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Linking Young Minds Together
     Volume 1 Issue 13 | November 5, 2006 |


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Stephen King's television terrors

Don Kaye

Nightmares and Dreamscapes," a collection of eight one-hour mini-movies based on stories by Stephen King, comes to DVD this week after airing on TNT this past summer. It's the latest of numerous King-based television productions dating back to 1979, many of which the horror master himself has been involved with. A number of such projects, including "The Stand" and "It," were critical and ratings successes. But even some of those in which King had direct creative input, as the screenwriter and/or executive producer, have met with the same disdain that has greeted so many theatrical attempts to bring his work to the screen. Why is this?

For one thing, King's prose sometimes works better in the imagination than on the screen. An evil cosmic spider that's millions of years old might induce shivers on the page, but just looks like an oversized rubber bug on your TV set. Plus King's colloquial Maine dialogue, often a pungent trademark of his stories, just doesn't sound as convincing coming from the mouth of a former "Wings" star. Finally -- and perhaps most importantly -- it's tough to build a true sense of dread when the next Preparation H commercial is just a few minutes away.

Yet, if you rate King's output according to the great Rod Serling -- who once said that about a third of "The Twlight Zone" episodes he wrote were fine, another third were passable, and the last third were dogs -- than old Steve isn't doing all that badly ("Nightmares and Dreamscapes" follows pretty much the same pattern). Here's a rundown of the King of Horror's previous television terrors, from first to worst:

'The Stand' (1994)
King's most popular novel went through development hell as various writers and directors tried to distill the 800-plus page tome down to a two-hour movie. A protective King finally adapted the eight-hour miniseries himself, which turned out to be a genuinely frightening and moving saga of good and evil duking it out after most of mankind is wiped out by a plague. Director Mick Garris gave the film an epic quality despite some unfortunate casting (um, Molly Ringwald as the female lead? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a prophet of doom?), and, although the budget also let him down occasionally, this is one of King's true screen gems, period -- small or big.

'It' (1990)
Screenwriter Lawrence Cohen and director Tommy Lee Wallace did a fine job boiling the massive (1,100 pages) "It" down to a two-night, four-hour miniseries, stripping the book to its essential plot of a group of friends who must battle a hideous, ancient monster first as kids, then years later as adults. As with "The Stand," it's often hard to take sitcom stalwarts like Harry Anderson ("Night Court") and John Ritter ("Three's Company") in serious roles, but Tim Curry steals the show as Pennywise the Clown, the monster's "human" manifestation. Sadly, its "monster" manifestation, that giant stop-motion spider, is actually the funny one.

'Salem's Lot' (1979/2004)
The only King book to be filmed twice for television, the author's tale of vampires overrunning a small Maine town is one of his most enduring classics. It's a split decision on which version is better, the '79 CBS two-nighter or TNT's more recent four-hour update. David Soul was perfect in the original as hero Ben Mears, but the movie's king vampire was a silly "Nosferatu" knockoff. The remake retained more of King's multiple storylines and characters, but added some annoying "modern" upgrades and unnecessary back stories. Maybe the third time will be just right ...

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