Top 5 Tuesday: Spooky Stephen King

According to IMDb, Stephen King’s wonderful novel Bag of Bones is currently in production for a TV series. This made me very happy as I am a very big fan of that book and, of the writer himself. Mr. King and his writing talents get short-changed by many critics, mostly because he is so insanely popular. I have always believed that the enormity of his success has hindered his standing as one of our country’s finest modern-day writers. But anyone who has had the opportunity to read his insightful book, On Writing will truly be able to have a deeper appreciation for the author as he speaks to the art and craft of the writing process.

So Stephen King has written a bazillion short stories and novels – and a bazillion films have been adapted from these works. Some brilliantly executed, while others – eh, not so much (there are actually 7 Children of the Corn films). I thought to devote this weeks Top 5 Tuesday to the scary films based on his stories. Now before you start screaming, “Where the hell is The Shawshank Redemption?! Stand By Me? How can you forget The Green Mile?” I will state up front that I chose to stick with the horror/thriller genre, which constitutes about 90% of the movies. For the record, both “Shawshank” and “Green Mile” would positively make my Top 5, as I think they are both marvelous films directed by the very talented Frank Darabont. But since Stephen King is mostly associated with “the spooky,” I stayed in that direction.

I’m not a connoisseur on horror films by any means. But I do enjoy a good scary movie every now and then, and I especially admire the few smart horror films released (last year’s Let Me In, for example, was terrific, based on the even better Swedish film). And I have enjoyed many films based on the works of Mr. King through the years. Here is what I consider the 5 best:

5. Firestarter (1984)

I know this may not be included on everyone’s list, but I appreciate and enjoy this science fiction thriller an awful lot. Based on one of King’s earlier works, Mark L. Lester does a very good job at bringing his vision to the screen. One standout here is that King adapted the screenplay himself, which has rarely been the case since. The story is a good one too. Little Charlie McGee (Drew Barrymore) has a powerful and dangerous gift for a young girl…pyrokinesis. The United States government is threatened by this and wants to take her away from her father (David Keith) for their own use. The father, Andrew McGee, had previously participated in a medical experiment that gave him telekinetic ability. The father-daughter relationship here is played very nicely. And a strong supporting cast (which includes Art Carney, Martin Sheen, and Louise Fletcher) gets to shine here too, especially George C. Scott as the enigmatic John Rainbird. It may look a bit dated at this point, but the story and Lester’s execution still holds up mighty well. Like Carrie and Cujo, Firestarter ranks among the best early movie adaptations of Sir King.

4. Misery (1990)

I’m not a big fan of Rob Reiner at all, but I can’t deny the fact that he did a terrific job at bringing this tremendous 1987 novel to the screen. Unlike most of King’s stories, this one doesn’t have a supernatural element to it – but it is, at times, horrifying – and in many areas (mainly due to the splendid editing), very suspenseful. James Caan plays Paul Sheldon, the famed novelist who gets into a terrible car accident on his way west with his brand new novel. He is “rescued” by Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), a nurse, and brought to her remote home. Sheldon’s #1 fan promises to take good care of him. Caan and Bates have a wonderful dynamic together – and Ms. Bates gives one of cinema’s most horrifying performances – so well-deserving of the Oscar she won for her work here. The character is already enmeshed in film lore (“You dirty bird!”) and though most of the movie takes place in her home, Reiner keeps the film from feeling claustrophobic. It’s a marvelous story woven by Mr. King – with a terrific screen adaptation by William Goldman, one of our best screenwriters. And Mr. Caan, known mainly for playing “the tough guy” or “hothead,” is also so good. It is refreshing to see him play such a composed character – and one who is so utterly helpless. Misery is a beautifully shot film that always has me putting my hands to my face.

3. The Dead Zone (1983)

David Cronenberg directed this wonderfully creepy, suspenseful and thought-provoking flick. Christopher Walken plays a mild-mannered schoolteacher who gets in a terrible car wreck and awakens from a coma five years later, only to find his former life all but gone. He has however developed the fantastical ability to tell a person’s secrets simply by touching them. When he shakes hands with the Senatorial candidate Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), he foresees him becoming president of the United States and the man behind instigating a nuclear war with Russia. The film raises some provocative questions – but it is clear this all stems from the mind of Stephen King. The hunt for a local serial killer is eerie indeed and Walken’s telekinetic visions are gripping. Walken is terrific, as he’s given a great character to sink his teeth into. The film deserves mention on this list solely for the way he screams to a young boy’s obstinate father, “THE ICE IS GONNA BREAK!” It’s perfect Walken!

2. The Mist (2007)

I love this film! Love it, love it, love it!!! And how awesome is Frank Darabont at bringing King’s work to the screen?! This is a sensational and courageous piece of filmmaking – horrifying, profound, enthralling – and has one of the very best endings in recent years. The ensemble cast is stellar – all recognizable faces, but I am so glad they decided not to go “the star route” with this one. Andre Braugher, Marcia Gay Harden, William Sadler, Frances Sternhagen, Toby Jones, and Jeffrey DeMunn are all given such rich characters to play with and they are all wonderful here. The film though, revolves around family man David Drayton (played by Thomas Jane, who I had not heard of before, and hold the film together quite nicely). After a terrible storm, David takes his young boy to the local grocery store. The store loses power and the patrons are then alerted to a mysterious, oncoming mist. Most of the action from here on out takes place in the store as the shoppers are literally trapped. And what is outside (not to mention what attacks the store) is spine-chilling and great fun to watch! Some amazing elements take place between the locals as they remain trapped and form their own sects within. Fascinating religious themes come into play and again, King illustrates how well he knows how the human mind works in dire situations. A must-see horror movie – a must-see movie period!

1. The Shining (1980)

Is this really a surprise to anyone? I know Mr. King wasn’t exactly thrilled with what director Stanley Kubrick did with his superb 1977 novel, but this is a horror classic, and surely one of the very best ever made. The TV mini-series was nothing compared to this absolutely sinister film. As caretaker for the stately Overlook Hotel, Jack Nicholson gives a sensational, multi-layered and horrifying performance. Of course, he is perfectly cast here. Shelley Duvall, a seemingly unusual choice to play his wife, counters Nicholson perfectly. We are treated to gorgeous cinematography, impeccable production design and a sense of terror from the very opening of the film. Those freaky twins, the woman in Room 237, Grady telling Jack what must be done with his wife and child, the elevator, REDRUM – it all makes for a beautifully woven creepfest helmed by one of film’s greatest directors. The ambiguous ending (with the black-and-white photograph) always fascinates me – with the song “Midnight, the Stars, and You” eerily playing in the background. Even if “Shawshank” were in the mix for this list, I’m not entirely sure if this masterful film still wouldn’t be at the very top – it’s that freakin’ good!

Stanley Kubrick: Launching Full Metal Jacket

SOME BACKGROUND

Like Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket pierces into the military mentality and highlights the futility and inevitability of war. In essence, the film is told in two distinct, yet comparable parts. The first section of the film is Parris Island, South Carolina – boot camp. It is a terrifying and lifelike look at the creation of turning young, naïve American men into absolute killing machines. The second section is the inescapable aftermath. Always drawn to the dark side of the human experience, Kubrick used the war genre to explore the basic evil inherent in man. In fact, images of the violent nature in man spanned over five decades of work of the unrivaled Stanley Kubrick, from 2001 to A Clockwork Orange to Barry Lyndon.

There are surely other spectacular movies made about the war experience (Coming Home, The Green Berets, Apocalypse Now, et al), but Full Metal Jacket is unlike any of them. Not to say it’s a better film…it’s just, well Kubrickian. It is what Kubrick’s very personal perception of war in general symbolizes. Unlike other Vietnam films, Full Metal Jacket was not made in direct response to the war. I always thought also that Kubrick’s film suffered unfair comparisons to Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning Platoon. Platoon had come out only one year earlier and had won four Oscars just months before the release of Full Metal Jacket. But Platoon is a more traditional war film. Kubrick himself had publicly expressed his respect for Stone’s movie, but thought that it catered to its audience too much. “I liked Platoon,” Kubrick said. “I think Platoon tried to ingratiate itself a little more with the audience. But then, I have enough faith in the audience to think that they are able to appreciate something which doesn’t do that. At least you’re not bored.”

Full Metal Jacket was Stanley Kubrick’s 12th motion picture. Released in 1987, it took in a respectable $46 million domestic at the box-office, and did very well overseas. The film completed his own war trilogy (following Fear and Desire and Paths of Glory) that spanned over 35 years. Shooting began in the summer of 1985 and ended September 1986. This is not a review of the film – though I find it to be an important, haunting, and brilliant film – but rather the story behind the making of what is one of cinema’s grandest achievements in the genre of war films.

IN SEARCH OF A PROJECT

After the release and commercial success that followed The Shining in 1980, iconic film director Stanley Kubrick wasted no time in trying to find out what his next film would be. He had no idea what the subject matter would be, but he spent time doing research, screening material, and reading in hopes that he would soon be inspired. During that time, Arthur C. Clarke had written a sequel to his 2001 novel, 2010: Odyssey Two. MGM had acquired the rights and asked Kubrick if he had any desire to direct the movie; an offer that Kubrick turned down and personally gave his seal of approval to Peter Hyams to forge ahead with the project. Kubrick considered a film about war. Not unfamiliar terrain to him. Not surprisingly, Kubrick wanted to make a certain type of war movie, but had not yet found the ideal story to adapt. In 1980, he decided to reach out to Michael Herr.

Herr was a foreign correspondent for Esquire during the Vietnam War (1967-68) and the author of Dispatches, chronicling his experiences in Indochina. In addition, Herr wrote all of the voice-over narration spoken by Martin Sheen in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Kubrick and Herr spoke endlessly about war, film and countless other subjects. Herr once said that it was “one phone call lasting three years with interruptions.”

In 1982, Kubrick stumbled upon a book by Gustav Hasford called The Short-Timers, which he was instantly attracted to. He loved its stylistic approach (“…written in a very, very almost poetically spare way,” Kubrick said). Hasford was a former Marine who served in Vietnam at the height of the war. The novel took him seven years to write and another three to get published (1977). While working as a security guard and living in his car, Hasford discovered that Stanley Kubrick now owned the rights to his book.

To no surprise to anyone familiar with the work of Stanley Kubrick, his approach to the Vietnam War would be vastly different than any other. He wanted to target the military establishment. As he did in Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick focused his concentration on the powers that lay lurking behind the military structure. “Vietnam was such a phony war, in terms of the hawkish technocrats fine-tuning the facts like an ad agency,” he said. In 1985, after writing out a fully detailed treatment, Kubrick asked Herr to work on the screenplay. While leafing through a gun catalog and stumbling on the phrase “full metal jacket,” Kubrick decided to change the title, since The Short-Timers did not have the universal recognition that The Shining or A Clockwork Orange had anyway. The term described a lead bullet encased in a copper jacket. When Herr finished his first draft of the screenplay, Kubrick would re-work it and, as he always did, would be re-writing the script even during days of shooting the film. As for Gustav Hasford, he had only met with Kubrick one time, though the two would speak at length over the phone about the screen adaptation. Kubrick embraced technology and preferred to communicate through telephone and fax during collaboration.

CASTING HIS PLATOON

With a working script in hand, Kubrick was set out to continue pre-production and cast his war film. Through Warner Brothers, he advertised a national search in America, encouraging unknown young actors to audition. He asked actors to send in videos dressed in a T-shirt, speaking about anything at all pertaining to the subject matter of war. Kubrick would receive over 3,000 tapes at his quarters in England and would personally view over 800. What Kubrick was looking for was his own platoon of young actors to serve in his own tour of duty known as Full Metal Jacket. He wanted to cast actors that would function as exact and precise as any military unit. And they certainly did just that, waking up at dawn, taking bus rides to the location, and developing a solid camaraderie in the process.

In the lead role of Private Joker (fittingly, we never know his real name), an up-and-coming Matthew Modine was cast, no stranger to the military, having 3 brothers and a sister who served in Vietnam. “It was something I grew up with,” Modine said. Modine was well aware of all the unflattering myths concerning the auteur director and, like so many other actors who spoke to this, he was quick to set the record straight: “He’s probably the most heartfelt person I ever met.” All the other actors associated with the film would echo this same sentiment.

Vincent D’Onofrio learned about the auditions from Modine. He sent in his own homemade audition tape and got the integral part of Private Pyle. At the time, the Brooklyn-born 6’ 3” actor was fit and athletic-looking. Kubrick had asked the unknown actor to gain 70 pounds for the role (to reach 280 lbs.) in order to physically suit the part of the misfit, country-bumpkin soldier. Kubrick later said, “Pyle was the hardest part to cast…I wanted to find new faces. We received about three or four thousand videotapes.”

On his character, D’Onofrio stated, “I don’t think he was insane. What they did to Leonard was they made him into a very efficient killing machine.” And those familiar with the film can certainly not forget that sullen, haunting image of Private Pyle sitting in the latrine giving what D’Onofrio referred to as the “Crazy Kubrick Stare”; a stare not unlike Nicholson’s in The Shining or McDowell’s in A Clockwork Orange.

The rest of the squad of soldiers was cast with relative unknowns: Adam Baldwin (Animal Mother), the theatrically trained Arliss Howard (Cowboy), Dorian Harewood (Eightball), Ed O’Ross (Lt. Touchdown), and Kevyn Major Howard as the innocent photographer, Rafterman. In a very shrewd and wise directorial decision, none of the actors were allowed to rehearse with the man who was cast in the pivotal role of the man who breaks them all down in the first half of the film, Sergeant Hartman.

Lee Ermey was no stranger to combat and no stranger to the motion picture industry. A Kansas farm boy, Ermey enlisted in the Marines in 1961, served for 2 ½ years as a drill instructor during the Vietnam War, and served 11 years in total before being injured by an exploding rocket in 1969. Ermey met Coppola in 1976 and served as technical advisor on Apocalypse Now, Purple Hearts, and The Boys in Company C (where he also played a drill sergeant). At first, Kubrick thought Ermey to be too gentle to play Sgt. Hartman, but after watching him audition, the director quickly changed his tune. In fact, Kubrick would videotape Ermey breaking down British soldiers, hurling insults left and right. “I was struck by his extraordinary ability as an actor, “Kubrick said. “Lee lined them up like recruits who had just come off the bus and let go with a barrage of intimidation and insults.” From these sessions, Kubrick had over 250 pages of transcript just from Ermey’s improvisations and began inserting choice lines into the screenplay. In the end, about 50% of Ermey’s lines came from these initial improvisations. “Kubrick said I’m a superior intimidator,” Ermey told The New York Post — the perfect reason why he was kept away from the young actors who would play his subordinates. When he finally did start shooting scenes with his co-stars, Ermey came as quite a shock to them all. “It was terrifying to those actors,” Ermey told the New York Times. “My objective was intimidation. The first time I came up to Vincent, all he had to say was ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir’ and he was so shocked he blew his lines three or four times.” Ermey’s Sgt. Hartman dominates the entire first part of Full Metal Jacket and as such, was under orders by his director to set the tone and create a strict boot camp-like atmosphere on set.

Check this video out. It’s a scene of the Sergeant introducing himself (that’s a kind way of putting it) to his unit. Check out how authentic all of the dialogue sounds, how authoritarian Ermey is as he fires one offensive slur after another, how the privates all react to this despot. Notice the monster-like look on Modine’s face as he shows the Sergeant his “war face” —  overwhelming and powerful. And even with the severity of the situation, the scene is awfully funny at times, in the darkest of ways (“I bet you’re the kind of guy that would fuck a person in the ass and not even have the goddamn common courtesy to give him a reach-around. I’ll be watching you!”). Most of all, watch the rapport between Ermey and D’Onofrio here — and contrast it to their final confrontation in the latrine – the arc of this battle is terrifying. A perfectly choreographed scene.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION!

Unlike Apocalypse Now or Platoon, which were shot in the Philippines because of the jungle terrain, Kubrick sent his location scouts to all areas of London as his film had no need for the jungle. “When you think of Vietnam, it’s natural to imagine jungles. But this story is about urban warfare,” Adam Baldwin had said. Kubrick needed locations to resemble Parris Island and Hue, Vietnam during the Tet Offensive. Three separate sites in northeast London were found and secured. Usually, a strict perfectionist for capturing realism, Kubrick would sometimes sacrifice this in favor of the more dramatic. For instance, he did not particularly care for the look of the latrine in Parris Island, so he had one built on a studio stage in London. The latrine scene is one of the movie’s most enduring images and Kubrick went for a more expressionistic interpretation of the setting to heighten the drama.

For the street scenes in the second half of the film, Kubrick brought in 5,000 Vietnamese immigrants living in London to inhabit the area to resemble Da Nang, 1968. For the rest of the Marines unit, he cast members of Britain’s Territorial Army. For palm trees, he hired some woman at a local nursery to track down the precise trees he wanted. Eventually, Kubrick would have around 200 palm trees personally found by Anne Edwards in Spain shipped to England. Everything on camera was personally chosen by him and given his stamp of approval…as always, he left nothing to chance and did not overlook a single detail.

WRAP UP

Matthew Modine told American Film magazine, “Everything that happens in Full Metal Jacket exists. The boot camp sequence is probably the most realistic portrayal of boot camp in the Marines that’s ever been put on film, with the exception of a Parris Island training film. It’s not pleasant. You’re not allowed to escape. The reason Stanley’s stories are so shocking is because they are so truthful. He doesn’t try to create some sympathy because he wants to win the audience over. It’s not pleasant to see somebody get killed. And it’s not pleasant to die.”

It’s hard to watch Full Metal Jacket and not have a strong, visceral response to its characters, plot devices, brutal images (remember the female sniper?), and Kubrick’s overall interpretation of the war experience. But like all of his films, you feel strongly in one direction or another. Kubrick did have a tendency of alienating his audience and here, he deliberately creates a movie that distances itself from the audience. Also, his longtime love of the silent movies is clearly evident here in his directorial approach, as the film communicates to us on a much more visual level than its sparse dialogue. I have heard many tell me that they absolutely love the first part of the film, but not the second half so much…that the film trails off at that point. To those people, I would suggest giving Full Metal Jacket a new screening and try to see exactly what Kubrick was doing by editing it as such. Though surely difficult to watch at times, it has some vintage Kubrick humor (a.k.a. ‘dark’) sprinkled throughout (usually at Private Pyle’s expense) and has a definitive Kubrick-like feel from start to finish. Just take a look at the beautifully filmed shot below (see video) of the soldiers singing the “Mickey Mouse Theme” with guns in their hands as fire blazes around them. Why would they be singing such a song at this particular time?  The absurdity and humor placed in this dark context works brilliantly. It’s a masterful work of art by one of cinema’s greatest all-time filmmakers and certainly more than holds its own in the great canon of work that is Stanley Kubrick.

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