Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Nightmares & Dreamscapes, Episodes 5 & 6

Both these episodes disappointed me, though "The Road Virus Heads North" came very close to being good, and certainly was the only genuinely scary episode of the series thus far. It's basically our old favorite about the haunted painting, with Tom Berenger as a best-selling horror writer who Chooses Poorly at a yard sale and Suffers the Consequences.

I re-read the King short story after I saw the episode; it's in the King collection Everything's Eventual, and it originally appeared in Al Sarrontonio's millennial all-star horror anthology, 999. In some respects, the episode, written by Peter Filardi, improves on the original. In King's story, for example, Kinnell ditches the painting at a rest area, whereas in the episode he takes his aunt's advice and throws it into the river, which is much more visual and dramatic. In the episode, the painting causes a near-fatal moment of driver distraction, which suggests the painting is actively trying to kill Kinnell; this episode is absent from King's story. Kinnell's New Age ex-wife is only mentioned in King's story; in the episode, he actually visits her on the drive northward. (Here occurs the scariest moment in the episode, a moment not in King's story, when the ex-wife innocently asks, "Were they trying to steal your painting?")

In fact, the episode does a good job all around of giving Kinnell a fleshed-in life. Whereas King's story introduces us only to his aunt, the episode also introduces us to his doctor, agent and ex-wife, all likeable and believable, which serves to make Kinnell (well played as a gruff old bear by Tom Berenger) more likeable and believable, too. Much of this, I'm sure, was added just to stretch a rather thin story across a one-hour running time.

Other additions in the episode, however, serve only to confuse things. Most importantly, adding a medical crisis for Kinnell before his fateful drive north forces us to read the "Road Virus" in the painting as a metaphor for Kinnell's own (possible) illness, which would mean the spooky goings-on are entirely in Kinnell's mind -- a horror writer dealing with the bad news in terms he can understand. But the episode also demands that we view Kinnell's pursuer, the ghost of the painting's vengeful artist, as objectively real, a separate entity that murders people; director Sergio Mimica-Gezzan, in fact, is rather more insistent on this point than the original King story, which stays locked into Kinnell's imaginings throughout. (Those imaginings, by the way, include a crucial point of clarification and bonus creepiness, one left out of the episode: The disturbed artist Bobby Hastings destroyed all his paintings, including this one, and was as dismayed as Kinnell to discover this particular painting rather resistant to destruction.)

The implication seems to be that Hastings' rampage is Kinnell's doing, maybe even that Kinnell and Hastings are, on some level, the same person, a point heavy-handedly slammed home by the episode's overblown ending, and I just don't buy that.

Full credit, though, to whoever actually painted the canvas that's the star of the show. On the creepiness scale, it's right up there with the portraits in Lewin's The Picture of Dorian Gray and Corman's House of Usher.

In his introduction to the story in Everything's Eventual, King writes:
I actually have the picture described in this story, how weird is that? My wife saw it and thought I'd like it (or at least react to it), so she gave it to me as a ... birthday present? Christmas present? I can't remember. What I can remember is that none of my three kids liked it. I hung it in my office, and they claimed the driver's eyes followed them as they crossed the room ...
Who painted that original, I wonder?

Oh, yeah, that other episode. Not much to say about "The Fifth Quarter," a violent, non-supernatural revenge tale about an ex-con who celebrates his parole not with his wife and child but by going after the thugs who iced his buddy. Jeremy Sisto and Samantha Mathis, appealing performers, are wasted here. Sadly, all that most filmmakers seem to have learned from Quentin Tarantino (or vaguely picked up on from watching the trailer to one of his movies once) is that shouted, foul-mouthed conversations between people holding great big loaded guns in one another's faces are inherently cinematic; not true. Much more interesting in "The Fifth Quarter" are the themes of infidelity and sexuality that get mentioned here and there, but the filmmakers (writer Alan Sharp and director Rob Bowman) aren't really interested in that stuff. What they are interested in, is not interesting.

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