Nightmares come in many forms, and it seems like most of our collective ones emanated from the subconscious of a seventy-year-old Mainiac.1
With his central themes of small-town corruption and loss of innocence, Stephen King he might well have become a latter-day Shirley Jackson, beloved of the literati,2 had he simply stayed around from pulp.3 Were it not for the likes of IT, Carrie, Cujo, Salem’s Lot, The Shining, and fifty-five others4 then the landscape of horror would be a much poorer place.
It also seems unlikely that King’s books would have sold 350+ million copies, which fly in the face of his critics5 While no author has arguably defined a genre like King has horror, he’s also found time to pen a couple of hundred short stories; including the likes of Rita Hayworth And Shawshank Redemption.6 King’s works have birthed a cottage industry of film and TV adaptations. This year alone has gifted us with eight – at least one of which, I can confirm, isn’t very good.
Not coincidentally, the BFI have chosen this autumn to present a season showcasing some of the best, or at least most beloved, of them; including a few in IMAX. Though separated by decades, Brian De Palma’s Carrie, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining7 and now Andy Muschietti’s IT 8, together they provide a uniquely Kingian look at evil and the forms it takes; albeit filtered through the vision of three very different directors.
In Carrie, the evil is all-too recognizably human: bored, vulnerable high school kids, whose tormenting of the painfully shy titular teen (brought to startled, moon-eyed life by Sissy Spacek) culminates in a vicious prank on prom night; notoriously involving a rigged ballot and a carefully positioned bucket of pig’s blood. Unfortunately for them, Carrie is no ordinary teenager but a telekinetic already poised on the edge of a breakdown due to the constant emotional abuse she faces from her zealot mother (Piper Laurie, looking like a buttoned-up pagan).9
While Mario Tosi’s hazy cinematography might not be ideally suited to the biggest screen in Europe, the film is still extraordinary as a portrait of sexual hysteria and teenage cruelty. A pre-Grease John Travolta, bush-haired and dimple-chinned, appears as a particularly loathsome specimen; idiot jock boyfriend to the prank’s ringleader Chris (a feathery Nancy Allen). The film’s tragedy is that the prank, which spurs Carrie on to slaughter a gym-full of fellow students and teachers alike, occurs when she’s at her happiest and most unguarded.
We follow a beaming Carrie, and her tender-hearted prom date Billy (William Katt, basically sporting blonde ringlets)10 as she’s ushered to the stage and handed a bouquet of flowers – no longer a wallflower, but admired, popular; or at least gifted with the illusion of being so. This extended slow-mo sequence veers between dream and nightmare as Pino Donaggio’s score alternates between melodic flutes and Psycho strings; the bucket wobbling on a beam just above Carrie’s head as Chris, demonically lit in red, lurks beneath the stage.
Simultaneously, Billy’s well-meaning girlfriend, Sue (Amy Irving) – who arranged for him to escort Carrie to the prom out of guilt at her involvement in an earlier prank – becomes aware of what’s in store. With definite shades of the opera sequence from The Man Who Knew Too Much, De Palma, working from the Hitchcock playbook, manages to wordlessly convey Sue’s realisation as he gaze moves from the rope securing the invisible bucket to the shifting decorations beneath the stage.
It’s just one of several extraordinary sequences in the film: from the opening, set in the mist-bound showers, in which Carrie, luxuriating, finds herself suddenly exposed,11 to Carrie and Billy dancing together, the camera whirling ever faster around them, to the final genre-defining jump. De Palma may not be the most subtle of directors: the death of Carrie’s mother, for instance – impaled on kitchen implements after attempting to murder her daughter – recreates the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, pierced with allows;12 a point which De Palma immediately drives home by showing us a scary-eyed version of the icon itself.
Nevertheless, Carrie retains its power as a then mostly unprecedented depiction of teenage insecurity and sexuality. King was by no means the first author to comment on these themes, but his blend of horror and naturalism gave them a readability that, even in his first book, helped them find a mainstream audience. The same is true of The Shining, a haunted house story that, like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting Of Hill House before it, is less about the scares than one character’s mental disintegration. Stanley Kubrick’s big-screen adaptation is also definitely one that merits the IMAX treatment.13
The main difference is, however, at the Overlook Hotel, there are almost certainly ghosts. While Stephen King and director Stanley Kubrick seem to have more or less agreed on this point14 their main point of divergence seems to have been Jack Torrance. King conceived of Jack as a sympathetic character, a man with demons, sure15King himself has had his own struggles with alcohol; though there are no known instances of his ever having been violent under the influence.[/note] – but one who is ultimately redeemed; sacrificing himself for his love of his child. Kubrick had a slightly different take: “Jack comes to the hotel psychologically prepared to do its murderous bidding. He doesn’t have much further to go from his anger and frustration to become completely uncontrollable. He is bitter about his failure as a writer. He is married to a woman with whom he has only contempt. He hates his son…”
As such, safe to say that Kubrick’s Shining – more or less disowned by the author on whose work it is based – is a very different beast from the novel.16It’s also, in its own inimitable way, an astonishing work. As well as featuring arguably career best, or at least the most iconic performances, from Jack Nicholson17 and Shelley Duvall,18
The Shining is also a maze of patterns and symbolism in which it’s possible for the unwary viewer to get lost. It’s there in the geometric hexagons on the carpet upon which young Danny (Danny Lloyd) plays with his toys19 and in Room 237 into which he is lured. In the case of the latter, there is, in fact, an overload of patterns: the striped wallpaper; the gaudy, peacock carpet; the zig-zag bed-spread; even the bars of the radiators. There’s so much visual data that, as Kubrick’s camera tracks slowly through, the eyes don’t know where to focus. It makes the emergence into the relatively plain bathroom – mint green with gold highlights – feel like a sudden becalming and makes what lies within all the more disturbing.
Room 237 is also, appropriately, the name of a 2012 documentary, directed by Rodney Ascher, which brings in various academics and “experts” to discuss their own theories surrounding The Shining; from commentary on the gold standard and the genocide of Native Americans to the whole film being a coded confession by Kubrick on his involvement in supposedly helping to fake the moon landing. While it seems to be mostly bunkum20 Ultimately, though, it’s the lack of a clear answer, of any one reading,22 made me jump, even though I “knew” it was coming, and the point where Wendy (again) finds herself trapped in the bathroom, seemingly unable to escape from Jack, who’s hacking through doors, is genuinely tense. This is at least partly due to Duvall’s wide-eyed, hysterical performance23 – she was, after all, legendarily, reportedly on the edge of a nervous breakdown due to Kubrick’s bulling perfectionism – and, of course, Nicholson’s devil-browed wild-man schtick, which has been boiled down in pop culture to that one Carson quote.
However, there’s a more complex psychology at play that King’s complaint – that Jack seems crazy from the start – doesn’t really address the loss of self he experiences over the course of the film. It’s clear, for instance, that Jack Torrance is entitled, misogynistic, rage-filled: he has, in the past, injured Danny, albeit accidentally while drunk, and recently left a job teaching at a school in Vermont24. In the car on the drive up to the remote Overlook, he’s annoyed by Danny’s intrusion on his thoughts – that is until he gets to tell the story of the Donner party. He’s vicious and sarcastic to Wendy when she interrupts his writing – even when he’s not actually engaged in it – and, more than unfairly we feel, portrays her as the source of all his problems.[/note]In conversation with the bartender, Lloyd (Joe Turkel), he also charmingly refers to her as “the old sperm bank”.[/note]
That being said, there are instances of cheeriness and humour that, though sinister in context,25 suggest somewhat more subtle shading. After three months in the hotel, though, the malign influences start winning out: Jack becomes vacant, staring slack-jawed out the window at the snow, or else slumped on the bed, like a puppet with his strings cut. The Overlook feeds into the worst of Jack’s character – his ego and resentment; both psychically, it seems, and more overtly, through manifestations like that of the ingratiating Lloyd or impetuous Grady (Philip Lloyd); the latter of whom, Jack’s predecessor, the hotel has now repurposed as a butler.
It feels almost like they are toys and The Overlook is merely trying to add Jack and his family to the play-box – the simplest route to that goal seemingly being to manipulate Jack into killing them. As such, the scene where Jack breaks down at his writing desk, having experienced a nightmare in which he did just that, is moving in that you see, for the first and perhaps last time, that this is a man who, despite it all, really loves Wendy and Danny; who’s terrified at the prospect of what his subconscious has just thrown at him and appalled to tears at the thought of hurting them. By then, it’s too late, though: Jack has already been drawn into madness; madness like the wintry hedge-maze into which the quick-thinking Danny lures him;26the hedge-maze in which he will become a Jack-sicle.
The reason Jack never tries taking the axe to the wall of the maze, futile though it may have been, is that he, like us, is trapped in the inexorable logic of it; lost in the labyrinth. While some people have since dismissed it as an emotionally remote series of sublimated puzzle-boxes, designed to appeal to the obsessive, I hold to a slightly different reading: The Shining is a film that warns about the dangers of obsession even as it draws you ironically in to obsession in itself. While its elements have been endlessly parodied or repurposed for the sake of an easy punchline,27, the film continues to hold an allure.
Aware as I am that I am almost certainly coming late to the party – frozen, like Jack, in an old photograph, in that ambiguous final shot – let me take this opportunity to get out28 to burst into the third of my trifecta: Andy Muschietti’s recent adaptation of IT.
While I have little to add in a full-scale review that wasn’t covered in the latest Electric Shadows podcast, what I found most interesting about the film was how it conveyed that Pennywise the Clown (a wonderfully demented Bill Skarsgård) was only one manifestation – albeit the favourite one – of a much greater malevolence.
Where in the miniseries, Tim Curry’s Pennywise felt like the thing itself29 detached from IT’s supposedly true form as a giant spider, Skarsgård’s Pennywise – with its gangly limbs, shock of tufty red hair, and discombobulated yellow eyes30 – feels like evil playing dress up. The squeaky voice underlain with something sinister and gravelly. In a fantasy film, he’d be the chosen child’s best friend and companion. In the world of horror, though…
All the other forms in which Pennywise appears, like the headless boy that chases the pudgy new kid Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) through the library stacks or the leper that pursues the hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Glazer), are just harmless, if terrifying, distractions; reflections of their deepest fears, used to put them within Pennywise’s reach. When Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) sees his missing younger brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott)31in the flooded basement of their home, he’s just there as a lure: it’s Pennywise, rising unseen out of the water, who’s mouthing along; putting the words into Georgie’s mouth. It’s one of the film’s greatest coups that Pennywise, like the atmosphere of dread that pervades small-town dread, seems almost inescapable.32
It’s only in the final scene of the film where the Loser’s Club – comprised of Bill, Ben, trash-talking Richie (Stranger Thing‘s Finn Wolfhard), unassuming Stan (Wyatt Olef), and hard-worn Mike (Chosen Jacobs) – confront Pennywise in his den in order to save the best of them, the courageous Beverly (Sophia Lillis)33, that we see that, for all his tricks and physical threat, Pennywise is essentially hollow. Once they realise that, they’re able to defeat him – at least for the moment…
A common theme therefore throughout King’s work is how we, people, empower evil through our fear and insecurity. Whether it’s a teenage girl lashing out psychically, psychotically, at those who have abused her – in her fury taking down enemy and ally alike – or a frustrated middle-aged man driven to slaughter by the manipulations of an evil hotel, or a giggling, vaudevillian child-eater, they can be fought through courage and ingenuity.34 It’s a theme that has backgrounded much of King’s works; one of the best things of his sheer prolificness being that there’s always more to read or watch.
So why not get to know evil a little better and make it down to the Stephen King On Screen season at the BFI. Running. as it is, until September 24th, 2017. the real horror would be to miss it.
- Apparently the preferred term for natives of the Pine Tree State.
- I used to be pretty snobbish about his writing back in college, until I actually read some of it. The Green Miles remains, to this day, one of my favourite books.
- You introduce one demonic clowns…
- Six written under the name Richard Bachman; a pseudonym that has, in itself, achieved a degree of success most authors can only dream of.
- Hopefully screeching like vampire bats.
- Which just so happens to have been made into a little film popularly regarded, on IMDb at least, as one of the best of all time.
- As opposed to Stephen King’s The Shining, the 1997 miniseries version starring Steven Webber.
- As opposed to Stephen King’s IT, the 1990 miniseries starring Tim Curry.
- The way that lightening flashes when she utters the word “Prom?” has, presumably unintentional, shades of Frau Blücher in Young Frankenstein.
- The hair, as you may have noticed from my descriptions, is remarkable.
- The lockers between which her fully dressed, motley classmates now converse more resemble a school corridor than girl’s changing room; only adding to the anxiety.
- Albeit with (presumably) more ecstatic moaning. Suffice to say, she seems to die happy.
- After all, this is the director who famously delivered screening instructions with each print of A Clockwork Orange.
- Kubrick may not have believed in the supernatural, but he seems to have found the apparitions useful nonetheless.
- He’s an alcoholic who once injured his son in a fit of drunken anger
- King, for one, prefers the miniseries version, which is endearingly cheesy but painfully literal-minded in its depiction of The Overlook and Jack’s descent into madness.
- Whose descent into psychosis, when viewed on the big screen, featured grace-notes I don’t recall having noticed before – more on that later.
- Though the critics were quick to write her off based as just Olive Oyl, based on her then-recent performance in Robert Altman’s Popeye; a piece of criticism that – as noted by my friend and soon-to-be housemate Alex – doesn’t hold up in the present day when the latter film has been virtually forgotten.
- On which there is a remarkable, if perhaps unsurprising, amount of analysis.
- Though one theorist’s exploration of the lack of geographic consistency within the hotel – how the window in the manager’s office should look out onto a corridor rather than the snowy vista it displays – is temporarily fascinating.
- as well as Kubrick’s reputation for omniscient genius, that help to make the film so endlessly rewatchable.
Kubrick’s real genius as a filmmaker, however, is in keeping a film that runs at almost two-and-a-half hours poised on the edge of a knife-blade throughout. The scene where the camera pans round suddenly for the REDRUM reveal21SPOILER It’s murder backwards.
- When the blood comes flooding out of the lift, her quaking in terror is one “G-g-g-ghost!” from full-blown Scooby Doo.
- In the book he explicitly hit a student
- Jack talking about how at home he feels in The Overlook, for instance. Ooh, foreshadowing…
- Wendy plays next to the no role in the film’s climax, other than bugging out at such sights as “man in fuzzy bear costume fellating bemused man in tux”. Nor for that matter does the ill-fated Halloran (Scatman Crothers), whose treacherous return to The Overlook is met only with an axe in the chest.
- Even The Angry Birds Movie features a cameo from those two creepy girls.
- Unlike Jack Torrance in the hedge-maze. Damnit, caught again.
- King was reportedly inspired in this by serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who, when not off committing horrific murders, made a living doing cioldren’s parties.
- Which Skarsgård can apparently move independently all by himself.
- In his yellow raincoat, already the new film’s most iconic image.
- In one creepy moment, reminiscent of It Follows, a white-haired, female librarian in a floral dress appears in the background, leering at an oblivious Ben. While Derry, Maine, has no shortage of malevolent adults – under Pennywise’s malign influence, they’re all either abusive or apathetic – it seems a safe bet this that is just IT getting its kicks.
- Having already worked with Muschietti on Mama, Jessica Chastain is rumoured to be playing the older version of the character in IT, Part 2, which takes place twenty-five years later, but Lillis bears such a striking resemblance to Amy Adams it would feel like a shame if the casting directors didn’t make use of that fact. That and, with her apparently having taken a year off after missing out on Oscar noms for two fantastic performances in Nocturnal Animals and Arrival – and appearing in the craptacular Batman V Superman to boot- more Adams on our screens is never a bad thing; except maybe in Justice League.
- That being said, Pennywise’s whole hyper-active jigging thing, where his legs kick out and his head remains in place as if on a gimbal, would be enough to send me running.