One of the most prolific creatives of all time, Stephen King, is an absolute legend for a reason. His timeless stories and deep character work make any given tale uniquely original. As with many folks in documentary King on Screen, my introduction to him came during my childhood; my horror-obsessed Grandma who voraciously devoured every King novel from front to back indoctrinated me from an early age. King on Screen uniquely explores the extensive array of cinematic adaptations—it also delves deeply into what sets him apart from other writers. While it may not exactly be an all-encompassing deep-dive, King on Screen nevertheless gives enough insight, vintage footage, and behind-the-scenes stories to satisfy any fan of “the master of Horror.”
Just to get one thing out of the way immediately: Stephen King does not provide commentary on any of this documentary, nor do we learn much about his views on any given movie with one major exception. That said, King on Screen still explores various facets of King’s personal life and worldview. Filling the feature with talking heads, mostly consisting of directors who worked on King projects rather than any major actors, allows a picture to form organically of the man, the myth, and the legend. At times, this feels like a roast wherein the roastee is absent. More often than not, King on Screen still manages to impress, due in large part to creatives passionately conversing about their “hero.”
The film begins in a wraparound segment filled with Easter eggs and fun cameos. Though it does little to tie the movie together, bookending it in this way feels playful in all the right ways. Look out for major Needless Things, Creepshow, and In The Tall Grass shout-outs. Brian DePalma’s Carrie started it all of course, and acts as a natural beginning point to discuss King’s world-famous prose translated onto the big screen. The book was not well known at the time—due to the film’s eventual popularity, it began flying off the shelves. One would assume that the more well-known the property, the more it would be discussed in King on Screen, but that is not necessarily true.
Structurally, King on Screen is all over the place—does that really matter though when there are so many great movies to cover? One of the oddest things to me is how certain films are given lengthy segments, while others get a mere mention or a surface-level discussion. One such film that receives a rather thorough analysis is Frank Darabont’s 90s masterpiece, The Green Mile. Learning about the generosity of Tom Hanks, celebrating King’s birthday on set, and footage of Michael Clarke Duncan in character as Coffey are highlight of this entire production. Criminally underrated in my opinion, The Green Mile should always be in the same conversation as another great King adaptation, The Shawshank Redemption. Both movies explore so much outside the horror stylings we typically associate with the author. Other movies get merely a brief mention, like the two-part remake of It that would go on to become a box office juggernaut, or John Carpenter’s take on Christine. An odd imbalance seems to be happening, though I really appreciated getting into more obscure movies Rose Red and Storm of the Century, as well as more recent Josh Boone’s The Stand and Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep.
The darkness that lurks in the heart of America comes up quite a few times. King’s exploration of these themes, as well as his politics, brush with death, power of friendship, and presence of strong female figures in his life, are brought up many different times. The most eloquent speakers, with the deepest range of familiarity in the world of King, were Josh Boone, Mick Garris, and Mike Flanagan. Boone tells about his connection to King through a religious upbringing wherein his parents burned Boone’s hidden books in their fireplace. Flanagan read It so young that it permanently traumatized him, but left the takeaway that “horror is exercise for courage and being brave.” Garris develops the deepest analysis of King’s prose and seems to understand the point of view as he takes “normal Rockwell Americana, ripped apart and sent to hell.”
The vast majority of Stephen King aficionados will already know how much he detests Stanley Kubrick’s classic The Shining, but King on Screen is the first time I felt it was discussed in a way that made any coherent sense. Director Tom McLoughlin recollects first seeing the movie in a packed theater with book lovers, as they booed and absolutely hated what unfolded before them. This documentary works best when it demystifies situations such as this one. Creepshow’s “They’re Creeping up on You” has always freaked me out due to the innumerable cockroaches onscreen, and the set story about filming with that many bugs is cringe-inducing.
King on Screen would probably work better as a season-long television documentary to scrape into the various facets of moviemaking a King project. That way, all shows and movies far and wide that fall under his banner could be given equable screentime. I have to admire the tenacity to try to string this thing together without featuring any new King interviews, or steadfast connective tissue. As it stands though, Daphné Baiwir’s documentary is really the only movie of this type of exist around an industry titan that has shown incredible staying power since the late 70s. People who know horror in any way will know the name Stephen King. He somehow still manages to churn out new novels in record time. Cinematically, the resurgence of King’s popularity only reinforces that the best stories will never fade with time. You can’t even bury them in a Pet Sematary.
Turn the page to King on Screen when it heads to theaters on Friday, August 11th before heading On Demand and to Blu-Ray on Friday, September 8th.