Tag Archives: Stephen King

IN THE TALL GRASS: A Netflix Release

IN THE TALL GRASS. Country, Canada. Director: Vincenzo Natali. Screenwriter: Vincenzo Natali, based on the novella by Stephen King and Joe Hill. Cast: Laysla De Oliveira, Avery Whitted, Patrick Wilson, Will Buie, Jr. Harrison Gilbertson, Rachel Wilson. Runtime: 101 minuets. Release Date: October 4, 2019. On Netflix.

Mostly Indies Rating: C

With so much material on his hands it’s more often than not that a writer of the stature of King will in some ways repeat himself thematically, if not do outright re-writes of previous works. His novella In the Tall Grass, co-written with his son Joe Hill, seems to suggest yet another incursion into cult horror in the middle of nowhere.

From its opening sequence the film’s premise follows the same as the one in Children of the Corn in both story and original movie with the sole exception that while that one consisted of a forgotten little place overrun by children who worship some god of the underworld, this time, there are no people around but a strange expanse of impossibly tall grass in which a strange rock, possibly the remnants of a meteorite, stands still but gleams in malevolent energy eager to meet the unsuspecting for a little fun in blood sacrifice.

The unsuspecting are a set of two families. The first, a brother and sister duo, Cal and Becky (Avery Whitted and Laysla De Oliveira), who stop while on the way to San Diego because Becky, who is pregnant and needs to relieve herself, has just heard the cries of a boy lost in the middle of the tall grass. Against her better judgement, and because she also overhears what seems to be the boys mother (Rachel Wilson) telling the boy to not to call anyone in, she and Cal set into the grass to locate the boy, and soon realize that time and distance seems to be playing tricks on them. What seemed to be a few feet now seems to have stretched farther out, and soon, both she and Cal are hopelessly lost in this never ending sea of green. However, the movie doesn’t limit itself to people lost within grass: soon Becky encounters Ross (Patrick Wilson), who’s also searching for his family, while Cal meets the boy, Tobin (Will Bule, Jr., a young actor with a striking resemblance to Elijah Wood at the start of his career some 20 years ago). Tobin at first seems a bit shifty. Remember, this is the Stephen King universe. Kids in his stories can be either preternaturally self-reliant and thus, trustworthy, or basically the Devil himself and must be avoided at all costs. Tobin provides some insight into what might be happening behind the plates of grass, which then cranks the story up a notch into weirdness. It all comes to a head when Becky’s boyfriend Travis (Harrison Gilbertson) also finds his way into the endless meadows as he searches for her. Eventually, all the characters converge into one somewhat open area, and Ross reveals he’s not the nice man he once may have been before he entered the grassy field. Time bends, becomes elastic, and then all hell breaks loose once the power behind the stone jutting from the ground takes its hold on the hapless cast.

For the most, In the Tall Grass is pretty effective in establishing a streamlined version of common King tropes. You will have tragic, subservient wives meeting gruesome ends. You’ll have the plucky heroine who tries her best to manage her way into the nightmare she’s literally walked into. You have your couple of untrustworthy characters who seem to be prey to a larger power — in Cal, you have the brother who loves his sister a bit too much, and in Ross, the archetypical father-villain who in Patrick Wilson finds the perfect actor as a handsome man with the winning smile and a glint of crazy just behind the eyes. Some of the inclusion of multiple timelines seem to exist only in an arbitrary fashion, but if you don’t care about too much logic you should be able to enjoy the premise well. Where the story’s thin premise buckles at the seams is when it presents the creatures haunting the field, and the curious drawings on the rock. It’s a common trop In King’s work, to show the monster in the closet; on cinema, however, less is always more, and omitting this detail from the story would have made it a bit more chilling. As it stands, this is an above average piece of work, with handsome cinematography and solid acting, but not a tremendously compelling work of horror.

it: chapter two

IT: CHAPTER TWO. Country: USA / Canada. Director: Andy Muschietti. Screenwriter: Gary Dauberman. Based on the novel by Stephen King. Cast: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Andy Bean, Bill Skarsgard, Jasden Martell, Wyatt Oleff, Jack Dylan Grazer, Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Teach Grant, Nicholas Hamilton, Javier Botet, Xavier Dolan, Taylor Frey, Molly Atkinson, Joan Gregson, Stephen Bogaert. Language: English. Release date: September 6, 2019. Runtime: 170 minutes.

Mostly Indies rating: A–

Well, it’s here, it stormed into the box office and the story is told. Stephen King can rest knowing that even when the movie version of his much-beloved (and massive) 1986 novel “It” may never see a sufficiently dark and terrifying version without some significant alteration of the source of the horror, it goes without saying that at least the film version comes out swinging.

Truth be told, it is never an easy task to adapt a Stephen King novel. Much of the final story in It, for example, takes place in the astral plane and has ties to his Dark Tower macroverse, that to depict that one lengthy sequence would be next to impossible. Also, to its detriment, how scary can a clown truly be to kids raised on social media, YouTube, and a million other apps that can be conduits for the real horror: child predators? I’m going to have to say that in a way, It the movie is less scary this time, geared to hardcore Stephen King fans who have been reading him since Carrie, Salem’s Lot, and The Shining (the latter two who have yet to receive a truly gripping adaptation), but still, a compulsive watch.

So here we are, not quite back where we left off (although the first sequence, with the young Beverly (Sophia Lillis) apparently underwater, in a scene that recalls the moment she went into the deadlights — which thankfully get much more screen time here. Flash forward to today, 27 years later, when Adrian Mellon (Xavier Dolan) gets the extremely savage end of homophobia and meets an indescribable end at the hands of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), who’s come out from the dark and is, let’s say, “hangry” with a chip on his shoulder. Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), who’s since been devoted to tracking Pennywise’s every move before and after their apparent first defeat (and who seems certifiably bonkers; trauma has a way of clinging onto you well after the horror is over), now has to deliver the stomach-churning phone call to his six other childhood friends, not knowing if they will even respond or take his call. They do, in an excellent montage, the adult Losers are introduced with the barest of backstories presented. Bill (James McAvoy) is a successful horror novel writer who’s books end badly. Beverly (Jessica Chastain) is an abused housewife. Ben. (Jay Ryan) is a successful executive. Richie (Bill Hader, in a standout performance, mind you), is a stand-up comic going through a hard time. Eddie (James Ransone) is a limo driver. And finally, Stan (Andy Bean), who takes the call the hardest.

With the knowledge that It, the creature they once defeated, has returned, the remaining members of the Losers Club reunite in Derry. As it tends to happen, memories, long since repressed and buried, start to resurface, and with that, the ancient traumas, Of course, the question arises, why bother? They’re grown adults, what could they possibly be doing back in the town where they escaped from? Isn’t that what everyone does? Beverly, however, seen in the first frame of the movie, delivers the news: while under the deadlights, she saw them all dead. They have to go back, destroy the past, to be rid of it once and for all, and for them, that means performing the fated Ritual of Chud.

A huge chunk of the movie, from now on, becomes the six of them (well, really five; Mike has been here all along) walking through town, trying to pick up elements from their haunted past, in order to reunite later on. Of all of the solo scenes, Beverly’s was the one that stood out the most simply because her horror — which Pennywise in the novel manipulated) — is too real to ignore. When Pennywise appears to her in the body and shape of her father (Stephen Bogaert), without a dime of prosthetics, it’s more frightening than any of his disguises, which the movie curiously doesn’t use to its advantage. Another scene, this time not involving any one of the main cast members but a little girl who has a mole on her face, is truly terrifying because of its sparseness of special effects and Pennywise’s distorted maw of anticipation.

Overall, It is a solid piece of work that seen as a whole alongside the first movie will reveal a director who understands childhood fears and the genre, but also, reveal flaws in King’s own narrative. It is no secret that King nowadays, free of any editing constraints, has made a habit of producing extremely long works of fiction that go on and on for pages, chapters, even entire sections, without advancing the plot, The motive is to bring forward not just backstory, but a credible universe for people to see where his characters, good, bad, major, and even minor, are coming from. That in the literary world is okay — eventually you realize you will get to where the “meat” of the story is. However when translating into cinema, it just does not work. A lengthy scene where Bill rediscovers his old bike serves one self-indulgent pat-in-the-back moment. It is for fans only. Towards the end we are given a double dose of a similar scene from the first when Bill first encountered Pennywise in the flooded basement and near the end when the Losers go into the sewers. A little editing could have worked.

Also, and I’m just realizing it now: absent from both movies is Derry itself. Derry is supposed to be a haunted small town. Pennywise, a creature who defies explanation and whose presence alone could drive a person insane within seconds, feeds on the town’s residents equally, magnifying their adult prejudices and petty motives until they reach criminal levels (hence, the murder of Adrian Mellon) while still feeding on children. Derry as a character is corruption itself, a tainted place that offers no solace, no comfort, and the nagging feeling that some invisible, omnipresent evil is over them, literally playing them against each other like a puppet master. [It is a theme King started in Salem’s Lot and would revisit again in The Stand and Needful Things.] It’s a crying shame that this wasn’t woven into the fabric of the narrative except for the very first portion of the 2017 movie. It would have made the entire setting even more disturbing for the adults who come back, making their return to trauma even more horrible to stomach.

And lastly, presenting Pennywise continually as a clown eventually wears itself thin. In the book, he (it) was anything: a constant shapeshifter who was out for revenge against the “others” who had maimed it. At least, the battle of wills is done in a striking, clever, and even poignant way, something I would not have seen coming. So, for all its missteps, which even involve the use of CGI to make some of the kids look younger than they do and some awful use of Javier Botet as a bouncing horror that threatens Jessica Chastain, It delivers, does not include room for a potential sequel, and is now, over.

IT

IT

USA / Canada
Director: Andy Muschietti
Runtime: 135 minutes
Language: English

Mostlyindies’ grading:

I’ll have to admit; I did not have much hopes for this adaptation of Stephen King’s classic novel of childhood fears because let’s face it, most movies adapted from King’s novels or short stories wind up being complete messes, or at least, much lesser than the sum of their parts. As a matter of fact, out of King’s enormous output of what seems to be about a novel or two a year (and mind you, for his novels keep getting fatter and fatter and more verbose by the second), sometimes one or two make it to above average, or simply good, but would you remember it come tomorrow? Possibly not. Would it scare you as much as his books? Nope.

However, there is always that one movie that comes alive like Pennywise feeding cycles. First it was Carrie, but it had Brian de Palma, a master of suspense in the vein of Hitchcock who tacked on an ending that wasn’t in the original but virtually created the Final Scare that works today just as it did in 1976. Kubrick’s version of The Shining is still considered a controversial good movie due to the fact that nowhere in the movie is the essence of the novel; the bare bones of the story are there, sure, but essentially, this is Kubrick’s imagination of what would have been his own horror movie, and it is one long, trip down a long corridor where . . . well, You know.

And on, and so forth, the 80s brought about one movie based on a Stephen King novel or short story compilation, Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone is horror at its coldest, Creepshow had that cockroach episode that on its own made me want to seal up my place over and over again and drench it with bug repellent. Christine did zero for me; it was a silly movie adapted from an insane novel that along with Tommy-knockers, seem to have been produced on a drug trip. One had to wait until 1990 to see another psychological horror novel come to chilling life in Misery. That movie made Kathy Bates; it won her the Oscar — a feat still unmatched since horror movies (and performances such as hers) don’t glean awards. It’s another example of the movie being better and more compact than the novel, which had a somewhat anticlimactic end, a thing King has a tendency to do now, which is what I think his way of saying, “Sometimes you just don’t get that happy ending.”

For several years I’d been reading the hype leading to the making of It, and I just didn’t think much of it until I began seeing teaser trailers, pictures of the new Pennywise. Reader, I have to say, when I walked into the theater I had less than average expectations. I thought, well, there goes another two hours of my life in a movie that even with today’s technology just can’t quite capture the spirit of such a rich and rewarding coming of age book.

How mistaken I was!

From the second the movie opens, I can’t explain it: it felt like something magical was happening. The death of Georgie Denbrough is captured in its own time capsule, the camera tracking every movement as he runs after his paper boat (that older brother Bill made for him). It is, to say the least, the slow, progressive awakening of the unnamed thing that has been lurking under the city and within its fabric for ages untold. I was perhaps slightly disappointed that, like in King’s novel, the boat didn’t make its reappearance after Georgie had been killed, but what I wasn’t prepared for was that it would, and in a way I could not have imagined.

That, in a nutshell, is the experience I had while watching It: a movie that features no adults, but only kids in a town that seems to move on in a daze even as tragedies as horrific as Georgie’s take place. We get introduced to the seven major characters — extremely well defined and acted — and see what haunts them the most, and how events stemming from their ferocious, relentless bullying bring them together in shared fear for what they know and don’t know, and the friendship that blossoms as if they’d known each other for ages. We also get sight of the bullies, each of them just as horrifying as the monster in the sewers of Derry, always in wait for a chance to exact their own insecurities (enforced by their own hateful parents) on these otherwise non-violent kids.

We also get to see who, or what, is doing the haunting and oh, my God, does Skarsgaard not disappoint. I know that Tim Curry was as freaky and frightening as they come in the made-for-TV miniseries, and you would think that the movie would perhaps shy away from showing Pennywise in his clown form and remain only focused on what form of fear It appears to the kids. I’ve never seen a clown this completely disorienting, terrifying, and plain paralyzing, as this one. There is not a second when it’s not clear that everything about Pennywise suggest something so completely evil it’s almost unmentionable. That It only appears to the kids (and uses its powers to influence the bullies and the adults in town) makes for a greater adversary, and we move from scene after scene of terrible things happening to kids to more terrible things happening to kids with relentless speed. It is a deadly foe to even mess with, as the children learn in a scene involving a projector camera or going into the infamous house on Neibolt Street, but the seven children at the center of the movie have made a decision to, understanding what it is or not, to destroy it, and hopefully emerge unscathed.

Horror has always been a way to explore themes that otherwise would make for a dull or violent drama. All of the fears that these kids have is as credible as reality. Because the timeline of It has now moved to 1989, the fears are less drive in theater and more grounded in the mind and the heart. In Beverly Marsh’s case, her fear is centered on her awful dysfunctional father and her twisted relationship with him. In a way, clown aside, this is the story of kids. Good or bad, perhaps with the exception of the minor but well defined monstrous character of Patrick Hockstetter, all of the kids are victims of some form of neglect from their home and the world around them. All of them have witnessed horrific sights aside from what lack they experience at home. Somehow, horror has made them come together to face their own fears and move on into the next phase of their lives and the movie soars with wonderful moments of great beauty and earthy humor before sinking into that otherworldly place that is underground Derry, where It lives.

Reader, if you can believe this, I walked out of the theater in tears. Never has a horror movie left me in a state of near bliss and hopefulness. If this is what Chapter one can bring, I can only imagine what Chapter two will do two years from now. From what I read, it will get very, very dark.  And I can’t wait.






WOMEN ON THE VERGE: COMPLIANCE, ELLE, AND BIG DRIVER

Nothing makes me more uncomfortable than seeing rape on camera, depicted or suggested (or both). There’s just something gut-wrenching and horrifying about seeing a woman demoralized and debased on camera that also, somehow, by voyeurism, makes me, the watching eye, complicit. Watching even a brief glimpse — or, as in the case of that unwatchable, ten-minute scene from Irreversible, an apparent eternity and right onto the camera–is stomach-churning, it’s a cry of outrage, one that demands some kind of retribution, be it legal as in 1988’s  The Accused or something much darker as in Ms, 45 and a slew of rape-revenge films.

compliance-feat-image

Craig Zobel’s 2012 indie Compliance falls under a different category altogether. Rape isn’t an isolated event that befalls the heroine and disgraced her; oh, no. The entire film is a relentless progression towards the debasement and utter humiliation of a young woman working at a fast-food restaurant. The chain’s manager, Sandra, played by the excellent Ann Dowd (she’ll show up next in the made for TV Big Driver), has received news that her staff is using too much bacon on their burgers. There’s the possibility some may be eating them off camera. Whatever the case, she’s already in a frazzled state when she gets a call from a man purporting to be a police officer asking her questions about her employees stealing from customers. Somehow, Sandra can’t shake the call off, and the probing officer continues to grill her on her employees, particularly Becky (Dreama Walker). Once the officer starts making demands that they isolate Becky for questioning in the back room, things start to slowly spiral out of control. Once Becky herself is on the phone with the officer who claims to know everything about her,  Compliance takes a vicious left turn and never looks back.

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The events that unfold start to feel almost hazy and as an viewer I had to often step back and distance myself from the sheer nastiness that Becky is subjected to by a voice on the phone. When you see it you will feel deeply complicit as well as outraged  how is it possible that a store mananger couldn’t be more proactive? You might be surprised. Shades of the Stanford Prison experiment and Stanley Milgram’s own research on the behavior of people caught in a tense situation where one is in control and one is not — master and servant — tint the movie. People can go from being mild mannered to evil in a switch when the voice of authority calls. Compliance makes accomplices into what Hannah Arendt calls the banality of evil  “I was just following orders.”

The kicker? It actually happened. [A+]

 

bigdriver

One story that looks like it could have partially been based on fact is the movie adaptation of  Stephen King’s novella Big Driver, a story you can find in his Full Dark, No Stars compilation which came out several years ago. [A Perfect Marriage, also in that compilation and an equally compelling story, is also featured there.] Big Driver isn’t a bad movie — it has several good parts — but it suffers from the same curse that most adaptations of Stephen King’s work do: bad direction and an overall sense of a failed project, a story that looks and reads great on paper but feels like something you’ve seen countless times before. [I think its association as being a Lifetime movie didn’t help.] It’s too bad, because Big Driver is dark as they come. Maria Bello plays Tessa Thorne, a famous author of “cozy mysteries” that has garnered her a following with older ladies. Tessa gets an invitation from Ramona Norville (Ann Dowd, again) to come speak and do a Q & A in Chicopee, Massachussetts. Once the event is over, Ramona casually advises Tessa to avoid the Interstate and instead take a back road that is much safer. Tessa follows her advice. That advice turns out to be the biggest mistake she’s ever made.

She encounters vehicle problems when her car runs over some nail-studded planks of wood and she blows a tire. Needing help, she meets a tall bear of a truck driver who instead of helping her, soon turns violent, rapes the shit out of her, beats her unconscious, and throws her body into a culvert. Once there, Tessa, in shock but also in survival mode, makes her way into the darker recesses of the culvert and makes a horrifying discovery. Even so, she escapes, bloody and battered, and somehow makes her way back to her hotel where she assesses the level of physical damage to her body and surprisingly, decides against reporting him to avoid the scandal of being a rape victim.

What comes next should be tense filled, but even for an 85 minute movie, doesn’t take the movie any other place than the requisite revenge that is broadly advertised in the trailer. I personally don’t have a problem with such a predictable route. The problem lies that it’s so transparent. Tessa displays next to  no soul-searching (Curiously, Isabelle Huppert’s character in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle faces a similar dilemma of not reporting the rape, but also carrying on, but more on that one next.) Tessa has made the decision to take justice into her own hands, go back to the scene of the crime, and pay her rapist a visit.

Mikael Salomon isn’t a director I am familiar with (he’s mostly done television and was a cinematographer in the 80s and 90s) but Big Driver is serviceable without rising above the material. Also, keeping the narrative so faithful not only to the source material but also the author’s quirks rob the film of any emotional impact once the inevitable confrontations take place. Had Salomon and his screenwriter Richard C Matheson (son of the famed author of the same name) taken a different approach to the material perhaps the supporting pieces to the whole that is Big Driver would  have worked. Instead, they’re a distraction. [B]

 

elle-2

Here we are at the third and final film that tackles rape in a unusual way. Paul Verhoeven isn’t shy to press buttons when it comes to provoking the audience with shock.  His latest feature, Elle, which may very well be his crowning achievement, will not fail to disappoint even when its topic is as difficult and borderline lurid. That he cast renowned French actress, Isabelle Huppert, as his brilliantly complex heroine/anti-heroine, is a coup de grace. This is a role that actresses would kill for and I’m surprised of the amount of rejections it went through before landing on Huppert’s hands; however, I’m glad she got it. It’s as if Verhoeven had already thought of Huppert well before the movie was even completed–she’s that obsessively good.

If you can believe it, Elle is a black comedy about rape. Yes, you read that correctly: the horrible R word no woman ever wants to experience. From the get-go Verhoeven plunges us into its black desire and all we hear ar the painful, horrified shrieks of Michele LeBlanc  (Huppert)  as she attempts to shield herself from her attacker. When the camera’s eye opens we see a black cat observing the horror show with a bored look on its face. And then, no sooner than it happened, it’s over.  The assailant, a man with a ski mask and track suit, leaves the premises. Here is where Elle starts to go sideways into the unknown. Instead of predictably calling the police and making a report (she has a rather contentious history with the authorities for reasons having to do with her father, an infamous serial killer now serving a life sentence), Michele gets up, cleans the mess, takes a bath, and proceeds to move on with her life. She dismisses her attack to her son as a tumble she took, but makes the rather casual remark at dinner that freezes them all: “I guess I was raped.”

We will return to this awful scene not once,  but several times. I’ve come to the conclusion that Michele is perhaps in a perverse way atoning for the sins of her father, but her character is much too complex to leave it at that. This is not the first time Verhoeven has created females who don’t obey the rules of what a woman should do in certain situations — indeed, in society — and with Michele, he has by far outdone himself. Her character makes snide comments at her own mother who is having an affair with a gigolo, she berates her own employees who question her use of violence in video games, has an affair with her best friend’s husband in her own office, and masturbates to the neighbor next door whom she invites to a dinner with her entire family — one that transpires with a lot of heavy petting under the table and verbal innuendo. And all the time, we can’t seem to not like her. Perhaps her cries of help at the beginning have already established a subliminal link in our minds from the get-go. Perhaps we all would like to be this detached. It all rests on the magnificent performance Isabelle Huppert conveys of what is essentially an amoral sociopath walking a tightrope between life and death.

There is a lot to be said about Elle that even the Q & A with Verhoeven at the opening night at the Alice Tully last October didn’t manage to answer. I also don’t want to venture into talking more about it because to do so would be to reveal aspects of this thriller that are best left to the viewer. I will say, however, that Elle is a highly original and unusual character study that is all over the place in tones — it moves from violence to comedy to drama with incredible ease, and one can find them all sitting side by side in the same scene. One could call it an extreme version of female empowerment. After all, Michele gets to do things that goes completely left of what is considered moral. As a matter of fact, nothing in Michele suggests she herself is moral, but that she lives on her own terms. So it’s appropriate that her progressive delving into this flirtation with danger with the man who raped her is almost perfect for her type of character. Michele understands the culture of violence that she now profits from. It what makes her so deliciously good when she not only embraces it, but does so with perverse abandon. [A+]