‘Dolores Claiborne’ – A Stephen King Horror Tale of the Real-Life Kind

Dolores Claiborne” is, on the surface, not your typical Stephen King novel, and this is important to note before you begin watching this particular adaptation of his work. This cinematic treatment reunites him with the great Kathy Bates who won an Oscar for playing Annie Wilkes in “Misery,” but she’s not playing a deranged psycho this time around. Also, while much of King’s writings deal with terrifying supernatural powers and unspeakable terrors, the horror generated here comes from real life horrors no one should ever have to endure. In some ways, this makes it one of his more terrifying tales because it deals with the kind of horrible crimes we hope and pray never to experience first-hand. Having said this, it is clear how many of us can never be so lucky as to avoid the worst traumas humanity has to offer.

Bates plays the title character who, as “Dolores Claiborne” opens, is believed to have killed her rich employer Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt). This crime immediately reminds the town of Little Tall Island in Maine when Dolores’ husband, Joe (David Strathairn), died twenty years ago under mysterious circumstances, and the general consensus was that Dolores killed him. Detective John Mackey (Christopher Plummer), who had pursued the case against her back then is determined to put her behind bars this time and for good. Into this mix comes Dolores’ daughter, Selena St. George (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a big-time reporter who arrives to defend her mother despite the two of them having been estranged for over a decade.

The novel “Dolores Claiborne” was essentially one long monologue as the story was written entirely from the title character’s point of view. This makes the work director Taylor Hackford and screenwriter Tony Gilroy have done here all the more impressive. They have taken Dolores’ unsettling story and have stretched it out into a character driven motion picture filled with various characters who have been fleshed out in unforgettably compelling ways. None of these characters, even that drunken lout of a husband and father, are one-dimensional or throwaway caricatures. Each one is complex, and they take unexpected directions which might seem jarring at first, but eventually make sense in the large scheme of things.

The plot shifts back and forth in time as we flashback to when Dolores lived with her drunk and abusive husband and of the vicious abuse she took from him in his endlessly drunken state. Director of photography Gabriel Beristain shoots this hideous past with such vivid colors to where he gives the scenes an innocent look which is soon contrasted with horrible violence. It almost acts as a façade for how the past was seen as if it were some sort of Norman Rockwell painting, the kind made to cover up the severe family dysfunction many would like to pretend does not exist.

For the record, King said he wrote the character of Dolores Claiborne with Kathy Bates in mind, and it is very hard to think of another actress who could have inhabited this role. Stripped of any false glamour, Bates takes her character from being a victim to one who understandably takes matters into her own hands. Her acting here is flawless and compelling, and we root for her even though her actions have devastating moral implications.

When you look at her overall body of work, this movie almost seems like a walk in the park for Leigh. She has gone to great physical and emotional lengths to portray a character throughout her long career, but here it looks like she is taking it easy. However, her character of Selena is no less challenging to portray than the others listed on her vast resume. Selena is not easily likable, but she has to be empathetic because the viewer slowly starts to see how her innocence was irrevocably and unforgivably destroyed. Leigh matches Bates’ performance scene for scene by showing how much Selena wants to forget the past, but she comes to see how her most repressed memories cannot stay below the surface forever.

Special attention also needs to be paid to Ellen Muth who portrays Selena as a little girl. This is not the kind of role parents want their children to portray to as it deals with abuse and molestation among other things, but Muth proves to be utterly convincing in making the young Selena deeply distraught and confused by actions no child should ever have to be put through.

There’s also a bevy of excellent performances from the rest of the cast as well. Christopher Plummer, who is never bad in anything, is memorable as the relentless Detective John Mackey. This could have been a throwaway role, but Plummer makes Mackey a complex character to where you question whether his determination is based more on personal revenge than justice. Judy Parfitt is unbearably domineering as Dolores’ wealthy employer, Vera Donovan, and their relationship runs much deeper than we see at first glance. And David Strathairn manages to flesh out his despicable character of Joe St. George to where he’s just slightly more than your average mean drunk.

Most of King’s novels deal with the horror of supernatural elements or ghosts and demons which haunt our nightmares. But “Dolores Claiborne,” much like “Stand by Me,” deals with the horrors of real life which we are never quick to confront unless we are put in a position where the awful truth can no longer be ignored. Perhaps the unsettling nature of this particular work by King is what kept many from checking out this motion picture when it arrived in movie theatres back in 1995, but those of us who were willing to dive into the dark side of things like myself did not deny ourselves a journey to the horrors this film has to offer. But now, 25 years later, this film fits in perfectly with a time which includes the Time’s Up movement as we are forced to realize we have thoughtlessly ignored the worst abuses made against other human beings for far too long. As a result, this particular King cinematic adaption plays even better than it did back when it was released.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘It Chapter Two’ Movie and Blu-ray Review

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The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent Tony Farinella.

It Chapter 2” was a film that I really thought was going to add to what the previous film had done back in 2017. I was very impressed with the chemistry of the children and especially with Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise.  He brought a whole new element of creepiness to the mix.  When you have a clown scaring children, it is the perfect combination for an entertaining yet disturbing horror flick.  Sadly, when they are adults, it does not have quite the same impact. The film is also held back by its nearly three-hour running time.  With some films, the running time is not always noticeable because of how it is edited. In this case, however, they could have cut close to a half-hour from the film, and it would have made a major difference.

Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) has stayed in Derry, Maine for the past twenty-seven years in what appears to be a dungeon of sorts.  He has been waiting for Pennywise to return. Now, Pennywise has returned, and Mike decides to get the Losers Club back together because of the pact they made when they were children to end him once and for all, if he ever came back.  Sadly, there is little in the way of backstory when it comes to the adults in this flick.

Richie Tozier is played by Bill Hader, which on paper sounds like a perfect casting decision.  I don’t know if this was Hader doing improv during shooting or if this was in the script, but you can tell when he is about to make a joke, and the jokes are not funny and feel forced. Jessica Chastain is the star of the show as Beverly Marsh, and she brings the right amount of humanity, vulnerability, and strength to this role. James McAvoy also delivers a strong performance as Bill Denbrough. As for Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan), he is no longer the overweight kid from the previous film.  He has lost a lot of weight and is still pining over Beverly all these years later, even having her signature from his yearbook in his wallet.

From a visual perspective, James Ransone as Eddie Kaspbrak is a great casting choice, as he looks almost exactly like the child actor he is portraying as an adult. Andy Bean rounds out the Losers Club as Stanley Uris.  The magic word in an ensemble movie is chemistry and, I am sad to say, they do not have much of it together, and this really puts a damper on the proceedings.  I remember watching the original film and its special features, and the kids really clicked on and off set. It is what made the film so powerful and enjoyable.  Here, it feels like a bunch of actors are thrown together just for the sake of ending the story.

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Another major issue with the film is how infrequently they use Pennywise.  In the first film, he is shown here and there, but the power of his presence is undeniable.  In this second chapter, he almost seems like an afterthought.  He is shown only a handful of times in the first two hours before showing up for the finale.  While some might say this was done to build things up and leave the audience wanting more, it instead focuses too much on the individual characters and their lackluster backstories.   They have not changed much in twenty-seven years, and this is not a good thing.

What is most maddening about “It Chapter 2” is how individual scenes are so powerful and impactful. This is frustrating because it makes you wish more of the film had that type of feeling to it.  Instead, the film is bogged down in going from the past to the present, and it does not have a flow to it.  There is no rhythm or consistency, and it is overstuffed.  There are things to like in “It Chapter 2,” but you have to suffer through a lot of tedious and unnecessary scenes to get to them and enjoy them.  This is one of the most frustrating films I have seen in 2019 because of how good it could have been if they had a clear vision on what they wanted to do from start to finish.

* * out of * * * *

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Blu-Ray Info: “It Chapter 2” is released on a three-disc Blu-ray combo pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment. It has a running time of 169 minutes. It is rated R for disturbing violent and bloody images throughout, pervasive language, and some crude sexual material.  One disc is the DVD, one is the Blu-Ray, and the final disc is the bonus disc with all of the special features.

Audio Info:  The audio for the film is presented in Dolby Atmos-TrueHD: English, English Descriptive Audio, and Dolby Digital: English, French, and Spanish.  The audio is tremendous, and it is really effective during the more anxious scenes in the movie. Subtitles are also in English, French, and Spanish.

Video Info: The 1080p high definition transfer of the film looks outstanding.  It is dark in the right moments when the tension calls for it. When scenes are in broad daylight it is really bright and vibrant.

Special Features:

The Summer of It: Chapter One, You’ll Float Too and The Summer of It: Chapter Two, It Ends

Pennywise Lives Again

The Meeting of the Losers Club Has Officially Begun

Finding the Deadlights

Commentary by Director Andy Muschietti

 

Should You Buy It?

I am not mad at “It Chapter 2.”  I am just disappointed.  It is clear everyone involved here wanted to make a great film, but maybe they should have waited a little bit longer in terms of its release date.  I know we live in a world where people want things right now, but if they were going to finish this up properly, they should have really taken their time to get it done properly.  There is too much movie here.

There are a ton of great special features, however.  There are so many special features that they had to add an extra disc to the set which is a nice touch. I appreciate the effort they put into this Blu-ray from that aspect as well as the audio and visuals.  There are hints of greatness here, but the final product of the film left me feeling underwhelmed. There is a really good movie somewhere in here, but it gets lost in a sea of mediocrity. If you want to own both films, I would buy this one when it goes on sale.

 

All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘Pet Sematary’ (1989)

While I am not the biggest fan of the 1989 cinematic adaptation of Stephen King’s best-selling novel “Pet Sematary,” never will I forget the first time I watched its trailer. Me and my friend Tim were at Crow Canyon Cinemas to watch “Fletch Lives,” a sequel I couldn’t wait to see. There were a number of trailers which preceded it, but then came the one for “Pet Sematary,” and it was a red band trailer. You know, the kind of trailers meant for “restricted audiences only.” Typically, they are attached to an R-rated movie, but for some odd reason, this particular red band trailer was shown ahead of the PG-rated “Fletch Lives.” I told people about this later, and they told me no one is allowed to place a red band trailer before a PG rated movie, but I remember exactly what I saw.

Back in 1989, I was not all that crazy about horror movies. Over the years I have come to love this genre, but even the tamest of horror scary flick would unnerve me to no end back when I was a kid. As soon as the trailer took us to the pet cemetery of the movie’s title, all the little hairs on my body went straight up as I found myself looking away from the silver screen at times.

20 years later, this trailer for “Pet Sematary” stands out among so many others as it proved to be almost as terrifying as the one Stanley Kubrick did for “The Shining.” The build up from a seemingly normal family living in a town far away from the big city hustle to an unveiling of a sinister secret the people of Ludlow, Maine will have wished they kept hidden was handled brilliantly, and it scared me so much to where I didn’t see the movie until about five or six years after its release. This ended up being one of the few King novels I read before I saw the movie, and this is saying quite a bit.

The very scary cat with the glowing dead eyes, the precious child who somehow got hold of a shiny scalpel, and the presence of Fred Gwynne, perfectly cast as Jud Crandall, made for a trailer which looked far more effective than the average King cinematic adaptation, and the original “Pet Sematary” was released back in a time when King movies were both plentiful and critically maligned. Not even the welcome presence of Denise Crosby, who I was heartbroken to see leave “Star Trek: The Next Generation” during its first season, was enough to soothe my shattered nerves. Thankfully, Chevy Chase’s return to his best role as Irwin M. Fletcher helped to calm me down even if “Fletch Lives” was nowhere as good as “Fletch.”

For me, this trailer peaks right where it should as Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) takes a phone call from his undead son, Gage (Miko Hughes). The framing of this shot is perfect as it shows Louis isolated in what should be the safety of his own home as he yells into the telephone, “WHAT DID YOU DO???!!!” After the movie’s title appeared onscreen, we were left with the sound of Gage telling his daddy “now I’m gonna come play with you,” and the laugh he gave following that was simply blood curdling. This was the icing on the cake as few trailers could ever prove to be as scary as this one was back then. No wonder this proved to be one of the more commercially successful King movies from the 1980’s.

If you haven’t already, please check out the 1989 trailer above. I really want to thank “Horrorama – Classic Horror Movie Trailers & More” for finding this trailer including it on their YouTube channel as I have been looking for this one for ages. I feel like I looked everywhere on the internet and thought I would never find it. Thank goodness I was wrong.

Pet Sematary 1989 poster

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Cujo’

Cujo movie poster

It took Cinematic Void putting together a Stephen King film festival at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood to give me a reason to finally check out the cinematic adaptation of “Cujo.” It was a movie I have heard a lot about, and I remember the book’s original artwork with those growling teeth which indicated this particular dog was looking for more than puppy chow and snausages. Moreover, the word Cujo has long since been burned into my consciousness, and it seems to exist as a description of a dog who has gone mad and cannot be mistaken for man’s best friend. In “Fletch,” it made perfect sense when Chevy Chase said “Cujo” as he wandered through a seemingly abandoned house in Utah. Considering he was attacked by a Doberman Pinscher earlier in the film, his fear of being attacked again was completely understandable.

“Cujo” was released in 1983 during a decade when adaptations of King’s work were plentiful and varied in quality. While some were exceptional (“Stand by Me,” “The Shining,” and “The Dead Zone”), others like “Maximum Overdrive” just didn’t work. “Cujo,” however, proves to be an above average adaptation of his work as well as one of the more unusual. While many of his books deal with the supernatural, this one deals more with the horrors of real life instead of just monsters.

I’m sure you all know the story to “Cujo” by now. In case you don’t, it involves a beautiful St. Bernard who, at the movie’s start, chases a rabbit through the woods. In the process, he gets his head stuck in a cave filled with bats, one of which bites him on the nose. From there, he goes from being a lovable household pet to an infinitely vicious one as he attacks any and every human being in his sight.

From the outside, “Cujo” seems to have a very straightforward plot which indicates to the viewer it will be one of those animal attack movies we have seen time and time again. But what really surprised me most is how it focused more on the human element to where I realized the dog was really a supporting character more than anything else.

You have Vic and Donna Trenton (Daniel Hugh Kelly and Dee Wallace), a married couple and the proud parents of a highly imaginative boy named Tad (Danny Pintauro). But while they appear to be leading the perfect life in Castle Rock, Maine, there are cracks beneath the surface which will inevitably become visible to everyone. Vic is increasingly concerned with economic security, something even more understandable these days. Donna is having an affair with Steve Kemp (Christopher Stone), her ex-boyfriend from high school, as she is terrified of being trapped in a small town for the rest of her life. And Tad, he is still at an age where it’s far too easy to believe monsters are hiding in the closet and waiting to jump out at him. Seriously, seeing Tad race to his bed after turning off the light and hiding under the covers brings back a lot of memories.

Taking the fears of each character into account, it serves as a reminder of how brilliant King is at examining not just horrors of the unknown, but also the ones we are forced to experience in the real world. This makes “Cujo” especially effective as the obstacles these characters are forced to deal with feel almost as scary as the thought of this dog tearing their flesh apart.

“Cujo” was directed by Lewis Teague who also helmed the Stephen King anthology film “Cat’s Eye” as well as the cult classic “Alligator” and “The Jewel of the Nile.” Teague was lucky he got to make “Cujo” back in the 80’s, a decade where filmmakers had the opportunity to build up to a furious climax instead of being forced to rush straight to one. These days, studio executives would have begged, if not ordered, him to rush right into the sequences where the dog attacks the hapless humans and increase the blood and gore horror fans are expecting. Instead, Teague got to take his precious time introducing us to characters who are not mere stereotypes and whose struggles will soon pale in comparison to the dog whose appearance becomes increasingly dirty and slimy.

This movie’s major set piece comes when Donna and Tad become trapped in a Ford Pinto as Cujo thrashes away at it, trying to get inside. From there, “Cujo” becomes a major exercise in sheer intensity as we watch Donna do what she can to save herself and her son before the dog makes chop suey out of them both. But if the dog doesn’t get to them, the sweltering summer heat may do them in instead. Suffice to say, they cannot stay in the car forever.

It’s interesting King chose a St. Bernard as the type of dog instead of another like a Doberman Pinscher. Of course, casting a Doberman might have seemed like typecasting as they have always been the villains of dogs. St. Bernard dogs seem more like comic relief, and this was made clear back in the 1990’s with those “Beethoven” movies starring Charles Grodin. Therefore, choosing a St. Bernard as a dog is an inspired choice as it shows how easily a dog, any dog, can turn deadly after being bitten by a bat. When we first see Cujo, he is a beautifully groomed dog you just want to hug. But he soon becomes a dog in desperate need of a shower as he looks disgustingly slimy and has what looks like an abundance of snot sliding off his face. Eventually he becomes an evil force to be reckoned with, and it’s easy to understand how no one could have prepared for him.

But while this dog looks to be the main star of “Cujo,” he is not. The real star is instead Dee Wallace who, just as she did in “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial,” gives us a mother who cannot be mistaken for the average movie mother. I love talking about when actors inhabit roles more than play them, and it is certainly the case with Wallace here as she gives a performance best described as emotionally blistering. She makes us feel Donna Trenton’s frantic struggles as well as her mental and physical exhaustion in dealing with a crumbling marriage, an affair, her son and, of course, the dog. Also, she makes us feel every single bead of sweat coming off of her body as she and Tad are trapped not just in the car, but in the sweltering summer heat as well.

There also moments where Donna loses her patience with Tad, and this makes Wallace’s performance feel all the more real. Just as “Cujo” was being released, some associated with its production were keen to cut a scene where Donna snaps at her son as she grows tired of his crying out for daddy. This, however, would have been mistake as all parents lose their patience with their children. Seriously, just as my mom. I’m sure she has tons of stories she would love to share with you.

While I’m at it, let’s not leave out Danny Pintauro whose performance as Tad feels unbearably real at times. Seeing him weep and panic when the dog tries to get at him and his mother makes an already intense motion picture even more intense.

Teague and his collaborators which include composer Charles Bernstein, director of photography Jan De Bont, and editor Neil Travis clearly had more on their mind than giving us the average horror film with “Cujo.” While there is a conventional feel to much of what we see here, the filmmakers were more invested in the human element than the animal one. Lord only knows how this movie would look if it were made today, and I’m stunned it has not been remade yet. As this cinematic adaptation shows, horror movies can’t thrive unless we are emotionally invested in the characters to where they are not just stock or filler. This film may not be a masterpiece, but it proved to be far more effective than I ever could have expected it to be.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

The First Trailer for ‘It’ Floats to the Surface

It teaser poster

I count Stephen King’s “It” as one of my all-time favorite novels, and I very much enjoyed the 1990 miniseries based on it, and that’s even though the ending was incredibly disappointing. Now, after many false starts which saw actors and directors come and go from the project, “It” is finally making its way to the silver screen courtesy of Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema, and now we the first trailer for the film.

After watching this trailer several times, my interest in this new adaptation has tripled. Pennywise the Clown, this time portrayed by one of the many actors from the Skarsgard family, Bill Skarsgard, comes across as far more lethal than the one Tim Curry gave us, and seeing Pennywise leap out at us in the trailer’s final moments has me believing anyone with a clown phobia should seriously consider not seeing this movie. We never get to see all of Pennywise here, and he is instead shown through quick flashes throughout, but it’s enough to send a chill down my spine.

The cast of actors is led by Jaeden Lieberher, who left a strong impression on audiences with his performances in “St. Vincent” and “Midnight Special,” who plays Bill Denbrough, the leader of the Loser’s Club who vows revenge against Pennywise for murdering his little brother Georgie. It’s hard not to be reminded of the Netflix series “Stranger Things” while watching these young actors as they too are on a mission to find out what evil lurks in the underbelly of their hometown of Derry, Maine. The story has also been moved up from the 1950’s to the 1980’s (the slide projector is a dead giveaway), so the filmmakers look to be playing on our collective nostalgia which should make this movie extra fun.

Cary Fukunaga was set to direct this adaptation, but although he eventually dropped out due to those “creative differences” filmmakers just love to throw out there, he is still listed in the credits as one of the screenwriters. Directing “It” is Andrés Muschietti who previously directed Jessica Chastain in the box office hit “Mama.” From this trailer, it looks like he is having lots of fun exploring the many ways Pennywise terrorizes the young children of Derry, Maine as he gets at their deepest fears and exploits them for all they are worth. My hope is he focuses on the characters of King’s classic novel as well as on the scares. One thing’s for sure, he certainly knows how to make a red balloon look especially ominous.

“It” is clearly covering the first part of King’s novel when the members of the Loser’s Club were kids. Here’s hoping this adaptation scares us silly enough to where we get follow-up which will follow them into adulthood as we all know the past stays with us in one way or another. Adaptations of King’s novels range from brilliant (“The Shining,” “Misery,” “The Shawshank Redemption”) to horrendous (“Maximum Overdrive,” “Graveyard Shift”), so let’s hope this is not just one of the better ones, but one of the best.

Check out the teaser trailer below.