Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Television Review: DESPERATION (2006, Mick Garris)

Stars: 2 of 5.
Running Time: 131 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew:  Tom Skerritt (ALIEN, CHEERS), Ron Perlman (THE NAME OF THE ROSE, QUEST FOR FIRE, HELLBOY), Charles Durning (SHARKY'S MACHINE, HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS), Steven Weber (MICK GARRIS' THE SHINING, WINGS), Henry Thomas (Elliott in E.T., CLOAK & DAGGER), Matt Frewer (MAX HEADROOM, THE STAND), Annabeth Gish (MYSTIC PIZZA, NIXON), and Kelly Overton (THE RING TWO, TRUE BLOOD).  Based on the novel and adapted by Stephen King.  Music by Nicholas Pike (CRITTERS 2, CAPTAIN RON).   Edited by Patrick McMahon (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, WILD PALMS).
Tag-line: "In this town, there are no accidents."
Best one-liner:  "I see you're an organ donor.  Are you sure that's wise?"

A Stephen King adaptation directed for television by Mick Garris– you're probably wondering why I'm even reviewing this at all.  We already know it's bad, right?  Well, sure, Constant Reader, you're right– but let's just say this one's for the love of the game. 

Author's Note:  The following review will be written in a style vaguely resembling Stephen King's.  That means it will be peppered with old-timey patois, sudden and ridiculous jargon, a smattering of rhymes, absurd foreshadowing, head-scratching use of curse words, parenthetical presentation of subliminal thoughts, and maybe a few 1950s bullies.  This is all good-natured ribbing on my part– I love the man and still read a few of his novels each year.  In fact, I read DESPERATION this summer, and while it felt a little bit like an oddly churchy TWILIGHT ZONE episode peppered with elements of IT and THE DARK TOWER, I still enjoyed it and against my better judgment found myself wanting to see the movie.  And so follows this review.  Here goes:

I'm going down, down, down, down
I'm going down, down, down, down
–Bruce Springsteen

Mick Garris– the Grand Wazoo of bad, made-for-television Stephen King adaptations– has struck again with a film that isn't all bad, although it mostly is.  Spinning the tale of a demon-creature named "Tak" who has emerged from a strip mine and begun to terrorize, possess, and murder the citizens and visitors of a small Nevada town, DESPERATION succeeds in building a modicum of atmosphere



only to shatter it with bad acting, mawkish piano riffs (from the composer of CAPTAIN RON!), bloated pacing, and a result that feels less than the sum of its parts– the sort of adaptation where afterward you even begin second-guessing your fondness for the source material.

When I read it, I imagined DESPERATION's primary antagonist (Collie Entragian, a possessed, psychotic brute of a local cop) as Gary Busey.  I almost couldn't imagine anyone else doing justice to this fusion of "country boy" and "short-circuiting demonic madman."  Of course, as it turned out, Ron Perlman plays the part– and he does a pretty damn good job, all things considered.  Any movie where Perlman accuses people of being "unisex swingles" can't be all bad. 

He's the kind of character actor who doesn't necessarily require "direction" to deliver a fine performance, though he wages war throughout against the cringe-worthy crazy-person dialogue (adapted by King himself) and, no, he doesn't always win.

"I mean, how can you sing 'Puff the Magic Dragon' without Peter, Paul, and Mary?" 

But sometimes Ron Perlman doesn't give a tin shit about bad dialogue, and he can rise above it like a bad-gunky yum yum boogersnot mothersmucker bringin' death to all shitters of the world (all of those terms actually come from different King novels –SG), like in this insane moment when he shakes Tom Skerritt's hand LIKE HE CHRISTING MEANS IT.

Wait– Tom Skerritt!?  I wasn't told you'd be joining us, Mr. Skerritt– and dressed a bit like a 50s bully, to boot!  Skerritt plays a popular novelist and 'Nam vet who's passing though Desperation for a
(acting paycheck)
 book he's writing about a cross-country motorcycle journey, a kind of pastiche of Steinbeck's TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY called "TRAVELS WITH HARLEY."  Unaware that he would play Ulysses S. Grant seven years later in 2013's FIELD OF LOST SHOES, Skerritt seems at first enthusiastic, then fatigued, and finally "phoning it in."  And that is your right, Tom Skerritt:  that is your right.  Tak!

And hey, look who else showed up:

Stephen "the less-talented William Fichtner" Weber, who played Jack Torrance in the adaptation of THE SHINING that Stephen King prefers (hint:  it's not the Kubrick).

Stephen Weber does a style of acting that's very distinct
(bad acting)
and I can't really think of any way to describe it
(sitcom acting)
but it's worthy of discussion.  It's almost on the tip of my tongue
and if I could remember what it was called
(bad schmacting)
 I'd share it with you.  I really and truly would.
Well, at least DESPERATION finally affords us the opportunity to see Stephen Weber 
regale us with his exceptional shadow puppet abilities.  Kabam, kabam, kabam alama ding dong.

And you didn't really think we were going to see a Mick Garris movie without Matt "MAX HEADROOM" Frewer, did you?

While I've referred to Garris as "a one-man Matt Frewer employment agency," I've really got nothing against Frewer, who's a fine character actor in his own right.  Honestly, I'm still trying to figure out whether Frewer's a poor man's James Rebhorn, or if Rebhorn's a poor man's Frewer.   I suppose it doesn't matter.  Yes, indeedy.

As always, there's an insufferable kid, cut from the mold of, say, MR. BELVEDERE's Rob Stone.

In most King adaptations, there exists the possibility of an insufferable kid, but the non-Garris films have actually had a pretty decent track record (Danny Lloyd in THE SHINING, Drew Barrymore in FIRESTARTER and CAT'S EYE, Corey Haim in SILVER BULLET, the whole crew in STAND BY ME, etc.).  However, in mishandling child actors and embracing the cornier aspects of King's canon, the whole grisly affair begins to slide into Hallmark movie territory– which is why, for example, Kubrick didn't end his SHINING adaptation with Jack Nicholson's ghost cheering on his son at his college graduation (as was the case in Garris' "approved" version).

Speakin' of child actors, we have E.T.'s Henry Thomas!

Not much to say here.  I'm not going to say anything bad about Henry Thomas.  Love CLOAK & DAGGER.  Yes, sirree.

Well now, hold on one goddamned gadoodlin' minute– who's this, hitting the hooch, there?

Why, it's gruff, potbellied, character actor extraordinaire, Charles Durning– professional aficionado of growling the word "goddamned" and part-time member of Sharky's Machine

He's not given a whole helluva lot to do, but he gets to fight a mountain lion and pretends to ignore Steven Weber's shadow-puppetry, so let's just give him that, shall we?

Also, I have to give Mr. Garris and his crew credit for some nice practical effects, from face-rippin' gore (on network television, no less!)
to tarantulas crawling out of the mouth of a prosthetic Ron Perlman.

It's pretty refreshing after the CGI atrocities we've witnessed in Garris flicks from the "Hand of God" in THE STAND to the army of killer hands in QUICKSILVER HIGHWAY to the "Killer Topiary" THE SHINING '97.  So... well done on that front!

And to you fans of TV's LOST– a series that borrowed much from a number of King novels, from THE STAND to THE DARK TOWER series– we have a finale that prefigures a number of LOST tropes, with Tom Skerritt facing off in an ancient temple against a shape-shifting, manipulative smoke monster with an aversion to dynamite

and a descent far below the earth to plug up a deadlight-y hole of mystical energy.  I guess we should be thankful it doesn't end with people hugging in a church?  (Though it certainly comes close enough!)

In closing, I think it's simply impossible to manage a great adaptation of one of King's sprawling, spiritual epics– all the best ones are either based on considerably shorter, more focused stories (CARRIE, THE MIST, CHRISTINE, STAND BY ME, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION) or take brilliant or hilariously absurd liberties with the source material (THE SHINING, THE RUNNING MAN).  If only Romero had done his fabled adaptation of THE STAND, back in the day.

Now, if this review really was a Stephen King epic, there'd be a couple of false endings, an epilogue, some old-timey wisdom, and everybody would forget about
(this movie)
all the misadventures that had befallen them.  But it's late, and I think I've said enough.  Two stars, DESPERATION– but ya earned 'em.  Boogedy-boo!

–Sean Gill


Anonymous said...

Nicely done! The King-styled write up is a solid gimmick and I wholeheartedly approve. It's too bad that this looks like another Garris TV snoozer, though. I wonder how many times you'd have to throw Garris, King, and Weber together until they made a good one of these. 50? 100? 1,000? I bet if the trio made 100 King adaptations (and don't rule out this happening!), at least a couple of them would turn out accidentally brilliant, right?

Sean Gill said...

Heh, glad you enjoyed, Mike! An interesting theory– and I'm sure ONE of 100 would be good. I mean, the man made CRITTERS 2, after all.
Also, I haven't yet seen RIDING THE BULLET or BAG OF BONES, though I'm certainly not holding out hope that either of those is a hidden masterpiece.

J.D. Lafrance said...

Nice review, sir! I remember seeing this film on SyFy Channel and being quite disappointed dispite the always welcoming presence of Ron Perlman gleefully chewing up the scenery. Garris really needs to be banned from "adapting" any more of King's stuff. He is so bland mcplain wrap. Augh.

And good call on Weber. He really is the poor man's Fichtner. No lie.

The one sprawling epic-y King adaptation I think they got right, because it managed to be intimate as well, was STORM OF THE CENTURY, which was actually an original screenplay written by King himself, but I thought it was pretty good and stars Weber's WINGS co-star Tim Daly.

Sean Gill said...

Thanks, J.D.! Agreed on a Garris/King hiatus. Though not great by any standard, I think Garris' best work in years was his Henry Thomas-and-Matt Frewer-starring MASTERS OF HORROR episode "Chocolate"– and that had nothin' to do with King, whatsoever, being based on an original Garris short story (!).

I remember watching STORM OF THE CENTURY back in the day when it aired and enjoying it, or at least thinking it was better than the usual King miniseries. I may have to check it out again, eventually.