Credit: Dark Star Pictures
Before We Vanish by Greg Cwik Featured Film

King on Screen — Daphné Baiwir

August 8, 2023

Since I was a boy, gaunt and ghoulish, raised on the children’s renditions of Edgar Allan Poe and those silly Goosebumps books, I’ve been obsessed with Stephen King, the most reliable marquee-name author of the last half-century, who lives in perpetuity atop the Bestseller lists and entombed deep in the subconscious of anyone who’s ever been afraid of clowns or felt like the awkward kid in high school or been to a forlorn hotel in the vast snowy isolation of a mountain resort. I devoured all of King’s books from Carrie to Cell, and often penned my own amateur imitations, ersatz iniquities and bad endings. King possesses one of American culture’s great imaginations, but he is not a great, or often even a good, writer. He is, even more so than Ira Levin, the American writer whose works most obviously read like they should be viewed on a screen rather than read on paper. I have tried to dive back into many of his books, particularly the 1980s ones — which he wrote at blistering speed, ripped on blow and loopy on cough syrup — but it’s a difficult ask. Save for Misery, which has an almost modernist streak, King’s prose is painfully pedestrian, the rhythm and pacing clumsy, the dialogue stilted; but the characters, the sequences of scenes, the — dare I say it? — plots are all as compelling as anything conjured in the imagination of any major American novelist. King’s best book is, interestingly, his impassioned treatise on horror in culture, from radio and TV to film and comics, the ’50s to the late-’70s, Danse Macabre, which displays his colloquial style at its most polemical and eloquent, the wordplay clever and unaffiliated with King’s unabating habits with clumsy dialogue. King, the master of the monster story, is actually quite adept at writing about other people’s monsters.

At first, it seemed like King wrote middling books just so that they could be made into great films by iconoclastic auteurs: Brian De Palma imbuing the forgettable Carrie with aching beauty and tragedy; Tobe Hooper managing to pare down the massive small-town sprawl of ‘Salem’s Lot into a three-hour television movie and summon some truly indelible eldritch images; Kubrick pissing off King with the clinical chilliness of The Shining; Cronenberg using King’s cache and studio money to subvert expectations for a “horror” film about the pathos of a man who awakens from a coma to find his life gone, replaced with psychic powers, with The Dead Zone; and John Carpenter flensing the fat from Christine, a tome about teen ennui and a killer car, and making what is more of a Carpenter film than a King film. In fact, this is the key to making these adaptations work: the auteur uses the stories as architectural skeleton, filling them in with their own blood and brains and hearts and soul. The film that usurps this otherwise sound rule is George Romero’s anthology Creepshow, which King wrote and appears in a one-man/plant-man segment. It’s kooky, the most genuinely King film, a blissful union of Romero and King’s perversely playful inclinations. (Competent genre craftsman Lewis Teague was also there for the admirably intense Cujo and the serviceably silly Cat’s Eye during that great run from the late-’70s to the mid-’80s.)

The quality of King movies has vacillated wildly since the ’80s, with some unexpected triumphs (e.g. Silver Bullet, based on a gleefully gory graphic novella) and major hits (The Shawshank Redemption). The dreadful 2017 It beat The Exorcist‘s nearly five-decade reign as the highest-grossing R-rated film, and now everyone’s scrambling to snatch up the rights to everything King ever scribbled. King on Screen, the new documentary directed by Daphné Baiwir, attempts, not too ambitiously, to provide some commentary by experts of varying degrees of respectability on King Cinema. It begins with a creative opening segment, cleverly directed and undeniably fun for King fans, with all kinds of winks and nods and gags. A lanky man with virgin-white hair cascading over his shoulders and garbed in black (played by Mick Garris, longtime King friend who helmed the pitiful remake of The Shining and created the too-short-lived anthology series Masters of Fear) traipses with somnambulistic purpose through a convenience store replete with candy and beverages in nice, neat rows, tapping a walking stick all over the scuffed linoleum and intoning words culled from a book splayed in his hand. A young girl comes in and gets a tea and directions from a one-eyed employee manning the cash register. She gets in her car and leaves as the camera situates itself behind gravestones, gazing at what we know — from the mise-en-scene and aesthetic and the very King-ish way of rendering innocuous characters creepy by accentuating their eccentric features — is a quotidian endeavor that will somehow go badly. In her back seat is a painting that cannot possibly not be haunted. After more ominous nothings happen, we follow the naïf as she passes other eccentrics chit-chatting in that small-town King style, before we enter the backroom of a small shop/bar/cafe to meet… The Master.

Cue the first of a concatenation of talking heads naming films they like (of note: horror doc constant and legendary special-effects maestro Greg Nicotero pops up to give his usually enlivened insights). The sound mixing is a little off, the clips and music and voices all competing for dominance, which proves a bit annoying. The snippets of talking heads come fast, and include people claiming King is “not just a horror writer,” Tom Holland (the filmmaker, not the Spider-Man) expounding on what makes King work on screen, and the directors of the wretched 2019 Pet Sematary opining which King films are their favorites. There’s nothing too profound here, and by the nature of King’s exorbitant popularity, there aren’t many deep-cuts or surprises like you find in the In Search of Darkness films. It’s also not an un-enjoyable way to spend some time, though one does wish someone had something even slightly critical to say about the most popular writer alive — instead, Baiwir’s film treats viewers to nothing but non-stop praise, and much of it rather bland at that. King on Screen also spends an inordinate amount of time complaining about how Kubrick isn’t King and speaking fondly of Garris’ flop — big swing and miss material — as well giving an oddly inflated amount of attention to the likes of The Green Mile, while a lot of the smaller, stranger, more interesting films are relegated to two-frame fleeting glimpses. And by the time the film ends, virtually every decision that’s went into its construction feels a bit perplexing, from the opening sequence that never goes anywhere to the way Baiwir divides time between only a few select films — Frank Darabont accounts for something close to half the movie. Given the massive amount of attention paid to the author over the decades and the lack of any real critical angle here, King on Screen can ultimately feel pointless. But it’s also a charming love letter to a titan, and decent enough material for background viewing while working through household tasks.

DIRECTOR: Daphné BaiwirCAST: —;  DISTRIBUTOR: Dark Star Pictures;  IN THEATERS: August 11;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 15 min.