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Storm Warning

This week, the penetrating gaze of brutal honesty in 'Storm Of The Century'.

Dark skies overhead this week as the self-righteous are forced to reveal their darkest secrets in Stephen King’s miniseries Storm Of The Century.

Normally focused upon international cinema, this post forms part of World On Film’s break time between series. To find out what is upcoming over the next few weeks, please scroll to the bottom.

But now, we travel to the North American state of Maine – the fictional Maine, where savage clowns plague the dreams of the young and where cemeteries are more likely to bring back the dead than house them. Eleven years ago, I happened to discover Stephen King’s then-latest epic in the VCD section of Central, Hong Kong’s HMV, and it’s stayed with me ever since.

Storm Of The Century

(1999) Written by Stephen King              Directed by Craig R. Baxley

“Born in lust, turn to dust. Born in sin, come on in!”

All hell breaks loose when a stranger visits the remote Maine community of Little Tall Island on a cold Winter’s day. As the biggest storm on record rolls over the town, a series of murders plague the community. All evidence points to the new arrival, who seems to know everyone’s darkest secrets. Powerless to stop him, the locals quickly learn that they will only see the last of Andre Linoge if they give him what he wants – the price for which may cost them their very souls.

The social fabric is torn apart and accusations fly as the townspeople are forced to bare their true nature to each other.

I have yet to pinpoint the moment in which prolific horror writer Stephen King became his own cabaret act, however it was most certainly long before Storm Of The Century, in many ways another ‘greatest hits’ package of King’s themes and stories. Again, we are presented with a cast of working-class Maine residents with dark – but entirely human – secrets lurking just beneath the veneer of their New England community spirit. Again, it is the presence of a dark figure from Christian mythology who upturns the shared lie of their ordered lives, offering the weakest a choice that will rob them of their humanity and for which the chief protagonists will rail against with righteous self-sacrifice. And again, it takes place in a sleepy town somewhere in between genuine Maine population centres creating a base under siege drama. Even of the villain of the piece may or may not have been seen before. If King wasn’t so good at the formula, it would be so much easier to scorn all but the original attempts at his oeuvre. Storm Of The Century may offer little in the way of new storytelling, but its trademark lengthy build-up of menace and character development work once more to good effect, tense atmosphere all-pervasive, and its villain compelling and well-acted.

Even when the human participants of Stephen King’s novels are rather idealised caricatures of humanity, the author always pulls them away from the edge of schmaltz with his strongly Christian morality of mankind’s frailty. Virtually every adult of Little Tall Island has ‘sinned’, be they adulterers, thieves, drug runners or closet homosexuals lashing out American Beauty -style. Regardless of one’s own perspective on the vices presented, Storm Of The Century’s morals are very black and white, and they need to be in order for the villain to function in the story, judging them from on high for their faults. Some reviewers I have come across online have found the townspeople therefore so unlikeable and hypocritical in their pretense at professing to be good, Christian parishioners, that they have found themselves in many ways siding with the story’s antagonist. Others still have been so disgusted that they refuse to believe such people actually exist. As King demonstrates, it is only extreme duress that people will reveal their inner demons, and the most vehement denial may come from the very people he condemns for their doublethink. How well do we really know anyone? we are compelled to ask.

The strong Christian morals of the story dictate that children are angels and adults have succumbed to temptation. The heavyhanded eulogising is central to the plot.

This, ultimately, is perhaps the true horror of Andre Linoge. Fairly explicit lines of dialogue imply his Biblical origins, a background he shares closely with the chief antagonist of The Stand and the Dark Tower series. Until we find out precisely what he wants of his victims, the tale seems to be the book of Revelation in miniature, except that salvation may lie in wait for no-one once Little Tall’s list of crimes has been read. Yet it is not Linoge’s demonic origins that terrify us, but his ability to force us to drop the masks we hide behind in our attempt at civilization. His disgust at the inhabitants is not so much their hidden criminality, but their pious masquerade atop foundations of insecurity. King’s religious beliefs prevent his characters from adopting the excuse that they are merely behaving as all animals do – the veneer of civilization atop barbarism cannot be equivalent to the skein of sentience thinly stretched across millions of years of instinct. These are a people ‘born in sin’ willfully straying from the path laid out for them by God, and their stubborn denial of their nature dooms them from the outset – able to keep secrets, they are easy fodder for the demon who knows they will tell no-one of his presence. Unsurprisingly therefore, those same viewpoints depict children as beings of perfection – until of course they hit puberty, where sexuality instantly makes them sinners, of which the drama has several such examples. The cynical viewer may put off by the oversimplistic Christian moralising of the piece (not to mention the rather sickening idolisation of the young along the lines proscribed), but will at the same time be compelled by the uncompromising treatment of humanity that unfolds. It may be King’s most Christian-themed tale, but that brutal reckoning of human nature is a common element of his stories that reels his fans in so successfully.

“The cynical viewer may put off by the oversimplistic Christian moralising of the piece (not to mention the rather sickening idolisation of the young along the lines proscribed), but will at the same time be compelled by the uncompromising treatment of humanity that unfolds.”

"Give me what I want and I'll go away": the citizens are forced to make an impossible choice.

All of which could fail miserably if not realised well on screen, however, the acting and production values are generally up to the challenge. Filling the boots of self-righteous town hero is actor Tim Daly, known to many as the voice of fellow moral crusader Superman, and possessing just the right looks and bearing to play alpha male and Little Tall Island’s chief of police, Michael Anderson. Daly effortlessly convinces as a well-liked leader figure, more religious than the town priest and more capable than the self-serving town manager Robbie Beals, excellently portrayed by Jeffrey de Munn, who again just looks the part. As does Debra Farentino as Anderson’s wife Molly, who in every way must be alpha in female form, and Farentino delivers. The assembled cast, many wielding that distinctive Maine accent one would expect (and I now know how to pronounce ‘Ayuh’) are by and large as I would have imagined them to be, and every bit as proud and defiant of their superficial outer values as they should be.

Colm Feore, meanwhile, does a fantastic job as Andre Linoge, the dark stranger making impossible demands of the town. Feore gives a carefully balanced performance, neither over-the-top as the part so easily descent into nor too understated to be sufficiently menacing. His Linoge is long-lived, world-weary, and tired of humanity’s self-deception. Yet for all this, he is intelligent and capable of compassion. Murder is seen as a necessity to prove a point, but not something to be dispensed randomly. Feore manages to depict this complexity well, perhaps descending into pantomime only when forced to display Linoge’s animalistic nature.

The face of evil, or just brutally honest?

The character’s supernatural nature is where much of Storm Of The Century’s CGI comes into play, as well as helping render the storm of the title. It’s pretty good for a television miniseries made in 1999, as is the enormous island set used throughout. That we’re on a soundstage is fairly obvious in places, but understandably necessary in order to realise the many practical effects needed to create a town beaten by the weather. This is enhanced further by judicious use of additional shooting in Canada and fairly seamlessly interwoven.

I was in fact only dimly aware that Storm Of The Century had been a miniseries, and watched its entire 4 hours of runtime in one sitting. To me, it had been a surprise find on VCD in Hong Kong the following year and having experienced IT, The Langoliers and King’s 1997 adaptation of The Shining in much the same fashion, Storm Of The Century simply seemed another epic in the same vein. However, this is to undersell the well-paced script, acting and Craig R. Baxley’s direction which are ultimately the reasons why such a long commitment was not overlong. For all its flaws and painful moralising, Storm Of The Century is another successful squeeze of the lemon by a writer in his element. It offers nothing new, but is very good at rehashing the old, and something most King fans will find plenty within to enjoy. And is Andre Linoge Randall Flagg? Let’s not go there.

******

Next Time

As the icy winds of winter depart the northern hemisphere for the south, we’ll be travelling with them all the way down to the South Pole for a special 4-part miniseries on Antarctica. I felt that one week in the massive continent wouldn’t do it justice. The selected films will cover both fiction and non-fiction, through which Antarctica will be viewed as both a place of wonder and exploration, and also a dangerous white wasteland and time-serving outpost for the ordinary worker.

First up, we travel back to a time when the South Pole captured the imagination of the world: On November 1939, two vessels carrying 125 crewmen between them departed Boston for the Antarctic. Travelling with them was a young man about to make filmic history. The first chapter of Antarctic Film Month next, when World On Film returns.

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2 responses

  1. Thanks Ben, I didn’t even know this one existed. As a King fan I’ll have to check it out of course, even though most of his stories adapted for the screen could have been so much better with a bigger budget and better actors.

    April 18, 2011 at 11:06 pm

    • This is true. I had a mini-Stephen King marathon recently, and stuff like ‘Pet Sematary’ seems really amateurish compared to the book. There’s a great BBC radio adaptation that absolutely blows it out of the water.

      For a change, ‘Storm Of The Century’ was a teleplay before it was a book, but I’ve yet to find out how the latter compares.

      April 19, 2011 at 9:06 am

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