Master Of Horror
Since 1974, and the release of Carrie, Stephen King has been the true master of horror as a modern art form. At times prolific, he has written stories that have chilled, inspired and downright terrified millions of people and produced some of the most cinematic pieces of literature ever written.
However, King's work on-screen, be it via movies or television has had somewhat of a mixed success rate. Carrie started things off strong on the silver screen while Salem's Lot was so successful on TV that it was released in theaters. When Stanley Kubrick made The Shining, we saw for the first time that not everything King wrote was going to make a great popcorn movie, at least not in the way HE envisaged when he wrote the work.
The 80's saw a very mixed period for King's work with David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone and Stand By Me (based on his short story The Body) being critically acclaimed, while Cujo, Silver Bullet & The Running Man being panned, the latter shifting from his global chase short story to a steroid filled vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Perhaps the worst was Maximum Overdrive, King's directorial debut, which despite an interesting premise and excellent AC/DC soundtrack was mauled by fans and critics alike.
A Purple Patch
Kings work enjoyed arguably it's most fruitful period in the mid 1990s, with Misery's Oscar success having started a boom early on in the decade and Shawshank Redemption finding its audience after initially tanking in theatres via home video. The end of the decade rounded out with The Green Mile and then we began to see less and less of King on the big screen, with Apt Pupil being the last "hidden gem" movie with a pre Magneto and Gandalf Ian McKellen and the late Brad Renfro. From then on, when we saw King on the big screen, it was always low budget.
There has always been a steady diet of TV based adaptations, since IT was a major success in 1990 as a mini series and The Stand in 1994, everything from The Langoliers to Rose Red have been adapted with varying degrees of success.
In June 1999 however, arguably the biggest change to Stephen King's life took place when he was involved in a horrific road accident, being hit by a truck while walking near his home. His writing afterwards became more focused in many ways and varied in scope far more than it had in the past, King admits he had difficult times writing in that period, but Cell was perhaps the first in a long time that made people take notice again.
The 2006 book was arguably his most ambitious since The Stand in scope, once again he was writing about an apocalyptic vision of our world, only this time rather than the Captain Trips virus, the carnage was caused by "The Pulse".
Cell was striking in that it didn't take long to get to the action and was arguably the most cinematic set-piece King had ever written at that point. As Clay Riddell, the hero of the book walked down a Boston street and saw the immediate horrors of The Pulse, it screamed "MAKE THIS A MOVIE NOW!"
Eli Roth was the first guy to get this and for years he tried to get the movie off the ground without success, similar movies came and went and finally it was announced that John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson would appear. Fans became cautiously excited as the two had previously worked together on 1408 well and despite being arguably 10 years too old for the role of Clay, Cusack was very close to how readers imagined him in the book as was The Raggedy Man, the "villain" of the movie.
Isabelle Fuhrman of Orphan fame and Stacy Keach joined the cast and the movie filmed...then disappeared for a LONG time
Originally slated for release in 2014, Cell seemed to literally vanish until it was officially released via VOD a few days ago.
While the movie makes several changes to the text, the introduction is as good as you imagined, only transported to Logan Airport. Indeed many of the early set pieces remain intact, with "Pixie Light" and "Pixie Dark" being present and even the poor dog meeting fates as horrific as they read on the page.
What Went Wrong?
Tom and Alice's introductions are different but equally well handled and in the main much of the book is covered, albeit in a very rushed way.
Cell's biggest flaw is its brutally short running time of 93 minutes and bear in mind over a MINUTE AND A HALF is the idents of the various producers and funding companies!
The book was epic in scope and the story easily merited another half an hour. It also arrives in a world where The Walking Dead has sewn up the "Zombie Market", so it's more interesting take on "Phoners" and how they behave is radically different to what people know and love from The Walkers, Daryl and Rick.
Had the movie been released earlier or perhaps made sooner then Cell could easily, even in it's shorter form been something very special. John Cusack and Jackson are REALLY good in this in places, but it seems wasted somehow like they know "this should be longer and better, but we can't do it properly".
Perhaps the most depressing part of Cell's story is that nearly ALL of the works in production based on King seem to be having very similar issues.
IT was originally to be directed by True Detective's Cary Fukananga as two movies, the studio decided however that only one was required and he left the project, which now like Cell is "filming" but is unclear when we will see it.
The Dark Tower is now being filmed, however this has been no small feat to get underway and has in many ways only been possible due to the tenaciousness of Ron Howard to get it done. The studios don't trust King's material seemingly, unless they can get a major name involved to direct like Howard and even then, they seem more interested in meeting a running time than actually delivering a decent version of King's vision. The Stand has been in similar development hell for a long time and seems contingent on whether Matthew McConaghey will sign on as Randall Flagg.
TV has also seen this, Under The Dome flopping spectacularly has made them much more wary of using King's work, even if The Dead Zone managed a highly successful run. The recent 11.23.63 was made more because it could get bankable stars like James Franco and Chris Cooper involved than for its own sake, however good it turned out. A new TV adaptation of The Mist appears to be on the way, however this too could go either way.
Can It Change?
King's work is at its best onscreen when a director is trusted to make the movie they want, however unpopular it might end up being. DePalma, Kubrick, Cronenburg, Reiner and Darabont all were trusted to make the best movie they could and made great movies as a result that became popular with audiences.
Ron Howard may get away with it as his track record has earned him that kind of stroke with The Dark Tower, but when a Cary Fukanaga level guy is leaving IT or Eli Roth leaves Cell then it is clear that what comes out is not going to be as good as if the studios really went for it rather than worry about making money back. Shawshank was the ultimate lesson in this, it bombed at the box office but has become one of the most successful indie films ever via it's home releases.
Cell will go down as a failure both critically and with the fans, but from the latter perspective, what they did well, they did VERY well indeed.
There are some brilliant touches, including Clay's dream and the chilling moment a group of Phoners yell out ala Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. Sadly, much like The Mist before it, Cell will suffer for an ending people will dislike and that it simply took too long to get out there. Cell would (and still could) make a great HBO style show one day, not a long-form show, but a one season show like 11.23.63 was.
Sadly too many of King's rights are in the hands of people who don't actually care about making good stories for the screen or perhaps it takes so many different investors to get them made that it dilutes what can be done. Cell seemed to have the right people involved like Tod Williams as director, Cusack and Jackson but those paying the bills clipped their wings or wanted it more Walking Dead like.
It puts a massive amount of pressure on The Dark Tower, Howard and Idris Elba as the lead. If this bombs, it could be the end of King's work on the big screen for a very long time, if not permanently.
What did you think of Cell? Was it a let down or the best they could do in a post Walking Dead world? Let me know in the comments below.