If you don't think Stephen King has transformed the scary-movie genre, glance at the horror shelf of your local video store. A zillion King-alikes crowd the racks, while movies adapted by or from the Maine goremeister himself seem to multiply like little fanged bunnies. King is by far Hollywood's most-filmed book writer; whether he has active input or disavows the final film (as he did with 1992's The Lawnmower Man), King's novels, short stories, screenplays, and TV scripts have spawned 23 films.
So how come so few of those movies are any good?
It, the two-part ABC miniseries that comes to videotape this week, is one of the better King adaptations. But it too has flaws lurking in the basement. You have to ask: Is there something inherently unfilmable about King's brand of shock schlock? Or do the more gothic curlicues of his imagination just not make the transition from page to screen?
It's worth noting, first, the revolution King wrought in the icky-short-story tradition as handed down by Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. Simply put, he evokes, almost cruelly, our identification with the misfit. Carrie, Christine, Firestarter, Misery these are all revenge tales in which the nerd turns, usually with supernatural assistance, to exact revenge on a tormenting ''straight'' world. It's the geeks against the hall monitors, in other words and who hasn't felt like a geek at some point?
The best of the movies adapted from King's work make explicit that connection between inner angst and outer revulsion; it's no coincidence that strong actors and strong-minded directors were involved with all. Brian De Palma gave Carrie an effective pop nastiness while Sissy Spacek provided the movie's heart. The mundane horrors of Rob Reiner's Misery and the studied nostalgia of his Stand by Me might have stumbled if not for just-right performances from Kathy Bates and Wil Wheaton, respectively. And David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone one of the most critically acclaimed King adaptations and, ironically, the one least preferred by many of his fans uses Christopher Walken's natural melancholy to turn a tale of a man who can see the future into quietly awful tragedy.
All the other King flicks back off from human concerns, sliding nervously into oozy FX and proudly stoopid comic-book cynicism. The recent Sleepwalkers, about a pair of ancient bloodsuckers in suburbia, is a good example: Genuinely unsettling when dealing with the incestuous relationship between porcelain Mom (Alice Krige) and all-American Son (Brian Krause), it quickly devolves into a campy rubber-suit extravaganza. Maximum Overdrive, 1986's tinny machines-against-humans B flick and the only film directed by King himself, is even more callously jokey: an apocalypse for preteen metal heads. King's underlying sadism stands out more clearly on the screen too: Cujo, Children of the Corn, and Pet Sematary may be competently made, but they're more grueling than scary.
For all those reasons, It seems to have benefited by being produced for television: Unable to show gore, director Tommy Lee Wallace was forced to fall back on the suggestion of violence which is surely a lot creepier. With its plot about a group of misfit kids who vanquish a slithering beast only to see It return 30 years later, the miniseries represents a link between the gentle Stand by Me and King's more horrific work. ''It'' is obviously a metaphor for childhood fears that must be reconquered in adulthood.
This would be a little too obvious if the producers hadn't rounded up a cast both talented and appealingly lightweight John Ritter, Richard Thomas, Harry Anderson, Tim Reid, Dennis Christopher, Annette O'Toole. The young actors playing the principals as children are also splendid, but honors go to Tim Curry as Pennywise, the clown avatar of the Thing That Lurks in the Sewers and Eats Little Kids. Decked out like a Bozo from Hell, Curry uses his gecko eyes and big, flapping mouth to hint at obscene, unimaginable acts; he doesn't push the menace, and he doesn't have to.
Unfortunately, director Wallace does. When we finally get to see It the real It, which hides behind Pennywise It's a disappointment, a silly spider monster that seems airlifted from the climax of 1957's The Incredible Shrinking Man. The spell that has been maintained for 3 hours is shattered; suddenly we're watching a drive-in creature feature. Until then, It says it's what's inside our heads that's scariest. King's books are frightening for the same reason: We cast his monsters with boogeymen from our own closets. But movies are cruel. They insist that everybody's demons look the same. B-