Stephen King Mines That Tapped-Out Vein

It's bloated! It's monstrous! Kelly Overton, Annabeth Gish, Tom Skerritt, Matt Frewer and the latest horror from Stephen King. Above: Ron Perlman as Officer Unfriendly.
It's bloated! It's monstrous! Kelly Overton, Annabeth Gish, Tom Skerritt, Matt Frewer and the latest horror from Stephen King. Above: Ron Perlman as Officer Unfriendly. (Photos By Vivian Zink -- Abc)

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By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Stephen King is so emphatically the proverbial 800-pound gorilla that production companies are obliged not merely to place his name above that of a TV movie but also to include it as part of the title. The latest example of this presents a veritable "I dare you" to critics, who shun King generally, and particularly those who find his latest exercise in ho-hum horror to be exceptionally execrable.

"Stephen King's Desperation."

Hmm. What to make of that? A rare case of truth-in-labeling? A suggestion that even Mr. Megabucks is tiring of his own work and recognizes that redundancy riddles it like rigor mortis? Whatever, "Stephen King's Desperation" is showing on ABC tonight, and Stephen King's desperation is showing, too, even more than it did in "Kingdom Hospital," the fast-folding flop King cooked up for ABC in 2004.

"Hospital" was meant to be a weekly series, but "Desperation," mercifully, is over and out after killing only three hours of prime time on ABC (8 p.m., Channel 7). The film at least finds King wandering away from the over-explored cobwebby corners of his beloved New England, but unfortunately he ends up in "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" country -- not geographically, but topographically and too graphically; one grisly image is that of a corpse with pencils jabbed into its gouged-out eye sockets.

Obviously this is not proper fare for children and yet, as he has so many times in the past, King makes a child one of his central characters, thus irresponsibly encouraging curious kids to watch. The boy, played by Shane Haboucha (gesundheit), evokes memories of the telepathic tot in "The Shining" in that he has some sort of psychic simpatico with the sinister spirits at large. In fact, King is feeling so self-referential, and self-indulgent, that "redrum" ("murder" spelled backward) is seen briefly scrawled on a wall, "Shining"-style, and the boy's visions include a little dead girl who beckons him where he ought not go.

Of course "The Shining" had two little dead girls, not one, so that's a completely different thing.

The most assertive presence in "Desperation" is Ron Perlman as Collie Entragian, a malicious and corrupt cop who patrols a stretch of Nevada highway near Desperation -- a ghost town in the most literal sense. Entragian spends his days pulling drivers over, planting bags of marijuana in their vehicles when they aren't looking, and then dragging them off to one of the surreal cells in Desperation's ramshackle jail.

Perlman has solid menacing moments, buddy-buddy with his victims one minute, naughty-naughty the next. Apparently he is not completely corporeal, however, because he vanishes, or turns into a bird or a bush or something, roughly halfway through the picture. By this time his prisoners include Tom Skerritt as an old-hat troubadour living off memories of the '60s, Steven Weber as his smart-alecky assistant and Annabeth Gish as a hitchhiker Weber picks up en route. The ablest actor by far is lovable old Charles Durning, who appears to be the jail's first guest and Desperation's last living resident.

Durning has the thankless task of reeling off miles and miles of exposition, recalling how in pioneer times the Desperation Mining Co. brutally exploited Chinese laborers and thus irked the ancient god Tak, a vengeful sort with a flair for retribution, albeit belated -- and sloppy. All the residents of the town have been butchered to make amends for the misdeeds of their ancestors, it appears, but why should a group of random, would-be passers-through have to suffer?

Come to think of it, why should we?

Some, but not all, of the gaps in the back story are filled in by a silent movie playing at the local theater: "Tak! Or, The Unformed Heart," which includes scenes of mine owners murdering workers with pickaxes. Meanwhile there's some sort of theological seminar going on, with the boy pausing to pray for his mother and the other imperiled captives and Perlman bellowing such how's-that-again rantings as "God isn't here, any more than he was when Jesus was dying on the cross with flies in his eyes."

King pads out the three-hour time slot with digressions and dawdling and offers as relief occasional trenchant imagery, like a highway that disappears into the distance with dogs lined up along either side, acting as silent sentinels. Dogs and wolves seem prominent in Takology, but King also dispatches snakes, scorpions and spiders to terrorize victims. A mountain lion wanders into town and promptly sets about pouncing on one of the prisoners trying to escape.

If there's anybody in this movie that's easy to identify with, it's a prisoner trying to escape.

At one point Skerritt turns to the omniscient little boy and sizes up the situation. "This just isn't working, kid," he says. "Not working." No kidding.

Stephen King's Desperation (three hours) airs tonight at 8 on Channel 7.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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