King on Screen Movie Review

Written by Stephen McClurg

Released by Dark Star Pictures

king on screen poster large

Directed by Daphné Baiwir
2022, 105 minutes, Rated TV-14
Released on August 11th, 2023

Mike Flanagan
Greg Nicotero
James Caan
Frank Darabont
André Øvredal
Amy Irving
Jeffrey DeMunn
Taylor Hackford
Tom Holland
Mick Garris

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King on Screen opens with the framing device of a town that represents the King Macroverse with allusions to novels, characters, and films filling every corner of the frame. Though it might be a reference to the wraparound in Cat’s Eye (1985), which is similar but on a much smaller scale, the effect here will either feel like a Marvel Multiverse Easter egg hunt or a pop culture nightmare. Maybe, unintentionally, it reproduces what it was like growing up in the Silver Age of horror with the explosion of King and the dual markets of horror paperbacks and videocassettes. Every house seemed to have the books, and even the Night Shift hand would stare down from shelves next to toilet paper and aspirin. King was in TV ads. The movies were at the dollar theater down the road, filling the shelves of the mom-and-pop video mart, and playing nonstop in our living rooms thanks to cable TV. In elementary school, even the Weekly Reader featured King. The cover had him on a motorcycle outside his beautiful house in Maine with the spidery Gothic fence. We were given this to read while his books were getting removed from the school libraries. He was as ubiquitous as the Big Mac and fries he may regret once comparing himself to.

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The amount of material alone makes this a difficult project to pull off, much less to complete while pleasing anything but a minority of fans. Given that King on Screen is mostly talking heads in an age of more exploratory documentaries like Room 237 (2012) and Lynch/Oz (2022), the Constant Reader or Constant Viewer of horror may not gain much from it. Since King is an icon of American culture and horror, it’s especially worth a view if one is new to the genre, new to the author, or just a passing fan.

Most of the writers and directors in the documentary found King through the book covers or the promised scares and transgressions offered by the movies. Many participated in shared cultural experiences, maybe best exemplified best in King features like Stand By Me (1986), The Shawshank Redemption (1994) or the TV miniseries events, the kind rarely enjoyed these days on such a scale. What keeps most of these creators engaged are King’s characters and his commentary on America. Stand By Me, as a common touchstone, shows King’s enduring ability to speak to and about kids, especially outcasts, which has transferred to Stranger Things, and then fed back into King’s universe with the newest iteration of IT (2017).

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The documentary doesn’t do an academic deep dive, but it does discuss King’s vision of America, his criticism of religious institutions, and the defense industry. The film highlights the big names in the adaptations: Stanley Kubrick, Rob Reiner, Frank Darabont, and Mike Flanagan–and for good reason. Brian De Palma gets credit for igniting the interest in King screen adaptations with Carrie, but not much else is said about it.

While the movie celebrates King and the adaptations, it doesn’t revel in the pulpiness of titles like Maximum Overdrive (1986), The Running Man (1987), or Graveyard Shift (1990). What of the non-traditional horrors of adaptations like The Lawnmower Man (1992) or The Langoliers (1995)? Why all the corn images in the films? There’s also no real criticisms or mentions of possible missteps, especially King’s once fondness for the magical negro trope or awkward sex scenes. While I love Tom Holland’s work, I can’t help but guffaw at his idea of King or Thinner (1996) being elevated horror. I disagree for multiple reasons, but mostly because I dislike the notion of elevated horror itself. Thinner is a short, nasty, and brutish novel and I like it for those reasons.

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While King’s prescience is discussed in terms of problematic populist candidates and pandemics, what about competitive reality TV and school shootings? Granted, I don’t believe the latter (Rage) has been adapted, but we certainly have had more testicles eaten and increasingly disturbing behavior featured on commercial television since The Running Man was written. As Tod Williams says in the documentary, “And I came to really feel like King, in a way like Bob Dylan, is a sort of dreamer of America. Like he contains the entirety of it and dreams in the language of the chaos of America.” I would have liked to have seen more of the chaos addressed here, but I also realize there is no way to hit all the subjective interests in the adaptation of King’s work in one documentary. At this point, even an entire series would fail. Any attempt would be like a bizarre meta-narrative uroboros or the elusive Dark Tower itself. But as one of those Constant Readers and Viewers, I’d no doubt want to watch and consider how it fails like all commentary does in comparison to the work itself.

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Movie: 3 Star Rating Cover

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Stephen McClurg
Staff Reviewer
No matter how hard he tries to focus on music, Stephen always gets called back to horror culture. The inciting incident is likely the night his grandmother cackled through his wide-eyed and white-knuckled first viewing of Jaws at three. The ‘70s were a different time. Over the years, he has mostly published poetry and essays, but started writing with a review section for the Halloween edition of the sixth-grade school newspaper. He rated titles like Creepshow with a short description and illustrated pumpkins. His teacher loved it, but the principal shredded the final version before distribution since all the movies were rated R.
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