence that’s pretty much guaranteed to elicit vocal reactions and winces from viewers. It’s probably the most disturbing movie moment of 2017 so far…at least, it is for me.

Though it stumbles during its finale, GERALD’S GAME is a tense, suspenseful, and appropriately horrific adaptation of one of King’s more polarizing novels. Mike Flanagan keeps things visually interesting and emotionally engaging, while Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood nail their performances. This is a different kind of horror story, but remains a horror story nonetheless that’s grounded in reality. GERALD’S GAME may also give viewers a newfound phobia of handcuffs!

Grade: B+

IT: Chapter One (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence/Horror, Bloody Images, and for Language

Directed by: Andy Muschietti

Written by: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga & Gary Dauberman

(based on the novel IT by Stephen King)

Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgard, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Nicholas Hamilton & Jackson Robert Scott

Stephen King’s 1,138-page-long novel IT was previously adapted into a mediocre TV miniseries. While the source material has been acclaimed as one of King’s best books, the miniseries has split folks down the middle. Some people consider it to be terrifying and others (myself included) consider it to be a missed opportunity that suffers from censored writing, bad acting, and worse effects. Tim Curry’s performance aside, it’s safe to say that I’m not a fan of the original IT and was looking forward to Warner Brother’s two-part R-rated film adaptation as a result. IT: Chapter One is the first half of the novel and the story as a whole, but holds up fantastically as its own feature that’s pretty much guaranteed to go down as a horror classic.

In October 1988, little seven-year-old Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) disappears…after meeting a creepy sewer-dwelling clown. The following summer, Georgie’s older brother Bill is still struggling to accept his brother’s death. Things get creepier for Bill and his friends when they all find themselves beset by their worst fears come to life. It turns out that there’s a shape-shifting, child-eating monster in town and its favorite form is as scary-as-hell Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgard). It’s up to Bill and the rest of “The Losers Club” to defeat the monster before it eventually decides to chow down on one of them.

Where to begin with IT: Chapter One? This film nails a balance of scares, humor, and genuine emotion. Though this is a monster movie, the film dedicates a good chunk of time to developing its adolescent characters. There are seven members of “The Loser’s Club” and the script carefully focuses on certain plotlines more than others. Still, I cared about each of these characters and felt like I knew them all well. Jaeden Lieberher easily gets one of the most emotional story arcs as Bill, who’s mourning his brother’s passing. The only person to possibly rival Bill’s emotional journey is Sophia Lillis as Bev, the only female “Loser.” Bev is battling a horrible home-life and has a reputation for being a “slut” around town. Lillis and Lieberher are both outstanding to say the least.

That’s not to say that the rest of the young performers don’t pull their weight though, because they most certainly make strong impressions. Jeremy Ray Taylor is great as the overweight, intellectual new kid on the block Ben. Finn Wolfhard generates a lot of laughs as the foul-mouthed, dirty-minded Richie. Wyatt Oleff gets the least amount of screen time, but still seems believable as depressed Jewish kid Stan. Chosen Jacobs’s character of Mike has a sad backstory that is given some development, but this character will likely receive far more screen time as an adult in Chapter Two. Jack Dylan Grazer is also solid as hypochondriac Eddie, who’s dealing with his severely overprotective mother.

On the villainous side of things, Bill Skarsgard is phenomenal as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Skarsgard doesn’t try to imitate Tim Curry’s performance in any way, shape, or form. Instead, he makes this shape-shifting monster into his own creation. Skarsgard’s version of Pennywise has a strange way of talking, an almost child-like demeanor, and comes off as very disturbing. There are a couple of moments in which Pennywise did get a big laugh out of me (one scene involving three doors cracked me), but he’s pretty damn frightening for the most part. It’s not hard to make clowns scary, but Skarsgard’s Pennywise is an iconic movie monster (I’d say that he’s way scarier than Curry’s fun portrayal). Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Nicholas Hamilton’s performance as teenage psychopathic bully Henry Bowers. This character is pretty much a future serial killer in the making and serves as a human antagonist.

As far as the IT’s scares go, the film excels in the sequences where characters get separated from each other and come face-to-face with their worst fears. The CGI is impressively great, with monstrous creations of various kinds springing to life. I appreciated that this version of IT had the balls to include lots of creepy dead kids and body parts (that do indeed float). The gore isn’t the focus of this film, but the R rating amplifies the more intense moments. While the nightmarish imagery is fantastic, my only complaint arises from a single scene that got a little too over-the-top for me. The projector scene has already been given away in this film’s trailers and the main pay-off of this otherwise suspenseful moment made me roll my eyes.

Though this is technically the first half of a much larger story, IT: Chapter One is a fantastic horror flick. It might not terrify you from start to finish, but it will keep you entertained with laughs, scares, and genuinely emotional story arcs. The characters are fleshed out and these young cast members pull off stellar performances. The effects are damn impressive and the film’s atmosphere is effectively dark. I don’t think it would be much of a stretch at all to label IT: Chapter One as one of the best Stephen King adaptations to ever hit the silver screen. Now, comes the long wait for Chapter Two and it cannot arrive fast enough.

Grade: A-

THE DARK HALF (1993)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence and Language

Directed by: George A. Romero

Written by: George A. Romero, Paul Hunt & Nick McCarthy

(based on the novel THE DARK HALF by Stephen King)

Starring: Timothy Hutton, Amy Madigan, Michael Rooker, Julie Harris, Robert Joy, Chelsea Field, Royal Dano & Rutanya Alda

The 90s were loaded with Stephen King adaptations that ranged from great to good and mediocre to downright terrible. There are a handful of efforts from this decade that seem unfairly overlooked (especially when the crappy IT miniseries gets much more acclaim than it should) and George A. Romero’s big screen version of THE DARK HALF is one of these underrated King flicks. Proving to be a faithful adaptation of its source material and translating King’s words into a compelling on-screen narrative, Romero made his second big studio film into a tense thrill ride that brims with suspense, violence, and dark imagination. This is basically King’s version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton) writes highbrow literature under his own name and publishes gritty pulp fiction under the pseudonym of George Stark. When a scumbag discovers Beaumont’s secret writing habits and blackmails him, Beaumont decides that it’s time to lay Stark to rest…complete with a magazine article, interviews, and a fake funeral. When people connected to Stark’s “death” turn up murdered in ways that resemble his novels, it becomes clear that something spooky is afoot. George Stark was an imaginary alter-ego of Thad, but somehow he’s physically manifested himself and wants to exist again. All the while, Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Michael Rooker) suspects that Thad may be the culprit behind these bloody killings.

Of the entire cast, Timothy Hutton easily delivers the film’s best two performances in dual roles. He plays Thad as a quirky writer and it’s obvious that this character was based on Stephen King himself (who loves creating author protagonists because he relates to them). We feel Thad’s frustration as more clues keep pointing back to him as the murderer and he tries to cope with/solve this supernatural scenario. As Stark, Hutton lets his evil side shine. He seems to be constantly snarling, fits in a few one-liners, and is clearly having a blast as a razor-wielding villain who seems like he was pulled straight out of a pulp novel.

On the supporting side of things, most of these characters exist purely to get brutally offed by Stark. They still deliver enough colorful personalities so that the viewer can distinguish who’s being killed at any given time. Amy Madigan shows a believably strained relationship as Thad’s wife, though this disappears when the film takes a more focused Thad vs. Stark approach during the final third. The novel’s ending originally had this relationship come to a depressing end, while the film’s conclusion just sort of ends with a shrug and cuts to credits. Also, Michael Rooker is a welcomed presence as Sheriff Pangborn, even though he seems to exist purely to fill Thad in on the details of Stark’s murders and is noticeably absent from most of the film’s finale.

THE DARK HALF’s script is true to King’s novel, even though certain characters don’t get enough time to really shine. There’s a creepy atmosphere hovering this Jekyll and Hyde tale crossed with a serial killer thriller. The clues behind Stark’s physical manifestation (sparrows, a gruesome discovery in a hospital, etc.) are intriguing and there’s never an eye-rollingly detailed exposition dump. King himself has referred to his favorite stories as tales where the horror just sort of happens with no rhyme or reason. THE DARK HALF follows these fast-and-loose scary guidelines; putting the focus on the string of killings, Thad’s weird mental connection with Stark, and the unavoidable confrontation between two different halves of the same person. It’s also worth noting that this film isn’t a gorefest, but the blood and guts are very effective when they do show up. There’s a stand-out moment in the final minutes that’s an incredible creation of cleverly disguised CGI, stellar practical effects, and gross make-up.

While THE DARK HALF is far from one of the best King movies and it’s not even the best King adaptation from the 90s, George A. Romero’s cinematic treatment of this story is very underrated, fun, and undeniably spooky. Timothy Hutton puts in two great performances, while Romero evokes frights in interesting ways. The set up to a few of the killings are sure to put the viewer on edge and there’s a great would-be jump scare that turns into a hilarious comedic bit. If you want a solid King flick that’s adapted from one of his more unique novels, then I highly recommend giving THE DARK HALF a look.

Grade: B+

THE SHINING (1980)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: Stanley Kubrick

Written by: Stanley Kubrick & Diane Johnson

(based on the novel THE SHINING by Stephen King)

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Barry Nelson, Philip Stone & Joe Turkel

“Here’s Johnny!” That line of dialogue is instantly recognizable, just like many other scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s THE SHINING. Though it differs considerably from its source material, Kubrick’s only horror movie has cemented its place in the annals of cinema as one of the greatest horror films of all-time. There’s no beating around the bush on this one. THE SHINING is a chilling masterpiece that functions on timeless terror, great performances, and a claustrophobic atmosphere of dread that supplies just as many scares as the Overlook Hotel’s ghostly inhabitants.

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Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) has been hired as the caretaker at the isolated, scenic Overlook Hotel. Surrounded by mountains and hours from civilization, the Overlook functions as a party location in the summer and is closed during the winter. Jack, his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) will be living at the Overlook, but the beautiful location is not without some unique quirks. Quirks in this case meaning that there are ghosts lurking in the large hotel, many of whom have sinister intentions towards Danny, who happens to be gifted with a psychic ability called “The Shining.” As time passes, the Overlook’s apparitions become more sinister, Danny’s shining begins to show him dark visions, and an increasingly unhinged Jack starts eyeballing a nearby axe.

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THE SHINING is not a faithful adaptation towards King’s novel and that’s a very good thing. Kubrick took creative liberties that changed the book’s spookhouse scares into cinematic psychological frights, created a nightmare scenario, and made a horror masterpiece. In the transition from page to screen, Kubrick excises the more sentimental parts of King’s novel, completely changes the ending for the better, turns the hedge animals into a foreboding hedge maze, and swaps Jack’s weapon of choice from a laughable croquet mallet to a far more threatening axe. King was so unsatisfied with Kubrick’s take on his material that he made a true-to-the-novel six-hour SHINING miniseries in 1997 with Steven Weber…and it’s terrible. In a rare case, 1980’s THE SHINING is a movie that’s far better than the book.

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Kubrick masterfully constructs a claustrophobic atmosphere and lets it naturally build to a point where the film becomes the stuff that nightmares are made of. The stakes are laid out early on with morbid history being revealed during Jack’s job interview. It’s obvious that this spooky bit of exposition will come back in a big way as the plot moves forward. The film has some ghostly encounters in its first third, but those are few and far between as the family dynamic of Jack, Wendy and Danny is front and center. This character development makes the rest of the film more intense as Jack becomes one of the scariest movie villains to ever hit the big screen.

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To say that Jack Nicholson’s performance is amazing would be an understatement. His unique brand of nuttiness is sure to elicit a few giggles (he’s definitely having fun with it) and then serious scares. Everything about his physical tics, downright psychotic facial expressions and over-the-top line delivery make him the most memorable part of this nightmarishly eerie film. Nicholson got so into character and became so good at chopping down doors that Kubrick replaced the stunt doors with real ones, making the iconic bathroom scene seem even more real and terrifying.

Though she isn’t exactly known for great acting abilities, Shelley Duvall is perfect in the role of distressed wife and screaming victim Wendy. The production footage and stories say that Kubrick psychologically tortured Duvall into giving the fantastic performance we see on the screen, going as far as to make her reshoot the same scene 127 times and driving her to a point where she spent hours crying. Kubrick’s treatment of Duvall was monstrous, but it’s impossible to imagine the character of Wendy without her…much like we can’t picture anyone besides Jack Nicholson in the role of the axe-wielding Jack Torrance. Meanwhile, Danny Lloyd gave one of the best child performances seen on film as psychic Danny and was told that this movie was a drama about a family living in a hotel (only to discover the actual plot later on).

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Scatman Crothers makes the most of his brief supporting role as the hotel’s “shining” cook. Meanwhile, THE SHINING gives us some of the creepiest ghosts ever, including: sinister bartender Lloyd (Joe Turkel), mysterious Delbert Grady (Philip Stone), a memorable woman in Room 237 and the scariest little girls you ever did see. THE SHINING also contains some of the most frightening scenes ever shown on the big screen. Personally, I think the film’s biggest scare is the bathtub sequence, which gave me nightmares as a kid and still holds a psychologically scarring effect on me today. The Overlook Hotel was a construction of sets and, yet, it seems remarkably like a believable real-life location. This isolated setting, a thoroughly unsettling score, and Kubrick’s use of steadicam (making for long, unbroken tracking shots to further elevate suspense) all add to the film’s downright “evil” atmosphere.

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THE SHINING is a masterpiece. It’s the best cinematic adaptation to come out of Stephen King’s work, even with creative liberties that actually improve upon the source material. Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, and Danny Lloyd will all be remembered for their roles in this film. It stands out as Kubrick’s best movie, which is quite an impressive feat when you consider the man’s career. From a claustrophobic atmosphere of suffocating dread to some of the scariest scenes ever put on film, THE SHINING is a timeless horror epic that is sure to terrify audiences forever…and ever…and ever. This is one of the best (if not, the best) horror films ever made, period!

Grade: A+

CELL (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 38 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Disturbing Violent Content, Terror, brief Sexuality and Language

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Directed by: Tod Williams

Written by: Stephen King & Adam Alleca

(based on the novel CELL by Stephen King)

Starring: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabelle Fuhrman, Stacy Keach & Wilbur Fitzgerald

Even people who have never picked up one of Stephen King’s 54 novels are bound to know the man from his many big screen and small screen adaptations. CELL is the latest of these movies. Based on the 2006 zombie novel from King, this film has long been in the works with Eli Roth originally slated to direct and Dimension Studios backing the budget. Years passed. Nothing happened. People moved on with their lives. After a long and troubled production history, CELL has finally been unleashed onto the public. Is it worth the almost decade long journey to the big screen? Nope. Not even close. This is simultaneously one of the worst Stephen King movies and one of the worst zombie films to come out in a long time.

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Graphic artist Clay Riddell (John Cusack) is at an airport, when a mysterious electronic pulse is sent through every active cell phone in the world. Those exposed to the signal (anyone who happened to be on the cell phone) has transformed into a screeching, blood-thirsty “phoner” that wants nothing more than to eat your flesh. After escaping with the help of train operator Tom (Samuel L. Jackson), Clay desperately wishes to reach his family…if only to confirm whether they’re phoners or totally safe. Soon enough, the pair are joined by teenage Alice (Isabelle Fuhrman) and the newly formed trio of survivors make their way across the bloody cell phone apocalypse to rescue Clay’s family. As if things couldn’t get any more dangerous, phoners have formed a hive-mind and are now killing in flocks.

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I wanted to give CELL the benefit of the doubt. Believe me, I tried. I was a fan of the novel upon its release and have revisited it a few times since then, one of those was deliberately in preparation for this movie adaptation. Though it’s not exactly original, the book is a creepy, compelling and entertaining read. That being said, this movie is a complete and utter mess. As an adaptation of the source material, it fails to ignite any sense of suspense that the book carried so well. Part of this results from an obviously low budget that didn’t allow for the large-scale chaos and hysteria that King brought to life on the page. This is glaring in the consistently awful CGI that’s used for plane crashes, fire, explosions, smoke, and hordes of phoners. However, it seems outright useless in places, like when cheap CGI is employed for falling snow. I find it very hard to believe that this production couldn’t afford cheap plastic flakes that look more convincing than an obvious flash animation effect.

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Even when viewed as a standalone creation that’s loosely based on a Stephen King novel (a category in which some of the best King films fall into), CELL remains a boring, stupid slog to sit through. These 98 minutes feels like a chore to endure. The film opens with cheap lazy credits that hinted I might be in for something painful right from the start, but never gains any big momentum to make you feel that the world has fallen into a zombie-filled wasteland. The whole movie basically follows a repeating pattern of characters running into other characters, encountering a phoner flock, and meeting more characters. Some of these survivors happen to be plot points in the novel, but every side character (aside from our trio of survivors) is treated with an equal amount of disinterested blandness.

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John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson starred in one of the best King movies of the 2000’s: 1408. Cusack was even an executive producer on this film. In CELL, both of these talented performers look bored and I got the sense that they knew this material wasn’t working on the screen. Other supporting characters come and go in a forgettable flash, giving a variety of dull or comically over-the-top performances. One shining star in this bleak mess of a film comes in Isabelle Fuhrman (the creepy child from ORPHAN) as Alice. In the book, this character represents an innocence lost in the apocalypse. Fuhrman captures that relatively well, but is frequently swiped to the sidelines so Jackson and Cusack engage in tedious conversations. As far as other side characters go, Stacy Keach looks like he’s in pain as a boring school headmaster, Owen Teague receives about ten lines as a tag along student, and Anthony Reynolds goes beyond the point of over-the-top as a technological savvy survivor.

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For a zombie movie, CELL is shockingly dull and relatively tame in terms of gore. There are only about three or four notable zombie (er, I mean “phoner”) encounters after the airport chaos. These bits mostly include characters running away from zombies or firing guns (complete with Adobe after effects). However, these phoners aren’t exactly that threatening or scary to begin with. These zombies pretty much run in circles and emit electronic sounds from their mouths. While those details worked in the book, they look insanely silly and laughably bad on the screen. The main phoner antagonist, a red-hooded Raggedy Man, also comes off like a lame-brained, half-assed afterthought.

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To add insult to injury, CELL’s mind-bogglingly stupid ending lacks emotion or creativity. It should be noted that the film’s conclusion strays from the original novel and the author himself is partially responsible for this haphazard screenplay. Apparently, King had issues with the book’s finale (which was slightly ambiguous, but sent the story out on an interesting/possibly uplifting note) and attempted to remedy that here. He did about as good of a job as he accomplished in 1997, by “fixing” THE SHINING with a godawful six-hour miniseries starring Stephen Weber. The crappy ending is only more disappointment added onto this big failure of a film that somehow isn’t getting an F…thanks to a Isabelle Fuhrman’s good performance. This is easily one of the worst Stephen King films I’ve seen. It’s down there with THE TOMMYKNOCKERS, CHILDREN OF THE CORN, and THE LANGOILERS. Avoid CELL and stick to the book…or just watch a bevy of better zombie films.

Grade: D-

1408 (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Thematic Material including Disturbing Sequences of Violence and Terror, Frightening Images and Language

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Directed by: Mikael Hafstrom

Written by: Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski

(based on the short story 1408 by Stephen King)

Starring: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Mary McCormack, Tony Shalhoub & Jasmine Jessica Anthony

Stephen King is a mixed bag on film. Some of his plot points don’t properly translate from page to the screen (the ending of DREAMCATCHER being the biggest pet peeve of mine), while other stories aren’t that good to begin with (TOMMYKNOCKERS). 2007 proved that great adaptations of the famous horror author’s work could still be made for the big screen. We received two King short stories turned into films and both were stellar. While many cite THE MIST as being one of the best King movies of all time, I actually think 1408 (which came out a few months before THE MIST) is the better of the two. Taken from a short story in the collection EVERYTHING’S EVENTUAL, 1408 is essentially THE SHINING on a small-scale with more psychological scares thrown into the mix. I’ll argue this cinematic take on the material actually tops the original short story as well.

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Mike Enslin is a paranormal investigator with a best-selling line of books (with titles such as 10 Haunted Graveyards, 10 Haunted Hotels, etc.). Despite constantly spending his nights in supposedly haunted locations, Mike is a complete and utter skeptic. He doesn’t believe a word that he writes and feels that all of this supernatural stuff is all a bunch of spookhouse bullshit. However, Mike is in for a rude awakening when he makes a visit to the prestigious Dolphin Hotel and stays in the notorious Room 1408. Allegedly, the room is responsible for 56 deaths and no guest has lasted more than an hour within its walls. Mike enters the room…and all hell breaks loose as he finds himself stuck in a waking nightmare from which there doesn’t seem to be any escape.

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The key difference between 1408 and many other ghost stories of its ilk is that this film isn’t simply about a haunted location. Instead, the room serves as an ingenious plot device to dive into the tragic past of a broken man. Mike finds himself being not only confronted by ghosts and spooky occurrences (including the room morphing and changing around him), but also the events that led him on the path of being a cynical skeptic. It’s not as if any of the plot points and revelations made about this character feel cheap or out-of-the-blue either, because the movie brilliantly sets these up from the very beginning. Little details and bits of dialogue come back in a big bad way, which are only further highlighted by multiple viewings (this is a horror film that I saw numerous times on the big screen).

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To carry what essentially becomes a one-man-show for a majority of the running time, John Cusack mounts himself perfectly as Mike. He plays the cynical asshole role with such bravado and conviction that I find myself forgetting that I’m watching Cusack every single time I stick this movie in. The character of Mike Enslin isn’t only a jerk though, but also has a huge vulnerable side to him. Cusack really brings this out during a couple of moments that begin as spooky and ultimately become heartbreaking. The supporting cast is noteworthy as well. Samuel L. Jackson, Mary McCormack and Tony Shalhoub all make the most of their brief moments of screen time (mostly seen before the story enters Room 1408).

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Besides the acting and screenplay, 1408 also manages to be very, very scary. Of course, there are jump scares. I mean, just look at that plot synopsis and you’re bound to expect jump scares. However, the jump scares in this movie always come from something that’s legitimately scary and threatening. We don’t get any fake-outs (that I can remember) of a simple loud noise or something that’s only meant to jolt you out of your seat and nothing more. The ghosts in this film (of which we see a handful) have pretty cool effects going on in that they almost look like fading projections and there’s also a memorable scene in a vent that’s freaky beyond all words. What’s pretty amazing about 1408 is how it makes little supposedly mundane details (a key hole, some paintings, a peep-hole, a baby crying in the next room, etc.) into something completely terrifying. The film caps all of this off with stellar sound design (including a perfect soundtrack) and a well-timed sense of humor that never outweighs any of the horror.

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1408 is probably the most underrated Stephen King adaptation out there. This isn’t simply about a haunted hotel room, but goes into far deeper psychological areas. Cusack dominates the screen in one of his most demanding roles as Mike Enslin and the hotel room becomes a character unto itself. This film is basically about one man confronting his past and pain in a frightening way that manifests itself through a hotel room. In my honest opinion, 1408 is one of the best Stephen King movies ever!

Grade: A+

CARRIE (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Bloody Violence, Disturbing Images, Language and some Sexual Content

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Directed by: Kimberly Peirce

Written by: Lawrence D. Cohen & Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa

(based on the novel CARRIE by Stephen King)

Starring: Chloe Grace Moretz, Julianne Moore, Gabriella Wilde, Ansel Elgort, Alex Russell, Porita Doubleday & Judy Greer

A remake of CARRIE isn’t necessarily a bad idea. Especially, because bullying and school violence are both tragically more relevant in this day and age. While Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s first novel is regarded as one of the better King films out there, it did play fast and loose with the source material. The most likely reason for that was because of effects limitations. With acclaimed director Kimberly Peirce at the helm and a budget of 30 million, you might hope that this 2013 version of CARRIE be a scarier and more faithful version of King’s terrifying book. Your hope, as mine was, would be vain. 2013’s CARRIE isn’t a travesty like 2002’s TV remake (which was meant as the origin tale for a series), but it’s still pretty bad. This is almost a shot-for-shot, line-for-line remake of De Palma’s film with a glossier look and worse effects.

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Carrie is a shy, sheltered, and introverted teenager. After a particularly bad day in gym class, Carrie has her first period in the locker room. Under the impression that she’s bleeding to death, Carrie is left emotionally scarred by the mocking of her classmates. Carrie’s religious zealot mother, Magaret, doesn’t necessarily aid Carrie’s self-esteem by locking her in a closet and telling her to pray “the curse of blood” away. Don’t feel too bad for Carrie though, as she’s discovered she possesses telekinetic powers and is further developing them. Meanwhile, the gym teacher and one classmate feel horrible for the traumatic experience Carrie went through and try to boost her confidence. However, other classmates are less sympathetic and plan on upping the bullying. Pushing around a fragile telekinetic teenage girl isn’t exactly the wisest move and there will be a reckoning.

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One of the first mistakes that this new version of CARRIE makes right off the bat is in the casting. While I don’t have a problem with most of the performers (although they’re mainly just young, pretty people who might belong in a fashion magazine), Chloe Grace Moretz is completely wrong for the part of Carrie. I could possibly buy Moretz in the role of a key bully, but she’s totally miscast as fragile, tender Carrie White. It’s also almost as if Moretz has to go out of her way to look like a shy introvert and seems very over-the-top. She keeps her mouth agape (Kristen Stewart style) in early scenes and walks like she’s a hunchback through most of the film. I don’t have a problem with Moretz slouching to give off the impression of a bullied introvert, but when she’s adding a limp into the mix, it just seems silly. The only person who puts in a halfway decent performance is Julianne Moore who’s well cast as Carrie’s mentally unstable mother.

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Despite the half-assed excuse being thrown around of “2013’s CARRIE isn’t a remake because it’s another adaptation of King’s novel,” the movie plays out pretty much exactly as De Palma’s version did. There’s the addition of digital video in a couple of scenes with that cleverly coming into play as a plot device in one of the few good, original moments. The effects have been upgraded to bad CGI. Somehow, this remake also winds up less gory and violent than the ’76 film. If you have an R-rated CARRIE in 2013, you better damn well use that R rating when the violence comes into play. Instead, this could have been PG-13 if there were a couple less F-bombs. Throw in the nauseating use of a modern pop soundtrack to attract gullible teenagers who think a loud noise is the scariest thing in the world and you’ve got yourself a guaranteed hit. It’s also worth noting that so much of the original film’s dialogue has been kept in the script that the ’76 screenwriter received a writing credit on this 2013 version, which is completely inexcusable any way you slice it.

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2013’s CARRIE is the absolute epitome of why people hate most current remakes. Kimberly Peirce has directed amazing work in the past (BOYS DON’T CRY), but seems to be a gun for hire here. Save for a couple of fleeting moments and the casting of Julianne Moore, this remake misses the mark all around. The prime example of this would be in a comparing and contrasting of the final scenes from both films. De Palma’s version built up an atmospheric suspense around the final scene and gave everyone one last nightmare-inducing jolt that led into the haunting theme playing over the credits. This 2013 take opts for a fake piece of CGI on a setting that’s not remotely creepy and ends on a rock tune. That alone should say it all right there. If you’ve seen the original film, then just avoid this remake. If you’re interested in watching this remake and haven’t seen the 1976 version, do yourself a favor and go watch the De Palma’s film instead.

Grade: D

BIG DRIVER (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

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Directed by: Mikael Salomon

Written by: Richard Christian Matheson

(based on the novella BIG DRIVER by Stephen King)

Starring: Maria Bello, Joan Jett, Olympia Dukakis, Ann Dowd & Will Harris

When I looked at the October’s upcoming titles a few months back, I was surprised to see two new Stephen King adaptations on the way that were both from his latest anthology FULL DARK, NO STARS. A GOOD MARRIAGE opened up on VOD earlier this month to very negative reviews and BIG DRIVER premiered on the Lifetime Network last night. That channel carries a huge baggage around its TV movies for good reason, most of them are absolute garbage. I actually watched and was planning on reviewing their remake of FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC and its sequel PETALS IN THE WIND. I quickly gave up on reviews for both, because I didn’t have anything interesting to say other than repeating the words melodramatic crap over and over. BIG DRIVER on the other hand is far from melodramatic crap and I’d attribute that to real talent behind the scenes and a great performance from Maria Bello.

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BIG DRIVER follows author Tess Thorne. She’s just spoken at a library event at a tiny town in Massachusetts. After following some friendly advice and taking a shortcut through a desolate forest road, Tess hits a bit of junk in the middle of the street and winds up stranded with a flat tire. A good Samaritan seems to come along in the form of a boisterous redneck truck driver, but his intentions are evil. Tess winds up raped, violated, and left for dead in a sewer grate. Deeply traumatized by the experience and feeling a little piece of herself die inside, Tess goes through the steps to get revenge and find peace of mind. It’s a rape-revenge tale as done by Stephen King and it aired on basic cable. I can safely say that I never saw either one of those coming a few years earlier.

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Three of the cast and crew behind BIG DRIVER actually worked with Stephen King material prior to this TV film. Maria Bello starred as Mort’s wife in SECRET WINDOW. Mikael Salomon directed two episodes of TNT’s underrated mini-series NIGHTMARES & DREAMSCAPES, while Richard Christian Matheson also wrote the teleplay for the best episode of that same series. These three are a winning combination that work extremely well together. Salomon’s visual style is unusually professional and gritty for a made-for-the-small-screen film, let alone a Lifetime movie. Maria Bello does a fantastic job as Tess, conveying every bit of sadness and rage brewing in her character as the latter outweighs the former by the second half. The best part is Richard Christian Matheson’s script though. He finds creative ways to put us deep inside Tess’s psyche, including brief visions of her mentality and her talking with a character from her books (as well as the clever usage of a GPS voice).

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BIG DRIVER is a grimy experience that encapsulates uncomfortable subject matter. Seeing that this is on TV though, certain cuts had to be made in order to air it. While only one major moment near the climax does show restraint, the film gets away with a lot for a small screen rape-revenge flick. A few problems poke up in a couple of unneeded plot threads, especially the absolutely wasted used of Joan Jett. It seems like the filmmaker just went “Hey, we could get Joan Jett!” and Matheson wrote in one scene to include her, but that was the amount of care put into Jett’s inclusion. While the rape scene is still brutal, it’s mercifully short and doesn’t revel in excess (this is far from I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE territory). I actually found it refreshing to get a rape-revenge story that focuses so much on the characters psyche and doesn’t wallow in being a gory exploitation B-flick. It was a neat way to see an otherwise tired and trashy concept done right.

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I would rank BIG DRIVER second on the mercifully short list of rape-revenge flicks that I’ve sat through in their entirety. The only one that I think is higher up would be the remake of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE. Both are entirely different films though. This was a surprisingly good Stephen King adaptation that doesn’t feel like it belonged on TV (of all things, Lifetime). It’s very ironic that this TV movie actually wound up being better than A GOOD MARRIAGE from what I’ve heard (which is currently on VOD, in select theaters, and being compared to a stereotypical Lifetime movie by many people). BIG DRIVER is far from your typical Lifetime movie (due to pushing the boundaries and commendable talent behind it) and not your average King adaptation (due to putting a new spin on a well-worn formula). If you’re at least remotely interested, then give this one a chance.

Grade: B

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