Flanagan and Garris Chat

In case you missed it…

Mike Flanagan was the guest on last week’s (#68) episode of Mick Garris’s podcast Post Mortem. The two directors renowned for their respective adaptations of Stephen King works discussed the recently-released Doctor Sleep, the 1997 TV miniseries version of The Shining, the Kubrick film, as well as the source novels. This hour-long interview is a terrific listen, brimming with interesting details. Some of the highlights:

  • Flanagan discusses his plan for navigating the Room 237 vs. Room 237 conundrum, and the reason he made his final choice as to what to put on the hotel room door in the film.
  • Flanagan reveals the aspects of King’s novel that so “desperately” made him want to direct a film version of Doctor Sleep.
  • Garris explains why King nearly pulled the plug on the miniseries just before shooting was set to begin.
  • Flanagan cites his favorite scene from the finished film version of Doctor Sleep–a scene, he says, that convinced King that returning to the Overlook (still standing at the end of the Kubrick film) was a good idea.
  • The directors discuss the salient differences between the novels The Shining and Doctor Sleep, and consider both books in the context of King’s biography.
  • Flangan identifies the specific scene from King’s The Shining that he has been “honoring” throughout his filmmaking career.

 

Extra Helping of Horror

Yes, it’s three decades late to the dinner party, but tonight’s episode of The Simpsons finally provides a Thanksgiving-themed follow-up to the show’s annual “Treehouse of Horror” edition. Naturally, good taste isn’t on the menu, but “Thanksgiving of Horror” still is a televisual dish to savor.

The episode riffs nicely on the “Treehouse” tradition, as Marge steps on stage for one of her preliminary p.s.a.’s. There’s also the obligatory Kang and Kodos cameo; here the aliens appear costumed in pilgrim garb that has nothing to do with holiday spirit (“Is this not how oppressive colonizers dress?” they are curious to learn).

With countless turkey decapitations throughout, and a climactic mauling of Wiggum by a bear, the opening segment “A-Gobble-Ypto” arguably features enough graphic violence to fill a baker’s-dozen-worth of “Treehouse” episodes. The segment is also absolutely hilarious, as turkey versions of The Simpsons cast speak in gobbledygook that still contains discernible echoes of the characters’ famous catch phrases and ejaculations (e.g. Turkey Homer’s “Woo-Hoo!” upon witnessing the slaughter of the Patty and Selma birds).

The Black Mirror-reflecting middle piece, “The Fourth Thursday After Tomorrow,” deals with an A.I. version of Marge that is a whiz in the kitchen. I have never been a big fan of the “Treehouse” segments that take A.I. as their subject, and this “Thanksgiving” equivalent similarly underwhelmed me. Not that it isn’t witty (e.g. Moe’s grouse that his “burps taste like lies” after finding out it was an A.I., not the flesh-and-blood Marge, that prepared the holiday banquet); there’s just not much here that really qualifies as horror.

Thankfully, there’s some sci-fi horror to relish in the closing segment, “The Last Thanksgiving.” Referencing classic films like Alien and The Blob, the segment presents a cylinder of cranberry sauce turned into a sentient, metastasizing, predatory Jelly Monster. There are terrific sight gags (many involving Milhouse’s floppy arm) stemming from the Monster’s sucking of victims’ bones right out of their bodies, not to mention some grotesquely humorous lines: “Doesn’t the thing know that the skin’s the best part?” an incredulous Bart expresses as piles of spurned epidermis are left sloughed on the floor of the spaceship.

Rather than rehash Halloween leftovers, this November-centric episode finds plenty of fresh fare to offer up (right down to the altered-names bit in the closing credits). It’s doubtful that “Thanksgiving of Horror” will become an annual tradition like its “Treehouse” precursor, but with this single serving The Simpsons has crafted a classic feast of satiric terror.

 

1984: It Was a So-So Year

Some final thoughts on the latest season of American Horror Story, which concluded last night with Episode 9.9 “Final Girl”…

Overall, AHS gave a strong showing in its hearkening back three decades. It invoked, and poked some loving fun at, 80’s aesthetics (shorty shorts, porn star ‘staches, mercilessly teased hair) and trends (most of all, the aerobics craze), without getting too distracting or giving the sense that the show was targeting clay pigeons. There were some memorable performances–John Carroll Lynch displayed terrific range as the not-mere-Mr.-Jingles Benjamin Richter, and I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed Dylan McDermott more than for his work here as Bruce, the sleazy psycho aspiring to serial killer stardom.

The first half of the season was particularly entertaining. These early episodes continuously hooked the viewer via the unities of time and place. A slew of events transpired over the course of a single, blood-soaked night at Camp Redwood in the summer of ’84, and the writing positively brimmed with wild plot twists and character reversals. In these episodes, AHS seemed to revel in the recreation of 80’s slasher horror.

Sustainability, though, is perennially the big problem for this show, and, alas, this season proved no exception. The action derailed at midseason with the jump ahead in time period that made “1984” something of a misnomer. My biggest issue was with the return of murdered characters as instant spirits haunting the campgrounds. I wasn’t a big fan of this dynamic back in season one (“Murder House”), and even less so here. In defiance of logic and genre convention, these so-called ghosts are tangible, indistinguishable from flesh-and-blood people, and quite adept at dispatching the living with handheld weapons. Because of such contrivance, the show dispenses carnage without consequence, and victims’ deaths prove about as emotionally impactful as the demise of video game characters.

The ghosts’ never-ending slaughter of the Satanically-resurrected Richard Ramirez did furnish some wicked good moments of graphic violence, like a grindhouse version of Groundhog Day. For sure, gore is gloriously splashed across the screen in the season finale (including the most gruesome use of a wood chipper since Fargo). But the build toward a seemingly bloody climax at the Halloween 1989 concert turned out to be a misdirection rather than a massacre (I was disappointed, too, that the much-referenced Billy Idol never showed up at Camp Redwood, either in cameo appearance or via actor impersonation). Also, despite the title of the last episode (and some self-conscious commentary by the female leads), 1984 ultimately doesn’t present any revolutionary development of the concept of the final girl. Finally, the concluding scene, with Mike and the Mechanics’ “The Living Years” playing with no hint of subtlety in the background, made for a terribly sappy happy ending; the sentiment was as saccharine as a six-pack of Slice.

AHS: 1984 started off with a clever reworking of slasher elements, but in the end, serial killers and deadly, repeatedly-returning ghosts made for a sloppy mix.

 

The Number of the Treehouse

Perhaps serendipitously, Treehouse of Horror XXX is also the 666th overall episode of The Simpsons. The writers of the show’s annual Halloween episode appear well aware of this fact, as evident from an Omenreferencing intro (with some head-spinning nods to The Exorcist thrown in as well). This excellent opening almost feels as if it’s stocked with 666 gags, which are delivered at a furious pace (when first watching the preview of this section that was released online a few days ago, I missed the devilishly clever title of the book Marge holds: What to Expect When You’re Expecting the Antichrist). The section also features a terrific transition to the episode’s title card, after Ned, Marge, and Homer are impaled by church spires.

“Danger Things,” the first of the episode’s trademark three story segments, spoofs everyone’s favorite heavy-on-the-80’s-nostalgia sci-fi/horror Netflix series. And since Stranger Things is committed to alluding to Stephen King, it’s only appropriate that this Treehouse piece works in a images and dialogue from The Shining. The runaway popularity of the Netflix series makes it a perfect choice for parodying, but I was slightly disappointed that The Simpsons didn’t do more here with the source material (my favorite bit: flying monsters delivering Amazon packages in the “Over-Under”).

Judging by its title and main filmic reference (Heaven Can Wait), I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the second segment, “Heaven Swipes Right.” But I actually found myself pleasantly surprised, as the segment features plenty of macabre imagery (e.g. pictures of Homer’s bloated body, which has been rolled into a lake by paramedics who couldn’t manage to lift his corpulent corpse) and wicked humor (the reincarnated Homer’s deadly-sinful lifestyle quickly reduces a series of borrowed bodies to ruined temples).

The closing segment, “When Hairy Met Slimy,” bookends with the intro as the highlights of this holiday special. A spot-on spoof of The Shape of Water, the segment casts Kang and Selma as the romantic leads (when the former introduces himself as “Kang the Conqueror,” the latter pricelessly retorts, “I am Selma the Available”). It was nice to see that the well still hasn’t run dry when it comes to invoking Kang (and Kodos) into the Treehouse episodes. The writers also prove adept as ever at slipping in some witty innuendo (the lines about “Deep Space Nine” and “Jabba the Butt” hint at another “XXX” element to the episode’s proceedings).

For an unbelievable three decades now, Treehouse of Horror has formed a staple of the Halloween season. Judging from the 30th installment, the mark the episode makes on October TV viewing is as dark and glorious as ever.

 

Luminary Lanterns

Two days ago, William Bibbiani posted an interesting article over at Bloody Disgusting: “11 Unforgettable Jack O’Lanterns in Movies!”. This annotated compilation highlights some “classic carved pumpkins in your favorite movies and theatrical releases.” Most of the examples that immediately came to my mind were represented here, but the piece also got me to thinking about other eminent pumpkins that would be worthy additions to Bibbiani’s listing. So let’s make it a baker’s dozen: here’s a winning pair of jacks from two more Halloween-related features.

 

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Tim Burton establishes a gloomy October atmosphere right from the opening scene of this Irving-reworking film, with the shot of a looming scarecrow. The wickedly grinning face carved onto the cornfield sentinel (which ends up blood-spatted by Peter Van Garrett’s beheading) also presages the dark humor and lurid horror in store for audiences.

This scarecrow alone leads me to nominate the film, but Sleepy Hollow also includes another excellent jack-o’lantern: the flaming pumpkin hurled at Ichabod during Brom’s prank. The airborne gourd speeding toward the screen here forms the most realistic depiction of the iconic climax of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” that I have ever seen.

 

Monsters vs. Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins from Outer Space (2009)

Technically, this is a bit of a fudge: it features the cast from the animated film Monsters vs. Aliens, but was actually a segment from the Dreamworks Spooky Stories Halloween special that was broadcast on NBC in 2009. Nevertheless, the titular alien critters (created by the contamination of a pumpkin patch by a flying saucer’s sewage) are wonderful to behold. With their jibber-jabbering and commitment to hijinks, they’re like a horde of autumnal Minions.

The true visual treat, though, is served up when the mutant pumpkins amalgamate into a lumbering Halloween colossus. Like a kaiju composed of radioactive jack-o’-lanterns, this creature makes for one awesome October bogey. I know I have never forgotten it after first catching glimpse of its incredible look a decade ago.

 

Camino Royale

Can I get a “Yeah, bitch!”?

El Camino, the feature-length sequel (now streaming on Netflix) to the Breaking Bad series, had a lofty standard to live up to, but thankfully manages to do just that. The film steers viewers right back into the seedy world of Albuquerque, whose sun-drenched streets have been the setting for some extremely dark doings over the years.

In a strict sense, the film picks up where the series finale left off–with Jesse’s escape (courtesy of Walter White) from enslavement by Uncle Jack’s outlaw gang. The title El Camino actually refers to the getaway car, formerly owned by Todd, that Jesse (the sensational-as-always Aaron Paul) drives as he speeds away from the carnage at the compound. He isn’t able simply to ride off into the sunset, though (otherwise there would be no need for this follow-up); much of the narrative thrust here comes from Jesse’s labors to avoid a prompt re-capturing by the local authorities now hunting him.

Yet mimicking the workings of Breaking Bad, the film does not unspool its story in a merely linear fashion. There are a series of flashbacks employed, which also gives director Vince Gilligan the opportunity to bring back a host of characters from the TV series (some of whom were killed off along the way) in new, never-before-glimpsed scenes. These revisits with old friends and enemies are skillfully done, filled with poignant moments and smoothly sequeing into earlier points on the BB timeline. The one exception I would note involves psycho Todd (played by Jesse Plemons), who appears inexplicably and conspicuously chunky in his flashback scenes (seriously, dude, you couldn’t have dieted for this role?).

Perhaps the greatest gain from the back-and-forth cutting of the film’s narrative is the light shed on Jesse’s character. Even though he is no longer locked in a cage like a filthy animal, Jesse isn’t necessarily free. El Camino does a fine job of demonstrating the psychological trauma that lingers after the physical ordeal has ended. The presentation of additional scenes from the former captivity narrative chillingly evokes the torture and torment Jesse was forced to suffer, and his present-day recall of such Gothic experiences clearly reveal a haunted figure.

There is undeniable darkness here, but again in keeping with the precursor series, also terrific instances of humor. The hysterical banter between Badger and Skinny Pete alone makes this film a must-see for fans. At the same time, El Camino features a fine shading of crime noir, especially as Jesse crosses paths with some dangerous con men after the late Todd’s stash of illicitly-gained cash.

With a two-hour drive time, El Camino can’t adopt the same deliberate storytelling approach of Breaking Bad, but the pacing of the film nonetheless feels pitch-perfect. Scenes of frantic action and sweat-wringing suspense are balanced with quieter, more tender moments. While the film doesn’t quite achieve the same gravitas as the series, it does make for a quite satisfying sequel. Jesse Pinkman (basically a good kid who found himself partnered with a bad man) has always been the show’s closest thing to a moral compass, and it is undoubtedly rewarding as a viewer to watch Jesse finally get the ending he deserves.

One final thought: the stories for two of the major characters from Breaking Bad (Walt and Jesse) are now complete, but there is still another loose thread remaining. Even as El Camino furnishes a strong sense of closure, it also spurs anticipation, and curiosity about the ultimate fate of everyone’s favorite shady lawyer (turned Cinnabon manager). The new season of Better Call Saul cannot come soon enough.

 

E.C. Writer: Nine More Stephen King Works That Would Make Great Creepshow Adaptations

Counting the films Creepshow and Creepshow 2, and the premiere episode of the new streaming series, there have been nine Stephen King pieces brought to the screen to date as pseudo-shudder-comics segments. What other King stories might be ripe for adaptation on future (assumably green-lit) seasons of Creepshow? Here are my nine ideal candidates, chosen from works that have yet to be adapted elsewhere (as anything more than a dollar-baby):

 

1. “The Reaper’s Image” (1969)

Some brilliantly dark atmosphere could be recreated by drawing on this early story, set in the “Samuel Claggert Memorial Private Museum” and centering on a reputedly haunted looking-glass stored with other Gothic bric-a-brac in a gable room. Also, the inevitable appearance of the Reaper in the mirror would allow for the practical-effecting of a particularly Creep-y ghoul.

 

2. “The Blue-Air Compressor” (1971)

King’s modern-day conte cruel (whose story idea developed from the author’s reading of E.C. Comics) concerning a vengeful fledgling writer offers up some nasty violence and horrific imagery that would be right at home on Creepshow. Even better, King’s self-identifying intrusion into the narrative makes this potential adaptation the perfect opportunity for him to film his latest Creepshow cameo.

 

3. “Suffer the Little Children” (1972)

In his endnote to this story in Nightmares & Dreamscapes, King writes: “it feels a little bit like the Bradbury of the late forties and early fifties to me, the fiendish Bradbury who revelled in killer babies, renegade undertakers, and tales only a Crypt-Keeper could love. Put another way, ‘Suffer the Little Children’ is a ghastly sick joke with no redeeming social merit whatever. I like that in a story.” Enough said.

 

4. “Nona” (1978)

This story checks all the (f)right boxes: more rats than you can shake a stick at, a violent killing spree, a supernatural femme fatale, and a graveyard climax. The fact that “Nona” is set in a little town called Castle Rock would make this a timely adaptation (given the series of that title currently streaming on Hulu).

 

5. “Popsy” (1987)

Featuring a reprehensible lead character who receives his macabre comeuppance, this story seems tailor-made for Creepshow treatment. Throw in a terrific twist ending and some grisly concluding imagery, and you can’t help but wonder why the producers of the new series didn’t turn here first (rather than to “Gray Matter”) when searching for a King story to adapt.

 

6. “Sneakers” (1988)

Creepshow has never qualified for highbrow status, so a tale of a haunted toilet stall would hardly compromise its aesthetics (as the story’s protagonist notes, the very idea combines the “gruesome” and the “comic”). The graphic horrors filling “Sneakers” (nightmares of a “slumped mossy thing”; the eventual encounter with the ghost of a mutilated corpse) would certainly keep such an adaptation well-clear of the crapper.

 

7. “Mile 81” (2011)

This story (one of King’s professed favorites) has a happier ending than those typically adapted for Creepshow, but features an eerie setting (an abandoned rest area) and a series of spectacularly grotesque set pieces. The monster car driving this narrative makes Christine seem like a kid’s toy.

 

8. “The Little Green God of Agony” (2011)

A Gothic shocker (in which a less-than-admirable viewpoint character is forced to learn the errors of her ways) that seems another perfect fit for the Creepshow mold. I can imagine the series’ fx specialists taking wicked delight in designing the story’s eponymous abomination (a slimy, pulsing, sentient sac of pulp).

 

9. “Bad Little Kid” (2015)

The ongoing trials of a hapless protagonist mark this darkly humorous tale as ready-made for adaptation. No doubt there’s an underlying malevolence to the antics of the potty-mouthed problem child of the title. This demon seed wearing a beanie hat with a propeller on top is every adult’s worst nightmare.

 

In Anticipation of IT

In my previous post, I grumbled about the new Creepshow series’ intrusive allusions to other Stephen King works in its adaptation of “Gray Matter.” Arguably the most prominent call back is to the book and film versions of IT. Reference is made to cataclysmic events in 1958, and the character Timmy shows up wearing a bright yellow raincoat just like the one recently popularized by Georgie Denbrough. Ironically, though, what at first seems the most facile reference to the epic narrative is anything but, and actually turns out to be drawn directly from King’s short story.

In the story, the narrator shares an anecdote about “a fella named George Kelso, who worked for the Bangor Public Works Department.” The Constant Reader’s attention is instantly caught by the choice of first name, not to mention the town (Derry would become King’s fictionalized version of Bangor) and area of employment. George Kelso, we are told, abruptly quit his job after venturing into the sewer and experiencing something horrible: “Frankie Haldeman, who knew him, said George went down into a sewer pipe on Essex laughing and joking just like always and came up fifteen minutes later with his hair just as white as snow and his eyes staring like he just looked through a window into hell.” This sudden loss of hair color prefigures Henry Bowers’s new look after encountering Pennywise underground in the 1985 novel. Perhaps the most suggestive parallel forms when George Kelso in “Gray Matter” eventually reveals the source of his terrible fright: “Turned around on his stool, George did, an’ asked Frankie Haldeman if he’d ever seen a spider as big as a good-sized dog setting in a web of kitties an’ such all wrapped up in silk thread.” Following this mention of a monstrous spider that makes the sewer its lair, the narrator proclaims that “there’s things in the corners of the world that would drive a man insane to look ’em right in the face,” which also sounds like an apt description of It’s mind-blowing deadlights.

King was only a fledgling writer submitting stories to men’s magazines such as Cavalier in 1973, and I am not suggesting that he already had his magnus opus of twelve years hence already mapped out in his head when he wrote “Gray Matter.” But the details are certainly intriguing, and the imagery and scenario of subterranean terror appear to have simmered in the author’s imagination a long time before being served up in IT‘s full-fledged feast of fear.

 

Creep Calm and Carrion: A Review of Creepshow’s Series Premiere

The first episode of the new streaming-series edition of Creepshow immediately links back to the original movie: an animated bit shows the Crate (which in the film segment contained the carnivorous Fluffy) being pried open to reveal a heap of Creepshow comics. In his moldering look, the horror-hosting Creep (nicely realized here as a practical-effect puppet) also recalls the ghoul in the original film. I like the restraint shown by the show’s producers, who don’t make over the Creep into a chattering Crypt-Keeper type; he expresses himself mainly through growls and evil chuckles, with his mordant and alliterative wit being limited to shots of the comic book’s story intros. Such connective tissue forms a great part of Creepshow‘s aesthetic strength. The dissolves from comic panels to live action are wonderfully done, and I love the glimpses of interstitial pages of the issue featuring advertisements for iconic Monster Culture items like horror masks and (“Aorta” rather than Aurora) model kits.

It’s only apropos that the series opens with an adaptation of a Stephen King story–the Night Shift piece “Gray Matter.” In this segment, a grieving father’s descent into alcoholism takes a grim turn when the man consumes some mold-contaminated beer. Richie’s subsequent transformation is gruesomely gooey, an at-squalid-home mutation reminiscent of “The Lonely Death of Jordy Verrill” in the original film (perhaps not surprisingly, considering that both King stories are inspired by the weird tales of H.P. Lovecraft). The motivation of Richie’s son Timmy is radically altered from King’s 1973 text, yet this serves to justify the boy’s recitation of the backstory of his father’s drunken demise.

Great suspense builds as the heroic police Chief Connors (Tobin Bell) and the cowardly Doc (Giancarlo Esposito, likewise playing against [suave-and-sinister-Gus-Fring] type) warily investigate the dark, decrepit house in which Richie resides. The creature revealed in the climax is impressively monstrous, another testament to producer Greg Nicotero’s fx mastery. “Gray Matter” plays the horror razor-straight, which unfortunately makes the resort to more familiar Creepshow-style campiness in the segment’s conclusion (as the characters engage in hammy hysterics while pondering the apocalypse) tonally jarring.

Speaking of jarring, I thought the manifold allusions to other King works (CujoPet SemataryIt) unnecessarily distracting. Must every King adaptation these days include a basketful of Easter eggs? These knowing winks are fast growing trite and tiresome.

In the second segment, “The House of the Head” (scripted by Josh Malerman, adapting his own short story) a young girl named Evie (the adorable-as-ever Cailey Fleming from The Walking Dead) finds her dollhouse haunted by the bizarre intrusion of a decapitated, zombie-like noggin into the stagings of domestic bliss. The story unfolds in fantastically uncanny manner, as inanimate objects appear to rearrange themselves while no one is looking. Both eeriness and black humor abound in the increasingly-horrified reactions of the dollhouse family, and Evie’s concerned attempts to introduce figures of physical and spiritual protection into the scene lead to some terrifying tableaux.

“The House of the Head” is no doubt creepy, but in the end doesn’t really feel like a Creepshow tale. It starts with a killer premise but fails to pay off: there’s no explanation given for the mysterious head’s games, and the climax fizzles with an abrupt, and markedly undramatic, resolution. This had the potential to be a classic installment, but the story concludes not with a bang but a sigh-inducing whimper.

Still, don’t get skittish, kiddies. This premiere episode might have its peaks and (death) valleys, but there’s enough scary fun on display here that I can honestly say that the series promises to form an honorable hommage to the Creepshow films and E.C. horror comics alike.

Summer Slashin’

Based on the season premiere, American Horror Story: 1984 is a case of “Jump” rather than “I’ll Wait.”

I will admit, I first approached the new slasher-themed season with some trepidation. I questioned whether we really needed another bloody redux, a further rehearsal of a long-familiar formula. At this late date, aren’t we well past pastiche and postmodern self-consciousness alike? (Unbelievably, it’s almost a quarter-century now since the launch of the Scream franchise–a later installment of which AHS alum Emma Roberts also starred in.) So far, though, my concerns have been quelled.

The episode (“Camp Redwood”) cold-opens with a chilling scene: a summer camp massacre perpetrated by an ear-slicing psychopath. I thought the keychain-jangling “Mr. Jingles” angle was a tad lame (I hope it turns out to be more than a sonic calling card), but it was great to see John Carroll Lynch (ol’ Twisty himself) back playing another serial killer on the show.

From there, the episode jumps forward fourteen years but steps back and takes the time to establish its cast of characters and situation and setting (the seemingly idyllic summer camp makes for an iconic horror locale). It was nice to see Roberts playing against vixen-ish type this time around, and Billie Lourd (rocking the Lita Ford look) appears to revel in the role of an aerobics-obsessed bimbo. I liked how the episode invoked the ’84 summer Olympics in Los Angeles (something I was not expecting); there’s a terrific scene where the cast watches Olympians running to light the torch while Roberts runs for her life from a raincoated slasher outside the cabin.

A typical problem for American Horror Story in seasons past has been sustainability. Character motivations have tended to be rendered chaotically, and the narrative drive has taken some dizzying turns. The slasher theme, though, seems well-suited for a season-long arc. Thus far the identity of Mr. Jingles has been clearly revealed, but I don’t doubt that further twists are in store, and the mystery of a masked killer (or killers) could bring great focus to the show’s perennial mayhem.

As evident from the premiere episode, this season will feature plenty of references to classic slasher films (e.g. Halloween, Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Of course, too much of this could prove distracting, just as campy callbacks to 80’s styles and popular trends could grow tiresome after a time. But one episode in, Camp Redwood looks to be the perfect place for viewers to kick the post-summertime blues.