Am I troubled about praising Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital as a juicy, jauntily anarchic production, lest it look like I’m favoring a guy who occupies the back page of this magazine every few weeks? Nah. I’m on record, years before his EW arrival, as considering King a force for good in American pop culture – that is, he creates solid commercial work and uses his influence to express provocative, progressive ideas, often putting his money where his mouth is. And no, I don’t mean that he talks out of his backside. (Well, not too often.)
The key to this particular King TV project, as opposed to previous adaptations of his books such as ”The Stand” and ”It,” is that this most American of novelists is adapting someone else’s TV show – Lars von Trier’s icy-cool 1994 Danish miniseries, ”The Kingdom.” Try to dig it up (it’s not on DVD, and it’s hard to locate in its two-VHS-tape incarnation): ”The Kingdom” is about a haunted hospital whose staff is too busy waging office-political wars to notice that the joint is filled-to-bursting with wailing-child ghosts, improbable earthquakes, and a number of eerie, unlikely employees and patients who foretell doom. Von Trier, who’s gone on to make a feature-film splash with movies like ”Breaking the Waves,” is one perverse manipulator, adept at fuzzying the line between the intensity of hospital-room emergencies and (literally) all hell breaking loose.
If you’re the slightest bit familiar with King’s work, you’ll already understand what attracted him to this material. He’s a big fan of putting people who are already under stress through supernatural torture. (”The Shining,” anyone?) Add to this the fact that the author has done substantial time as an inpatient, the result of a life-threatening car swipe on a Maine road in 1999, and you’ll also relish as much as King probably did his entry point into von Trier’s ”Kingdom.” As teleplay adapter, King has a different creative type – a famous painter named Peter Rickman (Jack Coleman) – get creamed by a van while jogging down a Maine road. The poor guy is oblivious to the vehicle because he’s understandably entranced by the pop strains of Fountains of Wayne’s ”Red Dragon Tattoo” playing on his Walkman. After that, he can’t walk, man. Director Craig Baxley, who also helmed Stephen King’s ”Rose Red,” films the accident much as King described his own in his 2000 book ”On Writing” – with frightening crunch, agony, numbness, and confusion. He also works in King’s scary-monster figure – a kind of anteater/bear combo called Antubis – with just the right amount of fleetingly glimpsed menace. Once admitted to Kingdom Hospital, Rickman and we are exposed to the staff: the cynical, daredevilish surgeon, Dr. Hook (a scruffy Andrew McCarthy); the imperious, misanthropic, buffoonish chief neurologist, Dr. Stegman (”X-Men”’s Bruce Davison); and the loopily cheerful hospital administrator, Dr. Jesse James (a suitably wacky Ed Begley Jr.). There are similar characters in von Trier’s ”Kingdom” (he gets an executive-producer credit here), but King has added his own blithe black humor, and such King-ly locutions as ”I would have said he was totally gorked” when he means Rickman was nearly brain-dead.
By ”Kingdom Hospital”’s second and third outings, McCarthy ceases to be a mere wise guy, and Davison is triumphantly malicious as a creep with a slippery grasp on hospital discipline. We also learn a little about the mysterious séances being held by a perennial patient, Mrs. Druse (Diane Ladd). I’ll bet that as the 13-week series unfolds, the little-girl ghost who appears to various patients and staffers will wreak some almighty havoc. I presume the lumbering, long-toothed Antubis will do some unsavory chewing and that King will make good on his quotation from Wallace Stevens’ blunt poem about death, ”The Emperor of Ice Cream.” King also displays his impeccable musical taste in using Steam’s 1969 hit ”Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)” as an unnervingly spooky tune. Stephen King’s ”Kingdom Hospital” is a little florid (voice-over mumbo jumbo about how ”there’s a price to be paid for the miraculous, and Blue Cross doesn’t cover it”). But this is a small-screen B movie with the promise of turning into something richer and scarier: a horror film about, as the critic Helen Vendler has written of the Stevens poem, ”the gross physicality of death and the animal greed of life.” Both topics right up King’s alley.