I love documentaries about the movies. There’s something about the self-congratulatory nature of actors or directors talking about the medium they love that should rub me the wrong way but instead endears everybody involved to me. It’s very rare to have one of these types of specials say anything new or interesting about the medium. For the most part, they devolve into lists of the same sorts of films, rarely introducing me to anything I’ve never heard of or making me think of something I’ve seen a million times in a new way. And yet every summer that one airs, I tune in for those AFI lists of the top 100 films about baseball or whatever. I’m a sucker for these things, is what I’m saying.
But even more than that, I’m a sucker for documentaries about horror movies. Why? I have no idea, really. My wife and I once killed what felt like an entire week of October watching that Bravo special about the “100 scariest movie moments” or whatever it was a few years back, and I quite enjoyed the British documentary Mark Gatiss did last year about his favorite horror films. There’s something about the genre—perhaps its ability to be boiled down to the best scares and the biggest jumps—that works really well in this format, and that’s why I was intrigued by TCM’s latest installment in its A Night At The Movies series, The Horrors Of Stephen King.
Briefly, A Night At The Movies isn’t a terribly groundbreaking program. All it does is queue up a particular movie genre, then raid the TCM vaults to show as many possible clips from that genre, as the talking heads wax on about the importance of that genre in movie history (and in the culture more generally). Unless you’re a complete cinematic neophyte, it’s unlikely you’ll learn much of anything from these programs, at least in terms of new movies to check out, but they make for a fun check-in with the classics, and the talking heads are usually well-chosen and well-spoken.
The Horrors Of Stephen King is a touch unusual in this regard because it boasts but one talking head—the guy whose name is in the title—and the hour-long special is mostly an excuse for him to wax on about a genre he loves so very much. If you’ve ever read King’s Danse Macabre, there will be little here that will be surprising to you, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a heck of a lot of fun. King, naturally enough, is a great storyteller, and when he launches into a tale of the first time he saw Carrie—at a screening with a predominantly African-American audience after everyone had sat through a film starring Redd Foxx—or when he talks about arguing with Stanley Kubrick over the direction the film version of The Shining should go, the special is much more endearing and amusing than anything else.
Though the longest segment of the piece is devoted to movies made from King’s books (he—incidentally—thinks Dee Wallace was criminally overlooked by the Academy for her work in Cujo), the bulk of the running time is given over to King’s thoughts on classic horror films. His explanation of the generational shift that caused Bela Lugosi’s Dracula to be less frightening to him than Christopher Lee’s take on the same role is interesting and so is his breakdown of the opening scene of Night Of The Living Dead, a film he explains the power of succinctly and intelligently in a segment where he talks about how freaked out he was by Dementia 13 and Living Dead.
He also explains why he enjoys the first films in slasher movie series but ultimately finds the subsequent sequels more and more disappointing. In short, it has nothing to do with the films being of lesser quality (though that can’t help). It has to do with the fact that when the killer comes back for film after film, the audience naturally begins to root for the killer to do what he does best, something that leaves King with what he calls “moral queasiness.” In what might be the special’s best moment, he says that when these franchises start out, we’re begging for the monster to be destroyed; by the time sequel number five rolls around, we’re begging for the monster to destroy. It’s clever, pithy, and succinct, and it explains King’s feelings on horror—which he seems to see as a fundamentally warm genre in some ways—about as well as anything ever could.
At the same time, though, King recognizes the power of that which we’re not supposed to see, a power that keeps horror movies in business. When he talks about how he longed to see Tod Browning’s Freaks as a kid or the schlocky films of William Castle or the way The Exorcist kept him and his wife from taking a nap before going to see it, he understands the power of seeing something that can’t be unseen after. The first time you see a horror film, King says, it’s a visceral experience. The second time, you’re merely scared. But every time after that, you have trouble recapturing the initial jolt. You’re remembering how scared you were the first time, even though you can never experience those scares anew.
Nobody’s going to watch this special and suddenly learn all sorts of amazing new facts about horror. But the hour does what it does well primarily because it’s less interested in teaching us new things and more interested in giving King space to wax philosophic. As King shifts into the years in which he’ll be a beloved “old man” figure, popping up every so often to say just what it is that’s wrong with the world today, it’s great to see him popping up in things like this, where he gets an hour to consider things he’s spent a lifetime thinking about and offers up talk that’s at once interesting and not too challenging. There’s nothing new here, but The Horrors Of Stephen King goes down easily, the perfect way to kick off a month devoted to scares.
Note: If you missed the special, in true TCM fashion, it will be re-running throughout the month.