I started out this post—the fourth in my continuing series on Really, Really Scary Things—intending to reflect on a bunch of frightening movie scenes that left their collective shivering impressions on my surely scarred and damaged soul. However, as I dove into the subject and began to write my “Recollected Tales of Cinematic Terror,” I quickly realized that the post was becoming dominated by my reaction to film adaptations of Steven King novels. So, switching gears and in the spirit of posting sooner rather than later, my Scary Scenes post is being recast as a Stephen King post. Fear (?) not; I promise that all the other heart pounding scenes of eye-popping terror will be covered in a later post.
So, yeah. Stephen King.
Stephen King has the reputation of being the preeminent writer of horror. I suppose that’s an adequate layman description, though it places his work in a tight little genre box that a lot of people won’t touch.
I remember standing in line at a bookstore around the time that It was released in 1986, and getting in a rather ludicrous argument with the old codger behind me who pointed to the “coming soon” poster and commented to his wife that he “…could tell that book is a piece of garbage.” Troublemaker that I am, I asked him if he’d ever read anything by Stephen King, to which he answered, “No, I don’t need to. Just look at the cover.” As someone who enjoys collecting life experiences of the Truly Stupid, the irony of this exchange in a bookstore was rewarding.
In any case, I personally don’t find the majority of King’s exceptional body of work to be super scary. Rather, he tells really, really good, riveting stories based on circumstances (call them supernatural, if you will) that we don’t often encounter in the “real” world. I enjoy immersing myself in his vividly told stories, and savor the creepy moments, but I’m rarely sleep-with-the-lights-on scared.
Those moments, for me, have been more likely to occur in the film adaptations of his earliest novels. Let’s turn on the projector and dare to take a peek!
Carrie White Burns In Hell
Carrie was the first of countless Stephen King adaptations to hit the silver screen, and for my money it’s still one of the best, garnering Oscar nominations for Sissy Spacek and the delightfully deranged Piper Laurie. It smartly stayed close to the original novel, and had lots of creepy visuals (Sissy Spacek drenched in blood, staring down her classmates like a crimson statue of hate; Piper Laurie hiding behind a bedroom door clutching a 12″ butcher knife—good stuff!). The first time I saw the film, I really didn’t find it all that scary. I’d read the book, so I was well prepared for the eventual rampage of telekinetic revenge, and that played out—for me—with more satisfaction than fright.
So, yeah, the fires rage, the house implodes, Carrie is dead and the movie is over. I thought it was good. And I didn’t think it was scary.
Oh wait, the movie isn’t over. Susan Snell, the lone survivor of Carrie’s Prom Night of Death is carrying a bouquet of flowers. This isn’t in the book, I think. And then… the final scene.
Is it possible to have every ounce of blood suddenly evaporate from your entire body? I think that’s what I experienced, and—with the frenetic score and Amy Irving’s screams—it’s quite possibly the most frightening thing I’ve ever seen on film.
The Shining – Dead little girls are SCARY!
While Carrie was a reasonably accurate retelling of a Stephen King novel, The Shining is notorious for the “liberties” Stanley Kubrick took in directing his 1980 film adaptation. Yes, the book and movie tell the same basic story, but they do so by radically different means, and while King has been famously critical of the film, I think both are successful at delivering really good scares.
And for me, the best of those really good scares came every time the “creepy dead girls” appeared on screen. The creepy dead girls weren’t in the novel. Well, they were, but no one ever saw them. Kubrick decided to exploit their calm creepiness to the hilt! Hello… Danny. Come and play with us. Forever… and ever… and ever…
I will forever be scared of really long hotel hallways with ugly carpeting.
Salem’s Lot – Real vampires don’t wear mousse
One more early Stephen King adaptation before we move on to other horrors. I give you now Salem’s Lot and the best screen vampire since Max Schreck in Nosferatu. ‛Salem’s Lot (yes, there’s a leading apostrophe in the book title, but not the movie) was a really, really scary book about vampires slowly infiltrating a small town in rural Maine. It seemed perfect for a screen adaptation and originally aired as a two part miniseries in the fall of 1979. Despite what I thought to be some really cheesy casting (David Soul? Lance Kerwin?), the series, as a whole, was one of the best things I’ve ever seen on broadcast television, and was filled with the kind of eeriness that creep into your subconscious late at night to screw with your rational mind and leave you with the lights blazing until daybreak.
One role that was masterfully cast was that of antique dealer Richard Straker, played with supercilious big city euro-arrogance by James Mason. So superb is Mason in this role, as he plays down to the unsophisticates of the quaint little town, updating them on the impending arrival of partner, “Mr. Barlow,” that you just know something really, really bad is headed for the town of Jerusalem’s Lot.
Waiting for Mr. Barlow to arrive, we the viewing audience are treated to floating dead children, freshly buried dead children, and various other scares, but NOTHING like the first screen appearance of Mr. Barlow. With town hothead Ned Tebbets cooling off in the local pokey, his dimly lit cell is disturbed by strange shadows fluttering upon his face from beyond the bars. Ned, restlessly swats at the shadows, then awakens to see a mysterious shrouded arm unlatch the iron bars with the wave of a boney hand.
And then… Hello, Mr. Barlow!
Seeing this scene for the first time, alone, was absolutely chilling. Seeing it a second time, with a house full of we-don’t-scare-easily college roommates, was delightful. Heh heh heh heh heh…
Undead, foul-mouthed, murderous toddlers are REALLY scary!
Didn’t I earlier boast that I’m rarely truly frightened when reading Stephen King? Oh, sure, there are hair-raising moments across his entire canon of well-told tales. But seriously, psychologically messed up from reading words on the page? Nah. Well… there was one book.
Released in 1983, Pet Sematary was supposedly a story that King himself found so extreme in its themes and consequences that he originally held it back from publication. Naturally, I wanted to read it! The weekend following the book’s release my parents were to be out of town, leaving me home all alone at their secluded house in the country.
Who are you kidding? The house isn’t “secluded.” Yes, it’s off the street and sits on two and a half acres, but that’s certainly close enough for neighbors to hear your screams in the event of an attack by the undead!
Yeah, okay, whatever. This is my dramatic blog.
So… Alone. Secluded. There was also a rather nasty, blustery storm brewing so I set out to read what was supposed to be One Scary Book.
::: Spoilers Ahead!! :::
And it was! Raising the dead is only so scary, but when the dead come back “not quite right” with wicked, nasty, spiteful intentions… that’s downright unsettling. There were all kinds of memorably creepy scenes, the most disturbing being that of a distraught father robbing the grave of his freshly buried son, a precocious little toddler named Gage. It’s really pretty frightening, and heartbreaking (which really makes the horror that much more effective). Little Gage comes back as if possessed, going on a killing spree in which he taunts his victims (notably, about the sexual proclivities of the neighbor’s long deceased wife), and commits matricide. I read the entire 400+ page novel over the course of two nights as a storm raged outside.
The book was so scary that on the second night I just kept reading and reading because I was frankly too scared to go to sleep. And to stop reading would be to leave the horrifying and suspenseful tale hanging, unresolved, to play with my overactive imagination. Page by page I allowed the story to fill my mind, until the book came to its unsettling conclusion. Then, I had to go to bed.
I had a bedroom on the second floor above the garage, and I can’t recall how long it took me to finally fall asleep as the book sat on my nightstand and the wind howled outside my window. Nor can I recall what I dreamt that night. But sometime in the pitch of darkness I was awakened by a banshee wind shuddering at my window, and the large umbrella tree that covered the back patio was suddenly taken up and smashed through the window on the other side of the room.
Yes, that was scary.