Given the dramatically divergent reactions elicited by The Shining, that film will be discussed at a later date in two posts, a case for the defence, and a likely scathing case for the prosecution.
It’s strange to imagine that arguably the very best movies based on Stephen King’s work do not strictly fit into the horror genre at all, especially given his reputation as an author. The Shawshank Redemption is still the highest user-rated film on IMDb’s Top 100, and while it certainly isn’t the best film ever made, it’s not an immediately absurd choice for the accolade. (Incidentally, The Green Mile is ranked at no. 36, far above the first King-horror The Shining at no. 60, which debatably has more to do with Stanley Kubrick than King himself.) A little further down the list at a respectable no. 192 is Stand By Me, based on King’s 1982 novella The Body. Set in 1959, four friends make a pilgrimage to see a real dead body, and discover some important things about themselves and each other. While not at all a horror movie – being a major outlier at Dundead by featuring only one corpse – there are heavy and frightening aspects to the story beyond its mouldering cadaver. There fears here are of a more mundane sort, whether they are personal, existential or physical. Given the film’s story, it might be assumed that this is a tale about the death of innocence. The boys get their wish to see a body, and confronted with irrevocable proof of their (and everyone else’s) mortality, they come back changed forever. This is not really true, since most of the main characters, excepting Vern (Jerry O’Connell), aren’t so naive. Gordie (Wil Wheaton) has just experienced the death of his much-favoured older brother, and is suffering terribly from his grief and from the cruel words of his spiteful father. Chris (River Phoenix) comes from a family locally infamous for being “no good” and has been coarsened by abuse and neglect. Teddy (Corey Feldman) hides his distress about his mentally-ill father behind eccentricity, bravado and boasts of his old man’s heroism during World War II. Only Vern seems not to have been forcefully aged beyond his years by personal hardship. He’s picked upon, but does not seem hardened in the same way as his companions.
Because of this, the conclusion of their quest is much less important than the journey. While walking a few miles alone seems a fairly pedestrian task, for these youngsters it offers enough time, freedom and adversity to elicit some deep revelations. The characters are paradoxically mature and immature. They are perfectly happy to hurl insults at one another for perceived weakness, but when the matter is serious, they show genuine concern and love for one another. This might be best illustrated by the fact that the member of the gang most relentlessly called a “pussy”, Vern, is the only one who doesn’t break down in tears before the film is over. There is a clear understanding of the difference between the trivial and the significant, and when their friends are vulnerable, the boys rise to the occasion. Chris in particular has the most heart-breaking moment of the movie. In spite of his clear sensitivity and intelligence, he fears that he lacks the strength to overcome both society’s prejudices against his family and his own temptation to lash out at their scorn by living down to their expectations. The framing device may allow the audience to know that, in spite of his tragic death, he does manage to overcome his upbringing, but this does little to diminish the genuine pain and fear in Phoenix’s performance.
The film is not maudlin by any standards. It simply refuses to sugar-coat, portraying life as layered, sometimes silly and rambunctious, sometimes grave and troubling. The watchword is “authenticity”, both emotionally and in the realism of the boy’s interactions. This success would not be possible without the excellent performances of the four young leads, who tackle the complex material with apparent and admirable ease. (Though it feels indulgent to bring it up again, Stand By Me is another King work to which Stranger Things owes an enormous debt.) The film is nostalgic by never naive, which is no mean feat, and brilliantly blends hope and wistfulness. There’s no such thing as a perfect childhood and there’s no such thing as a perfect movie, but Stand By Me shows that, even with all of the lows, the highs will continue to resonate.
Ed Gein holds a comparable claim to enormous influence on modern horror to Stephen King himself. The infamous “Butcher of Plainfield” has served as a template for cinematic psychopaths from Norman Bates to Leatherface, and has continued to influence people, to the point where his gravestone was removed after being stolen by macabre souvenir seekers. The Eyes of My Mother continues this rather grisly legacy, showing the devolution of revenge into sick compulsion and madness. When her mother is murdered by a grinning serial killer, Francisca (Kika Magalhães) inflicts appalling retribution on the man, blinding and hobbling him and keeping him captive in her barn. This act sets her on a lonely course of sadism, as her appetites begin to grow and change, both as a person and as a killer.
Francisca’s initial motivation is eminently sympathetic. Faced with the change to do awful things to the person responsible for our mother’s death, most of us would fail to resist the temptation. The daring of the film is to almost immediately turn empathy into disgust and horror by finding a way to make gleeful serial killing seem passé by comparison. This is a movie that understands two of the main pillars of horror. The first and third sections show the most viscerally disturbing and upsetting treatment of one person by another and appeal to the gut, making the viewer distinctly queasy. The middle part is more psychological, resisting the urge to show violence, and perfectly encapsulating Hitchcockian tension. Simply seeing what has come before makes a conversation between two women almost unbearably fraught, as the potential and terrifying consequences play inescapably across the mind.
The film utilises frustrated expectations in several ways. Beyond the inversion of Francisca’s position from victim to predator, the first shot of the movie performs the same trick. Given prior knowledge that this is a story about a young woman, the opening long shot of a female figure collapsing in the road has two very different tones at the beginning and at the end. Even Francisca herself is a walking contradiction. Female serial killers are a statistical anomaly in themselves, and she is not a gibbering maniac but poised and beautiful and almost vulnerable in her manner (when she isn’t surgically crippling her victims). She is caught between an intense loneliness born of her slain mother and emotionally disengaged father, and an inability to keep her homicidal tendencies in check when she sees the chance for any kind of companionship.
The Eyes of My Mother is probably qualitatively the best film screening at Dundead this year. It is beautifully-shot in black and white, paces itself well over its relatively brief running time, and relies only on a brutal and pitiless realism to sincerely scare its audience. Francisca is made layered while speaking very little dialogue (almost all of it Portuguese), and her actions are some of the most horrifying ever committed to film, while never becoming gratuitous or pornographic. There is no glamour in her acts of mutilation, only misery and almost unimaginable cruelty. This movie shows that the supernatural is not necessary to create memorable and horribly-affecting horror; nature will suffice.
Always Shine is about two thirds of a moderately interesting movie. The problem lies in its good set-up leading to no real pay-off, leaving the audience tantalised then dissatisfied. Two old friends, Anna (Mackenzie Davis), a struggling actor, and Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald), a working actor languishing in low-budget exploitation flicks, head to the mountains together to relax and recollect. Nerves begin to fray as jealousy, resentment and indignation begin to build between them, to the point where their friendship turns to outright hostility. The conflict between the two is driven by the strangely egoistic ambition required in any competitive industry, and the way in which actors (women in particular) are placed into fierce opposition by circumstance. As two young, attractive blondes, they are competing for the same roles and, even separately, the success of one is seen as an implicit failure for the other.
The main conflict between Anna and Beth seems to be inspired by the fallacy of relative privation and an ability to empathise with the other’s situation. Anna, stuck outside the acting world, is intensely envious of what she sees as Beth’s success, and yearns to achieve her dream at any cost. Beth clearly feels guilty over even her small fortune, yet she is unhappy to be consistently starring in ridiculous horror movies and the ever-present demand for her to get naked on camera. She is not entirely innocent, lying to Anna out of shame or thoughtlessness and not appreciating just how desperate she is to act, but she is a victim of her own achievements, offensive to Anna because she exists. Anna is also somewhat relatable in her frustrated ambitions, but is cast in the antagonistic role because of her bitterness and her failure to take the (admittedly difficult) step of separating her happiness from the success of failure of Beth. She cannot grasp the idea that even though Beth is doing better professionally she can still be miserable with her station.
Sometimes it is most effective for a film to withhold taking a strong stance on any internal conflict, allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions. This is not the case in Always Shine, because its failure to do so is undermined by its half-measure of showing Anna as more unpleasant and then failing to see it through. The movie doesn’t so much end as stop, teasing a compelling third act before crashing to credits. The climax is abrupt and just baffling in itself, messing with perceptions in a way that is inconsistent with the realistic tone of the earlier scenes in a way that is more of an inconsistency than an evolution in the narrative. Most movies could benefit from a trimming of their running time. Always Shine has an exactly opposite problem.
Wasted potential is more dismaying than mere awfulness. Always Shine threatens to address a genuine conflict in an engaging way, and then completely fumbles its ending. There could be something worthwhile here, but half a film can only ever be half a success, and Always Shine is ultimately just a disappointment.
The tagline to Pet Sematary is one of the most efficient distillations of a film’s principle message ever concocted. Like The Eyes of My Mother, Pet Sematary convincingly contends that there are things worse than death, though in a considerably dafter fashion. While the premise is horrifying in concept, the execution is pleasantly cheesy, not least due to the presence of Herman Munster sporting a New England accent thicker than clam chowder. Set in an alternative Maine where the only road-users are irresponsibly fast freight trucks, a happy family sets up home mere yards from the highway. When tragedy inevitably strikes, father Louis (Dale Midkiff) resorts to the strange magic of the local Native American burial ground in a doomed attempt to make things right once more.
To note the thematic similarities between Pet Sematary and The Eyes of My Mother may seem inappropriate given the latter’s pitch black tone and utterly nauseating content, but the parallels remain. The death of a loved one is a shattering event and the desire to take action, whether revenge or reversal, can be overpowering. In the case of this film, that urge manages to overcome basic logic and the evidence of Louis’ own eyes – twice. This may be why the tone is fairly silly, especially in the bonkers finale. What should be crushing is played for dark laughs with relative success. This is more a larger-than-life “monkey’s paw” tale than a drama.
Not much more can or need be said about Pet Sematary (except its distinction as the only film to ever contain a completely incidental and entirely off-screen wendigo). As a film to close out Dundead 2017, it is neither the best movie overall nor the best Stephen King adaptation screened, but it ties things up in a fun little bow. The film is only slightly harder to take seriously than the renowned South Park parody, which itself gave rise to a hysterical Fred Gwynne-esque recurring minor character who offers the same kinds of non-committal warnings as Gwynne’s warm but vague Jud Crandall. The real movie is only a tad less absurd than the cartoon. Pet Sematary is a good time, shallow and not very scary, but original and entertaining in a schlocky kind of way.
Stand By Me (1986)
Directed by Rob Reiner
Written by Raynold Gideon (based on the novella The Body by Stephen King)
Starring Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix and Corey Feldman
The Eyes of My Mother (2016)
Written and directed by Nicolas Pesce
Starring Kika Magalhães, Will Brill and Olivia Bond
Always Shine (2016)
Directed by Sophia Takal
Written by Lawrence Michael Levine
Starring Mackenzie Davis, Caitlin FitzGerald and Lawrence Michael Levine
Pet Sematary (1989)
Directed by Mary Lambert
Written by Stephen King
Starring Dale Midkiff, Denise Crosby and Fred Gwynne