With the success of Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of Carrie, the work of the prolific horror author, Stephen King, became a near sure bet to be box office gold, and to this day his work, both new and old, are being adapted for the big and small screen. The 1980s saw at least one move released almost every year, many years saw multiple movies released. Thirteen different films premiered between 1980 and 1989, starting with Stanley Kubrik’s The Shining and ending with Pet Sematary. My mother loved horror novels and scary movies was a huge fan of Kings. She instilled in me, the same appreciation for the genre. So, most of these productions I saw when they were first released in the theaters and have very fond memories of letting the intricate stories wash over me as I watched the plots unfold on screen. I did read a few Stephen King books, but did not read the three stories I am going to address in this article, so I do not have a reference point to address any deviation from the source material.
Stephen King often wrote of people who in some way became special and powerful. He tried to address whether they used their abilities for good or bad and the moral dilemmas associated with great power. The Dead Zone, Firestarter and Silver Bullet are all films about such people.
The Dead Zone (1983): After a car accident puts Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) into a coma for five years, he awakens to find that the love of his life has married and is now a mother and that he also can see the future of a person when he makes physical contact with them. At first he is unsure if the future can be altered after he has seen it, but when he saves a young student from drowning after he saw the boy die, he realizes there is a “Dead Zone” in his visions that allow for the future to be changed. When he sees a cataclysmic event being caused by a future politician, he struggles with the moral dilemma of whether or not he should stop this man before he has a chance to destroy the world even if it means his own demise.
This is one of my favorite movies. The direction and performances are really well done, with an especially powerful and nuanced performance by Christopher Walken. Directed by David Cronenberg, he expertly interwove the real world into a fantasy one making the movie easier to connect with on an emotional level. There is no real flashy special effects, just really good story telling. I am not sure what King actually thought of the movie, but he did write a screen play that was ultimately rejected by Cronenberg for multiple reasons.
Firestarter (1984): Two college students meet while they are both taking part in an experiment called “Lot Six” conducted by DSI, the Department of Scientific Intelligence, a.k.a, The Shop. Most of the participants in that experiment die, but Andy McGee (David Keith) and Vickey (Heather Locklear) survive and fall in love and get married. The experiment gave both of them special abilities. Andy could “push” people, meaning he could control their actions (mental domination) and Vickey could read thoughts. The couple has a daughter, Charlie (Drew Barrymore) who has an ability called pyrokinesis, she can create and control fire. Because of her great power, the Shop wants to study Charlie, to possibly use her power as a weapon or find a way to duplicate it. This puts Andy and Charlie on the run. Once they are captured, a cat and mouse game begin as Captain Hollister (Martin Sheen) manipulates Charlie into testing the limits of her powers. But they soon learn to regret their treatment of her and Andy when Charlie is pushed to her limit and takes revenge.
I feel like this movie gets a bit of a bad rap from critics. It is often thought to be a bit boring and that the characters do not appear to be real or genuine. Even Stephen King, after seeing a rough cut thought it to be “One of the worst of the bunch” speaking about the other adaptions of his books to movies, and in doing research for this article, I found that this movie is often left off of lists of adapted movies. And although I do see what they mean about the performances not being real, there is a connection and tenderness that David Keith and Drew Barrymore share. Drew I thought did an excellent job of being a little girl. She was bratty at times, and sweet at times, and appropriately freaked out by their situation. The story of an innocent little girl who harbors the power in her to destroy the world but doesn’t know how to control it, is very interesting and I have always thought it was well presented. Martin Sheen is a bit over the top as Hollister and George C. Scott as hitman, John Rainbird, was miscast. The script doesn’t go into as much depth into Rainbirds motivations as it should have. Also, the score was done by Tangerine Dream which was a strange choice and the film could have benefitted from a soundtrack by an actual film composer.
Silver Bullet (1985): A werewolf terrorizes a small town in Maine over the course of several months. Marty Coslaw (Cory Haim) who is confined to a wheelchair, discovers who the killer is, he and his sister, Jane (Megan Follows) and their Uncle Red (Gary Busey) attempt to lay a trap and stop the werewolf’s reign of terror. Who the werewolf is and his justification for who he is killing calls into focus who really is the sinner is based on perspective.
The script for this movie was written by Stephen King himself and has a different tone than many of the other adaptations. The movie is purposely humorous and corny and almost a parody of itself. Where most critics are overly harsh to this movie, as I think they tried to take it too seriously instead of appreciating the dark humor and over the top performances making it a fun, enjoyable film. The movie has some scary moment with some tense scenes as Marty and the werewolf battle. There are some interesting moral themes lightly hit upon, but mainly the movie was made to just be pure mindless entertainment.
Stephen King is truly horror royalty, often creating creepy and terrifying stories with complex characters and interesting situations that intertwine real life with fantasy fiction. Not every movie adapted was a hit with critics, but usually they were vastly entertaining. The 1980s was a productive decade for movie studios to present some amazing versions of his stories.
Decades 1980s: The Movies of Stephen King, Long May he Reign!
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