Pet Sematary (2019)
★★ / ★★★★
The second reimagining of Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary” is better than the first—but not by much. It is composed of the same mistakes that modern horror movies tend to make: a noticeable score designed to tell the audience what to think and how to feel, silly jump scares that can be predicted beat by beat, laughable instead of genuinely horrifying violence, and a rushed final act that offers minimal catharsis. The viewer is likely to walk away feeling cheated because of the generic nature of the experience.
I found the exposition to be safe but tolerable. Hoping to spend more time with their children, Louis (Jason Clarke) and Rachel (Amy Seimetz) decide to uproot their family and start anew in rural Maine, away from the hustle and bustle of Boston. In Ludlow, Louis will work in a clinic instead of a hospital while Rachel will stay home with the kids. But when the family cat, Church, dies in an accident, their friendly neighbor, Jud (John Lithgow), has an idea: to bury the cat in the woods where the land has a reputation of bringing the dead back to life. About a third of the way through, although the pacing is slow, each step is purposeful. There is a sense of foreboding. We even learn about Rachel’s relationship with death, particularly the guilt and trauma that linger in her regarding her sister’s passing.
However, once the typical horror elements begin to take over the plot, especially those normally found in slasher movies, the picture falls apart. One gets the impression that screenwriter Jeff Buhler has failed to find true inspiration and so he decides to utilize shortcuts as a substitute. The dead coming back to life should be a terrifying notion, especially if these beings are able to retain their memories and the ability to communicate. Already they are different from zombies who only wish to bite flesh and eat brains. Instead, there is more attention placed in the running around, the stabbings, and the struggles of getting to a weapon. It all just feels so tired and pointless.
There are watchable performances here by Clarke, Seimetz, and Lithgow. The actors who play husband and wife are believable in that the more recent changes in their lives are not easy for either of them. And yet they try to make it work. The widower, too, is a curious character. When he is finally invited for dinner, we feel his joy of being welcomed by the family, including the cat. However, the enthusiastic yet grounded performances still fail to save a screenplay lacking both strong vision and fresh execution. The entire work must be effective as a horror picture above all.
“Pet Sematary” is directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer in a most pedestrian fashion, especially when it comes to the scares. If anything, precisely because the work is both based on a book and a remake of an overrated would-be classic, every second should be dedicated to surpassing them. Instead, it appears to be content in delivering familiar tropes that lack imagination and tension. It feels like another cash grab.
Dark Tower, The (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
For a source material filled with incredible imagination by Stephen King, drawing inspiration from old-school fantasy to spaghetti western, “The Dark Tower,” directed by Nikolaj Arcel, is a crushing disappointment. Instead of taking risks and really going for the violence and the bizarre, it is diluted and made safe for the sake of mainstream consumption. What results is a marginally interesting story about a boy with the Shine, or psychic powers (an allusion to King’s “The Shining”), named Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) discovering another world through his dreams, but the execution lacks energy and long-term intrigue. The protagonists strive to save the universe from annihilation and yet we do not care whether they would make it to the next scene. The screenplay requires major revisions.
Stories of epic scales are defined by the antagonist. Here, it is the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), wielding powers so astounding that he is able to take someone’s life simply by willing it. And yet for a villain who possesses such ability, Walter is a bore. He walks around in his black clothes barely showing any emotion, but there is no air of mystery about him. We learn nothing about his past or background or anything he might value. We learn of his goal about wishing to destroy the titular tower and why, but this is not enough to create a compelling character worth looking into.
The same critique can be applied to one of the main protagonists, a Gunslinger, the last of his kind, named Roland Deschain (Idris Elba). Like McConaughey, Elba is a charming performer who can usually communicate paragraphs simply by looking or controlling his body language a certain way. We learn that Roland is great with guns and cares about the boy from Earth, but what else is there to him? Both antagonist and protagonist are given superficial characteristics, but they are hollow inside. Discerning viewers will note that the performances are wooden; the actors look bored in their roles.
Special and visual effects are occasionally impressive—but only when it is willing to show the griminess of Mid-World, how unforgiving it can become at a moment’s notice. This is why the attack in the village and the scene in the woods stand out. For a couple of minutes, we feel on our tiptoes the wonder and foreboding nature of the alternate universe. Literally, it is the stuff out of one’s dreams. By comparison, the battle between the Gunslinger and the Man in Black in the end is laughable, looking more like a video game in the early-2000s by the second. There is a lack of urgency to this would-be climactic sequence.
If there is going to be an unlikely sequel, and I do want one, the writers need to make a decision that is right for the material. Perhaps most importantly, the content on screen needs to match the level of imagination and the willingness to take risks emanating from King’s “Dark Tower” series. Establishing and building lore is just as important as constructing thrilling action sequences, if not more. Because in order for us to care about what is unfolding, we must understand the worlds, their rules, and the beings who reside in them. Only then could we get a glimpse of their motivations. I did, however, enjoy the casting of Taylor because he seems capable of delivering more than what is on paper.
It: Chapter One (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Superior horror pictures attempt to pummel their audience into submission, whether it be in terms of providing consistent, well-earned scares or delivering an inescapable sense of foreboding through carefully calibrated atmosphere. Rarer still are those that employ both. These approaches do wonders to the latest interpretation of Stephen King’s “It,” this time based on the screenplay by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman, as it provides the requisite chills to render the viewer wide-eyed from terror and yet remain most curious as to what might happen to the young spirited protagonists and whether they would find a way to rid of the evil that plagues their small town.
Credit to the casting by Rich Delia for finding seven performers (Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer, Chosen Jacobs, Wyatt Oleff) who not only fit the ‘80s milieu but also effortlessly embody how it is like to be an outcast. Here is one of the strongest cast in horror films in quite some time. Each person is able to carry his or her own when it comes to both gasp-inducing encounters with Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgård) and moments of dramatic gravity designed to highlight each young teenager’s backstory. To top it all off, every one of them conveys a specific personality and temperament. By the end of this chapter, we appreciate each individual character and we know why he or she is a critical piece of the Losers Club.
Notice how its scares command range. Inferior horror movies tend to rely on one trick—jump scares, for example—to get a reaction from us. On the other hand, observe how scenes unscrew and unfold in this particular work. It is patient, willing to take its time for tension to take root before getting to the punchline. And when it finally gets to the punchline… sometimes it goes on. We grow uneasy or are rendered off-balanced because lazy horror films that many of us have gotten accustomed to simply move onto the next scene once the scare is revealed. Certain images that stuck with me are those of Pennywise laying or standing still when his victim has found a way to escape. I admired how the camera manages to capture a personification of evil and how willing it is to show us one of its faces.
In horror pictures, I think it is so important to establish a sense of mythos, especially when the story involves a haunting in house or a small town. It is a way of engaging us and making us want to know more about a specific story with a specific setting, to care about what is going to happen next. Although the material does not drill too deeply in Derry’s questionable history, given that it is in fact the first half of the whole piece, it provides the necessary seeds for further exploration. Images shown in books and newspaper articles are appropriately strange and creepy. When the historian of the group sits in the town library to peruse old pages, I found myself wanting to join him and read up on what they are up against.
Teeming with effective nightmare imagery, “It: Chapter One,” directed by Andy Muschietti, provides an unsettling experience. It is so confident in supplying comedy right next to moments that may likely go horribly awry, vice-versa. The result is an exciting, thrilling, and unpredictable picture—one that has solid replay value. Here is a great example on how to make a mainstream horror film without the unnecessary and cheap flourishes that overrun disappointments within the genre. It understands that the genre requires a high level of craft.
★ / ★★★★
While driving home from a celebratory dinner, an overweight lawyer named Billy Halleck (Robert John Burke) ran over an old gypsy woman by accident. Enraged that the case was so apparently fixed that Billy was allowed to walk away as if nothing had happened, the old woman’s son (Michael Constantine) walks up to Billy, brushes his cheek, and whispers the word “thinner.” Soon, the three-hundred-pound attorney begins to lose weight at an accelerated weight: fourteen pounds in seven days then over forty pounds just after two weeks. Although Billy eats ten thousand to twelve thousand calories per day, there seems to be no stopping his sudden weight loss.
Based on the novel by Stephen King, “Thinner” has the potential to really hone in and comment on the moral decay of a person in the form of horrific happenings that surround him, but instead settles on telling a freak-of-the-week story which runs out of steam about halfway through its already short running time. Although the protagonist is well-acted by Burke, the screenplay is severely malnourished in dimension and depth that it really is not all that interesting to sit through let alone think about afterward.
Burke is convincing in playing a man carrying extra weight. The initial scenes may be off-putting because the padding and the makeup are so obvious, but when these elements are taken away—reflecting Billy’s weight loss—there is a performance worth watching. For instance, because the shedding of the pounds happens so quickly, Burke makes the decision to hold onto Billy’s gait. That is, the character’s walk remains waddle-like, still sort of slow instead of brisk and straight. His body may have transformed but everything else has not changed.
The execution of the story is supremely elementary. Eventually, Billy begins to suspect that his wife (Elizabeth Franz) may be having an affair. Aside from one or two shots accompanied by a few words, this suspicion is never explored in either a dramatic or tension-filled manner. Instead, it comes off as flat, a mere tool to be used later on so that it may help to create a semblance of completion. Imagine the most forgettable episodes of the anthology television series “Goosebumbps.” These tend to follow a specific track and lays out all the clues within the first ten minutes. It is like that here, only the clues are laid out in about half an hour.
There is no character worth rooting for. Though both Billy and the gypsies have something to be angry about, Michael McDowell and Tom Holland’s screenplay fails to move beyond one camp trying to make the other miserable. It comes off so childish that I grew bored by the so-called conflict. In the middle of all the commotion, I started to question why the picture was not more fun. This is because the material, aside from its premise, is devoid of imagination.
Directed by Tom Holland, “Stephen King’s Thinner” is not camp enough to be amusing and not scary enough to be a full-fledged horror film. It tries to be entertaining, I guess, with all the bad makeup and overacting by the supporting players but such techniques are crutches of movies with a weak core. I may not have read the author’s novel but I would like to believe that it is more witty, ironic, and darkly comic than this dross.
Running Man, The (1987)
★★ / ★★★★
Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger), member of the military, was sent to prison because he wouldn’t follow orders to kill a group of women and children protesting for food. But when he broke out of prison, an edited video was released to the public in which Ben was portrayed to have killed the innocent civilians. Out of desperation, he took Amber (Maria Conchita Alonso) hostage to seek refuge in Hawaii. Ben’s escape was unsuccessful, but his story caught the attention of Damon Killian (Richard Dawson), a host of the most popular game on television. In order to restore his reputation, Ben must compete in the gladiator-style show and defeat assassins collectively known as The Stalkers (Professor Toru Tanaka, Gus Rethwisch, Erland van Lidth, Jim Brown, Jesse Ventura). Based on a short story by Stephen King, “The Running Man” had a fascinating prediction involving the future of American culture reflected by what was shown on television but the execution did not match the story’s ambition. Although Schwarzenegger had the body for the role, I wasn’t convinced he had the talent, acting-wise, to deliver the depth and complexity in his character. If Schwarzenegger was only allowed to stand and look tough, it might have worked out. Unfortunately, he was required to speak such as giving orders to his teammates, expressing anger, balancing incredulousness and frustration. I felt like his one-liners cheapened the material. The “I’ll be back” line was obviously a reference to James Cameron’s “The Terminator.” It was unnecessary. Others were supposed to serve as comic relief, but there were far too many of them. I was completely taken out of the experience of being in their world. What I liked, however, was the way the camera switched between the battle scenes and the audiences’ reactions. The audiences were supposed to reflect us: rich, poor, black, white, young, and old. The point was all groups craved some sort of violence. I interpreted the game show audiences as individuals who supported capital punishment and thereby accepting the innate hypocrisy within the system. I found the audiences’ reactions interesting and disturbing. It was acceptable for The Running Man, people who had to battle their way through obstacles, to die because they supposedly have committed crimes, mostly murder, despite the lack of concrete evidence. Images on television were enough to persuade everyone. However, it was considered a tragedy for a Stalker, also committing murder, to perish. There was an interesting mix of tongue-and-cheek and cynicism in the way the audiences’ loyalty shifted from one end to another when certain lies were exposed. It highlighted the power of television and most people’s inability (or laziness) to think critically. Unfortunately, the screenplay’s third act was frustratingly, maddeningly weak. The film’s message turned into something it was supposed to be fighting against. That is, the answer to violence is more violence. Instead of leaving us with real insight regarding the role of television in our lives, “The Running Man,” directed by Paul Michael Glaser, took the easily digestible path. I felt like what I put into the film was significantly more than what I had gotten back.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Donna (Dee Wallace), along with her son (Danny Pintauro), drove the barely functional family car to be fixed, but the mechanic (Ed Lauter) and his family weren’t around. The only thing waiting for them was a rabid St. Bernard that attacked when a loud noise was present. Stuck in the car for a couple of days, Donna had to go to great measures to prevent her son from death due to a lack of food and water. Based on the novel by Stephen King, “Cujo” was particularly impressive because the story was rooted in drama. The Trenton household was on the verge of collapse because Donna informed her husband (Daniel Hugh Kelly) that she had been having an affair with one of their friends (Christopher Stone). On top of that, their comfortable way of life was threatened when the husband’s business was marred by bad publicity. The strain in their marriage, though much of it was undiscussed, affected the child in such a way that Tad was convinced there was a monster, equipped with a long snout and yellow eyes, in his closet. The horror aspect was quite clever. Aside from the first scene which involved the child preparing himself to turn off the light, race across the room, and land on his bed, which I often did as a child because I loved to watch scary movies, the horror elements were temporarily pushed to the side. From the moment Cujo attacked the mother and son, we realized that the dog symbolized the invisible monster in the room whenever the husband and wife shared the same space. They could barely look at each other, let alone carry a meaningful conversation. After the dog’s initial attack, I was floored when the child screamed and hysterically asked his mother how the monster got out of his closet. The connection between the child’s fantasy and the reality of a potentially broken marriage took the form of a beast so ferocious, we ultimately didn’t care about Donna’s transgressions. At least I didn’t. It became a matter of survival of an unhappy woman and her innocent son. The scenes inside the car were very involving. Under the sweltering sun, I felt like I was in there with them as they sweat and suffered the shortage of basic necessities. When Tad eventually had trouble breathing, Wallace’s performance was front and center. Her desperation, and eventual determination to save her son, swept me away. I wanted to help her. It made me consider what I would have done for my child if I was placed in a similar situation. “Cujo,” directed by Lewis Teague, was efficient, smart, and thrilling. I admired it most for its details and how the meanings we placed in them pulsated with rabid energy.
★ / ★★★★
Four friends developed psychic powers when they were kids after they rescued a boy with Down Syndrome, Duddits (Donnie Wahlberg), from bullies. They decided to camp in the snowy mountains but noticed an oddity. Animals seemed like they were running away from something and the military had quarantined the area. While Henry (Thomas Jane) and Pete (Timothy Olyphant) left to pick up some beer at a local convenience store, Beaver (Jason Lee) and Jonesy (Damian Lewis) invited a man inside their cabin, unaware that the man’s body encased an alien creature. Based on Stephen King’s novel, “Dreamcatcher” suffered due to a lack of flow. There were essentially three stories and their connections weren’t fully fleshed out. There was the aforementioned four friends dealing with nasty aliens in the woods, the flashback sequences when they were children and how they got their powers, and Col. Abraham Curtis’ (Morgan Freeman) desperation to solve the alien mystery, which he had been involved in for twenty five years, before he retired. The screenplay jumped one from one strand to another which often broke the tension. For example, when Jonesy and Beaver saw a trail of blood that came from the bedroom where the man slept, it was interrupted by a scene with the colonel delivering yet another speech about how driven he was to finish what he started. If the bloody trail scene had been allowed to finish without interruption, the horror would have been more effective. Adding a scene with a completely different tone allowed us to breathe and maybe even take a bathroom break. The CGI let the picture down immensely. I didn’t mind seeing the worm-like creatures (I have a weakness for creepy crawlers) but showing a full-bodied alien didn’t leave anything to our imagination. The aliens could take in any form because they had the ability to project what we wanted to see. One of the characters claimed that he had seen an alien in its natural form and it was horrific. The filmmakers should have stayed away from showing the extraterrestrials’ true form and let us wonder because I didn’t think they looked scary at all. CGI becomes outdated but the images we form in our minds do not. “Dreamcatcher,” directed by Lawrence Kasdan, failed to answer a number of critical questions. For instance, why did the four friends eventually stopped seeing Duddits? Their gifts seemed more like a burden in their lives so did they feel some sort of bitterness toward their childhood friend? The film lasted over two hours so leaving out answers was no excuse. Perhaps if there had been fewer scenes of military men and more scenes of the four friends’ struggle, I would have cared more.
Children of the Corn (1984)
★ / ★★★★
After church, Job (Robby Kiger) and his father went to a diner for breakfast. It seemed like a regular Sunday in Gatlin, Nebraska but something sinister happened. The kids started to give each other strange looks and the next thing we knew, they started killing the adults around them. The only kids who did not seem affected were Job and his sister (Anne Marie McEvoy) who had a gift of foretelling events through drawing. When a couple (Linda Hamilton, Peter Horton) accidentally ran over a boy, they eventually decided to stop by Gatlin to report the incident. The picture started off strongly. The thought of kids murdering people without reason, including their parents, gave me the creeps. I was curious about what triggered the strange events and the endgame of those involved. Unfortunately, the film failed to give any answer. Instead, it spent half of its time showing us the couple driving on a seemingly interminable freeway. While their interactions were somewhat amusing and the establishment of their characters necessary, there wasn’t enough edge to hold my interest. I saw one distraction after another which made me think about the weakness of both the writing and the execution. I wanted to know more about the psychic sister. What made her and Job unsusceptible to the urge to commit murder? Instead, the picture focused on the many speeches of Isaac (John Franklin) and almost caveman-like Malachai (Courtney Gains). It was obvious that the material wanted to comment on taking religion too seriously along with their respective scriptures word-for-word, but focusing on that one aspect diminished the creativity and imagination that should have been applied to the overall story. It would have been more haunting if the monster or devil known as “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” was not shown but merely implied. It wasn’t that I was unconvinced my the special and visual effects (I’m always more concerned about the concept), but the idea that some force could drive children to madness was enough. Sometimes simplicity is key. It just needed to elaborate on its big ideas and consistently raise the bar instead of recycling horror movie clichés. Based on Stephen King’s short story and directed by Fritz Kiersch, “Children of the Corn” was a huge disappointment because it had such a promising first scene. When the couple walked around a seemingly abandoned small town, I felt like I was there. It needed more creepy moments like that instead of its dull fixation on human sacrifice.