TCM’s Stephen King doc traces horror master’s cinematic influences

By Stacey Harrison

In its A Night at the Movies series, TCM set out to explore film genres in-depth. Having already tackled thrillers and epics, the series gets into the Halloween spirit with tonight’s entry, A Night at the Movies: The Horrors of Stephen King.

Filmmaker Laurent Bouzereau, who has directed all the Night at the Movies documentaries, knew that there was no better source to talk about horror cinema than the man who has terrified audiences for decades with novels like Carrie, The Shining, The Dead Zone and dozens of others. In the one-hour special, which premieres at 8pm, King talks about his own cinematic influences, ranging from seeing Earth vs. the Flying Saucers in a nearly empty Maine theater, to his “moral queasiness” over the so-called torture porn of today. Bouzereau gushed about the experience, coming away with an even greater appreciation for the horror master.

The other Night at the Movies films have been more wide-ranging. What made you decide to just focus on Stephen King?

Bouzereau: The idea of the series is to interview people connected to those types of genres, and I thought, “If I can get Stephen King, we don’t need anybody else.” I’ve known Stephen King in the sense that I’ve worked on several documentaries about his films for the DVD format, and met him on a couple of occasions, so I approached him … and he said, “Yes.” He has a new book coming out in a few weeks, so I wasn’t too hopeful because I know he is very focused, and how tough it is to finish a book. But to my great surprise and pleasure, he said, “Yes.” So we spent a couple of days together with cameras in the room in New York and we talked about the horror genre. … It was probably two of the best days I’ve had professionally, because he was just so engaging and so fun and so generous and so into it that it was contagious. In fact, I wish I was still sitting down with him two or three months later. Even though we’re talking about a genre that deals with violence and things that are not particularly pleasant, he has a way of talking about it that makes it very accessible and very human. That’s a property of Stephen King, really, in his books as well as his screenwriting he’s done whether it’s adaptations or an original screenplay — and his directing, he directed a movie — it’s rooted in reality, it’s rooted in things we can relate to, and very, very deep emotions. All I can tell you is that my mom hates horror movies, and when I showed her Carrie … she cried. That’s the power of Stephen King and why he transcends the genre and why we wanted to have him because he is in my mind not only an incredible artist but also someone who has reinvented that particular genre.

On a surface level, this film reminds me of King’s book Danse Macabre, where he gives some critical analysis of the horror genre. Does this film expand on that?

Bouzereau: I definitely reread the book with a Hi-Liter, and it was sort of a bible for me. But that book deals a lot with literature and a lot with television as well, and we’re highly concentrated on movies, almost exclusively, although we do talk about how a lot of classic horror is rooted in literature. But we don’t necessarily go toward television and such, like Twilight Zone and Outer Limits, which is a huge, huge chunk of his Danse Macabre book. But definitely people familiar with that book will recognize topics that are touched upon. I didn’t particularly notice an evolution as far as him liking something he didn’t like [before] and vice versa. I think he still has the same criticisms toward films or  the same love for them.

How did you decide on a format for the film?

Bouzereau: There are segments. … The thing that was fascinating for me in doing the research was that really when you sit down and start analyzing it that there are within the genre a lot of subgenres. There are movies that deal with the devil, slasher movies, the monster and creature movies, and the thing that was fascinating about Stephen King was that a lot of those things overlap into science fiction as well. He quotes a lot from The Thing and the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, which he quotes as the day he discovered terror. It’s interesting to me that in his mind horror does overlap into science fiction, and we establish that early in the show. He takes us on a journey through those different subgenres that exist within the word “horror,” and what we feel is the definition, the journey, and brings us from his own discoveries. You start from kind of a personal experience on how that triggered in him the curiosity of writing such stories and the effect it could have on people and how creative that could be. He brings us up to date in a sequence we titled “New Blood,” about what is happening in the genre today and what is the future of it and where do we go from there. It’s sort of an open-ended segment at the end where you feel like hopefully, with this new added knowledge from Stephen King, filmmakers will listen.

About the new movies, do horror movies still have the power to influence him?

Bouzereau: I was really blown away by how much he reads and how much he watches. That’s another thing that’s really amazing about those great artists, and I think that’s part of the secret of their success, they are extremely curious people. They are fascinated by what’s done. I tend to be, “Oh, I don’t want to watch too much because I don’t want to be influenced,” but no they’re very curious. He seems to be watching a lot. He talked about Paranormal Activity, Insidious, and a French film that I had never heard of that came out. I was just like, “Oh my God, he knows about a French film that I don’t know about.” But I live in America, so I had that excuse. But I was really fascinated by his level of curiosity about what’s out there and not necessarily about the horror genre. He seems to be so well-informed. He goes to the movies, he reads books, and he’s really a modern thinker. That’s why he is who he is, and why he’s so successful.

What were some of the movies he picked that surprised you?

Bouzereau: I was kind of surprised, and this is what kept the discussion fun, when he disagreed with me on things. Like, I would say things about The Shining, and he’s not fond of Kubrick’s Shining. I kind of knew that. It’s not a secret, but I would kind of try to defend the film to some degree, and he’d say, “Well, I disagree with you.” It was very fun to be called on those things by him because I wanted to hear why he disagreed with me. The movie that surprised me the most is that there was a lot of what I would call science fiction and to overlap. The thing that was really fun was that he said he’s never been a fan of werewolf movies. He said, “Look, I wrote a werewolf book.” Cycle of the Werewolf, which was made into a movie called Silver Bullet, and he said, “I’m not a fan.” I thought that was really great. He said, “Look, we can argue back and forth about The Haunting,” the movie by Robert Wise, which is a classic haunted house horror story, and he said, “I don’t think it’s a horror movie.” … Then he said, “The Amityville Horror for me was a journey, because I did not like it, but I grew to like it and especially really admired the performance by James Brolin.” So there’s a lot of interesting comments of that nature that keep the discussion really alive and fun. The funniest is that he’s not a fan of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, and he’s very honest in saying that could be a generational thing. He grew up with Christopher Lee as Dracula. It’s a little bit like James Bond. If you grew up watching the Sean Connery movies, you’ll love Sean Connery. If you grew up watching the Roger Moore movies, you’ll love Roger Moore. I thought that was interesting that he said that about the Lugosi one. He’s also a huge, huge fan of Night of the Living Dead, and in fact he showcased that and a movie by [Francis Ford] Coppola called Dementia 13 as two films that were extremely critical in his own appreciation of the genre.

Even though this is about the films that influenced him, and not really about films from his own work, does he talk much about Stephen King movies?

Bouzereau: Absolutely. We have a whole segment called “King at the Movies,” and it’s about his own appreciation, or unappreciation of certain films. That was really interesting because in that particular section we do mention The Dead Zone, which is one of my favorites, the one by David Cronenberg. We do a little detour actually that’s not related to his film, but upon mentioning David Cronenberg, in [King’s] eyes, he is the one director who has continued to make really interesting films in the genre through the years. Even though some of his recent films are not horror films, it’s interesting to get his appreciation of David Cronenberg, because he is a guy who started doing B movies like They Came From Within and Rabid with Marilyn Chambers, who was a porn actress, actually, and [Cronenberg] went on to do Dead Zone, Dead Ringers and movies like The Fly, which are really, really amazing films of a much higher caliber. He has incredible admiration for David Cronenberg. He loves Carrie. He has a very interesting story about going to a sneak preview of Carrie — again, it was a story I’d heard before, but hearing it from his mouth is really hilarious. He has a dislike of The Shining and talks about why that is, and where the disagreement takes place between his and Stanely Kubrick’s vision. Really, in his mind, the best performance by an actress in one of his films — besides Kathy Bates, who starred in Misery and won an Oscar for it, but that’s not really a horror film — is Dee Wallace in Cujo. He really showcases her performance in the film as defining for him.

Does he talk about what he enjoys about writing things that scare people?

Bouzereau: Well, you know, the thing that was important for me was for him to define what scares us. Through the different subgenres, in something like The Exorcist, is why did that movie work? It’s much more through the examples he expresses and his understanding of why those films work. But the truth is you don’t know why it works and why it doesn’t work. … In his mind, the horror film has a very short shelf life, because if you watch it the first time, you’re terrified. The second time you watch it, you may still be terrified, but the third time, he says, you may still enjoy it but you’re terrified by the memory of watching it the first time. You’re no longer terrified by what you’re seeing. That’s pretty much unique to that genre. Other films, like epic films, you will enjoy Lawrence of Arabia whether or not you know what happens. But in horror films you hold on to the memory of the shock of the first time, and that makes you appreciate it. That was really a fascinating statement. He also brought up his moral queasiness about the horror genre. He describes movies that are extremely violent, what he called “torture porn,” that are borderline misogynistic or sometimes not even borderline. It’s not to say he doesn’t watch those movies, but he has a moral queasiness about them. So I think he comes from a very moralistic standpoint on that notion of violence and whether it be graphic or physical in those films. At the same time, he does link this moral queasiness and misogynism to [the fact that] women are often the ones who kill the monster. He said that is really interesting.

Did he set out to maybe clear up any misconceptions about horror?

Bouzereau: He said it’s wrong to think that horror is brought about from the minds of people who are sick, or have a darkness. One of the questions that’s always asked of him is, “Oh, you must have had a really @#$%-up childhood.” Well, no. The thing that’s important that he has is really a keen observation of human life and nature, to make his stories very accessible. We all can relate to being bullied in school, but what if that person being bullied had supernatural powers? That’s Carrie. We can all go in and accept without thinking about it the supernatural angle. As opposed to the other way around, which may be is to think of a story about supernatural powers and then come up with a cool character. He’s not like that. My experience reading him and watching his films and discussing this with him is really he comes from the emotion and the heart and, really, the mind.

Photo: © Allied Artists Pictures Corporation