TV: Stephen King Talks Horror

This October, TCM ushers in a month of what it calls classic horror films with an all-new special, A Night at the Movies: The Horrors of Stephen King. The one-hour special features horror novelist Mr. King in solo appearance, talking by himself over stills, clips and scenes from various horror films. The TV special is interesting even if you’re not a horror fan, and I am not (as I wrote about in this book review of another thought-provoking product about horror movies, Shock Value). The program is scheduled to premiere on TCM on Monday, Oct. 3, at 8 pm (ET/PT).

In the program, Stephen King discloses that Walt Disney’s Bambi (1942) was the first movie that scared him, and he goes on to comment, very briefly in each case, on motion pictures that made an impression on him as a writer: Francis Ford Coppola’s Dementia 13, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) among others. With Snatchers, which was remade in the 1970s and the 1990s, King notes that most intellectuals regard it as a warning against so-called McCarthyism while he believes the filmmaker intended it as a warning against fascism, specifically National Socialism. I think Stephen King, whose writings I do not consume, is right. Mr. King has other cogent and candid remarks on Blair Witch Project, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Wolf Man (not a horror movie, he says), Paranormal Activity, and The Amityville Horror. He points out that Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen are what he calls fundamentally religious movies and discusses seeing The Exorcist with his wife. He also notes that Nightmare on Elm Street blurs the distinction between the conscious and the subconscious and dramatizes that “reality is a nightmare.”

Don’t expect him to talk about the writing process, though he covers most of his own works, from Salem’s Lot, adapted for television by Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) to Cujo, Carrie, Misery and Dead Zone. Discussing Brian De Palma’s 1976 version of his novel Carrie, King says he wasn’t even invited to attend a screening and, when he did see it, it was a double feature with Norman, Is That You?, a black-themed film, and he was surprised that the predominantly black audience responded to Carrie. On what sounds like his favorite novel-based performance, King says: “The only actor or actress that won a major award for anything that was based on my work was Kathy Bates for Misery, and she certainly richly deserved that Oscar. But Dee Wallace probably deserved to be nominated for Cujo as much if not more than Kathy Bates. It’s a performance that grows in my eye every time that I see it. It was an absolutely terrific job.” He has nothing positive to say about director Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey) who decimated King’s novel, The Shining, in a 1980 picture with Jack Nicholson that bombed. King acknowledges the horror movie genre’s misogyny and decries what he calls torture porn, though the special ignores or glosses over truly repulsive, anti-man pictures such as I Spit on Your Grave and the Saw movies, and others, such as The Last House on the Left.

His most thoughtful comments are on the psychology of horror as a genre for fiction and film.

“I think that the shelf life of horror films is limited in terms of the emotional response of the viewer,” he says. “The first time that you see Night of the Living Dead, you’re absolutely riveted. The second time, you’re scared. The third time, the film has lost something essential that it had the first time. Now people continue to go back and see Night of the Living Dead, but what they’re experiencing isn’t horror at that point. It’s the memory of the horror that they felt the first time they saw it or the second time they saw it.” Admitting that the genre is fundamentally based on the emotion of fear, he compares the desire to watch horror with the inclination to look at a grisly car crash on the side of the road; you slow down and look, he says, because you’re reinforcing the fact that you’re OK, by confirming that the victims are not. Stephen King, whose writings include The Dark Half, Pet Sematary, It, and other horror classics, concludes that horror appeals to the worst, not the best, within us, and he observes that the more worried and fear-driven the culture, the more horror movies show up.

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