Stephen King is the most influential voice in horror of the late 20th century. His books have been best sellers since his debut and have gone on to spawn numerous adaptations in film, TV, video games, and other media. King Of All Media looks at those adaptations, starting with his TV miniseries in chronological order. Each week Alejandra Gonzalez and Rob Dean will discuss a new miniseries project of King’s, with today’s installment being on 2006’s NIGHTMARES & DREAMSCAPES.
Rob Dean: Stephen King has been such a prolific writer in so many different areas. Not just spreading out into the world of film and television, but also within the literary realm itself—offering up scores of novels, collaborations, short stories, novellas, and a couple of novelettes. He has published roughly seven different collections of short stories over the years, many of the tales first being in published in various genre magazines and other publications, with many of those short stories being adapted to screen (to various degrees of success). Personally, I kind of prefer his short stories because they are the most “all killer, no filler” approach to the horror genre where he has a straightforward concept executed well. Most of them don’t have the depth of his longer works, of course, and there’s less memorable characters in them—but they tended to be the King works that spooked me the most.
Nightmares & Dreamscapes was a short story collection published in 1993 that was then partially adapted (as NIGHTMARES & DREAMSCAPES: FROM THE STORIES OF STEPHEN KING) in July 2006 for cable network TNT (though three of the eight episodes are adapted from other King collections). It’s unique in all of King’s TV projects as it’s the only anthology miniseries that was ever done, with each installment being a standalone entry. As such, it’s probably best to discuss each of them separately.
The first chapter is “Battleground,” directed by Brian Henson, and concerns a professional assassin (William Hurt) who kills a toy magnate. The assassin returns home only to soon be under siege from living green army men toys looking to avenge their creator’s demise. It is an incredibly audacious opening installment for many reasons. Firstly, the entire episode is dialogue-free with the only words being spoken coming from a brief moment on TV with a reporter confirming what happened. Secondly, it’s not a horror story per se as there is no sense of sinister aura around the toys — no preying on automatophobia like in the CHILD’S PLAY movies, POLTERGEIST, or MAGIC — but still feels in line with a tale from EC Comics. Thirdly, it’s an inherently goofy idea with scrambling plastic guys waging war against a stone cold hitman. But, for all of its gambles, this entry really worked for me. It is goofy but committed to the world it is portraying and does so with great style. Hurt, who has never been an understated actor, does well as the embattled villain that audiences root for but also are totally cool with him being killed by the sentient playthings. My only gripe with “Battleground” is that the score (by Jeff Beal) is too bombastic — it emphasizes too much of the action and introduces too many stings rather than letting the action play out on screen.
Ale — what are your thoughts on King’s short story work? And what did you like and/or dislike about “Battleground?”
Alejandra Gonzalez: Actually, out of everything I have read by King, his short stories are my favorite. I really loved reading Nightmares & Dreamscapes, and it may actually be my favorite of his short story collections though I know most people prefer Skeleton Crew. You’re absolutely right in being spooked the most by his shorter work, and I totally feel the same way. As far as “Battleground” goes, I actually didn’t like much about it until I heard what you had to say. I thought the premise was ridiculous and that it bordered on boring because of the lack of dialogue, but, thinking about it now, I think I can appreciate how goofy the idea of an adult TOY STORY is. I had an opposite reaction with the score, which I liked at first but then grew to greatly dislike. The thing is, the score is well done and really great but completely wrong for this particular episode. I think the idea was to include a very elaborate score in order to create tension and suspense in the absence of a dialogue. However, it doesn’t do that at all, and I think they would have been better off with total silence at some points. Less is more.
The second episode is “Crouch End,” which is about a newlywed couple who gets lost in another dimension while they are on their honeymoon. This… is not great. It feels like a really terrible episode of The Twilight Zone, and even does a weird thing with color saturation while the couple is inside the alternate dimension that almost makes it look black and white. I get it, I get it. The couple, played by Claire Forlani and Elon Bailey, are not believable to me and have no chemistry. I think they both do fine on their own but their performances don’t work well together, and I just didn’t care about the trouble they encountered. The oddities of Crouch End looked extremely fake and almost less believable than the fact that these two were married. This was an absolute chore, though I did really like the ending. How did you feel about it?
Rob Dean: “Crouch End,” directed by Mark Haber, is based on the short story of the same name and was inspired by the time King was in London and went to meet up with Clive Barker for dinner. He went to Barker’s neighborhood, but couldn’t find the author’s flat for the life of him. That brief and mundane anecdote (courtesy of Joe Bob Briggs’ “The Last Drive-In” on Shudder) is far more entertaining than anything in this segment. I was dying for this to end. The main problem with “Crouch End” is that the central characters are completely unlikable and unsympathetic. Bailey is an egotistical blowhard that only gets worse once they cross over, while Forlani plays a subservient and superstitious woman who simply bends to her new husband’s will. When things go badly (rendered poorly with bad effects), rather than care more for the couple it just exacerbates their worst qualities. The acting is fine, but totally hampered by rudderless direction and paper thin writing. You know those annoying couples that are killed off early or in a quick scene in monster movies or FRIDAY THE 13TH films? This is 45 minutes with that couple.
“Umney’s Last Case” is a curious entry. Directed by Rob Bowman, it has strong dual performances by William H. Macy as Clyde Umney, a fictional detective in the 1930s, and Sam Landry, the author that invented him. Umney soon finds the world changing about him as Landry, mourning a recent tragedy, looks to leave the real world behind and replace the gumshoe in the fictitious universe. I’m a sucker for imaginary characters interacting with their artistic creators — whether it’s “Duck Amuck,” Grant Morrison’s Animal Man run, STRANGER THAN FICTION, LAST ACTION HERO, and more. I don’t know why it’s a trope that I respond to so strongly, possibly has something to do with religious upbringing and a desire to confront my own creator. But it works for me and so does this segment for most of the running time. Then, in the last quarter, it just keeps going past the punchline and takes unnecessary turns. If it had ended 10-15 minutes earlier, I would have really loved seeing Macy match wits with Macy while evoking the great Chandler writings that I adore and this would have been a great segment. But with the muddled ending that just stumbles to a conclusion, it felt disjointed and like a slowly deflating balloon.
One thing that’s notable, to me, about “Umney’s Last Case” is how much King seems to be taking himself to task. I don’t remember the details of the story, so maybe this isn’t in the original text, but there’s a real criticizing streak in this segment where the author is shown to be selfish, cruel, somewhat a fraud, and a bit of a hack. It’s an interesting element of King (who would literally put himself into his texts with The Dark Tower series) confronting his own doubts and faults through the veneer of a fun genre dive.
What did you think of this one? And why hasn’t Macy been cast as a WWII-era private detective in more projects?
Alejandra Gonzalez: I really loved “Umney’s Last Case!” First, I gotta say, I love Macy. His performance as Umney in this, for some reason, really reminded me of his performance in PLEASANTVILLE despite playing majorly different characters. It was really fun seeing him play a funny character and a more serious one in the same episode, and I think it shows his immense talent as well as how versatile he is as an actor. As far as the story goes, because so many of King’s stories involve writers as their protagonist, I find myself mixing up minor details of a lot of them! I wish I was better at keeping them aligned, but this reminded me a lot of THE DARK HALFbecause of the whole “double” element, and also how the characters’ writing is what gets them into their nightmarish situations to begin with. I agree with what you said about how much I enjoyed this until the end. Still, the conclusion wasn’t enough to make me dislike this episode, and it is probably my favorite out of these first few.
“The End of the Whole Mess” is my favorite story in King’s Nightmares & Dreamscapes. It concerns Howard Fornoy, a filmmaker who chooses his last moments to document the story of his genius brother who induced a horrible epidemic across the world in efforts to save it. Unfortunately, the episode severely pales in comparison to its source material. I don’t necessarily think there was anything wrong with it, I just didn’t have much to like. I did really like Ron Livingston, and I always have since I saw him in Sex and the City so it was a nice surprise to see him in this. Still, the short story does a really amazing job at capturing the tragedy between the Fornoy boys because it effectively establishes their dynamic in a way that the episode didn’t. I wasn’t able to care about the brothers, and therefore Howard’s obligation to kill his brother and leave this documentation behind feels less significant. What did you think?
Rob Dean: The Mikael Salomon-directed fourth installment is a real mixed bag for me. On the one hand, the premise remains very interesting and it has the feel of a Vonnegut short story about science overcompensating for humanity’s inherent nature and the risks of tampering in God’s domain. The acting by Livingston and Henry Thomas, as the genius brother, is strong and are a pair of lived in performances that help sell the drama of the situation.
My issues with it are two-fold: 1) I feel like not a lot of thought went into the side effect of the cure for aggression. Alzheimer’s doesn’t just make people “silly” or turn them into “fools” as this segment literally says. It seems glib to treat the issue so flimsily in the dialogue, yet insist it’s so grave in the narrative, and creates a real disconnect within the story. 2) the format makes NO sense. It starts off as a recorded confession by Livingston about what the brothers did to doom the planet and how he just killed the genius would-be savior of mankind. But there are tons of weird flashbacks, and then photos, and other interviews, and it’s just jumping around constantly between types of material used that it doesn’t really work and never feels like a whole piece.
So that’s it for the first four installments of NIGHTMARES & DREAMSCAPES. Just like with most anthologies, these were a mixed bag of content and quality. Join us in two weeks for the thrilling conclusion of this miniseries, which includes one adaptation that I’m already mildly dreading.