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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Langoliers

This is one of King's most infamous stories.

Not because the story is bad, because it isn't. But for two reasons. The first is that its title is a made-up word that sort of highlights how often King does this.

He could have called the title...things...anything he wanted. The Devourers. The Exterminators. They That Wait in the Dark. Well, that last one's a bit corny, but you get it. So, what is a "Langolier"? What's the root word? Where did that word come from? To me, a "langolier" sounds like some kind of position on a military aircraft or tank, or perhaps on a sailing ship. In this story, they're made-up little critters that a character's father used to try and scare him with, and he uses that term to describe what he's certain is coming for him in this story. But there's no explanation of where the term comes from, what caused his father to use that particular word.

The second reason this story is so infamous is thanks to the awesomely awful ABC mini-series based on it. I mean, it's a disaster. Shitty directing, awful acting (even from usually reliable pros), about the worst visual effects possible (believe it or not, this isn't photoshop, that's what the effects actually looked like) and an ending made of pure cheese. The worst part is that it's not unfaithful. It's just bad. It's bad for the same reasons all of Mick Garris's King adaptations are bad; it's primarily focused on just transcribing King's story into a screenplay. It's not concerned by whether or not the lines make sense when stripped of the internal monologue that birthed them in the story, and it keeps in even stuff that doesn't work at all if you have actors say them out loud. For example, Kate Maberly is forced to, with a straight face, describe the horrible sound of the approaching Langoliers as a "horrible cereal noise". No, actually the line that comes before that one is worse, where she says, again, completely serious, with ominous music to tell us this is supposed to be really scary: "I hear a really terrible scary sound. And it's awful. A little like Rice Krispies after you pour in the milk."

Oooh, talk about a shudder down the ol' spine! I was never able to stay in the room after pouring the milk on my Rice Krispies! I mean, when you're adapting a good story but you come across a line like that, it should be the first thing cut. Especially since it doesn't even really work in the story. There are other lines later that really do show how horrible the sound is, and never mind that this line is spoken by a small child, that line removes any and all fear from the sound the Langoliers are making.

But I haven't even gotten to the crown turd in this shit pile. Remember this silly little TV series called Perfect Strangers? It was about a young Greek-ish (his island country was made up) shepherd who comes to the big city to make his fortune. It starred a young comedian with a talent for accents who was funny for about two seasons. Maybe. And then he got really grating and yet we all kept watching. His name was Bronson Pinchot, and he's in this movie as...the antagonist. Sans accent, and trying to be scary, any charm he may have once had is gone. He's not fun to watch as a bad guy, he's hilarious to watch in all the wrong ways. Mr. Toomy is not a guy you should be laughing at, and Pinchot isn't trying to be funny, but all you want to do while watching him shout and screen and gobble up more scenery than the titular monsters is laugh at him. He's worse than Jack Nicholson in The Shining, worse than Tim Curry in It, and in fact just might be the most over-the-top villain in any Stephen King adaptation ever. And that's saying a lot.

But to me, the worst performance of the film isn't even Pinchot. You expect ham and cheese from him, and at least he's a performance you can love to hate. No, the worst performance comes from Dean Stockwell, playing King's stock writer character (though for once he isn't really the lead), in this case, a mystery writer who figures out what's really going on with this story. Stockwell is a good actor, and we know he's above the material in this turkey (the film, not the story), but holy Christ does he phone this one in. He's wooden, stilted and never acts like he actually believes what he's saying. You can almost see his eyes flicking back and forth as he reads from cue cards. I'm tempted to blame director Todd Holland, who has produced many films with stilted acting in them, but I can't pin it all on him. Stockwell's a good enough actor that he should have been able to tell Holland "look, just let me find this character my own way". This doesn't happen, and Stockwell seems half asleep for most of it. Any time his character begins speaking, I want to fast-forward, and considering the character is one of the most engaging in the book, I don't understand why Stockwell apparently felt he had so little to work with that he just didn't put in any effort at all.

And then there are the effects. Sweet hot-buttered fuck. I just...can't...nope.

So this is badly in need of being remade, as the book is damn well creepy, and in fact, seems like an extended creepypasta. If you don't know what those are, google it. You might enjoy yourself. Or you might find one of the more cliched ones and not enjoy yourself at all. This one is one of the better ones. Well, better still, because it's a full novel (whatever Four Past Midnight might be, it isn't a collection of novellas; these are absolutely long enough to be called novels) and because it's written by the man himself.

A flight from LA to Boston starts off weird when a stewardess says the Aurora Borealis has been spotted over the midwest. Brian Engle, a pilot who just fought through some major turbulence to be greeted with the news of his ex-wife's death, is now dead-heading home on another flight, and finds himself drifting off to sleep. He wakes to realize that only himself and ten other passengers remain, and the plane is on autopilot flying over what looks to be an utterly dead United States. It gets worse; one of the passengers becomes unreasonable and violent when he realizes they won't be making their scheduled stop in Boston, and then their forced landing puts them in a dead airport, empty of people or even the seeming remains of anyone having been there at all, and one of the passengers, a little blind girl, reports hearing a horrible approaching noise. There doesn't seem to be any question; if they're still on the ground when that noise arrives, they're done for.

The violent, insane passenger, Craig Toomy, thinks he knows just what it is that's coming; the Langoliers, evil creatures his father made up to scare him into doing what his father demanded (more on that in a moment). He's determined to do whatever he can do to not be caught by them...even kill.

Now you might be able to see why Bronson Pinchot was the wrong choice for this part.

I think we need to get Mike Flanaghan, the new voice of horror, on this project. I love this guy's work, and his name at the helm lets me know I'm in for a treat. A scary, scary treat.

For our stalwart captain, Brian Engle, I picked Idris Elba. Just because he isn't Roland doesn't mean I don't want him in the SKCU at all, and somehow the image of a resolute man in a pilot's uniform, his face came straight to mind. Brian's not the real lead here, but he's one of three or four, and would probably be top-billed.

Then there's the Stephen King expy...okay, I'm not being fair, but someone in this story's got to be a writer, because someone in King's stories always is. This time it's Bob Jenkins, a mystery writer who's never actually been involved in a real life mystery, per se, but he's created enough of them in his head to know how to deduce what's happening now. He's older, and I see him as a professorial man who makes lectures interesting, which is exactly what Dean Stockwell did wrong in the miniseries; his lectures were the most lifeless part of the film, helped only by how absurd his acting was. Bryan Cranston played a professor who could make physics lectures seem interesting on Breaking Bad, and he'll slip very easily into the role of Jenkins.

One of the travelers is not what he seems; Nick Hopewell looks like a slightly nerdy British embassy employee, but he's quite a bit more than that, as you'll find out pretty quickly in the story. Dan Stevens can handle both the nerdy side and the man of action.

Laurel Stevenson is a school teacher who's approaching her mid-30's and is still unmarried, and has boarded this plane after deciding to meet a man she met online through the personals. She ends up a surrogate mom to Dinah, the little blind girl (who I'm not casting for reasons that should be obvious if you're a regular reader). I wanted an actress who can rise above a rather bland character, so I picked Ruth Negga.

A seventeen-year-old Jewish violinist named Albert Kaussner is another character that gets a huge share of the action. He's an engaging character who was turned into a boring cipher in the film, but recent Academy-Award nominated Timothee Chalamet will help with that.

Bethany Simms is your basic "troubled teen", but as far as I can tell from the book, the most trouble she gets into is smoking and drinking, which makes her...just a teen, really. She could be played by anybody, but I picture her as Alison Thornton, who I know from Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, and actually made me care about her despite literally playing a dog.

Don Gaffney is an older passenger who broadcasts his fate by his vivid red shirt. In the book, he gets a lot to do but not much development. Frankie Faison played him in the mini-series despite the character not being described as black in the book, but there's no reason he shouldn't remain black, and Stephen McKinley Henderson (check him out in Lincoln, Fences and Lady Bird) is one of those actors who makes you want to watch him even in the most minor of roles.

The final passenger before we get to the last role is Rudy Warwick, a mostly useless guy who is defined almost entirely by his desire to get something to eat. He's not described as fat, but I couldn't help but picture him as Brooklyn Nine-Nine's Joel McKinnon Miller.

I wasn't sure at first how to deal with the antagonist, Craig Toomy, the one passenger who can't allow anything, even being sucked into a time-rip, to keep him from his goal of getting to his meeting in Boston. Toomy is a deeply tortured man, who was raised by a father who only cared about how focused he could keep his son on "The Big Picture" and get him driven toward the ultimate goal of being successful and hard-working. He made up the Langoliers as monsters who come for lazy people, and Craig seems to have grown up believing in them, determined that the Langoliers will never get him, but also determined to be free. His meeting, that he has to get to on time? It's to tell his bosses that he deliberately made a bad investment and lost them millions. This isn't a spoiler, like in the movie, it's part of his internal monologue practically from the moment we meet him. Toomy is a character that it would be very easy to take up to Eleven to start off with, then go well past where the knob ends and stay there the whole movie, which is what Bronson "Scaring the little guh-AAAH-irl!!?? LA-DEE??!!" Pinchot chose to do. So I didn't want to get someone known only for humor, but someone who could start off low and subtle, dangerous but not crazy, and gradually ramp up the crazy until close to the end. That person is Kier O'Donnell, who has done humor, but has also played insane bad guys before.
There is one more passenger, an unnamed man with a black beard who sleeps through almost all of it, and I can't say I really understand the point of his character. He was left out of the mini-series, so I'll leave him out here. I also won't go as far as to have Toomy suffer visual hallucinations of his father, as just hearing voices will be enough.

Now, at this point, I still have three novels left to read in Four Past Midnight, and I don't know which ones, if any, I'll be doing a post for. I'm fairly certain I won't be doing one for Secret Window, Secret Garden because that one has a film adaptation that was a massive critical and commercial bomb, but I don't think it's been long enough since its release to try it again. The only question is whether I think it's a good enough story that it must be tried again. The other two, The Library Policeman and The Sun Dog have never been adapted and I'd like to read them before I decide whether or not to blog about them.

But! I'm going to step outside the norm of this blog for a short while. I recently picked up two horror novels that look awesome, and I really want to read them, but the difference is, I'm going to blog about them here, even if it's not a casting post. Yes, I know they're not Stephen King novels, and yes, I know that the purpose of this blog is to create a Stephen King Cinematic Universe, but it's my blog and I have decided these books are relevant to the subject matter. Besides, King himself tweeted his appreciation for at least one of these books (the other is Canadian and he might not have been able to read it yet).

So, next up, in whatever form it takes: Kill Creek and A God in the Shed!

And then back to our regularly scheduled programming.


  1. (1) The word "langoliers" really is evocative, isn't it? Not sure of what; but of SOMETHING, for sure.

    (2) "It's bad for the same reasons all of Mick Garris's King adaptations are bad; it's primarily focused on just transcribing King's story into a screenplay." -- It's amazing to me that anyone ever thought that was a good approach. King's writing is too densely contextualized for it to ever work. And it never has.

    (3) I think I might agree that Stockwell gives the worst performance. As you say, he should have been capable of better. Pinchot is awful, but give him credit: he's playing what's on the page.

    (4) Elba as Brian is a good call; he'd be excellent. I'd also kind of like to see him as Toomy; his physicality would add something interesting there.

    (5) Cranston as Jenkins is excellent.

    (6) Keir O'Donnell is someone I'm unfamiliar with, so I'll take your word for that. I like everyone else, though (apart from a few others I don't know).

    (7) Hey, you know what? Toomy is another one I think Jimmi Simpson would play well.

    (8) As someone who steps beyond the conceit of his own blog frequently, I say go for it. Sometimes, you've just gotta.

  2. (1) It is, but I'm not sure it's a scary word. It almost seems like the kind of title you'd see on a "classic" novel from the early 1900's. Again, I think of sailing ships.

    (2) Yes, the focus should be on overall story, mood, character and theme. The recent "It" movie totally understood that, as did Misery, The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me and even Christine. All of them very faithful, but not "to a fault" which is where Garris and in this case Holland fail. They literally seem to just take dialogue from the book and use it to write a screenplay, only adding or deleting the odd line here or there, etc. This is why the film had no problem describing a scary sound as "like Rice Krispies after you pour on the milk". In the book, a little girl is saying these lines and you picture this sweet little thing and you feel sorry for her. In the book, it's still a little girl, but she doesn't seem to actually be as upset, and she delivers that line in this stilted, almost bored way. But even if she gave an Oscar-worthy performance, there's just no way to make that line scary when spoken out loud. You keep what works from the screenplay, you cut what doesn't.

    (4) Toomy should be a little shit. Kinda just like Fred Clawson, and O'Donnell is one of the people I considered for Clawson.

    (6) He's a good actor who's done a lot of bad movies. He's always very good in them, though, usually the most watchable part. He gave a surprisingly engaging performance in Paul Blart: Mall Cop, an otherwise utterly forgettable movie. I seriously recommend it just for his performance. He was also in Amusement, another excrable movie in which he was pretty good.

    (7) Heh heh, see what I said above.

    (8) The novels in question are still very much horror and they look really great.

    One thing I didn't mention that I thought about while reading this book is how easy it would be to modernize it. The planes we use today are about as modern as the ones used then, and such modern stuff that didn't exist like the Internet and tablet PC's, laptops, cell phones (which existed, but few had them) would be rendered useless by the very plot of this story.

  3. Good work. I imagine we're going to see a lot of stories that we're going to want Mike Flanagan for. I assume you've heard the news that he'll be helming Doctor Sleep?

    Bryan Cranston is great, although I'd prefer to see him in something more substantial in the King-verse. I think he'd be perfect as the lead in Duma Key, although it may have been Bryant who first had that idea. And I don't want to be that guy, but Walter White's field of study was chemistry, not physics.

    I didn't know Henderson's name, but I recognized him immediately as the priest in Lady Bird.

    Now I need to see the Bronson Pinchot version. The funny thing is, he has a reputation as a ginormous prick, and apparently thinks he's King Shit, as opposed to a washed-up 80s comic who gave us EIGHT SEASONS of the one-note Balki, who as you mentioned, was pretty hilarious stuff for maybe a year and a half. That's not entirely his fault, but if you Google "Bronson Pinchot jerk," your computer will start smoking like an overheated car engine.

    Secret Window was definitely not a massive bomb. It was a modest box-office success, and rates a 47 on Rotten Tomatoes. Pretty much average. I actually remember enjoying it as (I believe) Johnny Depp's first post-Captain Jack role, and found it effectively creepy, although I saw it long before reading the novella, and haven't seen it since.

    Anyway, don't mean to nitpick. And fire away on the non-King stories. Your pace was getting pretty quick. I don't know where February even went.

    1. Flanagan is the new master of big-screen horror. He never fails to deliver. Oculus is still one of my favorite modern horror films.

      You might be right about Cranston, and if a role ever comes up in a more substantial work, I might change things. Already several castings I've made need to be changed (Anton Yelchin isn't available for The Stand anymore, just as one instance) and I think at some point I'll just do a long post with all my cast lists including any changes I need to make.

      I didn't know that about Pinchot. It doesn't really surprise me, though. It always saddens me when someone likeable on screen turns out to be a jerk in real life. Oddly enough, I wasn't happy to hear what kind of guy Bob Saget actually was. I didn't like Danny Tanner, but at least Danny Tanner was a nice guy. Bob Saget is apparently a giant douche. But Dave Coulier is nice, and actually funny when he's allowed to tell his own jokes. I went to one of his shows and he's a down-to-earth, easy-going dude.

      I just started the second of the non-King novels today. Had a death in the family recently and not a ton of time to read. I think I'll do a single post on A God in the Shed, though.

  4. What have you heard about Saget? All I know is that his Full House/America's Funniest Home Videos persona couldn't be farther from his standup, which is VERY blue, but I doubt that's enough to make you call him a douche. When he came to Salt Lake during the Olympics, he was pretty funny, and made fun of the writers for his shows, which he blamed on their being Canadian, which did not amuse the Canadians nearby in the crowd. And what's really funny is that Coulier is believed by many to be the subject of Alanis Morrisette's "You Oughta Know". I have no doubt he's a nice guy to his fans, and may very well be a good guy all the way around.