King On Screen (2022)

AUGUST 9, 2023


I think it's safe to say that there isn't a horror movie fan alive who has never seen a Stephen King adaptation. Every few years there's a new must-see film, so even if you're a teen fan reading this you've probably seen at least one half of Muschietti's It or the new Pet Sematary, and I doubt there's a major genre enthusiast over 30 who hasn't seen The Shining. And if you have ever watched TNT on your cable package, you've seen Shawshank Redemption - it's just a cold hard fact. On The Kingcast, the guests always share their origin stories, and you hear some variation of "I saw the movie young because my parent loved the book and took me to see it" over and over - he's just inescapable in that way. Nearly all of our great horror masters: Carpenter, Cronenberg, Romero, Hooper, etc. all took at least one crack at one of his stories, like a rite of passage of sorts. King on Screen is basically a celebration of that fact, offering 100 minutes of anecdotes and analysis from those folks who helped introduce him into our permanent conscious.

Well, not them, specifically - Hooper and Romero have passed away; Carpenter and Cronenberg presumably couldn't be reached or simply said no if they were. But there are two dozen or so other filmmakers who are on board to discuss their films and those of their colleagues, from the obvious choices like Frank Darabont, Mike Flanagan, and Mick Garris, to some deeper cuts like Scott Hicks (Hearts in Atlantis) and Jeff Beesley (Dolan's Cadillac). It's that range that kind of proves the point on its own, without even having to watch the film. I mean, what else could connect an Oscar winner like Taylor Hackford to B-movie extraordinaire Mark L. Lester? As someone (Darabont, if memory serves) points out near the end of the film, King's gone from being someone who infused his work with pop culture to BEING that pop culture himself, to the extent that his work is a shorthand for parody and homage across a variety of genres. A montage of visual references to Tim Robbins' hands to the sky moment in Shawshank depicts everything from other genre movies to kids' cartoons, and it's kind of beautiful to see.

It's a great moment in a documentary that has quite a few, but what it lacks is cohesion. After a clever but too long opening that packs in as many references as it can during a short scene of a woman traveling to deliver a painting (Cujo walks past as she enters a store that advertises "strawberry pies that make you thinner", etc), the film is just an endless series of talking heads from the filmmakers (no actors, no other writers, no historians - just white male directors, more on that soon) talking about King's impact in their careers and movies as a whole. And that's fine, but there's no rhythm to any of it; filmmaker Daphné Baiwir just bounces around at will, without going in any particular order in terms of the films' releases (or that of their namesake novels, either) and little to no natural bridge from one topic to the next.

And the topic is usually just a particular film, rather than grouping them by theme (like, "The ones about writers" or "The TV adaptations" or whatever). There's some biographical info on King early on, and his accident is covered with some detail around the halfway point, but other than that it's just a film coming up and a few people talking about it, sometimes going on tangents that have nothing to do with King specifically. At one point it feels like you're just watching a documentary about The Green Mile, as you get anecdotes about some dummy bodies not looking right and needing to be reshot, Tom Hanks sticking around to read his lines off camera for the other actors, etc. Fine stories on their own (Darabont is one of those guys who can make any story fun to listen to), but what does that have to do with the world of King adaptations, outside of the fact that it merely IS one of them? You got Darabont, why not spend some time talking about the movies that never got made, such as his take on Long Walk (I bring that one up because another attempt, this time from André Øvredal, apparently just fell apart), instead of how he came to cast Michael Clarke Duncan? It's just very scattershot like that throughout.

And as mentioned, it's all just white guys talking. To be fair, there's a slim group of NON white guy options if they were limiting themselves to just the people who directed his books (as opposed to actors or producers), and Baiwir said at a Q&A that they were turned down by those rare exceptions like Mary Lambert and Kimberly Pierce, but one of the few times the movie ever has a specific topic is how well King writes women (including a very funny anecdote from Hackford where a film professor looked at his unisex name "Taylor" and assumed it was a woman, saying Dolores Claiborne worked as well as it did because Hackford could bring a woman's perspective to the material), and it's a little weird to see it play out without a single, you know, woman. All these dudes saying that King delivers on that front, none of them actually able to confirm it as one themselves. Maybe they all asked their wives or sisters to check.

It also sometimes dwells a little longer on lesser material simply because the director was there. Like it was nice of Tod Williams to give his time, but as Cell rightfully ranks as one of the worst theatrically released King adaptations in history (a few of the Children of the Corn sequels actually have higher Rotten Tomatoes averages), maybe we don't need to hear about it more than, say, Stand By Me or Christine. It's also odd how, given the topic of "King + Movies", it skips over Maximum Overdrive (his lone directorial effort) and mostly brushes past Sleepwalkers (his first original script for a movie), especially the latter considering Garris is there. And Castle Rock, a show that exists because of the incredible world he had created, where characters could come in and out of the story like a kid smashing all his action figures together, is also largely MIA, despite basically proving the doc's point that his characters are what makes him so compelling as opposed to this or that scary scene.

It's funny; the end credits (set to "Pet Sematary") has a bunch of odds and ends from various interviews, but it's really not much more random than the bulk of the film itself. Again, the stories themselves are mostly fun to listen to, and I never found myself arguing with any major point they were making, but as a whole it felt like an overlong DVD bonus feature that might run five minutes, where the cast and crew of an adaptation gush about the original novel for a few minutes and that's it. With a little more structure and guest variety (why not talk to the writers, who had the unenviable job of whittling down his massive tomes?) it could be essential viewing - they certainly had enough talent involved to warrant the attention of any King scholar. But as is, it's mostly just something you can throw on in the background, chuckle at a few of the stories or observations, and then kind of forget about it. And it seems to me that King has earned a little more than that.

What say you?


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