Friday Flicks: Pet Sematary

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The late 80's and early 90's saw many adaptations of Stephen King novels. Since then, King has publicly denounced all but a few. I've seen many of these movies and agree with King on his dislike. While most of them employ characters and plot that resemble the story they are based upon, few are able to capture the true horror of the novel. When I stumbled upon the 1989 adaptation of King's Pet Sematary on Netflix, I was ready to write it off as another cheesy King movie. A quick glance at the credits revealed King as the screenwriter, so I decided to give the movie a shot. Surely the master of horror Stephen King would do justice to a film adaptation of his own novel.

Unlike many of the truly awful adaptations that I've already mentioned, Pet Sematary, does not solely rely on King's story to scare the audience. As an author, King creates an atmosphere that allows for the horrors of his novels to occur. Thankfully, all of the filmmakers involved in this production bring that same spooky atmosphere to the screen. Accompanied by the hauntingly beautiful score by Elliot Goldenthal, director Mary Lambert opens the film with sweeping shots of the creepy Pet Sematary. As images of the graveyard flash across the screen the audience is immediately filled with dread. There's nothing inherently terrifying about what we see. The sun is shining. Birds are chirping. Still, for some reason, the audience immediately knows that something about this place is not right. It is this opening credit sequence that creates the atmosphere and sets the stage for the horrors to come.

The Creed family, mom, dad, daughter and baby boy, have relocated from the city to a rural home in Maine. A busy and dangerous road separates the Creed's home from their neighbor Jud's property. A path on their property leads to a cemetery that is labeled "Pet Sematary". Jud explains that this is where the local children have buried their deceased pets, most of which died on the busy road. When the Creed's family's cat is inevitably killed on the road, Jud takes the dad, Louis, to a secret location beyond the confines of the Pet Sematary. They arrive to an old Indian burial ground where they bury the deceased cat. The burial ground has the power to bring the dead animal back to life, but it does not return as its original self. Rather, the cat stinks of death and has lost its sweet demeanor.

Louis works as a doctor where he encounters a man who was involved in a severe car accident. Despite his best efforts, Louis is unable to revive the crash victim. But before the man dies, he warns Louis to stay away from the Pet Sematary. Later, Louis sees the victim in a dream where he is again warned of the dangers of the Sematary. When tragedy strikes the Creed family, Louis is willing to do anything to get his old life that, even if it means ignoring the warnings of the crash victim. Desperate to recover a lost life, Louis returns to the burial grounds and unleashes a horror that threatens to destroy his family and all those who come in contact with them.

Atmosphere aside, Pet Semetary offers many terrifying twists and turns that excite and thrill. It is a movie clearly created in the tradition of 1980's horror films. As such, the film contains special effects and overacting by the cast that come off as relics of that era. There is a side plot about the mother's sister that is particularly cheesy in its execution. Still, King's story is unique and imaginative, allowing the film to overcome most of the genre cliches that are present. I found myself terrified in some moments and laughing in others. In the end, Pet Semetary is far from perfect, but is one of the best Stephen King adaptations to come from that time period.

Dr. Sleep by Stephen King

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The past always comes back to haunt you. For most of us, this phrase merely expresses the tendency of our actions to have consequences. For Daniel Torrance, however, the haunting is very real. Since the events of Stephen King’s landmark novel The Shining, Danny has grown up. Still, no matter how far he goes or how much time passes, the events of that novel seem to follow. Scarred by the horrors of his past and his constant psychic contact with the living and dead (the shining) around him, Dan has turned to booze to dull his gift.

Following a brief introduction that gives us Danny’s history, we discover him— now going by Dan— at the place where all alcoholics finally find themselves . . .the bottom. Hung-over and broke, Dan makes a decision that will plague him for decades.

After a visit from his childhood imaginary friend Tony, Dan throws away his last bottle of booze and eventually decides to settle in the small town of Frazier, New Hampshire. Assisted by new friends, Dan joins A.A. and gets a job at the local hospice. There, Dan comes to accept his talents and puts them to good use by shepherding the dying across to the afterlife. Word of his late night visits to terminal patients quickly spreads, and he gains the moniker Dr. Sleep.

As the Overlook’s chef Dick Hallorann explained in The Shinning, Dan isn’t the only one with these gifts. Many people possess a spark, and a special few shine like the sun. A few towns over, Abra Stone comes into the world with a light inside of her that makes Dan’s own powers seem like a sputtering candle. This immense power causes her to make a connection with the closest person with a significant amount of Shine, Dan Torrance. While the two slowly foster a relationship based on their shared talents, Abra becomes the subject of someone else’s attention.

The True Knot, an evil group, have existed for centuries, roaming the country’s highways while seeking nourishment and youth in the pain and destruction of those who possess the Shining. When Abra witnesses the True consuming the essence of a young boy, she is not the only one watching. The leader of the True Knot, Rose the Hat notices the unwanted guest. Consumed by desire for the massive power contained within Abra, Rose begins to obsess over the girl and plan her demise.

With nothing but his abilities and a few friends, Dan must protect the young Abra from becoming the prey of the True and try to rid the country and himself of the demons hiding just below the surface.

Let me preface everything I am about to say with this: I enjoyed this book, and thought it was great. Still, I have a few qualms to raise about the book itself and the way it was marketed.

The first and largest problem I have with the book is that I didn’t find it scary. Dr. Sleep was marketed by King and his publisher as, “…a return to balls-to-the-walls, keep-the-lights-on horror…” that the author built his reputation upon. I didn’t find this to be true. Certainly it has scary moments, especially in the beginning, but as I moved to the middle and end of the book, I didn’t feel fear for the characters or myself. At the beginning of the book, I got the sense that Dan is haunted. He constantly sees apparitions that nearly drive him insane. This, combined with the foreshadowing associated with Rose the Hat and her future role to play, made me truly worried for Dan and his wellbeing. As the book moved forward and the “ghostie people” became less common, I began to accept that Dan had things under control. Dan’s control of his Shine was an important point of the novel,  but I wish that Abra could have faced a similar kind of struggle with her own Shining a bit more.

My next complaint is one that I feel plagues many sequels. There was no buildup and ultimate payoff. I felt as if Dan’s abilities were treated merely as a given fact. One of my favorite parts of The Shining was slowly discovering the extent of Danny’s powers and the descent into chaos. I feel that as that story progressed, more and more supernatural things occurred. For example, the Overlook slowly populated itself more and more with spirits over the course of the novel. This buildup is what made The Shining so engrossing. This element combined with a persistent doubt that I had that there were any actual supernatural occurrences. In the original novel, the animal topiaries were never described as moving. Rather, they were simply described as being closer every time you looked back, becoming more and more imposing, closing in on Danny, and blocking him in the playground. This made it all the more terrifying! The entire novel I questioned whether it was ghosts or insanity that drove the story forward. In Dr. Sleep, there is no slow buildup or reveal of supernatural elements, causing what could have been mystery and magic to become predictable and ordinary.

These nitpicking issues aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The writing is magnificent. The pacing, dialogue, and imagery are all on the level that I’ve come to expect from Stephen King. Further, the vast majority of the characters are genuine and fascinating. The evolution of Dan from haunted drunk to recovering alcoholic was extremely well done, and his coming to grips with his life and gifts were expertly portrayed. This combined with his constant internal struggles made Dan my favorite part of the book.

 I also enjoyed the supporting characters. Chief among these are the amazed Dr. John, the fatherly Billy and the witty Concetta. I also thought that Rose the Hat was a great villain. King allowed Rose to express a full spectrum of emotions that elevated her from thing-going-bump-in-the-night to a well rounded, yet despicable monster. Accompanied by a crew of less abominable yet useful attendants, Rose made the True Knot a truly abhorrent band of villains.

Abra is an interesting case for me. I loved that she was allowed to vary in her internal fortitude throughout the book through a juxtaposition of emotion. She was kind, yet cruel, old-at-heart and childish. These fluctuations in character made her one of the most dynamic characters in the novel. I also appreciated how King wrote her with a common sense of invulnerability that most teens and pre-teens experience. Abra very rarely thinks that anyone else can harm her, and I felt that this added a level of realism to her character. Despite this, I feel that she accepted her own shining too easily. Certainly it would be familiar to her as she grew up with it, but she very rarely questioned the origins of her abilities or the fact that no one else seemed to be able to do what she does. If this had been added, I feel as though Abra would have been a slightly deeper character.

Overall, I found that the plot and its many twists and turns made for a thrilling drama. Some aspects of the ending are a tad overly sentimental, but the basic story is solid. There are many exceptional moments of character discovery and internal conflict. While I have expressed some complaints about Dr. Sleep, I still enjoyed reading it. It is a wonderful piece of fiction, if not a masterpiece of terror. I think it portrays not only the progression of time in the characters, but also provides a glimpse of how Stephen King has evolved over the past 35 years. I miss the elements of the old school King novels, but appreciate the growth this story shows and the legacy it continues. I was surprised to realize that Dr. Sleep does a large amount of world building, which is extremely important considering King’s large multiverse. This refers to characters from other novels (Dr. Sleep and The Shining take place in the same world as King’s son’s book NOS4A2). Altogether, I would recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of King’s work, or has read The Shining and wants to continue with that story. I also think that anyone who read NOS4A2 should read both The Shining and Dr. Sleep, as they are related—The Shining more so in tone and Dr. Sleep in plot. While this is not the classic Stephen King novel I hoped for, it serves as a reminder that King is one of the most celebrated and reliable authors of our time.

Review by Brett Schneider

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2015, 15)

Friday Flicks: The Help

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The Help by Kathryn Stockett was a huge phenomenon in the literary world. It was one of those rare stories that captured the attention of readers across the board, and garnered critical and commercial success. It was no surprise, then, when the novel was optioned for a film adaptation. 

As the film begins, we meet Aiblileen (Viola Davis), a black maid maid working for a young, white family in Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. She carries a sense of wisdom, as she raises the young daughter of the family, her seventeenth white baby. Despite the loss of her son, he couldn't get the proper care in the "colored" hospital, Aibileen finds a kind of solace through her job, her faith, and her best friend Minny (Octavia Spencer). Minny is also a maid. While she is praised for her cooking skills, her sassy mouth has gotten her in trouble with previous employers, and finds her with no job and a husband who beats her regularly.

Eugenia Phealan, Skeeter (Emma Stone), is a fresh out of college, 22 year old white woman, who has returned home, to her mother's dismay, without a husband. We learn that Skeeter has always had trouble fitting in with what society, and her mother, expect of her. Upon her return home, she is shocked to learn that the maid who raised her, Constantine, has left the family home, and no one seems to want to tell Skeeter what happened to her. Saddened by the loss of her childhood companion and eager to get a job at a big publishing company, Skeeter decides to write something important. After a chance encounter with Aibileen, Skeeter enlists her and her friends to tell their stories of being, "The Help" to white families.

The movie is extremely faithful to the novel, becoming one of those rare films that truly seems to bring the story to life. The cast, from top to bottom, is splendid. Each actor brings sincerity and conviction to their role. The movie is extremely deserving of all of the hype and recognition that it received. Fans of the novel are sure to enjoy this great adaptation. 

Paper Towns by John Green

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After reading the stellar Fault In Our Stars by John Green, I decided to check out some of his other novels. In Paper Towns Green tells the story of high school senior Quentin Jacobsen. Q, as his friends call him, is a pretty average student. He's one of those kids who is not part of the popular groups of students, but is not really a nerd either. Rather, Q goes about his day making good grades, hanging out with his best friends Ben and Radar, and not making many waves. His psychologist parents are very proud and supportive of their son and are excited to see him start college in the fall.  

Margo Roth Spiegelman is the it girl on campus. She only socializes with the popular kids and has a jock boyfriend. She has a unique charm about her that makes even her closest friends long to know her better. Margo and Q have lived next to each other their whole lives. When they were very young, the two discovered the body of a man who committed suicide. After that dramatic incident, they began to interact less and less. All these years later, Q still finds himself enamoured with Margo, but she has done nothing to reciprocate. 

All of that changes one night when Q is awakened by a knock on his bedroom window. He is surprised to find Margo standing outside. After years of silence, Margo is there to see Q and she needs his help. Margo explains that her boyfriend is cheating on her and she has planned an evening of revenge. With Q's help, the two embark on an evening that sees her get the ultimate payback on all of those who did her wrong and culminates with the duo breaking into SeaWorld. As the evening draws to a close, Margo begins to speak to Q about her hopes and dreams and her desire to one day leave the "paper town" that is Orlando. 

The next morning, a groggy Q heads to school excited to relay his adventures of the previous evening to Ben and Radar. More importantly, he is eager to continue his new found connection with Margo. But Margo isn't there. He comes home to find the police at Margo's house. Margo is gone, and Q can't stop thinking about her. Her parents inform him that Margo has run away in the past and left clues for them. This time she has left clues for Q. As he begins to investigate the missing Margo, Q gains insight into the mystery that is Margo Roth Spiegelman, and ultimately discovers more about himself in the process. 

Once again John Green has crafted a novel that captures the fun, mystery, and emotional complexity of growing up. The characters ring with an authenticity that makes them extremely relatable and engaging.  The plot is driven by a mystery that keeps the pages turning while still allowing for the the characters to evolve. Many readers have lamented at the anti-climatic ending, but I have to disagree with this assertion. While I did feel a bit let down as I read the last pages, reflection on the themes of the novel have forced me to accept that this was the only way for the story to conclude. Ultimately Green creates a unique study of the fictional and even wishful projections that individuals place on each other. While Paper Towns does not end as I wanted or expected it to, it is still a rich journey that challenges the reader while still entertaining. 

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and GoodReads

(2015, 14)

Friday Flicks: The Hunger Games

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The Hunger Games was destined to be a blockbuster, from the moment the film began production. The novel, on which the film is based, was the kind of phenomenon of the level of Harry Potter and Twilight that would bring in a built in audience. But with the kind of fan devotion that the novel has, the movie also was tasked with meeting the high expectations of those who enjoyed the book. 

I'll admit, I was a bit hesitant to explore the whole Hunger Games craze. While I usually enjoy thrillers and adult literature, the novel had enough buzz to warrant my attention. I devoured the book in a day, and was convinced that there was definitely something to the story that I wouldn't mind seeing on film. 

The movie itself does an efficient, if not inspired, job of translating the novel to the screen. Jennifer Lawrence is the undeniable star as the strong willed Katniss. In the film, Katniss takes the place of her younger sister in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death between male and female tributes from each of the 12 districts of the dystopian world. Because of the limitations of the medium, we aren't given as much character development as the novel provided, but the actors do a fine job at trying to make each character fit into the world. 

In the novel, there was a subtle hint of political restlessness that gets mostly hidden by the big spectacle of the film. To be fair, there are a few moments where the filmmakers excel at providing deeper emotional insight, particularly during the death of one of the tributes. Unfortunately, the constraints of the film force the plot to move so quickly that most of these subtle moments get blown over. 

Overall, this a a perfectly fine adaptation of an above average novel. There were no egregious departures from the source material, so fans of the novels should be satisfied. Like the book, the ending is conclusive while still setting the foundation for the continuation of the story. If you haven't read the books or seen the movies, they are definitely worth the few hours they will take for you to experience them. Having experienced the novels and this first movie, I can understand the hype that surrounds the series and look forward to seeing the rest of the novels play out on the big screen. 

Dexter's Final Cut by Jeff Lindsay

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Dexter Morgan likes his privacy. He shares his life with his wife and three children, but they only know Dexter the father and husband. His colleagues at the Miami Police Department know him as the quiet blood splatter analyst who brings donuts. This job affords Dexter the privacy he seeks and allows him to feed the secret side of his life. A side only his sister Deborah, who happens to be a homicide detective at the department, knows about. Dexter is a murderer. Years ago, when Dexter's father realized that his son possessed this "Dark Passenger", he devised a code for Dexter to live by. By following Harry's code, Dexter has been able to satisfy his need to kill while maintaining his anonymity. 

But now Dexter's privacy has come under attack. A Hollywood studio has invaded Miami to shoot the pilot for a new police procedural series. In an effort to cooperate with the studio and hopefully draw future business, the city has tasked the Miami police department with assisting the production in any way possible. Unfortunately for Dexter, this means working under the watchful eye of Robert Chase, an actor who will portray a forensic analyst in the show. Chase shadows Dexter's every move, seeking to learn what makes the seemingly average man tick. Of course, Dexter is anything but average. The presence of Chase hinders his ability to focus on his extracurricular activities and gets in the way of his work. With one of the most horrific crimes the department has ever seen, Dexter must overcome the distraction of Hollywood to solve the local mystery. 

The Dexter novels have never lived up to the acclaim and stature of the television series that they inspired. The books have always been quick, easy, and enjoyable reads, but they've never captured the kind of groundbreaking character study or edge of your seat mystery that the show was able to achieve. Still, I've been fascinated with the story of this unlikely protagonist. Despite his shortcomings, he is a serial killer after all, Dexter Morgan is one of the most entertaining and affable characters I've ever read. Author Jeff Lindsay writes the character with a sarcastic wit that is devilishly delightful. Despite my better judgement, I can't help but root for the guy. 

Unfortunately Dexter's Final Cut, the seventh and penultimate novel in the series, falls short of an already low bar. The usual elements are all there. The mystery is as solid as any of the previous ones have been. The crimes themselves are described with horrifying detail that leaves a knot in your stomach. The supporting cast are all up to their usual antics, leaving an open playing field for the star character's actions and development. But it is the development of Dexter that is ultimately the downfall of this story. For the first time in the series, I found myself unable to root for Dexter. The success of this series has been built upon readers getting behind a killer, but his actions are so abhorrent that this is impossible. Dexter has gone from relatable and supportable killer to simply a bad guy. Add to this a cliffhanger ending that is clearly a ploy to get readers to invest in the next novel, and you've got a total dud. At this point, it is apparent that the author is simply going through the motions, milking the series for everything its worth. With this novel, the Dexter series has hit a new low and become an empty shell of its former self. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and GoodReads

(2015, 13)

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