TV made sense as its own thing until about 20 years ago. Nowadays, what constitutes TV is so sprawling and broken up that it’s not really one thing anymore. Twenty years ago, cable was not king, and there weren’t that many networks (though, to understand the zeitgeist of TV criticism, one should note Bruce Springsteen could chart a single in 1992 called “57 Channels and Nothin’ On”) and so the big TV networks competed in splashy ways to get eyes-on, especially in sweeps weeks. Sweeps were the few times during the year, one a quarter, when the Nielsen Company processed the ratings diaries kept by the Nielsen watchers, from which advertising budgets we determined. So, in these brief spans, really spasms, of time, networks would pull out all the stops to get their ratings up in order to give themselves a hand-up when negotiating advertising rates.
One of the major gimmicks was this thing that nobody remembers, called the TV movie. Usually shown over several nights, some major property would be acquired or developed, turned into a “major TV event” in the hopes that ratings would spike, along with advertising rates. And of all the major TV movie relationships, none were so splashy or ever-present as ABC and Stephen King. On the surface, this seems a counter-intuitive relationship. TV movies were shown on broadcast TV. Meaning PG-13 content was too racy for them. Stephen King wrote hard-R (sometimes X) horror. But he was a blockbuster name, and could draw blockbuster ratings. ABC aired several adaptations of Stephen King novels, including It, The Tommyknockers, The Stand, The Langoliers, and The Shining. Completing the relationship were a pair of TV movies created by King specifically for television: The execrable Rose Red (2003), a The Haunting rip-off with none of that film’s sense of dread, horrible logic, or interesting characters, and Storm of the Century, perhaps the best King movie produced for television.
Stephen King’s Storm of the Century aired in the winter of 1999, fitting since it is a story about the depths of winter, the depredations on the soul of horrible weather, and the bad things that a storm might hide. It begins with a King style horror opening – a man knocks on an old woman’s door, and when she opens it up, he bludgeons her to death with his cane. Then he sits down in her parlor, and waits to be caught.
He is, first by the officious town manager Robbie Beals. When Beals comes in, the intruder not only knows his name, but knows exactly where he was when his mother died: banging some prostitute. The intruder, whom we eventually learn is called Andre Linoge, knows the secrets of everybody in town, and all the horrible things they’ve done. He taunts them with his knowledge, and his invulnerability even though they have him in gunpoint in a cell. Eventually, he tells them: Give me what I want, and I’ll go away.
Then he takes a long time getting to telling them what he wants is, and in the meantime acts like a horror movie villain to give them some proper incentive to make his trip to Little Tall Island, the fictional off-shore Maine island where this drama takes place, a short one. It starts with the murder, the sowing of dissent by revealing secrets of people in town, and then escalated. Linoge breaks out of prison, leaves behind a trails of corpses all of whom leave notes with that same saying: “Give me what I want, and I’ll go away.”
This is an intriguing supernatural puzzle. And, while avoiding specific spoilers, I have to say that the premise of the show, a 2000-year-old wizard terrorizing a small New England Island during a blizzard, is pretty wonderfully daffy. It has a certain crazy flair that makes, for me, supernatural horror worth watching: it posits a crazy what-if, and follows it through with ruthless plausibility.
Which is not to say, in any way, shape or form, that this TV movie is flawless, or even anywhere near flawlessness. Stephen King, I think it is fair to say, is not a natural screenwriter. He has a novelist’s instincts and inclinations, and when given a “three 90-minute movies sized” canvas, decided it was okay to pace his film like a novel, and not like a film.
Hidden inside this bloated morass of story is a really great movie, maybe even a two-parter TV movie, waiting to break out. But it cannot, because King has decided to over-inflate his character roster with a bunch of people who never fully congeal as human beings. A couple of them are good – the tension between Tim Daly (the major protagonist) as the decent town constable and Jeffrey DeMunn as Beals, the corrupt and pompous town manager is well written and played. The notion of horrible passions running deep in small town USA is not original, but Stephen King has a depraved imagination, and creates horrible backstories for many characters that Linoge, who is played with creepy confidence by Colm Feore, can readily exploit.
But it all takes so damn long. There are some natural cliffhanger plot points in this story that should guide the structure of the individual episodes. Invariably, these big moments happen 20 minutes before the end of the episode, and something less interesting forms the real, mediocre cliff-hangers for the first two episodes. The production creates a terrific sense of the terror of inclement weather, which seems benign up until the moment it literally tries to murder you but shots of cold streets are no substitution for properly constructed tension, which Storm of the Century often lacks.
The flaws of this TV movie flow from the writer. The director, Craig R. Baxley, is competent. He’s made some bad stuff, but also some good, including the woefully underrated sci-fi miniseries, The Lost Room. He’d also directed the hilariously terrible (but pretty well-made) Stone Cold, which was supposed to be Steven “Stone Cold” Austin’s filmic debut. It’s awful, but wisely centers on an unhinged performance by Lance Henriksen which flies right off the rails, gleefully. With Storm of the Century, Baxley is decent at building the atmosphere, and even makes a dull town meeting arresting, and develops whatever pace he can but so much nothing happens, except for the constant, almost interminable shots of the outside world covered in snow. We get it, they’re snowed in. It sucks, there’s more to a movie than that.
And there are too many fake scares that weren’t even interesting 20 years ago, and are embarrassing now. Every once in a while there’s a shot of Linoge growling with big dumb monster teeth, to remind you he’s evil. Young me, when I watched this when it first aired, thought that might be a very stupid, on-the-nose touch. Older me understands that, yes, that is exactly what it was. There are various times when electronics react to Lingo, showing “Give me what I want and I’ll go away” on their screens. Except no-one ever sees them. Clearly, Linoge knows he’s in a movie, so he sets up some things that only the movie audience will see. Very accommodating of him.
But Storm of the Century is more than the sum of its occasionally dumb parts. It creates a real sense of a living community with the people of Little Tall Island, where everybody knows each other. Stephen King knew that the horror movie cliché was about communities breaking apart when something goes wrong; his life experience told him the opposite was true: when disaster struck, neighbors and community members banded together. So his seed of an idea for Storm of the Century was to come up with a scenario where this banding together was not harmonious, but horrible. In what fashion it is horrible I shall not spoil, except to say that it involved Linoge taking something from the Island they wouldn’t want to give.
It’s a pretty good premise, wacky enough to suffice weirdos like me, centered enough that you don’t need a nerd to explain it to you. Storm of the Century is probably the best of the Stephen King movies/miniseries, far better than the second Baxley/King collaboration, Rose Red. Still, the inherent limitation of the format and the stuck-in-the-mud pacing make it hard to recommend to just anyone. If you like Stephen King horror stories, this might be a welcome surprise if you haven’t seen it. For more casual viewers, it might feel like 90 minutes of story in a four and a half hour bag.
Stephen King’s Storm of the Century has been re-released on DVD by Kino Lorber Studio Classics. There is a commentary track on the disc by writer Stephen King and director Craig Baxley which is informative and interesting, if occasionally sparse.