Monday, April 14, 2003

Dreamcatcher (movie, **) and thoughts on Stephen King

Warning: this review contains small spoilers for "The Stand" and "The Tommyknockers."

There's a problem I've had with Stephen King for many years, ever since I read "The Stand." Very few of his books have ever really worked for me.

What bugs me about The Stand is that the initial story is brilliant. There is a creeping disease that gradually kills 99% of the world population, leaving the survivors terrified and adrift in a world full of corpses. It's brilliantly written, and it can keep you up at nights. My favorite part is a single chapter where the story jumps from person to person, watching the disease get passed along and using descriptive language like "For a tip, he gave the waitress a dollar that was crawling with death."

But after the disease finishes taking its toll, what happens next? You get a group of people having dreams about this sweet old lady, and they gather at her house... and then there's an evil guy who turns out to be a demon or something. Eventually it turns into a ridiculous battle of good vs. evil, and you have something that started out as a very good and disturbingly realistic story, which turns into a comic book.

I also read "The Tommyknockers." Again, scary beginning, with some odd change coming over the people of one town, at first giving them some sort of telepathic powers, and gradually brainwashing them and causing them to turn on outsiders and others who don't get involved in the groupthink. But what turns out to be the cause? Aliens. The hero has to fight on a spaceship. It's silly.

And now we have "Dreamcatcher," which I have not read, but it follows the same pattern. It starts with characters who have an interesting power, and we have a backstory that causes us to care about them. Then we get them trapped in a small town where people are dying and they can't leave, and there's some terrifying wormy things that we get brief glimpses of. Seriously creepy. The first half of the movie is a perverse pleasure to people who enjoy horror movies done right.

But this movie also becomes a comic book, when we get the cliche giant faceless alien and the insane military commander. Ginny and I discussed the movie afterwards and tried to pin down at what point the movie "jumped the shark." We decided it happened the first time the redheaded guy started talking like John Cleese. Sorry folks, somebody should have pointed out to the director that John Cleese is not scary. After that it was, once again, not a horror movie but a comic book.

I have a new theory.

Stephen King really knows how to write good horror. I mean, he is the best known horror writer in America; that has to count for something, right? And I've seen it. I've been wrapped up in his books before. I know the man can write.

I think that King's greatest talent is coming up with a scary scenario. He probably gets an idea in his head, and he thinks "Wow, now that would be seriously creepy." And then he writes a book around that.

But at some point, more often than not, he gets stuck. He has already accomplished the scene that he had in his head, and he doesn't know what to do next. So he starts writing a completely different story. He says "Aw hell, lets just throw some demons and aliens in there." Once he loses the original thread, it shows. But he can't just abandon the book, so he writes the new book, which didn't begin with a great idea. So the endgame of his original story is a mess.

There are a few exceptions to this rule. Misery remains my all-time favorite Stephen King book. King is 100% true to his original high concept from beginning to end. He starts with a guy being held captive by a scary insane lady who wants to keep him. As the book goes on, the insane lady is revealed to be even more insane than we thought. Most of the terror is psychological, seen through the eyes of the main character. No supernatural element is ever introduced. And his victory in the end is over the same scary lady that was imprisoning him through the entire book. It was a satisfying ending.

Ginny tells me that Cujo was similar, although I haven't read it.

One more book that I think represents King at his best is called "Eyes of the Dragon". This isn't even a horror novel. It's more like a fairy tale for young adults. It has scary parts in it, but it's really about telling a story. It has supernatural elements like magic in it, but the magical theme is established from the beginning, so King never violates the spirit of the story that he originally set out to tell.

At first I thought that King is good at writing psychology and bad at writing about magic, but I've come to realize that he's pretty good at both... as long as he sticks to one or the other.

Score: ** out of 5.

1 comment:

  1. khalou3:55 PM

    Read "Desperation". I think it beats them all.

    ReplyDelete