One of the most enjoyable things about Stephen King's The Stand is its sheer messy sprawl. Spread out over four nights for a total of eight hours, this adaptation of Stephen King's jumbo 1978 novel has everything from mystical malarkey about Good vs. Evil to rotting corpses filling up New York City's Lincoln Tunnel. It's a TV movie schlocky enough to have Rob Lowe as one of its heroes, yet witty enough to cast him as a mute.
The Stand starts with a deadly flu virus that leaks out of a California lab and spreads around the world, killing nearly everyone in its path. America goes kerflooie: With no one at the controls, everything from electrical power to law enforcement shuts down. The few survivors of this plague divide into two opposing camps: a group of good-hearted idealists inspired by the wisdom of a 106-year-old woman called Mother Abagail (Ruby Dee); and a band of marauding thugs led by Randall Flagg (Jamey Sheridan, of Shannon's Deal), who may or may not be Satan, but is at least very naughty.
Among the good folks we're supposed to root for are Molly Ringwald, Gary Sinise (Of Mice and Men), Picket Fences' Ray Walston, and Corin Nemec (Parker Lewis Can't Lose). Those on the side of evil include Laura San Giacomo (sex, lies and videotape), Matt Frewer (Max Headroom), and Miguel Ferrer (Twin Peaks) as a hood who talks into the barrel of a gun as if it were a microphone.
Stephen King is invariably tagged a horror writer, and to be sure, The Stand, with its putrid dead bodies and villains who turn into slobbering monsters, has more than its share of shocks (gratifyingly strong ones for prime-time fare). But The Stand isn't so much a horror tale as it is an epic fantasy with the kitchen sink tossed in. King, who also wrote the teleplay, loads his story with symbols (a black crow equals death; at various times, the flu can stand for either AIDS or the bleak result of recreational drug use-on the West Coast, the disease is called ''Captain Trips,'' after Jerry Garcia's nickname). There are solemn meditations on the incorruptibility of the impaired (in addition to Lowe's noble deaf-mute, Coach's Bill Fagerbakke plays a saintly fellow described as ''mildly retarded'') and more endless treks across the barren Southwest than you would think poor, hungry, sick people could possibly make. The final clash between the two warring tribes is a garish doozy that's set in Las Vegas.
The Stand was directed by Mick Garris, himself a writer of horror fiction. This isn't his first stab at King, either: Garris also directed the stylish feature film Sleepwalkers (1992). But The Stand is Garris' first big miniseries, and it benefits from his fresh eye. It doesn't have anything like the usual steady, predictable rhythms of a miniseries-its scenes are of uneven lengths, and sometimes important characters disappear for hours at a time. The unexpected structure of the film-sort of an artful jumble-helps build suspense, because you realize very quickly that this movie doesn't behave like other TV shows; anything can happen at any time.
Garris also takes more care with the look of his film than most TV-movie directors-surely this is one of the prettiest scary movies ever made-and some entire scenes unfold without dialogue, a great rarity in television land.
Most of the characterization in The Stand is superficial: Sinise is a laconic Texan; Ringwald is a stoic Maine woman; Walston is a deep-thinking professor. In this trite context, the too-brief performance by Shawnee Smith as a vividly creepy sex bomb stands out (there are those of us who remember Smith fondly from the short-lived 1986 sitcom All Is Forgiven).
But by far the best acting comes from Sheridan. Granted, playing the personification of evil is an inherently juicy role, but Sheridan avoids the temptation to camp it up. Instead, he plays Flagg for his grim intensity. Offsetting his leading-man looks with the longhaired 'do of a dissolute heavy- metal star, Sheridan gives every line a purr of hostile contempt. Even without the special effects that regularly turn him into a horned devil, he is one unsettling dude, the perfect Stephen King bad guy. And if The Stand itself isn't the perfect King adaptation, that doesn't really matter, because perfection isn't what a pop-culture omnivore like King aims for anyway. He's after glorious excess, and The Stand has that in spades.