Friday, April 04, 2008

Camera Obscura: Monsters Be Our Destiny

I can think of few writers and creators of our current age who have reflected the twisted, fearful nature of the modern mind better than Stephen King. For decades now he has consistently (though not always) made me shiver with terror with his tales. He's created an impressive mythology of American horror. Some tales work better than others, but when he is on the mark, he's one of the best ever at his trade.

Last year filmmaker Frank Darabont tackled a King novella called "The Mist", which is out now on DVD. The initial release of the movie made little impact at the box office, but I'd expect more folks will watch the DVD and I think the movie is another example of how his tales can unnerve us, make us afraid not only of unnameable monsters but afraid of other people. And while I did like the movie, I liked the experience of reading the novella more. Books are almost always better. But this movie works for several reasons.

Solid performances from the actors in "The Mist" are part of the success, and unlike the somewhat lyrical tone of Darabont's other King adaptations ("The Green Mile" and "The Shawshank Redemption"), his camera captures a sense of ordinary light and ordinary places in this film. Early on, we know this will not end well. The situation is quickly and simply presented - an immense cloud of fog and mist settles into a seaside town just as chaotic scenes occur. Sirens wail and troops from a nearby military post roll in by the truckload. A large group of townspeople inside a grocery store watch the chaos and a wounded man enters warning them of horrible dangers and death coming out of the mist.

Trapped by their own fears, it does not take long for paranoia to take hold of each of them. What is unknown is frightening, but it's the meltdown of social order which truly disturbs the townspeople and the viewer. King has often given this scenario before - remove the trappings of ordinary life and many people become capable of monstrous acts quite quickly. Some viewers have complained about the religious fanaticism which one character uses to dominate the others. Too often today the fruits of such fervor are far to common in our world, and not a wild indictment of the faithful.

I liked the movie, even with a different and harsher ending than the original story. Although, as with most of King's stories, I try and comfort myself that I would never, ever act the way those people did. It's a small indulgence I think most of us hold to when we encounter the really scary things in life and in the imagination.

Another apocalyptic tale arrived on DVD last week, "I Am Legend" starring Will Smith, a movie based more on the 1971 Charlton Heston movie than the original 1954 novel by Richard Matheson. Smith plays Dr. Robert Neville, lone survivor of a worldwide virus which has devastated the planet. The worse news is that others did survive but as mutated creatures who ... well, they look nasty and all, but there isn't much mention of their habit of vampirism from the novel's plotline. The creatures are unable to move in a daylight world, and are attracted by blood, but that's the only element in this version of the story.

Before I say anything else, I have to praise Smith's performance in the movie. He is nearly mad from loneliness and despair, which is brought out in several terrific scenes as he talks with mannequins he has placed around the city of New York and when he recites lines from the movie "Shrek" in another key scene. The narrative also goes back and forth between the times of the plague and the present of Neville alone, which does allow for a look at how Neville devolved (or evolved) into a Legend among monsters.

However, this movie is not the book. I liked the movie, mostly due to the way Smith plays his character and the ending originally made for the movie is far better than the one that got released to theaters (you can watch it here, but it will make no sense unless you've seen the film). It's too bad the filmmakers followed the Heston version more than the novel.

Oddly, one archivist I found claims that Heston was given the book to read by Orson Welles when the pair were making their film noir classic "Touch of Evil" and that Heston tried to cut a deal with the studio for Sam Peckinpah to direct. I would love to have seen that movie, as Peckinpah would have understood the story Matheson wrote - that a non-mutant human was the real Legend in a world populated by mutants, that he was alone and a relic of the past and not the present or the future.


40 years ago this week, the landmark movie "2001: A Space Odyssey" was released and an excellent collection of writings and memorabilia can be found here. Sadly, it arrives just days after the passing of writer Arthur C. Clarke. Both Clarke and director Stanley Kubrick achieved a unique moment with their movie. It is a monument to possibility and imagination, a spectacle which still inspires with awe and wonder, expands the ideas of cinema and fiction as no other movie has ever done.


It is truly Frank Miller's time - following on the first-rate adaptations of "300" and "Sin City", Hollywood is awaiting "The Spirit", which Miller is also directing, based on Will Eisner's classic crimefighter. A website for the film is now online, with more features coming soon. Also, the movie which stars Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendes and Scarlett Johansson had some production photos leaked onto the web and you can still see them (for now) right here.

Also his graphic novel "Ronin" is getting lots of buzz and the director of "300", Zack Snyder is hard at work on an adaptation of of Alan Moore's cult classic "The Watchmen". Also this week, BoingBoing offered a vision of the cast of the story as enacted by the characters from "Peanuts" ... gotta love that!

1 comment:

  1. paige8:09 AM

    LOVE the Watchmen pic! Poor Charlie as Manhattan cracks me up, just to scratch the surface.