Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Night at the Movies: The Horrors of Stephen King

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ended up watching bits and pieces of the Turner Classic Movies horror-film marathon for Hallowe’en, including a documentary narrated and written by Stephen King, whose observations on the history of horror in cinema frankly annoyed me and clarified why I don’t like that much of his work. He said he thought the original Frankenstein was weakened by the carefully wrought sympathy we were made to feel for the monster — I think that’s one of the strongest points of the film, and if King had ever bothered to read Mary Shelley’s novel he would find that the original creator of the story pushed the sympathy-for-the-monster bit even farther than James Whale, John L. Balderston and the other people involved in making the first (and by far the best) two Universal Frankenstein movies did. King said he like the Hammer Frankenstein films better than the Universal ones precisely because they made the monster an unmotivated instrument of destruction and didn’t bother to build sympathy for it — and they showed a clip from the first Hammer Frankenstein, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), in which, barred from using the original Jack Pierce monster makeup because Universal had copyrighted the design, they made up Christopher Lee as the monster to look like Marcel Marceau had been in a really bad accident.

I ran out of room on my blank DVD a few minutes before this ended — just in time to miss King’s admission that maybe building up a little sympathy for the monster wasn’t such a bad idea (I’d figured the show would come up a few minutes short of a full hour, but it didn’t) — and I was particularly interested in King’s depiction of the films based on his own work, of which he liked Carrie, Cujo (he said the star, Dee Wallace Stone from E.T., should have got an Oscar nomination!) and The Dead Zone, and hated The Shining — but then almost no writer who worked with Stanley Kubrick escaped unscathed (though Vladimir Nabokov’s and Terry Southern’s opinions of working with him remained unrecorded, Arthur C. Clarke and Frederick Raphaël, who wrote the script for Kubrick’s swan song Eyes Wide Shut, had even less affection for what Kubrick did to their material than King did). King explained that in The Shining he wanted the father character to be a rock of stability and the son to be the monster, but Kubrick and Jack Nicholson (who in the lead was really flashing back to his earliest days making cheap, tacky horror films for American International in the early 1960’s before Easy Rider made him a star) gave the part a flaring, over-the-top interpretation that made the father the monster — and King said that in the end of his book the hotel burned down, while at the end of the film it froze over, a metaphor for the way Kubrick took what he intended as a “warm” story and turned it “cold.”

Throughout the film King emphasized that he likes big, blatant horror sequences and interpretations over anything subtle (though he did have nice things to say about Val Lewton and in particular about the scene from Cat People in which Jane Randolph is menaced in the swimming pool by a monster we never see except as a shadow on the wall — made, director Jacques Tourneur later said, by his fist!) — it’s why he prefers Christopher Lee over Bela Lugosi as Dracula (he said Lugosi looked like a headwaiter in a tuxedo) — and he said the whole idea of a horror film is to give you that “aha!” moment when you’re scared out of your wits and you jump out of your seat. King also said that that’s one of the reason horror films don’t hold up on repeat viewings, and that people who do watch a horror film again and again do so to relive the memory of being scared the first time.

The full title of this production was A Night at the Movies: The Horrors of Stephen King, and it was worth watching once but interesting more for its insights into King’s own strategies as a writer than for anything interesting (or not so interesting) he had to say about the films; ironically, TCM was also showing an interview they did with Gloria Stuart about her experiences working with James Whale, particularly on the film The Invisible Man, in which she said far more about what made the early-1930’s Universal horror films (and horror films in general) great than King had in an entire hour — though I still found it amusing that a British-born director with a normally meticulous eye for detail made such a glaring goof as we see in the Iping pub scene of The Invisible Man: the pub has an American-style dartboard instead of the more elaborate British-style dartboard. (“Maybe James Whale had never even seen a dartboard!” Charles joked.) Incidentally, the Stephen King documentary has a mistake almost as glaring: he says Creature from the Black Lagoon was the first horror film in 3-D — and later on there’s a clip from House of Wax, made a year earlier (1953) and the actual first horror film in 3-D.