Friday, 2 October 2015

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, And The Horror: Revisiting "Stephen King's IT"

As an 11-year-old, I managed to see this two-part miniseries in its original airing back in 1990, and the scenes featuring Pennywise, the Dancing Clown (portrayed by Tim Curry) stayed with me for years and no doubt contributed to my dislike of clowns. But I also loved the story of childhood friendships, and of teamwork to take down evil. (It helped that at the time I had a major crush on Jonathan Brandis, about whom there will be more as this post progresses). It can't be denied that there are echoes of "Stand By Me" (1986) another film based on a work by Stephen King, who is known primarily as a horror writer but he has proven that he is much more than that. The nostalgic feel of much of the first half of "IT" and about a quarter of the second is what I enjoy the most and I've come across others who have the same opinion.

First off, let's get down to the outrage of novel purists who despise the fact that so much was omitted and changed from King's original novel, but the reasoning is as follows: 1990 was quite different compared today, whereas in recent years television is much more explicit and we have channels like HBO that are able to be more blatant regarding programming, as to what can be shown or what cannot. ABC simply would not have allowed the graphic and explicit content that King wrote about at the time. Secondly, the novel is massive, approximately 1, 900 pages long, and this was only a two part miniseries, clocking in at 187 minutes, without commercial breaks. Imagine the enormous task that director Tommy Lee Wallace and Lawrence D. Cohen faced, adapting this complex work for television. It simply could not be the book, period.

Also, Stephen King likes to ramble. A lot. That's not to say that he isn't a good writer, but he's the kind who feels the need to explain reasons for his characters to act the way they do, including complicated and intricate backstories and subplots. "IT" remains his longest novel to date, and the shifting of narratives and timelines (from the year 1958 to the present day when it was written, 1985), makes it so while reading you really have to pay attention because it's very easy to become lost and confused. Having said that, he writes the experience of childhood and adolescence very well, and in reading you will find yourself revisiting your own, and identifying with the characters that he lovingly creates. He simply "gets" it - the day to day reality of dealing with school, pressures, bullies and parents who aren't up to the job. Trauma and pain, but also friendship, and the bonds we form with others that can help us draw strength and help us overcome the very things that terrify us.

The "Lucky Seven, aka "The Loser's Club

The adult version of "The Lucky Seven"
The miniseries, while watered down, retains these themes. Despite dealing with a low budget, and a location where the weather was often unpredictable (British Columbia doubling for the fictional town of Derry, in Maine), for the most part, particularly the first half and pretty much any of the scenes involving the younger cast members, it is very effective. We have seven adults who made a promise to return to their hometown should the malevolent force they battled as kids return to wreck havoc as it did in the past, every 30 years or so (the novel explains it in much more detail). When Mike Hanlon (Tim Reid), the lone member of the group who stayed in Derry, suspects that a string of child murders and disappearances is linked to the horror he and his friends endured as kids, he calls them up one by one and informs them that they need to keep their promise. Bill Denbourgh (Richard Thomas) is a novelist residing in England with his wife Audra (Olivia Hussey), and he flashes back to the year 1960 (the timeline was slightly altered to fit the present day of the production) to the day his little brother Georgie (Tony Dakota) was brutally and mysteriously murdered. Young Bill (the ill-fated Jonathan Brandis) blames himself for not going with Georgie that day, and sees something disturbing in his brother's room that his parents seem oblivious to. The next call is to Ben Hanscom (the late John Ritter), an architect who remembers as a rather overweight youngster (played by Brandon Crane), being tormented by the school bully, Henry Bowers (Jarred Blacard) and his gang. Ben also recalls his own encounter with IT, but decides to return to Derry. Then Beverly Marsh (Annette O'Toole), who runs a clothing design company, finds her evening with her abusive business partner and lover interrupted, but drops everything to keep her promise, despite the threats of a man who clearly has the same brutal and controlling patterns of her father (of course we are treated to a flashback to illustrate this, with Emily Perkins portraying the young Beverly). Eddie Kaspbrack (Dennis Christopher, looking uncannily like his good friend, Anthony Perkins), leaves his home despite the protestations of his overbearing mother (whom you just want to punch in the face). He recalls his own nightmare (played in youth by Adam Farazil) and seems terrified at the prospect of facing it again. Stand-up comedian Richie Tozier (Harry Anderson) is also hesitant to take on the entity that frightened him as a kid (in the person of Seth Green), but conceals his fear behind a humorous facade. Last but not least, business man Stan Uris (Richard Masur), is unwilling to face the horror and cannot bear the thought of reliving it all over again. He had been the last one to accept the truth, and his younger self (Ben Heller) had been the most terrified because of the logical workings of his mind.

Henry Bowers (Jarred Blacard) and his gang

Tim Curry as Pennywise
Young Beverly's father can't see the blood . . . .. 
. . . . but she and her friends do!

The first half goes back and forth between present day and flashback, and is extremely well-handled. The soundtrack inserts a couple of oldies that will take you back (even if, like myself, you weren't around in those times), and the score by Richard Bellis demonstrates the innocence, terror, humor and emotion. Each member of the group recalls how they came together in their youth and how their determination to overcome the fear made them stronger as a team. When young Mike (Marlon Taylor) joins them they become "Lucky Seven" and jokingly "The Loser's Club" as they are all outcasts at school and the target of the sadistic Henry Bowers, and when they all realize they've encountered the same evil entity that is killing the town's children, they decide they must stop it. The battle in the sewer is very well done and very interesting. You believe that they are working together to conquer this evil being, that often takes the form of Pennywise, The Dancing Clown, but is able to take the form of your greatest fear. The adults around don't see it, because as Bill says, "When you grow up, you stop believing". While this could be chalked up to small town mentality of looking the other way, in Derry it has a whole new meaning. Literally, the grown ups don't see what the children do - because, kids are far more sensitive, imaginative and psychic, something that we tend to lose as we get older. The power that the youngsters have in this situation sends a very positive message. If you believe, and you work together, you can triumph over evil.

The kids prepare to battle it out with IT
Things don't go as planned
But they fight and win!

The adults in the sewer
Unfortunately, Part 2 doesn't really have the same power, due to far too much focus on the adults and poor use of flashbacks, and the low budget rearing its ugly head during the final battle, which pales in comparison to what we saw at the end of Part 1. The adult cast just were not as compelling to watch, and their rapport was just not as believable. It didn't help that several of them looked nothing like the actors who portrayed them as kids (Richard Masur, who does a good job in his brief screen time, well, he just doesn't conjure up the image of the cherubic lad who portrayed the young Stan), or that the adult Richie came across as more obnoxious than funny. They have some good moments (particularly in the first 20 minutes of the second installment) but it pales in comparison to the performances that we see even in the all too brief flashback sequences in Part 2. Even Tommy Lee Wallace stated that the kids were far easier to become invested in than the adults. Part 1 made it easier to watch the grown members of the Lucky Seven because it was balanced so well by their backstories, and how their friendship began. The second half is ultimately a disappointment in comparison, but still worth watching. Just don't expect anything spectacular.

To be fair, this isn't the only television or film project to fall victim to this result of story structure. The Canadian miniseries "The Boys Of St. Vincent" (1992), as well as the feature films "Now And Then" (1995) and "Sleepers" (1996) had similar issues. The actors playing the adult characters, regardless of talent, were unable to capture the essence and dynamic of their child counterparts. Undoubtedly, one of the reasons why "Stand By Me" (1986) doesn't suffer the same fate is due to the fact that almost the entire film takes place in flashback and the adult Gordie (Richard Dreyfuss),  while serving as narrator, only appears onscreen for a few minutes, sparing him the difficult task of having to live up to the younger incarnation of Gordie (Wil Wheaton).

Re-watching this miniseries as an adult, what scared me when I was 11 doesn't have quite the same impact today, but some scenes still pack a pretty good wallop. In Part 1, Tim Curry's portrayal of Pennywise is terrifying and fascinating at the same time. Although Curry was hesitant to take the role because of the heavy make-up he was required to wear, he obviously had a ball and it shows. Although in Part 2 he comes across as comical rather than scary (and he was not used to his full potential in the final installment), he is incredible and I can't imagine "IT" without him.

As I said, the child performers were wonderful and utterly believable. I really think a TV series could have been built around them alone. Some went on to have successful careers (Seth Green, Emily Perkins), but Jonathan Brandis tragically took his own life in 2003, leaving behind many questions and an interesting body of work. It is bittersweet to watch this now, knowing the tragic turn his life would take (as with John Ritter).

This remains the only credit for Ben Heller, which is hard to believe because he was so good. His scenes in the sewer and when young Stan had his own encounter with IT were very compelling. He conveyed so much through facial expressions. Although Stan is the skeptic of the group, when he finally forces himself to accept the terrifying being, it becomes clear that it is far more difficult and scary for him than the others. Jarred Blancard as Henry Bowers didn't fare quite as well, but he was entertaining to watch nonetheless.

I do think "IT" is worth watching, but of course I also recommend the book. Regarding some criticism of the latter I will admit there is far too much profanity during the 1958 chapters, but that was also something that was noted in the novella "The Body" which was the basis for "Stand By Me" (1986).

I will close with this excerpt from the book, as the adults realize they are going to forget everything, once they have left Derry, as we all  tend to forget experiences that are traumatic, but also as adults we let go of the past that shaped us, but part of it still remains, even if we don't consciously recall it.

"You don't have to look back to see those children; part of your mind will see them forever, live with them forever,  love with them forever. They are not necessarily the best part of you, but they were once the repository of all you could become.

Children, I love you. I love you so much."

Friday, 20 February 2015

"The Restless Years" - The Story Of Two Outsiders Who Find Love

Dear readers, I've been on a blogging hiatus for quite a while, so I decided to make a return by reviewing a film that has become a personal favorite of late, "The Restless Years" (1958), directed by Helmut Kautner, and produced by Ross Hunter for Universal studios.

At first glance, it appears to be something of a low-budget, watered-down version of "Peyton Place" (another book and film that I happen to love), but this effort is more intimate, providing a closer look at the main characters, and their home lives.  Filmed in black and white CinemaScope, it was based on a play entitled "Teach Me To Cry" by Patricia Joudry. Ross Hunter immediately envisioned it as a vehicle for his latest discovery, Sandra Dee. Dee, a former child model, had done a screen test with John Saxon, a young actor who was rising in popularity after his break-through role as a troubled youth in "The Unguarded Moment" (1956). Before appearing in this film, Dee was first loaned to MGM for "Until They Sail" (1957), opposite Paul Newman, Joan Fontaine, Jean Simmons and Piper Laurie.

Sandra Dee as Melinda Grant
It was 10 years ago today that Sandra Dee passed away, at a relatively young age, after battling health issues for many years. Her performance is sensitive and natural, projecting an innocence, yet seemingly wise beyond her years. Her character, Melinda Grant, is an outsider in the small town of Libertyville, where she lives with her reclusive mother, Elizabeth (Teresa Wright), who desperately tries to conceal the fact that Melinda is in fact, illegitimate, the result of a romance with a musician who once played at an old, abandoned bandstand that overlooks the town. However, the ruse that Elizabeth is widowed fools no one in town, especially Melinda's peers at the local high school. Shunned, the lonely young girl puts on a brave face for her mother and pretends that she is popular, although she is somewhat hampered by the fact that Elizabeth, the town seamstress, insists on making her daughter's clothes which makes Melinda appear younger than her age. 

John Saxon as Will Henderson
Enter Will Henderson (John Saxon), whose salesman father Ed (James Whitmore) has returned to Libertyville, hoping for a fresh start, but Will's mother, Dorothy (Margaret Lindsay) is never satisfied with Ed's attempts to support the family and always wants more.
Will is also on the outside looking in at school; he's ignored and ridiculed by Bruce Mitchell (Jody McCrea) and Polly Fisher (Luana Patten), two of the popular kids who also make a point of tormenting Melinda for her illegitimacy. At a school dance, Will and Melinda catch each other's eye and decide to go for a walk, but Will notices that Melinda is somewhat evasive, especially when he mentions the bandstand. Later, as Will is driving Melinda home, Bruce Mitchell and his friends attempt to run them off the road.

Luana Patten and Jody McCrea as Polly Fisher and Bruce Mitchell
It is inevitable of course, that Will and Melinda fall in love, stirring up gossip both in town and at school. Melinda is fearful of her mother finding out, and her fear of hurting Elizabeth causes her to refuse the lead in the school's production of "Our Town", but encouraged by Will and her teacher, Miss Robson (Virginia Grey), she reconsiders, causing Polly to seethe with jealousy since playing the role herself seems to be the only way to get her own distant and uncaring mother to show an interest in her life. Will is also dealing with his parents insisting that he drop Melinda and try to make friends with the students who come from more prominent families (it is somewhat appalling how they expect him to make friends in order to help his father's career and status).

James Whitmore and Margaret Lindsay as Will's parents
Having said that, Ed and Dorothy are not entirely unsympathetic; they do eventually see that they can't expect their son to ensure their success in business. Saxon, who was still quite new to movies at this point (his official debut came in 1955's "Runnin' Wild"), is believable as a young man trying to find his place in the world and laments that his family can't stay in one place long enough for him to feel like he belongs. In Melinda, he finds a kindred spirit who only wants to be loved and accepted.

Teresa Wright as Melinda's mother, the reclusive Elizabeth Grant
Teresa Wright gives a memorable performance as the neurotic Elizabeth, who longingly waits for a letter that never comes and fears her daughter will make the same mistakes she herself did. Wright was an ingĂ©nue in the 1940s, not to mention a fine actress to boot, an Oscar-winner who was known for her serious approach to her work and for refusing to take part in publicity that she felt was inappropriate, such as posing for cheesecake photos. She began playing mother roles far too early, and this movie is an example of that. However, she excels in the role and I can't think of another actress who could have played the part.

Will and Melinda rehearsing for the school play
One of my favorite scenes is when Will and Melinda go to the bandstand so that Melinda can rehearse her role as Emily in the upcoming play. She changes into the beautiful costume made by her mother, and as they rehearse, the kiss in the scene becomes very real. But Will, fearful because he is aroused by Melinda, stops it from going any further. It really is a powerful little scene, and Will proves that he is indeed worthy of Melinda because he doesn't want to hurt her. Unfortunately, Polly just happens to be passing by and sees what she thinks is a compromising situation and decides to use it to her advantage.

The locker room confrontation on Parents' Night
On Parents Night, confrontation ensues. Melinda, having persuaded her mother to attend, is accosted by Polly, who attempts to blackmail her into dropping out of the school play. When that fails, Polly sends Bruce after Will, and then all hell breaks loose. Do things turn out all right in the end? Does love prevail? Speaking as someone who is originally from a small town, it is true that everyone knows everything about everybody, and if they don't, they make something up. Rumors do seem to swirl in small communities much more than in other places. The movie does convey that quite well, and in spite of being shot on the Universal lot, it does seem to capture a small-town feel.
Sandra Dee and Luana Patten taking a break during filming

Luana Patten turns in a very good performance as Polly, who conceals her own personal pain behind a snobby, vindictive front. Patten was a child actress who began in Disney films, but progressed to playing love interests in Westerns, dramas and rock 'n' roll films - in 1956 she appeared alongside John Saxon and Sal Mineo in the low-budget "Rock, Pretty Baby". By 1970, she had retired, and like Sandra Dee, she died at a relatively young age, from respiratory failure in 1996. 

Sandra Dee and John Saxon
There's something special about the onscreen chemistry between John Saxon and Sandra Dee. In all, they appeared together in three films, the others being "The Reluctant Debutante" (1958) and "Portrait In Black"(1960). In 1991, they co-starred in a stage production of "Love Letters". Saxon told Dee's son Dodd Darin that he felt an immediate affinity with Sandra because they were both from the East Coast, assuming personas for their careers that was far from what their childhoods had been.  He also sensed that something was not quite right in Sandra's life, but he couldn't quite figure it out. There were things she talked about that he didn't understand at the time. Years later, when he discovered that she had suffered through sexual abuse by her stepfather, many things began to make sense.

Melinda wonders why her tormentors decide to be nice to her
I think anyone can relate the theme of "The Restless Years" and the emotions it evokes. If you ever didn't feel like you fit in, especially in those perilous years of adolescence where being accepted by your peers matters more than anything, or adults who don't understand you and assume the worst, you'll identify with this film.  By today's standards, the fact that Melinda is illegitimate doesn't seem shocking at all, but for the time it was. Even in seemingly "respectable" places there was always a dark underside, as much some tried to hide or deny it.

"Kiss me once, before it's too late"

Of course, it can also be argued that it is a product of its era, but that's also part of its charm. There didn't have to be outstanding special effects, foul language, extreme violence or explicit sex scenes to get the point across. That's the beauty of this type of film, the kind that just is not made anymore. Times have changed, but emotions and love haven't.  There will always be people who appreciate films like this, and the studios should really restore these movies and release them.

Young love blossoms on the bandstand
Universal just recently released "The Restless Years" as part of its Vault series, but unfortunately, they chose to release it in non-anamorphic widescreen, meaning if you zoom in the image is blurry. While I have a bootleg copy that is not top quality either, you would think that Universal would have done a better job with this release. Given that it was filmed in CinemaScope, more effort should have been made for the DVD print so one can appreciate the glorious black and white cinematography.

Having said that, I'm grateful that it has been given an official release; perhaps one day it will be available in a restored format on DVD. It's long overdue and it deserves that much, especially for fans of Sandra Dee and John Saxon.

The special dynamic between these two actors lights up the screen
Sandra Dee's stardom only lasted for about ten years; when the studio system ended, she found it increasingly hard to adjust to freelancing, and she was worn down emotionally from her painful past and divorce from singer/actor Bobby Darin. John Saxon has remained active as an actor and often appears at conventions. Yet, I have always sensed that he has a special place in his heart for Sandra and those early years at Universal. Judging from interviews, he respected her greatly and later tried to encourage her to get out more, and perhaps be open to love again. However, her lack of self-esteem and self-confidence prevented her from breaking free of her past. The affection and mutual respect between them is evident when watching them onscreen in those three films.

John Saxon, Sandra Dee and director Helmut Kaunter
I had wanted to see this movie for years, and when I finally did I was not disappointed. Sandra Dee was a sweet soul who had more talent and human value than she gave herself credit for. I wish she could have had a happier life,  but at least we have her films to remember her by. John Saxon is also a treasure, a man who has continued to show range and versatility. He's had  very long career of which he should be justly proud, although I'm sure he wishes that Sandra could have had the same. "The Restless Years" is an engaging time capsule and seeing the beauty of Sandra Dee and John Saxon is worth the price alone!


Sunday, 6 January 2013

And Soon The Darkness: "A Little Ride In Sunny France"

  As a fan of classic horror (including that of the 70s part of the genre) as well as a fan of Pamela Franklin, I had been wanting to see this film for several years and finally got a DVD copy. Robert Fuest, who directed another favorite of mine, "Wuthering Heights" (1970), did a masterful job at conveying the quiet menace and isolated feeling of dread. Two young British nurses, Jane (Franklin), and Cathy (Michele Dotrice, daughter of Roy, sister of Karen), are on a bicycling holiday in rural France, where, unbeknownst to them, a murder of young woman tourist took place a few years before. The assailant was never caught. They are blissfully ignorant of this fact, and a mysterious young man, Paul (Hungarian actor Sandor Eles) catches Cathy's eye when the girls make a stop at a small cafe. Of course, it becomes apparent to the viewers that Paul knows more about the murder than he lets on. He shadows the girls for a while, even visits the cemetery where the unfortunate victim is buried. As to whether or not this is a deliberate red herring or not is revealed as the story progresses.
Jane and Cathy make another stop on the side of the road several miles down from the cafe and rest for a while on the edge of some pretty thick woods. They get into an argument and Jane leaves in a huff, while Cathy finds herself vulnerable to possibly the perpetrator of the aforementioned crime, in a frightening scene that lets one imagine the terror. After a little time has passed, Jane begins to grow concerned for her friend and regrets leaving Cathy alone. However, she is nowhere to be found. The locals seem to know something but as they don't seem to speak English and Jane knows very little French, her confusion and apprehension becomes that of the audience as well. The local British schoolteacher (Clare Kelly) believes that the killer was also a tourist. Paul claims to have worked on the case and offers to help Jane, but her suspicions and his sketchy behavior cause our young heroine to flee from him and try to get assistance elsewhere. The title of the movie is actually very appropriate, despite the fact that the story takes place in broad daylight. The fact that the later the day grows, the darker it will eventually get, signalling doom and possible death. There is also no violence or blood until the climax. Who is the murderer? Paul? One of the townspeople? The local police officer (John Nettleton)? Or has Cathy simply decided to play a joke on her friend? This movie will keep you guessing. Very nice cinematography as well, and the music is quite good, with the exception of the opening and ending credit tune, a bit bizarre considering the tone of the film.

Pamela Franklin never really got the credit she deserved as an actress: she was so convincing in everything I saw her in. Here she is believable as a young nurse caught in a terrifying trap in an unfamiliar country. Dressed simply but nicely throughout, she has a doe-like quality here which makes her seem all the more vulnerable. Michele Dotrice is lovely as well (wish she could have been seen more in films). The late Sandor Eles was unknown to me at the time, but quite good. While not overly menacing or devastatingly handsome, he did possess an interesting charisma. All of the actors cast helped add to the aura of atmospheric suspense. 
"And Soon The Darkness" was recently remade, and no doubt, the Hollywood version will most likely make everything more graphic and obvious. It seems they are running out of ideas. I probably don't have to tell you that I don't think much of remakes in general.

The DVD: The film's theatrical trailer, radio spots and talent bios are included, as well as commentary by director Fuest, screenwriter Brian Clemens and Christopher Lee biographer Jonathan Sothcott. I rate the commentary as okay but I don't know why they bemoan the fact that they did not cast a different actor to play Paul. Did they have someone else in mind? I would like to have heard more about Pamela Franklin as well. Some commentaries I like to listen to more than once; this isn't one of them. It could have been better, but it's not the worst commentary I've ever heard.

In conclusion, this is one suspense film you can watch during the day and still get a good scare. Recommended.