Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Kingdom Hospital: Watching Stephen King Masturbate

In 2004 Stephen King -- "the master of horror" -- took it upon himself to hijack a classic piece of Danish TV and in his own words "Americanize it." If that just meant sending it to a secret detention center and binding it in stress position for five years I'd reluctantly approve. It would at least be scary. But no, he didn't "Americanize" the show, he "Stephen-Kinganized" it. And you already know what that means. He made it suck.

I spent over ten hours watching "Stephen King's Kingdom Hospital" this weekend. That makes me angry. What makes me angrier is that it started out relatively promising and then slid into the most inept, ridiculous piece of crap I've ever seen on television, and that includes any given episode of "Perfect Strangers." So I NEED to rant about it, and in the meantime I'm going to spoil it for you to prevent you from ever seeing it yourself. You'll thank me later.

The original TV series ("Riget") wasn't perfect by any was sloppy, directionless, and featured at least one hour of Udo Kier pretending to be a fifteen-foot-tall baby. But even so it was wonderfully original, had a sense of integrity, and was never, ever boring. Except for that baby stuff, of course.

The Stephen King remake takes the basic elements of the original -- hospital drama, supernatural phenomenon, loopy absurdity -- and manages to use them pretty well for the first few episodes. Bruce Davison is perfect as the selfish, driven, barely-sane Doctor Stegman, psychic Diane Ladd refuses to take herself too seriously, and even Andrew McCarthy is charming to watch, which is good because you see him being all tough-love sensitive throughout most of the show.

But then Stephen King asserts himself. He simply MUST add his "touches." King apparently hasn't noticed that the world of "scary stuff" -- a world he helped define -- has moved beyond his stylistic obsessions: dead children with black lipstick aren't frightening any more, especially not when they're floating in a tank of yellow water and singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" (over and over and over again). In fact, King's technique of juxtaposing commonplace, quaint elements (nursery rhymes, sweet old people, classic music) with some kind of evil force just isn't effective in a post-Jacob's Ladder world. The talking animals, doctors with vampire teeth, and showering corpses in "Kingdom Hospital" are throw-backs to an early-'80s style of horror that just looks silly now. Silly enough to really, really get on your nerves, and even the nerves of your cat.

That wouldn't all make me so mad. What infuriates me is the way that a moderately-interesting series went totally off the tracks during the last three episodes. There's an oh-so-scary 45-minute story about...a baseball player who missed the ball! Scream! Then another episode is dedicated to the apparent (and totally off-topic) return of Jesus Christ, which seemed to mean a lot to people at the time but was completely unremarked by anybody in the following episodes. No kidding. Jesus came back, healed a bunch of people, performed miracles, and then it was like that whole script got thrown into the garbage (after it was filmed, unfortunately).

Finally, the last episode: ninety minutes long, with only 45 minutes of footage. I simply cannot BELIEVE the audacity of a director who devotes half of the finale to meaningless flashbacks. And these aren't flashbacks that advance the plot in any way, they're randomly-inserted replays from earlier episodes, exactly as they appeared the first time, in exactly the same edit, for four or five minutes at a stretch. Things become TOTALLY unbelievable when the director flashes back to events which occurred earlier in the same episode.

I've honestly never seen anything like it, not even in the worst B-movie. I will scream next time a dye vat explodes in front of my eyes or I hear that damn anteater (sorry, that damn apparently scary anteater) say something is "ant-soloutly" delicious.

This shoddy, desperate, time-filling repetition might be forgivable if the ending had an actual payoff...but no, and I'll give the big secret away for you. Were you wondering why the Peter Rickman character was specially chosen by the Forces of Good? What unique ability he possessed, which he used to save everybody in the end? What could he do that nobody else could do?

HE COULD DRAW A FIRE EXTINGUISHER ON A WALL. That's it. That's your big climax. I'll tell you a secret: in reality, the only reason Peter Rickman was in the movie was so Stephen King could -- once again -- relive his car accident. During that accident, Stephen King's brain was's the only way to explain his conviction that DRAWING A FIRE EXTINGUISHER ON A WALL is an effective ending to a mini-series.

Oh yeah, and everybody lived happily ever after, because the fire extinguisher changed the entire course of history. You go through ten hours -- and 45 minutes of long, drawn-out flashbacks -- to experience Stephen King taking a shit on your head and saying "THE END!"

In short: don't rent it. Don't watch it. Don't even THINK about it. Because I already told you how it ends, and that's the best favour I can do you.

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