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

THE NIGHT FLIER (1998)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Horror Violence, Gore and Strong Language

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Directed by: Mark Pavia

Written by: Mark Pavia, Jack O’Donnell

(based on the short story THE NIGHT FLIER by Stephen King)

Starring: Miguel Ferrer, Julie Entwisle, Dan Monahan, Michael H. Moss

Stephen King has famously tackled vampires in his critically acclaimed SALEM’S LOT, that was later turned into a great miniseries and a so-so remake of said miniseries. King actually did return to write about bloodsuckers one more time in NIGHTMARES & DREAMSCAPES. Contained in that massive anthology was a little story titled THE NIGHT FLIER. This tale was unnerving and absolutely terrifying. Eventually (as all Stephen King stories usually wind up) it was adapted into a feature-length film. While some movies based on his short stories have been terrible (THE MANGLER, CHILDREN OF THE CORN, GRAVEYARD SHIFT), THE NIGHT FLIER stays remarkably true to the source material and does the impossible, it captures the sheer frightening nature of the words on paper that it’s based on.

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Richard Dees is a tabloid reporter and an all-around asshole. He’s arrogant, self-important, and whiny, and those are some of his better qualities. There isn’t a low to which he won’t stoop to make his article in the Inside View (think National Enquirer before it focused on celebrity gossip) more shocking. After a couple of countryside airports turn up with a bloody massacres and no survivors, it appears that a serial killer is on the loose, using his plane as transportation. To make matters even more strange, the victims have been drained of blood and the brutality on display seems too much for one mere man to commit. Dees takes the case from a new reporter and begins his investigation into “The Night Flier.” Meanwhile, the wronged reporter does everything in her power to get her story back.

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The short story was a slow deliberate scarefest that ended in a climax that kept me from sleeping for a few hours. It’s easily one of the best pieces of vampire fiction I’ve read. Keeping in tone with the story, THE NIGHT FLIER is an adaptation that relishes in everything that was frightening about the short story and cranks it up a notch by the conclusion. The story ended in a quietly freaky way that was good for a written work, but wouldn’t have really worked in film format. Wisely, director/co-writer Mark Pavia keeps the movie going a little further past where the story originally ended and finishes on a solid 15 minute long purely nightmarish conclusion.

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As far as Stephen King adaptations go, THE NIGHT FLIER is criminally underrated and stands tall when placed against the actual story. Miguel Ferrer inhabits his role with such ferocity that it’s impossible to separate the actor from the character. I’m sure he’s a really nice guy, but Ferrer has a knack for playing scumbags. The addition of Dee’s rival (a character who wasn’t in the story at all) adds another layer to the film and plays into just how bleak the final third becomes. The effects themselves range from cool to somewhat cheesy. One moment near the end of the film involving the reveal of The Night Flier made me roll my eyes, because it was unneeded and corny. This being said, despite the occasionally hokey effects, this is a solid piece of horror cinema.

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THE NIGHT FLIER stays true to the source material, while changing a few things up that actually work better in this visual medium. Even though Dees is a complete and utter tool, we can’t help ourselves enjoy watching this despicable man go through a creepy investigation that ultimately leads to a confrontation that will decide his fate. In the realm of Stephen King adaptations, THE NIGHT FLIER is great. In the world of vampire films, it’s also great. This is an underrated gem of a movie that deserves more acclaim than it gets.

Grade: B+

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