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+

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