Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Storm Warnings

I kind of fell out of love with Stephen King in the 1990s. I was a faithful constant reader, in King's words, for the previous decade. King was one of the few writers I would buy in hardback on the day of release. At some point, though, I realized that the thrill was gone. Oh, he was still capable of good books now and then (particularly story collections like Everything's Eventual), but King, for me, became like a middle-aged husband who can only get it up every so often and that only with the help of pharmaceuticals. The affection was still there, but, sheesh, every so often a girl wants to go for a hard, wild ride. And King wasn't getting it done. I still buy King in hardback, by the way, but I usually wait until they're remaindered because it's cheaper than a paperback these days. I think part of what contributed to my wandering eye was the rash of TV movies and mini-series that began to appear in the 1990s. These tended to literalize King's ideas in ways that were not flattering to the writer. It didn't help that most of them were made by Mick Garris, who may be a nice guy but who isn't much of a director.

The upshot of this is that I skipped King's original miniseries, Storm of the Century, when it originally aired in 1999 and never felt the need to catch up to it until now. Over the years, I've had multiple friends tell me that it's one of the better King projects, but I never felt motivated enough to seek it out until now. I probably wouldn't have gone for it now if I wasn't looking to feed the October Challenge with movies I haven't seen. In a challenge where quantity matters, it does seem foolhardy to select a movie that's longer than Gone With the Wind, but I've never chosen wisely for this exercise. So I put it on my Netflix queue.

In truth, I've been finding it hard to write about. It was the third film I watched for the Challenge, but this is the seventh blog entry charting my progress. For the most part, my friends are right: it's pretty good in a network television "good" sort of way. Television is a writer's medium and this is the first time TV has really given King himself the chance to marry his own narrative gifts with the advantages of time granted by television. This has the feel of some of King's better novels, particularly 'Salem's Lot and Needful Things. Like those two books, Storm of the Century is like some deranged version of Peyton Place. It documents the dirty secrets of its small town setting, then lets it all fester as an outside evil comes to stir the pot.

The setting is an island community off the coast of Maine. Little Tall Island has the usual cast of downeasters familiar to anyone who has read King. The ostensible hero of the piece is Mike Anderson (Tim Daly), who owns a grocery store and moonlights as the town constable. On the day when the so called "storm of the century" hits Little Tall, Anderson is obliged to investigate the murder of Martha Clarendon, an old lady who has been clubbed to death by a sinister newcomer to the island, one Andre Linoge (Colm Feore). Linoge, it seems, is looking for something from the people of Little Tall, and he carries with him more than just a whiff of brimstone. Soon, at his behest, the fault lines in the town psyche are shifting, and people are beginning to crack, sometimes violently.

Linoge is a familiar character type from King: He's Leland Gaunt or Randall Flagg under another name. As he is depicted by the movie, Linoge is everything the version of Flagg in Mick Garris's version of The Stand failed to be: menacing without being a boor about it. He's genuinely sinister. It doesn't hurt that Colm Feore has the voice for the part. Linoge has more than a little bit of Hannibal Lecter in him. Even some dodgy special effects don't dim the impression he makes. Tim Daly, too, is good in a thankless role as our hero. The rest of the cast serves. As a narrative, Storm of the Century takes its own sweet time. Oh, you get an early murder scene to keep the groundlings at bay, but this follows King's preferred pattern of getting to know his characters before throwing them into the abattoir. There's a lot of character development in this project, almost to the point of tedium (seriously, this is over four hours long!). The final forty five minutes of the movie is the payoff, in which Linoge tells his victims exactly what he wants, and the movie charges onward to its satisfyingly bleak conclusion. The way this plays out is pretty misanthropic, actually, kind of like Rod Serling's blacker Twilight Zone episodes. It doesn't send the audience away happy. I like that.

Obviously, I like the story, but I find myself ambivalent towards the whole project. It didn't occur to me until I started looking for screen caps for this review that the reason for my ambivalence comes down to the fact that it's visually dull. Oh, it has some nice special effects sequences depicting the storm, but most of the film is shot in close-ups. There aren't many master shots in this film, and there's almost no flair to the movement of the camera, and no really arresting visual images. Director Craig Baxley has had a long career in television, but he's not a visual director; he comes to the job from the stunt department, after all. The style on display in this movie is strictly utilitarian. Baxley went on to replace Mick Garris as King's go-to director for TV projects, but he's just like him in so far as he sublimates style in favor of a depressingly literal approach to narrative. King likes these sorts of directors, but he's a writer. I'm guessing that the days of visual stylists like De Palma and Carpenter taking on King's work are over, which depresses me a little.

Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 7

First Time Viewings: 7

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