It: Chapter Two *** 2019

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Even after a summer of diminishing returns, It: Chapter Two’s box-office take for the opening week was some $40 million less that the first film, a result that reflects that most of the best bits of the Stephen King novel had already been used up. Having separated the children and adult versions of the Losers club, the It movies did a great job of conjuring up the golden version of childhood, and a non-existent job of evoking the autumnal feel of the book’s adult section. Flashbacks to the kids menaced by Pennywise the dancing, child-eating, gay-baiting clown create nostalgia, but don’t move the narrative forward, and instead feel like inessential deleted scenes from the first film, diverting Andy Muschietti’s sequel from its purpose. Other less-than-vital add-ons include cameos from master of horror Stephen King and, erm, Peter Bogdanovich, while many of the weaker scenes from King’s novel are transferred verbatim. A running gag about books with bad endings sets up a different finish from King’s original, and while this is better than the giant spider featured in the tv show, it’s not great either. All this said, even with a drop-off in quality, It; Chapter 2 is a more than watchable horror film, with some effective scares and just enough momentum to carry it over the finish line despite bland work from the leads. Only Bill Hader really finds a groove as the older version of Eddie; his self-loathing adds a dimension of horror that Pennywise, reduced here to a Freddy Kruger punchline-artist, struggles to find in the final instalment.

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The Dark Half 1993 ****

Stephen King’s writing is so cinematic, it’s frustrating how easily film-makers are seduced into altering his words, structures, characters and themes. George A Romero was a friend of the author, and his adaptation of King’s The Dark Half is an underrated horror film that’s got both a pulp fiction sensibility but also a playful literary intelligence. Timothy Hutton is developing into a real horror icon post Haunting of Hill House; here he delivers two memorable performances as writer Thad Beaumont and someone claiming to be his pseudonym George Stark. The word pseudonym is tentatively used here, since a big part of The Dark Half’s appeal is working out who or exactly what George Stark is; lawman Alan Pangborn (Michael Rooker) is as baffled as everyone else as he tries to solve the murders the plague Beaumont and his wife Liz (Amy Madigan). Beaumont does not know that as a child, the foetal remains of an undeveloped twin were removed from his brain; how this might have led to an evil twin figure isn’t fully explained, but the suggestion of Beaumont’s colleague Reggie (Julie Harris) is that Beaumont has somehow willed this Dionysian figure into life. There isn’t room for the two of them on this earth, and the gatherings of sparrows that appear in the Maine skies, specifically in the Castle Rock area, suggest that the devil is ready to drag one of them to hell. The Dark Half was reportedly King’s last work before he sobered up, and it’s easy to see why he’s get on the wagon. There’s a dangerous, self-destructive theme here about a writer too willing to delve into the deepest, darkest areas of his psyche; in King’s book, fictional protagonist Alexis Machine’s rampages set the violent, nihilistic tone. Romero gets it, and fashions a perceptive look at the dualism inherent in the male psyche, with Hutton doing an incredible job to evoke both men, and Romero not afraid to make the horror scenes genuinely horrific. Various financial reasons stopped The Dark Half from reaching an audience, but it’s one of Romero and King’s best. It also bears remarkable resemblances to Bret Easton Ellis’s novel Luner Park, which doubles down on the roman a clef notion of an author plagued by his own creation. The Dark Half fuses elements of Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll myths and comes up with something dark and disturbing; hopefully the current (2019) vibe for all things King will attract the audience it deserves on streaming.

The Dark Tower 2017 ***

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You don’t have to be a racist to think that Idris Elba would be an awful James Bond; it’s pretty much only people who haven’t seen him in much since The Wire 15 years ago that genuinely believe this. If anything it would be helpful to have large-scale public screenings of his unexceptional performances in films like Bastille Day, Molly’s Game or The Dark Tower to remind audiences that he’s not only too old for a reboot, but just doesn’t have the chops for the big screen. Daniel Kaluuya would be a better fit for the role of Bond, and it’s embarrassing to hear Elba trotting out this same sad story every time he’s got something to promote. In The Dark Tower, a misbegotten Stephen King adaptation, Elba’s lumpen performance as gunslinger Roland Deschain is buried amongst a slew of chaotic elements; a massive novel reduced to 95 paltry minutes, a PG -13 certificate, the focus switched from Deschain to an 11 year old boy Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) who discovers a parallel universe behind NYC exteriors, constant references to other texts in the King multiverse that go for nothing. Producer Ron Howard has noted that The Dark Tower should have been a tv show rather than a film, and he’s right; what tips Nicolaj Arcel’s adaption into unfortunate legend is the truly awful performance of Matthew McConaughey as Walter Padick, supposedly the embodiment of evil but plays with such misguided elan that his every appearance provokes mirth. The Dark Tower is a good/bad classic, an unwieldy adventure that never lands a coherent idea, making fools of the high-priced talents involved.

Stranger Things 1-3 2016-2019 ****

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The brightest jewel in the Netflix crown is the Duffer Brothers riff on the kids sci-fi genre that apes Stephen King and various 80’s horror fads; with the latest series (3) taking place largely at a 4th of July carnival, Stranger Things is a cross-generational funhouse that, according to Netflix’s hall-of-mirrors figures, every sentient member of every household in the western world watched several times each within seconds of being put online. Stranger Things somehow found a sweet spot by fusing elements of King’s Firestarter (a girl on the run from authorities with telekinesis), plus the small-town kiddie-gang adventurers from It, then throws in the gelid alien attack from The Tommyknockers to boot. The big-draw name above the title name was Winona Ryder, although the series success has made pretty much everyone in the well-assembled cast a household name; Millie Bobbie Brown makes a big impression as Eleven, David Harbor exudes a gruff chemistry as police chief Jim Hopper, and the kids are great, with a smattering of 80’s names (Sean Aston, Paul Reiser, Matthew Modine, Cary Elwes) to keep older viewers engaged. As well as nailing the key font for the titles and the cod Tangerine Dream score, the key to the formula, kids and adults joining forces to fight to creatures leaking through government experiment portals, is that Stranger Things presents a warmly aspirational world, more focused on the likable characters than on the monsters. If the second series was too similar to the first, the third manages to balance up the gender issues and freshen up the team to good effect; Netflix need a dozen series that command loyalty like this to survive the streaming wars, so it’s likely that various expanded-universe incarnations of Stranger Things will be around long after the original lightning-in-a bottle cast have moved on.

https://www.netflix.com/watch/80057281?source=35

Pet Sematary 2019 ***

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Nostalgia isn’t always what it used to be; one of Stephen King’s best books made for a pretty average film in 1989, and this 2019 revision actually improves on the original without ever approaching the heights of the text. Jason Clarke brings his signature intensity to Louis Creed, a doctor who moves with his wife and children to idyllic Maine, only to find that there’s a highway at the bottom of the garden where heavy trucks pass by. This scenario is laced with dread; no matter how hard Creed has worked, no matter how stable the relationships his life is built upon, death, sudden and decisive, lies only a few baby steps away from his house, and nothing he can do will avert it. Of course, when tragedy strikes, there’s an ancient burial ground around which offers him a chance at apparent salvation, but only delivers a brief respite before something cruel comes down the pike. Pet Sematary’s narrative body-swerves the climax or the original book and film, apparently with King’s blessing, and puts something more cinematic in it’s place. John Lithgow plays a more grounded version of Fred Gwynne’s old codger who knows all the secrets, and plot-holes aside, Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmeyer’s film manages to deliver the nasty thrills that the dark story demands.

It 2017 ****

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While the original tv miniseries of It has plenty of commend it, not least Tim Curry’s fabulous turn as Pennywise the clown, this 2017 remake manages to resolve lots of underlying issues, not least the dreadful special effects in the second part. A group of kids including a tormented by an evil spirit that is haunting and kidnapping the children of Derry, Maine, and Pennywise the dancing clown is the character who haunts their dreams. Andy Muschietti’s horror-thriller is a real Rolls –Royce production, with brilliantly cast kids, a superb script from True Detective’s Cary Joji Fukunaga, and Stephen King’s original story given space to breathe; the past and present narratives are no longer juxtaposed, and with the adult story left to 2019’s sequel, this doubling-down on the quality of King’s work makes it one of the best adaptations of his work to date, and one of the most faithful to boot. Whether the magic will carry over to the sequel, without the kids, is a moot point, but this is a great horror film anyway.

Burnt Offerings 1976 ***

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Dan Curtis’s horror film has become something of a seminal work, influencing Stephen King’s various descriptions of houses as killers, or as King deems it in his excellent book Dance Macabre, ‘the bad place’. Adapted from Robert Masasco’s novel, Burnt Offerings sees couple Marian and Ben (Karen Black and Oliver Reed) moving into a remote summer-house which seems to have a mind of its own. Bette Davis is on hand as Aunt Elizabeth to add warnings about the crushing weight of the past, with Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart on hand. Not a haunted house movie, Burnt Offerings offers something fresh in a direct physical conflict between an inanimate object and humans. Much like Black’s battle with the Zuni doll in Trilogy of Terror, these practical threats have more impact than any amount of spiritual mumbo-jumbo.