1980s Stephen King Bits and Bobs
The Woman in the Room (Frank Darabont, 1984) (youtube streaming)
Word Processor of the Gods (episode of Tales from the Darkside, Season One) (Michael Gornick, 1985) (DVD)
Gramma (episode of Twilight Zone) (Bradford May, 1986) (DVD)
Srazhenie (Mikhail Titov, as M. Titov, 1986) (youtube streaming)
Sorry, Right Number (episode of Tales from the Darkside, Season Four) (John Harrison, as John Sutherland, 1987) (DVD)
My King retro might have moved on into the 90’s, but I figured I’d temporarily return (like those troubled, slightly dopy adults in It, flowing back in time to merge with their childhoods) one last time to the 80’s — that decade of the high quality King-adaptation (reaching a consistency that any author should be proud of – even if the poor writer had to grapple with that – sniff, sniff – misguided Kubrick fellow adapting one of his favorite books – well, at least he had one of his cinematic regulars, Mick Garris, rectify that catastrophic mistake with his 1997 The Shining miniseries – I mean… I certainly hope my sarcasm is coming through here) for a perusal of a few choice episodic selections — some short films in their own right and others taken from the wonderful 80’s anthology shows that were fortunately a ‘thing’ during that decade.
Woman in the Room
I originally considered going through all the short films adapted from King’s work… until I realized they exist in far too overwhelming numbers, with King, in a very nice gesture started all the way back in the early 80’s (and still going on I believe), granting mostly young filmmakers the rights to adapt a requested short story for the cost of one dollar, as a way to allow them to develop and showcase their talents. Considering that most of these were the works of film students, the idea of wading through tons of student projects started to feel a bit too much like… work. So I decided to simply choose a few more noted 80’s entries (and one obscure yet intriguing animated one) and go from there.
Likely the most well-known of these Dollar Babies (as King coined them) – certainly the only one amongst them that started up the career of a massively successful Hollywood filmmaker – is the one written and directed by first time writer/director Frank The Mist/The Shawshank Redemption/The Walking Dead Darabont.
The stories that resonated with me by far the most from King’s first short story collection, Night Shift (a book of one startlingly vibrant tale after another, with the whole thing having as deep an impact on this once young impressionable mind as Clive Barker’s Books of Blood would have a decade later) were two that, perhaps not surprisingly, contained no supernatural elements whatsoever – namely, The Last Rung on the Ladder and the eventual 30-minute Darabont adaptation, The Woman in the Room (in fact, these were also the only two I ever imagined adapting myself – not realizing the opportunity was merely a single dollar away until much later when I already became a – well – now an old filmmaker, so not sure Steve would strike the same deal with me… especially after all the critical things I’ve been writing about him in these reviews – and you better believe he’s reading every word I write about him!). Both exceedingly grim, with a profound sadness about them, these tales revealed the range that King as a writer was capable of. So while I’m far from a fan of Darabont’s work (at worst, as a filmmaker, he’s an emotional opportunist and panderer – alas, of the type usually required to lead you to the top of the Hollywood heap), I give major props to him for going after this one as his debut.
King’s short tale is mostly a chamber piece, and feels deeply personal, with the bulk of it set in a hospital room centered around the return visits of a young man to his dying mother, agonizingly suffering from terminal stomach cancer, helplessly watching her humanity and dignity slowly being stripped away from her… until he decides to set a plan in motion to take away her pain forever…
Word Processor of the Gods
The sparseness of King’s writing in the tale is strikingly palpable (with his use of simple hyphens to differentiate dialogue sentences instead of the standard quotes a well-placed literary motif that reinforces a sense of a cold detachment to the atmosphere) and he gives no breathing room; the nostalgic memories never, thankfully, fall into the corny or the oversentimental. It’s unrelenting King, providing no comforting escape; and that’s good King. In fact, that’s him at his best.
While Darabont’s version has its flaws, beyond just the obvious first-time filmmaker limitations (coming right to mind was how the dying mother needed to come across as far more sick and less mentally coherent to do proper justice to the grim quality of the tale, as well as the director allowed too much obvious emotional sharing and awareness to come through between the two in the final ‘mercy killing’ scene for it to be as deeply harrowing and fascinating in its ambiguities as King’s original is), at the same time, it’s probably the most emotionally raw filmmaking the guy has ever done.
While sticking faithfully with King’s dialogue (almost verbatim), Darabont does add a couple of scenes that, while not necessary, are executed well enough. The best of the two is a quick, silent nightmare sequence (never against a nightmare sequence, when done right!) that gives the director a chance to show a little flourish, ending with a little effective gruesomeness to at least reference a ‘horror movie’, with the second one feeling a bit more incongruous to the narrative; a jailhouse meeting between our protagonist (who we realize is an attorney) and the man he’s defending, an ex-Vietnam Vet turned unrepentant professional killer (with the actor looking like a less extreme version of Ron Perlman) who becomes a momentary confidante, imparting some wisdom on our emotionally suffering lead. Other than giving a chance at having our main character voice some of his internal moral quandary on what to do regarding his mom’s suffering that is covered in the third person narrative of the original story (and isn’t really necessary to explain), this somewhat arbitrarily included scene (though, as I said, it is well executed – certainly the best lit and performed) feels suspiciously like Darabont already auditioning for the author’s novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” that he eventually secured the rights for and made the movie, which the mainstream success of, would catapult him into the leagues of the Hollywood elite (and is on the upcoming viewing list).
Next up on the viewing block came a much more casually entertaining effort… and a complete tonal shift; the formulaic and fun “Word Processor of the Gods” was based on an original Stephen King short story (out of the author’s second collection Skeleton Crew which, while not as startlingly fresh and inventive as Night Shift, still has plenty of great stuff to offer) adapted by the late paperback genre specialist Michael McDowell (he of a few of the segments of the Tales from the Darkside: The Movie) as a twenty something minute episode for the George A. Romero-created syndicated television anthology series Tales from the Darkside.
Directed with low-budget television-simplicity by a regular from Romero’s Pittsburgh cabal, Michael Gornick (in training for his eventual helming of the quality anthology sequel Creepshow 2), “Gods” tells of a struggling middle-aged writer (the wonderful – and underappreciated, in my book — character actor Bruce Davidson, a master at turning the average nondescript white fella into someone we’re more than interested in watching), who quietly tolerates his unsatisfied, hostile wife and obnoxious electric-guitar playing son… until he discovers that the makeshift, barely functioning word processor that the nephew he adored built for him as a birthday gift before his untimely tragic death not only works, but grants wishes that fall under the ‘EXECUTE’ and ‘DELETE’ function, suddenly giving the unhappy man a chance at revising his life, to take the path to happiness that he knows he should have taken… except the smoking processor is quickly breaking down, and who knows how many wishes are left…
With King’s reliance on (good) formula, rather than looking to redefine an art form, the contained setting, the perfect length for relatively faithfully adapting into the television time slot (as well as its satisfactory execution) made the story just the perfect fodder for a “Darkside” episode. In fact, I could see King imagining it as a “Twilight Zone”-style episode even as he wrote it (which wouldn’t be a surprise, as I have no doubt he loved the show).
“Gods” is suburban male wish fulfilment, no doubt, with our unhappy family man granted his chance to get out and start over… and what’s really amusing (from today’s perspective) is how not only is the writer’s wife described as ‘fat’ by King in the book, the tv adaption follows suit on that (with the add on of making the brat son a heffer as well!) – with the sneering tubby woman ultimately exchanged via processing wish with a much more suitable, slimmer ‘fantasy’ wife… simply amazing with the shit they got away with in the 80’s!
True, it didn’t manage to include the author’s referencing in his tale —as a simile for the gift-giving word processor — of those plastic ‘magic’ eight balls with fluid that you’d shake to see your future (King’s oft-celebrated mentioning of everyday brand names in his tales never did all that much for me… but, in this particular case, naming a toy that re-awoke long ago memories of how it had captivated my own imagination during its brief fad when every group of neighborhood kids had at least one of was nice), but that’s okay… the inclusion of it worked better as an internal memory of the lead character (though just having it displayed on a shelf in the episode could have been a nice nod).
One larger quibble though… instead of granting our frustrated writer his final wish of family bliss (with slimmer wife and son, naturally)… missed in this earnest little tale was the perfect, much more sublime opportunity to do something darker and blackly humorous (and something I’m sure Rod Serling, that old misanthrope, would have approved of)… that being, the dying processor, with its electronic connections distorting, only managing to spit out a last-gasp corrupt version of the requested ‘file’ — namely, a rotted, foul perversion of what our man was hoping for…
It would have been just desserts (in sublime EC universe-style)… and likely would have made for a much more classic tale.
Next up on the night was also based on a short story out of the “Skeleton Crew” collection… and this time King didn’t miss the opportunity for a memorably dark ending, that’s for sure! Adapted for the criminally underrated 80’s (first) reboot of “The Twilight Zone” by the late, cantankerous, prolific and sometimes brilliant (or at least I’ve been told he was – I haven’t read enough of his stuff to say for myself how great he was… though if this adaptation is any indication, he’s got me immediately leaning towards the enthusiastically impressed) scifi writer Harlan Ellison, “Gramma” tells the tale of terrified 11 year old George, left alone, due to a family emergency (his brother broke his leg playing little league baseball and his single mother begrudgingly has to leave him to go to the hospital) on a single harrowingly rainy night, to tend to his bedridden grandmother, who is not only grotesquely sloth-like (tsk, tsk… there you go again, Stevie, with the relentless fat shaming!), blind and dementia-riddled, but — the boy has heard through snippets of hushed adult conversations — possibly connected to dark powers otherworldly… and dangerous…
While the original King tale is already effective (with, as I said, a surprisingly dark ending that makes the story that much more memorable), “The Twilight Zone” creative madmen used the source material as a mere jumping off point, creating an ambitious exercise in wildly inspired cinematic showmanship and storytelling. Where King’s tale hints at Lovecraftian Gods that the demonic Gramma may have worshipped (by mentioning ‘Hazur’), Ellison whole-hog gives us hidden portals in her room to Hell, spitting out fire and smoke, from which the Necronomicon itself is drawn, with the name ‘Cthulhu’ actually being called forth (thankfully, Lovecraft is in the public domain so you can do shit like that)… and where King keeps the repulsive matriarch (mostly) human (if slightly exaggerated from the boy’s wide-eyed perspective), the small screen incarnation has her as a virtual demon-eyed monstrosity, with a sort of slithery skin that imagines a human slowly transforming into a minion of the Old Gods, living in a massive ornate bed in a dark bedroom at the end of a shadow-drenched hallway.
Taking King’s mostly earth-bound (yet nicely creepy) tale and turning it into a surreal, hallucinatory vision reminiscent of Dario Argento’s Suspiria (including some nicely moving camera work, especially ambitious for the television budget), with overtures of Lovecraft, is a text-book example of how to take an original story and recreate it in another art form as something new, vibrant and, in this case, wildly imaginative.
Considering just how cinematically inspired the episode stood out as being, I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that William Friedkin, director of some of the great, most cinematically ambitious of all 70’s films (such as the staggeringly impressive, existential white-knuckler Sorceror), as well as the single greatest episode of the entire 80’s “Twilight Zone” 3-season run (namely, the first season adaptation of Robert R McMammon’s Nightcrawlers, a simply relentlessly harrowing tale of the violent ghosts of the Vietnam War literally returning to claim their own) was originally attached to direct “Gramma”. According to the commentary track, in fact, the director prepped the entire episode (including being involved with the construction of the beautifully evocative kitchen, hallway and bedroom sets that manage to speak of both the ordinary and the frighteningly otherworldly at the same time) before having to bail, handing the actual production shooting over to regular “TZ” cinematographer Bradford May, who was clearly well-trained by the veteran filmmaker to do a sterling job (with Ellison openly grabbing some directorial credit for helping as well on the track).
One of the real selling points of this new “Twilight Zone” was not only the quality behind-the-scenes talent accrued for it (including directors like Wes Craven – doing some of the best work he ever would do — and Peter “The Changeling” Medak, the aforementioned Ellison as a creative consultant, working on adapting stories from acknowledged masters like Ray Bradbury, King and Author C. Clarke) but also the thoughtfully chosen, recognizable, yet often just slightly off the cuff character actors that worked so well within the world of the show (for a quick for instance, a look at the menu images for the four episodes on the disc that includes “Gramma” has such engaging presences in the various tales as Gerrit Graham, Martin Balsam, Wallace Shawn, Scott Wilson, Dick Shawn, Steve Railsback… and Brad Davis! What a list!).
For “Gramma”, the producers secured Barret Oliver as the terrified, yet resolute George, with the young thesp still riding his success as the lead in the fantasy tale “The Neverending Story”… but the real notable add for me is Darlanne Fluegel as George’s mom; she may not be asked to do all that much in the episode (with the camera not even revealing her in the opening scene, staying on George, nicely reinforcing his isolation, with her face not revealed until her return from the hospital at the end, with the camera now deliberately reversed, staying on her, the boy’s face initially obfuscated this time), but I’ll gladly take her wonderful presence, even for a few moments; her unforgettably gorgeous, yet somehow grounded presence was a high-point for so many 80’s crime films, like To Live and Die in LA, Once Upon a Time in America and Michael Mann’s short-lived yet excellent television series Crime Story.
While it may not be quite the episodic television masterpiece that “Nightcrawlers” is, “Gramma” is a highpoint of that show and, without a doubt was the most exciting showcase on this viewing night; a true gem found in an evening of sifting lots of solid gold in the King treasure chest.
It was while sorting through the too-numerous-to-count King ‘Dollar Babies’ on youtube one night that I discovered this intriguing little oddity “Srazhenie” existed, a 10 minute animated adaptation of a King tale from the “Night Shift” collection (obviously not a Dollar Baby), and decided to hold off watching and put it on the list for this 80’s King viewing party night. Based on one of the more enjoyably daft and inspired entries in the collection, “Battleground” (from what I can tell from google translate, the Russian title translates to “Battle”), following a successful hitman under sudden attack in his penthouse suite from the relentless miniature army created by the toy manufacturer he just knocked off, “Srazhenie” slightly alters the tale here and there (such as starting on the actual ‘hit’ as a beginning prologue, with King’s tale beginning with our sociopath arriving back at the hotel, receiving the ill-fated package from the desk clerk), but plays most of its running time, like the story, as an absurdist siege on our killer… with both concluding on the same darkly amusing explosive twist.
With the human characters rendered through Ralph Bakshi-like rotoscope, while the helicopters and soldiers are hand-drawn and much more ‘cartoony’, “Srazhenie” is a nicely creative, if also clearly low budget, alternate take on a King adaptation, and was a nice change of pace for the evening. Regarding King’s “Battleground” story, there was a short-lived – it only lasted half a season before being cancelled — 1981 anthology show, “Darkroom”, with James Coburn as the Rod Serling-like host that I distinctly remember from my one time seeing it during its original brief television run included a segment with toy soldiers attacking a returning Vietnam Vet, but I looked it up and discovered it wasn’t explicitly from the King story, so it didn’t make the night’s list. In a coincidental twist, the one misguided beat to “Srazhenie” is a clumsy attempt near the conclusion at making an overt thematic connection between what happens to our hitman and his suddenly introduced past as a soldier during the Vietnam war (a connection not made at all in King’s story). It’s wobbly, with sudden flash images presented that feel like the efforts of a young idealist not yet mature enough to artistically handle what he’s attempting.
While the original film was shot in English, the only youtube copy I could find had a female voice drowning the original language out with translation into Russian. Fortunately, there’s little dialogue – and what there is quite obvious – so it’s not particularly distracting.
Finishing out this last look back at King in the 80’s brought us (well, me anyway) fittingly back to Romero-land for another episode from Tales from the Darkside, this time with an episode titled “Sorry, Right Number”, from the final season… and, while I admittedly haven’t seen a ton of this show (other than some key episodes, including Tom Savini’s brilliantly executed first season mic-drop effort “Inside the Closet”, showcasing the master effects man’s fairly iconic “Lizzie” baby monster creation as well as lots of wonderfully clever and inspired camerawork), if this segment is any indication — with its limited settings, overriding feeling of a pared-down, quick shoot inhibiting much in the way of inspired execution, and relatively unknown working actors — man, the budgets were growing sparse there at the end. Poor John Harrison (directing under the name John Sutherland, likely I’d guess for union reasons), another of Romero’s crew, starting as assistant director and composer (now that’s a combo!) didn’t get much room (at all) to flex much creative muscle with this early opportunity (he’d have to wait just a few years for the horror triptych 1990’s Tales from the Darkside: The Movie, based on the series naturally, where he managed to reveal some nicely inspired directing choices).
Sorry, Right Number
Still, “Sorry, Right Number”, the only entry of the night not an adaptation of a King story, but an original teleplay by the author himself, is far from a bust. It does muster up some intrigue in its tale about a middle aged wife haunted by the desperate phone call she received on the night of the sudden untimely death of her successful horror author husband (yep, there King goes with that again), convinced she recognized the voice before it got cut-off, with the panicked female caller unable to tell her what she was trying to say. While the least of the entries in the block, with its final time-bending twist perhaps registering a bit arbitrary, it still manages to muster up just enough genuine pathos to make it a satisfying conclusion to a night of really good King viewing.