Desperation - King's Corner Review
Welcome to King's Corner. A recurring series of reviews based on the Film and TV adaptations of Stephen King's novels, reviewed and released in order of the original source material publishing date.
America, the land of God's country. A land of supposed righteousness and virtue that accentuates its exceptionalism whilst trying to keep its darkest secrets buried. In the heart of the Nevada desert in the town of Desperation, which is a distillation of this idea. When an ancient evil is unearthed from the local mine, the town's dark history comes to light and with it comes the indifference of God who has left man to their own devices. Faced with a seemingly unstoppable force, a band of disparate people of different backgrounds must band together for survival to put a stop to it and escape Desperation.
Director: Mick Garris
Starring: Tom Skerritt, Steven Weber, Annabelle Gish, Ron Perlman, Henry Thomas, Matt Frewer
Written by: Stephen King
Produced by: Kelly Van Horn
Cinematography by: Christian Sebaldt
Original Score by: Nicholas Pike
When a sheriff arrests a writer, a family, a couple, and a hitchiker and throws them in a jail cell in the deserted town of Desperation, they must fight for their lives.
In 1991 Stephen King embarked on a motorcycle journey across America which would take him through Nevada on Highway 50, labelled "the loneliest road in America" by Life magazine in July 1986. Whilst in Nevada he passed the town of Ruth which greeted him with the sign, "population: zero" which immediately prompted the question, "who killed them all?". In the article "King of the Season" with Judy Quinn he revealed that his immediate answer was the sheriff, forming the basis for 'Desperation'. In 1996 it was released alongside 'The Regulators', a Bachman book that took the characters from 'Desperation' and placed them in a parallel universe. That story was based on an abandoned screenplay King wrote for Sam Peckinpah called 'The Shotgunners' which never saw the light of day due to Peckinpah's death in 1984.
'Desperation's journey to the TV screen started on the set of the 1997 miniseries adaptation of 'The Shining' where King was working as screenwriter alongside the director of the project, Mick Garris. He told Mick he would write the screenplay to 'Desperation' if Mick would direct it, which he agreed to. Despite selling it to New Line Cinema, the success of 'Scream' led to a change in direction in the genre with more focus being given to teen slashers that wanted to give the audience a playful wink rather than to terrify them with something grander. It went on the backburner for many years before ABC convinced the pair to make it a miniseries. Garris was reluctant to do this so they met somewhere in the middle with Mick making it into an extended TV movie.
Arguably the strongest part of the film is the opening which sees couple Peter and Mary Jackson (played by Henry Thomas and Annabeth Gish respectively) driving down a desert road towards Desperation. After coming across the ghoulish sight of a cat tied to the town's sign in a crucified pose they are pulled over by local sheriff Collie Entragian (played by Ron Perlman). What appears to be a routine pull over for the Jackson couple, quickly descends into a nightmare as the heavy handed psychotic sheriff arrests them for supposed drug possession. The key to what makes this scene work so well is the tension not just through the stilted back and forth between Collie, Peter and Mary but how it taps into a fear of law enforcement and authority. The manner in which Garris shoots the scene as well adds an otherworldly quality, with low angle shots and the use of a fisheye lens in others gives the impression that Peter and Mary are no longer driving across America but have now entered a surreal hell.
It is a journey that deranged sheriff Collie Entragian, possessed by the demonic entity known as Tak, revels in. In the role Perlman really swings for the fences with an over the top yet wildly entertaining performance. His erratic behaviour and quips laced with pop cultural references lure you into a false sense of security but Collie is an extremely unpredictable and dangerous character which makes him all the more fascinating. Whenever the character leaves the film, Perlman's absence is felt as the rest of it never lives up to the great opening he features heavily in. In an interview titled, "Keys to the Kingdom" from Suntup Editions, Garris sums up the situation perfectly by saying, "I think a big problem is when Ron Perlman disappears. That character is so delicious. Once he's gone, some of the power of the story is gone." as he is the personification of the villainous Tak. Whilst others become possessed by him, none really go for it with the character as much as Perlman.
The rest of the cast are mostly made up of alumni from other adaptations of King's work including Tom Skerritt (from 'The Dead Zone'), Steven Weber (from 'The Shining' miniseries) and Matt Frewer (from 'The Stand'). Their characters and others are like a who's who of King character tropes. Skerritt plays Johnny Marinville, an alcoholic writer, Charles Dunning plays Tom Billingley, the local historian who knows all about the dark past of Desperation and Shane Haboucha plays David Carver, the young boy with a special (near supernatural) gift. The whole cast serve their particular roles well but there is nothing particularly compelling about them especially when you compare them to the bombastic Ron Perlman in the opening scenes.
The only character that stands out (and not for all the right reasons) is the young boy David Carver whose strong faith leads him to believing God is acting through him and that he can find a way out of this nightmare for the group. In no way is Shane Haboucha bad in the role, he is just playing the part given to him but the character of David becomes really irritating really quickly through the lack of conflict with his faith. He has a near infallible belief that makes his character feel tiresome very quickly especially given the duress his character is under. On top of this his speeches about God which border on sanctimonious make him one of the most unlikable characters in the film.
If anything, God acting as an unseen presence throughout the film is more interesting than most of the other characters. The story centres on his cruelty and indifference towards the band of survivors and is one of the more intriguing elements of the story. In an interview with Time in 2009 King talked about this idea when he said, "I was raised in a religious household, and I really wanted to give God his due in this book. So often, in novels of the supernatural, God is a sort of kryptonite substance, or like holy water to a vampire. You just bring on God, and you say 'in his name,' and the evil thing disappears. But God is a real force in human lives and is a lot more complex than that. And I wanted to say that in 'Desperation'. God doesn't always let the good guys win". Even when he does it comes at a high price.
In both the novel and film, David acts like a conduit for this idea. He has devout faith in God (which stemmed from a deal he made to save a dying friend's life) even when his family are killed off one by one by Tak. From his perspective it is a part of God's plan for him but from another point of view it is a perfect example of how God is cruel. At any time he could intervene on David's behalf but instead he chooses to show indifference to the suffering of the Carver family and the others. He appears to be testing their faith watching them like they were pawns on a chessboard. This idea doesn't entirely translate well from the novel to the film but the little that does come through works in spite of the holier than thou manner of David and works wonders at holding the audiences attention.
In spite of these actions (or inactions) of God as a presence in the story, there are still opportunities for redemption for some of the characters as they pay for the sins of Desperation's past. In a nice touch, there is a flashback which shows how Tak came to our world. David is given a film by his dead sister which shows him through grainy black and white footage how the town used the forced labour of Chinese immigrant workers to dig in the most dangerous parts of the mining pit of the town. Through their work they uncovered the Pirin Moh (home of Tak) whose spirit drove the workers to murder. In the ensuing chaos two workers caused a cave-in trapped Tak but it came at a cost as the two workers that escaped were blamed for everything and were subsequently executed. They pay for the sins of greed and racism in Desperation which like American history in a nutshell have never been addressed, until the reopening of the mine finds the ghosts of the past revisiting the town like an old wound that has been reopened. In the film it is the self-sacrifice of Johnny that saves the day as he blows up the mine trapping Tak once and for all. It is an act of atonement for his own sins of the past when his inaction during the Vietnam War led to the deaths of 87 people. He casts aside indifference to save those around him.
As the credits roll at the end you get the impression that this adaptation of 'Desperation' is a bit of a missed opportunity. Structurally it never managed to regain any of the momentum from the opening act thanks to Ron Perlman's manic performance. It feels a bit undercooked too when you consider the amount of material King streamlined from his novel into the script. Perhaps it would have benefitted more by being made as a mini series rather than trying to fit it into being a feature length movie of just over 2 hours. In spite of this it is still a solid piece of work and in the grand scheme of King adaptations it is far from being the worst but it isn't exactly the best either.
- Joseph McElroy