TV Review: The Stand (Part One: The Plague)

Posted: April 5, 2010 in Movie Review, Reviews
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The Stand (1994 ABC Dir. Mick Garris)

Holy Crap! Never mind the horror of the outbreak, they have a massive last supper painting AND a velvet Elvis!

I seem to remember the early 90’s being a good time for a Stephen King fan. His books were still strong and well crafted (love the man, love his work, but nothing has been the same since the accident) and he was riding on possibly his highest wave of popularity. Some of the best movies for his work were coming out both theatrically and on the small screen as well. This was also about the time I really got into his work in a big way. Based on liking the movies I first devoured It and then The Dark Half before moving onto Nightmares & Dreamscapes which I got on audio to help me get past the fact that I have both A.D.D and dyslexia and reading that much was daunting to say the least. Possibly to my shame, I still haven’t read the expanded version of The Stand, having read part and listened to the audio book of the original version. Again, several problems get in the way of my actually reading a book and they’ve only gotten worse as I’ve gotten older. That’s okay though, since this mini-series isn’t based on the uncut version of the book, but rather the original published version from 1978.

None of them would ever talk about that night again, except to say it was the greatest and worst April Fool’s joke ever.

We begin the movie at a research center that I’m surprised it’s labeled as part of The Shop, although a quick check finds that in the book they’re supposed to stop the super flu. I like the imagery of the ravens that float around whenever something sinister is about to happen, it makes the hand of Flagg felt without having to mention it a lot. Strangely for a Stephen King story, things aren’t built up for a month and a half before anything goes wrong, things go boom from the word go. The first thing we see is the base where the superflu first escaped. We see one guard, known only as Campion, escape with his wife and child before being shown all the dead bodies inside the base. This is a pretty cool little opening credit sequence as it shows us more dead bodies in the first five minutes than I’d ever seen in the entirety of any other made for TV movie. You just knew that this was going to be something special, this was going to be different. This is still probably the biggest thing Stephen King has ever done, and at the time it was the longest amount of time he’d ever had to play with. Kingdom Hospital is longer, but The Stand is a single story where as Kingdom is very much an episodic series. An episodic series that looses it’s way around episode eight and has a disappointing ending, but never mind that now.

FLU BUDDY! Your partner in hellish rituals.

After our opening credit sequence we find Campion has made it all the way to Arnette, Texas. Here we meet Stuart “Stu” Redman, who is more or less the hero of the movie, and he comes from East Texas. You’ll remember his name is Stu Redman and you’ll remember he’s from East Texas, because it’s mentioned roughly 900 times during the series. In the book he’s a co-protagonist, but here he’s more or less the main hero and a lot of the focus is on him. There is an attempt to balance things in the movie, but this is still a movie and they need a single main character. As a result, Nick, Larry, Fran and the rest aren’t exactly made less important, but they aren’t as much the focus of the movie as Stu is. This movie is shot beautifully, but it is definitely a made for TV movie. There has long been a struggle to make TV movies look more cinematic, while keeping to the technical restraints of what’s needed on the small screen as well as budgets. It’s a little easier now with widescreen and HDTV but at the time, this was delicate balancing act. Edward Pei deserves a lot of credit for making this movie look as good as it does. While it doesn’t look like a theatrical release, it looks much grander than most things that were on the TV in ’94.

So I was on my way to the Drive-In…

So after Campion crashes into Hap’s Service Station and gets going on being Patient Zero, we get to see the Project Blue headquarters in California and… Omigosh! Is that Ed Harris? IT IS! OMIGOSH! Ed Harris is in this! He’s a big star! He’s not even in the credits, what a surprise. I wonder who else we’ll see! Yes, I know who else, but cut me some slack here. This was a shock to some people at the time. Not people who know Stephen King’s work and movies well, he and Harris go way back, but still a pleasant surprise. Harris plays Gen. Starkey, who has the unenviable task of explaining the flu to everyone. It’s one of those scenes that makes you appreciate someone like Ed Harris. In the hands of a lesser actor, this could just be a crappy exposition scene. With Harris, it’s actually interesting to watch. The next celebrity cameo comes along in the very next scene with Joe Bob Briggs playing a character named… Joe-Bob. Well, at least they didn’t stretch his talents too far. Actually since John Bloom has been playing Joe Bob for nearly thirty years, we know he can at least act a little. Bloom is a big fan of King’s and for years has been a huge horror fan with his columns and TV shows. This is a point about The Stand though. This is essentially the Stephen King version of the trash dump in Alice’s Restaurant, in that everybody knew this was going to be the biggest Stephen King movie ever made and everybody wanted to be a part of it. I’ll mention the others as they come along and I notice them. So the army sweeps in on Arnette, arresting everyone and taking them to Stovington, Vermont. Huh, if I go on like this, I’m going to end up writing a review roughly the same length as the book this is based on. What say I speed this up a bit, eh?

While he had dealt it, he had no intention of being the one who smelt it.

Once this happens we’re introduced to Larry Underwood, Fran Goldsmith & Harold Lauder and then Nick Andros who is the first person to dream about Mother Abagail. Because of how she introduces herself, I always have a sort of Frank Miller moment Abagail Freemantle. Age 106. Still bakes her own bread. Mother Abagail’s introduction is a short bit, just enough so we’ll remember her next time. Interspersed with these introductions is Stu’s story of incarceration in Vermont. Much of the tale from here on out is told through intercutting, at least until the groups start to converge on Boulder. Stu is locked up in Stovington, Larry is in a progressively more unhinged New York, Nick is in whatever small town in the south he’s in (totally blanking on the name and can’t be bothered to look it up) dealing with town bullies and the end of the world. It’s during one of Larry’s scenes in New York that we get the next cameo which is by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar playing a bell ringing doomsayer. I can’t say why exactly, but I remember Kareem’s appearance being very heavily hyped, despite the fact that he only has three scenes in the entire show. From here, we meet the first member of Flagg’s side in the form of Lloyd Henreid. Lloyd isn’t the swiftest bulb on the strand if you catch my drift, but he doesn’t come off as dumb as he does in the book. I understand that Mick Garris was disappointed by how they had to truncate Lloyd’s story for time because his development as a character doesn’t work as well as it should. We’re then taken to see examples of the attempt to shut down communications through some fairly brutal marshal law. See? I told you we’d speed this up.

You’d have a lot less accidental shootings if you’d look where your gun is aimed.

For the most part, after the initial introduction, the story progresses to a logical conclusion of the plague part of the tale. Larry has to take care of his mother as she dies from the flu, Nick takes care of the bullies who beat him up until they all die from the flu (save for one that tries to kill him), Fran watches her father getting sick. We also get another hit of the marshal law piece, a talk radio personality gets shot to pieces, but not before we notice that it’s Kathy Bates playing her. Bates of course had just recently shot to stardom with her performance in an adaptation of another Stephen King book, Misery. Again, Bates plays unaccredited, but we know who she is. At least we should, if we’re of a certain age and are any good at faces. Bates is another one who you almost wish she was in more because she hits it out of the park. It’s a short piece, but she works it so well. Not to say the rest of the cast doesn’t do well, because for the most part this is a great cast. You’ve got genuine movie stars in this, and people who were ten seconds to big time fame. Gary Sinise, for example, was just three months away from becoming a household name due to his performance as Lt. Dan in Forest Gump when this mini-series was shown.

Freaking me out just a little here.

We also get our first lines from Randal Flagg, even though he’s been on screen once or twice before this. He’s not much of a force in the first night, beyond a basic idea of menace. The first night is about introduction though, setting up what’s to come. I think that Flagg is where King likes to have him best in this first night. He’s just a faceless dude, walking through the world, watching the chaos. Once you put a name and a face to him, I get the feeling that the menace dies away a little. Flagg has to be in this though, he has to be the center stage bad guy. While he works best as a shadowy monster, to really be effective we have to see his face and know him for what he is. Otherwise he’s just a budget rate Sauron, sulking in his tower and manifesting in people’s imaginations as an eye or a shadowy mist. Sauron isn’t a very interesting villain at the best of times, but in a story like this that sort of detachment would be an incredible detriment. As a result, the effect of the dark man with no face is removed and another one is put in its place.

We now bring you Gen. Starkey’s reaction to “Two Girls, One Cup”

The last thing that happens in this first night is Stu escapes from the disease research center and walks off into the night. Actually, he has to shoot a doctor, fight his way past corpses and a lunatic who wants him to eat fired chicken, and then run into the night. It’s not addressed if he then tries to find a place that does line dancing or asks for a coke at restaurants when he means pop, but I think it’s heavily implied. Of course, since the world has ended, he might have some trouble with that. The scene with the doctor that Stu has to kill is a bette use of King’s bully fetish than the guys who beat up Nick. The doctor is a far more believable and realistic bully, who only become violent at the end. The bully that beat up Nick would have been a violent dickhead no matter what, but the doctor has clearly cracked and has decided to take Stu down with him. He’s more interesting because he’s actually responding to the stress of the situation.

He’d given a few handjobs before, but this was the first time it had resulted in a spurt of blood.

Before we wrap up this first part, I want to talk about the make-up, which is superlative. The supernatural make up is neat and all, but it’s the seemingly more mundane make-up jobs that are really impressive. The flu victims and the dead bodies that are quietly laying out in the streets and so forth look really amazing. They even used a new kind of false beard effect, where real hair was put on the actor’s faces with a kind of static gun that made it stick. There is a lot of really good work here that you don’t even notice because it just looks so natural and realistic. There is a lot of really good work done here, between art design, make-up, cinematography, great acting and fine directing, it’s one of the better examples of what can be done in a TV mini-series.

I find myself unable to come up with a funny gag for this one. I’ll tell you honestly, the screen caps are the hardest part of this job.

Official Score For This Episode:
25 Degrees on the Graffiti Bridge Scale.
Official Score For the whole Movie:
26 Degrees on the Graffiti Bridge Scale.

Part One: The Plague
Part Two: The Dreams
Part Three: The Betrayal

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