Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Stand


Recuperating at Niagara General from my wee concussion was quite a restful experience. So many people sent lovely bouquets and little stuffed animals that my room looked a bit like the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland. I kept expecting the handsome orderly to start cracking bad jokes about hippopotami. Even Margo Channing was moved enough to send a small token d'estime in the form of a particularly unsightly potted cactus. I quickly donated it to the pediatric hemophilia ward. I could have stayed snuggled in bed with my video system, but my H.M.O. refused to extend my stay (and the lactulose and coffee enemas every two hours were becoming annoying). 

Both Joseph, my manager, and Madame Rose, my publicist, joined me there to help plan the stunning finale to my current concert tour - a stop in the Big Apple itself, New York, New York. I wanted to book Carnegie Hall but the schedule was full so we had to opt for the Carnegie Deli instead. It would still be my first New York performance in some years so I called up my good friend, Carol Channing, to borrow that red dress with the feathers for my triumphant return. She was kind enough to ship it C.O.D. 

I did have the time to get in one really long film while resting - this was Mick Garris's telefilm of Stephen King's epic The Stand, which originally aired in four parts on ABC TV in 1994. The eight hour miniseries, sans commercials, runs about six hours and is available on a double sided DVD. Stephen King adapted his own novel fairly faithfully, within the limits of what American network television will allow, and the miniseries format allowed most of the complicated plot strands to remain intact. 

Attempting to summarize the plot of The Stand is not an easy task as there are several dozen major characters whose stories intertwine. Suffice it to say that the time is the near future. There is an accident in one of those super-secret government labs that populate the pages of pulp fiction and a killer strain of influenza gets out and starts to decimate the US population. Soon, more than 99% of the population has died in various artful poses. (The disease takes a day or two to kill but we keep seeing corpses keeled over in Laundromats and such - just where I'd head if I felt deathly ill). The small number of survivors includes Stu Redman (Gary Sinise), a good old boy Jimmy Stewart type from small town Texas; Franny Goldsmith (Molly Ringwald), a pregnant college student from Maine who has an adolescent geek, Harold Lauder (Corin Nemec) in tow; Larry Underwood (Adam Storke), a not terribly good rock musician; Nadine Cross (Laura San Giacomo), an NYC woman drawn to the baser side of her nature; Glen Bateman (Ray Walston), a retired college professor; Nick Andros (Rob Lowe), a wandering deaf mute; Tom Cullen (Bill Fagerbakke), a simple minded farm boy; Lloyd Hernreid (Miguel Ferrer) a small time criminal; and the trash can man (Matt Frewer), a pyromania cal drifter. 

As this is a Stephen King tale, these characters, and others, not only have to cope with a devastated civilization, but also with psychic and supernatural events. Two power centers coalesce, one around Mother Abigail, a 106 year old black farm woman (Ruby Dee) who lives in a set borrowed from a high school production of The Rainmaker, and the other around Randall Flagg (Jamey Sheridan), a hip guy with one of Cher's old hair extensions and a big bulge in his faded denim jeans. Mother Abigail calls out in dreams to the characters who are good and they end up in Boulder, Colorado. Randall attracts the evil to the opposite side of the Rockies and sets up shop in Las Vegas where he crucifies drug addicts and occasionally morphs into a raven. A showdown between the good powers of mother Abigail and demon Flagg is inevitable and some of our heroes must make the titular stand against evil in time for a really cheesy special effects sequence featuring the hand of God. 

Although he no longer cops to it, King said in an interview in the late 70s that he was trying to create an Americanized version of The Lord of the Rings when he wrote the novel. There are echoes of that idea inherent in the story structure (Stu=Frodo, Tom=Samwise, Trash can man=Gollum, Boulder=Minas Tirith, Desert American West=Mordor etc.) but King was never really able to lift his prose and tale into the mythopoetic. His ultimate clash of forces of good and evil comes across more as a WWF Smackdown event then an epic clash of civilization versus annihilation. That doesn't prevent the story from being a ripping good yarn. The long format of the miniseries does allow the time to properly get to know the characters and to tell their stories. At the same time, the need to structure the piece for television with its inherent commercial breaks prevents it from continually piling on narrative tension. Things keep building to crescendo, then fading back and building as each of the four episodes comes in the standard seven acts of a two hour TV film. Nevertheless, you can understand that King really loves his characters and Garris has managed to keep even long expository sequences moving. 

The performances are a mixed bag. Ray Walston, the stage and film veteran, comes across best as the acerbic retiree. One snort from him can bring the deadest scene to life. Gary Sinise is also pretty good as the everyman around whom the plot operates. He has that Gary Cooper 'aw shucks' quality that is appropriate to American epic. Ruby Dee, the fine stage actress, unrecognizable under her age make-up, also has her moments. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Molly Ringwald is pretty dreary. Jamey Sheridan, who usually plays soft spoken nice guys, was an interesting choice for the villain, but he muffs it. There's really nothing that menacing about him, even when he sprouts horns and demonic eyes, he seems like a bewildered frat boy who has had too much to drink at a sorority party. As his lieutenant, Miguel Ferrer turns in the same performance as in most of his other films. Matt Frewer is all tics and rolling eyes but he does catch the pathos of his character in the few moments where he's allowed to be quiet. Rob Lowe is undercut by his looks, he's so pretty that there's some odd sexual subtext in his relationship with Bill Fagerbakke that I don't think the film makers intended. 

Stephen King style horror actually works fairly well for the television medium. The restrictions on what can be shown forces the film maker to use more imagination and restraint than they might otherwise and, as always, what is not seen is scarier than what is seen. There are a number of highly effective sequences which rely on few tricks or special effects - the credits sequence in which swooping tracking shots reveal dozens of corpses in the government lab to Blue Oyster Cult's Don't Fear the Reaper, Larry taking care of his dying mother and escaping New York through a tunnel of death, a community meeting in a train station, four men walking through a deserted country. When the movie goes for big visual grandness, however, it falls apart due to cheapie effects. A burning New York is laughable, visions in mother Abigail's cornfield are stage bound, Flagg's morphs are primitive, at best. 

The best segment of the film is the initial one detailing the plague and the collapse of civilization. It's grounded in reality and bolstered by a couple of fine, uncredited cameos by Ed Harris and Kathy Bates. The remaining episodes, as more and more supernatural elements come into play, want to soar and be operatic in nature but are closer to soap operatic. That doesn't mean that they won't keep you glued to the screen - there's enough good stuff and spine tingling shocks to keep all but the most jaded interested. 

The DVD has a decent transfer of the film. (It was not made in wide screen, rather in 16 mm so it's standard format only.) There is a commentary track covering the full six hours with King, director Garris, the editor, and several of the principal cast members. There's a lot of interesting backstage stories to listen to. There's not much else besides the usual talent bios. 

Omniscient ravens. Gas station auto crash. Megalomaniacal general. Effeminate megalomaniacal general's aide. Fake corn. Real rats. Gratuitous The Brady Bunch cast member. Bloody guitar strumming. House explosion. Refinery explosion. Airplane explosion. Las Vegas explosion. Gratuitous raven feathers in hair. Gratuitous Sam Raimi. Symbolic empty infant beds. Collapsed highway. Tarted up mannequins. Fried chicken and iced tea. Wheel of fortune halos. 

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