Written by: Stephen King
Directed by: Mick Garris
Starring: Gary Sinise, Jamey Sheridan, Ruby Dee, Rob Lowe, Molly Ringwald
Reviewed by: J.T. Jeans
“You're right, Billy... the center doesn't hold."
I grew up on the works of Stephen King. The man is more or less my horror guru. His work -- in both the written and visual mediums -- nursed me through the delicate period of transition between devouring R.L. Stine's Goosebumps and discovering more sophisticated horror. King's work fluctuates from the gritty cerebral to the preposterously silly, but it is always captivating and rarely ever dull (I'm sorry Insomnia, but I'm never going to finish you. You'll just have to keep collecting dust on ye olde bookshelf.)
I started reading King's work at the age of 13, and I've been going strong for 15 years. In all that time, King has yet to publish a novel that is quite as popular or well regarded as his monstrous masterpiece, The Stand. And while I recognize the importance of the work and understand the fondness many fans have for the book, I'd be lying if I said it was among my favorites. I've read a lot of Stephen King, and while I greatly enjoy The Stand, it doesn't work for me on the same level that it does other people. It's a good yarn, but its over-long and could do with a little bit of a nip-n-tuck.
Suffice it to say, I wasn't particularly thrilled when it was announced that ABC would be adapting one of King's longest novels for television. Apart from the practical limitations of the medium -- both in terms of budget and the sort of content that could comfortably premiere in prime time -- I wasn't of the opinion that it was interesting enough to deserve a mini-series event.
Boy, was I ever in for a surprise.
The story here is typical Stephen King melodrama: when a devastating man-made super flu wipes out 95% of the world's population, two unique groups of survivors being to gather in the United States. Those with dark histories are drawn to the sinister Dark Man's newly restored Las Vegas, while those who are more pure of heart and spirit migrate to Mother Abigail (Ruby Dee) in Boulder, Colorado. From these positions an almighty war between the forces of good and evil will be waged, with the future of humankind balanced precariously in the middle.
The Stand is a difficult mini-series to describe in a single paragraph, but there you have the gist. Running at nearly six and a half hours, the thing is huge. Whether or not you're willing to invest yourself in this story rests largely on the shoulders of the production's massive ensemble cast. I could list off a ton of them here but there would be people left out, that's how big the cast is.
Gary Sinise more-or-less plays front man as Texan boy Stu Redman, a fellow people turn to for leadership after everything goes to hell. He's essentially Mother Abagail's right-hand-man (although there's a bit of a plot twist to that which I shan't discuss here). When things really kick off in the fourth episode, Stu becomes a general leading his men into a very atypical sort of battle. Sinise gives a good performance here, and his presence helps ground a premise that might otherwise come across as shockingly over-the-top. He never phones it in, and he never goes too far over the top.
On the other end of the spectrum we've got Jamey Sheridan as the Dark Man, Randall Flagg. I seem to recall that a lot of people were disappointed with Sheridan's casting as this seminal King character, but I loved him. I thought he mixed just the right amount of humor with genuinely chilling character beats, and when Flagg's control of the situation begins to slip, he plays the outrage suitably loud. He made impression enough on me that every time Flagg appears in one of King's novels, I see Jamey Sheridan in my mind's eye.
The rest of the cast are suitable to their roles. There aren't a lot of standout performances, although there are a couple of memorable cameos by Ed Harris as General Bill Starkey and Kathy Bates as radio presenter Rae Flowers. It's a shame these actors couldn't have had meatier roles, but they shine in the little screen time given them.
The production values are surprisingly good for a TV miniseries produced by ABC 16 years ago. The series was shot on 16mm film, and this occasionally leads to some fairly cheap looking scenes -- many of the scenes shot in the government facilities in Episode 1 look like they were shot on VHS, and not just the stuff from the faux news conferences -- but for the most part the series looks like a moderately budgeted film. Director Mick Garris makes the best of the budget he has, giving us some nice prosthetic work for fresh super-flu victims and a plethora of rotten corpses later on.
Having said that, there's no hardcore gore and no nudity in the film, so if that's all you're interested in, this film isn't for you. There's way less dripping snot and far fewer gory killings in the TV production, so it's a much... dryer experience when compared to the book (and even in comparison to other King films). The fact that it was a TV miniseries meant Garris could only go so far, although the DVD has been beefed up slightly. There are some corpses laying around that didn't make it to the screen on first broadcast.
A real stand out in the film is the musical score. W.G. Snuffy Walden provides a minimalistic soundtrack that utilizes heavy guitar and percussion work, and also features what sounds like a small chamber orchestra in the final episode. As the production goes on, the music moves away from a largely bluesy sound and becomes slightly more Celtic and folksy. I'm not sure why Walden decided to go that direction, but it works in the film's favor. The soundtrack CD is hard to find, but well worth owning if you can get your hands on it.
Presentation of the DVD is a mixed bag. There are currently two editions of The Stand floating around out there: a double disc set with commentary by a substantial number of cast and crew members, and a version that is stuffed in with two other Stephen King films (Golden Years and The Langoliers) in a box set collection. The second edition is the easiest to find and is more common, but lacks the extensive commentary from the original edition. From memory, I believe the original edition has a better transfer as well, although both are extremely grainy due to the 16mm film source. I don't think it has ever been re-mastered.
The Stand is one of the better Stephen King adaptations. It sticks fairly close to the plot of the novel with only marginal changes (in this reviewer's opinion, at least) and is brisk considering the hefty run length. The acting is pretty good from the leads but can be wooden and stilted from some of the (thankfully infrequent) guest artists. The music is phenomenal, and the storyline is typical Stephen King schmaltz. If you're a fan of King's work, you're liable to buy it in any case. If you're not into what King typically sells, or if you're just not sure about such a hefty miniseries, then Rent it!
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