Stephen King’s Desperation: A Movie Review
When an old god is dug up in the desert, it’s up to several groups of unrelated travelers to ban together and put his ass back in the ground.
The movie is based on Stephen King’s novel Desperation, which was published in 1996. I was 20 at the time and got the book in a set with the pseudonymous, The Regulators, written by King’s previous nom de plume, Richard Bachman. I was super excited by this because, oddly enough for the year, I was introduced to Richard Bachman before Stephen King.
My mom was an English teacher and aspiring writer and several of the rooms in my house looked like their own little libraries. When I first fell in love with horror in my pre-tweens my mom grabbed The Bachman Books off the shelf and told me to give it a try.
King used the pen name Richard Bachman for several reasons. One reason was to publish more than one book per year. His publisher had the policy of only releasing one book a year from each author, a practice that was not uncommon at the time. By publishing some of his work under a pseudonym, he was able to release more books without diluting his brand. By 1977, the release of the first book attributed to Bachman, King had already released Carrie (1974), ‘Salem’s Lot (1975), and The Shining (1977).
King also used the Bachman pseudonym as a way to experiment with different writing styles and explore more unconventional ideas. By writing under a different name, King was able to distance himself from his more mainstream work and take more creative risks without expectations. He’s said that he enjoyed the challenge of writing under a pseudonym and the freedom it gave him to “test the limits” of his writing.
Prior to this 1996 box set release of The Regulators and Desperation, King, as Bachman, only released four novellas and one novel. The four novellas were the ones given to me in the Bachman Books, and the lone novel was Thinner, a book we all ascribe to Stephen King today.
Novellas in The Bachman Books:
Rage (1977) is a psychological horror story follows high school student Charlie Decker, who becomes increasingly frustrated and angry with the people around him. He begins to lash out in violent ways. After a series of confrontations with classmates, teachers, and school administrators, Charlie holds his classmates captive in their classroom and demands to be heard. Rage ended up being eerily similar to several school hostage situations that came years later, but that’s a whole article unto itself.
The Long Walk (1979) is a science fiction story set in a dystopian future in which young men are selected to participate in an annual event called “The Long Walk”. The event is a grueling marathon-style walk from Maine to Florida that tests the endurance and will of its participants. The rules of the walk are simple: walkers must maintain a speed of at least four miles per hour, and anyone who falls below that speed is shot
Roadwork (1981) is a post-apocalyptic story that follows a man named Barton as he struggles to come to terms with the loss of his home, wife, and son. He tries to navigate a world that has been ravaged by a series of disasters, including a nuclear war and a devastating plague. As Dawes struggles to survive, he is forced to confront his own inner demons and dark secrets.
The Running Man (1982) novella is set in a dystopian future where a man is forced to participate in a brutal game show called “The Running Man.” In the game, contestants are hunted by professional killers. As he struggles to survive, he must also confront the corruption and cynicism of the society that values entertainment above all else.
Needless to say, I loved The Bachman Books, and I loved both The Regulators and Desperation when they came out, with Desperation definitely being my favorite of the pair.
Desperation and The Regulators are “spiritual siblings.” They have some similar elements, but are not closely related enough to be a sequel or some sort of reboot. But, there is enough there for fans of either book to enjoy the other (Tak).
King has described Desperation as a darker novel than some of his other works, and noted that it was inspired in part by his own experiences driving through the desert. He also said that the novel was influenced by his interest in the concept of evil and the nature of faith, and that he wanted to explore these themes through the characters’ experiences.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, King described Desperation as one of his scariest novels and said that he enjoyed writing it because it allowed him to “confront the darkness” and explore “darker corners” of his imagination.
He was right! And, if there is such a thing as a great TV movie, this great book was turned into one.
First off, I’m a sucker for a big hole. In fact this movie has a great hodgepodge of things I find mysterious and potentially terrifying. Like the desert and desert animals, cops in general, being locked in the back of a police cruiser, a big ass creepy hole in the ground.
The desert is always great because it fulfills one of the necessary components of a horror film, an isolated group. A lot of horror films fail because they never explain why people don’t just run away, but when you know there is nothing out there for hundreds of miles, that fulfills the isolation requirement pretty good.
I do have a sociological question about Stephen King and TV movies. Is this life imitating art or art imitating life? Did he define the tv movie and miniseries? All TV movies seem to have the same pacing and the same style with one key difference, they tend to be better if they are based on Stephen King. In fact, my favorite TV movie of all time is one that King wrote as just a TV script called, Storm of the Century. If you have an answer send you fan mail to wherever I get fan mail at. While we’re at it, there’s another sociological Stephen King TV-movie question to address in future articles. This one pertains to the ‘90s only: “What’s up with all the chicks on TV in the ‘90s having red hair and green eyes?” Do you know how few people have red hair and green eyes? Every female star in the ‘90s apparently.
I remember falling in love with the book right away. Unlike most King books it opens quickly and picks up pace from there. Most of his stories start with several chapters explaining how the protagonist feels and describes some small town in main. The first line of this book is something like, “Ew Gross” as a girl sees a cat stuck to a speed limit sign, and the movie ain’t far off.
The opening line and face of the flick is actress Annabeth Gish. You’ll likely know her as Agent Monica Reyes from later years of The X-files. I’m a fan of Agent Reyes, is that something I should be ashamed of. I always thought she was a looker, even though there is something inherently soccer-momish about her, but soccer mom’s need love too… respectful platonic love, of course.
One thing that Stephen King can do, and does in Desperation, is make me interested in the lore of Christianity. I find mythologies and belief systems interesting. Everything from ancient lore, to satanism, to old religions from the far side of the world. But I have an issue with Christianity. Outside of possession movies, it’s hard for me to get wrapped up in the lore of Christianity. Perhaps it’s just too close to home, too right in my own neighborhood and believed as fantasy for me to also believe as fantasy. So there are very few stories that are able to capture my interest from that angle. There’s Desperation and a few other King stories, C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, Lord of the Rings, maybe others.
One part I found a little weird was the mom’s apprehension to the Christianity. I’m a pretty secular guy, down right agnostic if pressed, and my daughter ended up being very Christian and involved with the church. I guess my point is that I dont see what that fucking lady’s problem is? Maybe it’s an undefined Tak thing, it has been years since I read it. I mean I get it her daughter was just killed, but Jesus lady, get your shit together. I do appreciate a freaking-out character in my movies. Most good movies have one and I’m sure it’s hard to write and harder to act. So, maybe I need to get my shit together and give the lady a break.
It has lots of things that I think most horror, and movie fans in general, enjoy. Cops have a great horror quality. The idea of authority in the middle of nowhere is terrifying; especially authority with Ron Pearlman’s face. Personally, I have a fear of dogs, and that is well covered. For those that find old silent films and broken projectors creepy, there’s a bit of that. Of course there are spiders, snakes, demons, skin conditions with an air of rotting body horror, and dark warehouses. I’m impressed he fit so much cool stuff into one story.
While, I appreciate the whole “these crazy hicks are gonna fuck us or eat us” schtick, its getting a little played out. I realize this came out in 2006 and was written in 1996 and a lot has happened since, so let’s take that into consideration, shall we:
- The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)
- High Tension (2003)
- Dead End (I) (2003)
- Wrong Turn (I) (2003)
- The Locals (2003)
- House of 1000 Corpses (2003)
- Wolf Creek (2005)
- The Devil’s Rejects (2005)
- Rest Stop (2006)
- The Hills Have Eyes (2006)
- Hatchet (2006)
- And a whole lot more!
On a political level, it’s funny how back in 2006 they were playing up the red state vs blue state divide. There’s a great quote from Ron Pearlman as the town sheriff saying, “Do you understand your rights? Do you or not? Answer me, you smart-aleck blue-state unisex swingles!”
Now, I know a lot of people are probably concerned that it is a made-for-tv movie. The directing is definitely made-for-TV, but they did try, to some success, to put in interesting shots like dutch angles and odd close-ups that helped up the tension. The cast is also definitely a TV cast, but they sure got the cream of the crop of TV actors.
Anabelle Gish and Ron Pearlman would be enough to carry a decent flick for me, but they also had Tom Skerritt (also from King’s The Dead Zone), Steven Weber (from Wings and King’s TV movie version of The Shining), Charles Durning (nominated for two Academy Awards), Matt Frewer (Freakin’ Max Headroom ad was also good in Eureka! and Watchmen), and Henry Thomas (Who played Elliot in E.T. and played the perfect bartender in Doctor Sleep).
Notice how there aren’t many great women actors listed? I wonder why that is? Think deep on it, those who feel there were always great roles for chicks in the past, there weren’t. Fewer great roles means fewer noticeable great actors. But, I don’t blame King for this. In fact, I don’t really blame anybody. The world was fucked up then and the world is fucked up now, the only goal is to try to make it a little better when we depart.
Stephen King finds awesome ways to deliver fun, scary and interesting lore about some weird and sometimes downright silly shit… and I love him for it. I don’t want to give the plot away, so I will give away the plot to IT as an example. IT is about a bunch of loser kids that defeat an interdimensional space clown through the power of friendship, oh yeah and the space clown is really three lights in a spider disguise. Enjoy Desperation, it really does bring the made-for-TV movie to the highest art form it’s capable of achieving.
More on cogitations on 1996’s Desperation:
- Who doesn’t love a movie with Tom Skarrett? (Other than Poison Ivy)
- I did read this book before I saw Super Troopers, but I unfortunately saw this movie after I’d seen Super Troopers. Mew. I mean Tak.
- You know you are sucked in when a movie has you believing in magic soap from God as a plot point.
- The Bachman novella The Running Man inspired the Paul Michael Glaser film. King didn’t want his name on the credits, and insisted the credit go to Richard Bachman.
- King used his Bachman persona as a kickoff point in his book The Dark Half where a writer’s darker pseudonym takes over.
- Most of the filming took place in Bisbee, Arizona, in the nearly deserted Lowell borough.
- During off-set filming in Tucson, a set caught fire and five people were injured. The fire destroyed all production gear and equipment.
- Desperation was originally intended as a two-part miniseries, but aired in its entirety on May 23, 2006 on ABC, after a red-carpet premiere screening at Tucson’s historic Fox Theatre.
- ABC aired Desperation at the same time as Fox’s American Idol, which pissed King off. Desperation got 7.5 million viewers, while American Idol had 12 million (and it was the second night of the season finale) ouch.
- I realize that everybody might be getting sick of this world of prequels, but what happened to all the people of Desperation and how they were used up is a story I’d like to hear.
- It’s one of the few good movies you can watch on YouTube for free, so there’s that.
- Tak a lah!