7.08.2016

King's Highway pt. 82: The Miniseries (Worst to Best)


RANKING THE TV MINISERIES
of STEPHEN KING


King's written two original miniseries, and nine others have been made from his works. Some (The Shining, The Stand) he was more involved with than others (Salem's Lot, The Tommyknockers). 

I did not consider 11.22.63 for the below. While it's certainly a miniseries, they went out of their way to label it otherwise. ("Event series," "limited-run series," "Original Content Event," etc.) So, hey, have it your way, 11.22.63 folks. You saved me from having to figure out if it's my least favorite of all miniseries based on King's work or only my second least favorite. (Mini-review: started off quite strong but lost it when they strayed recklessly from the book.)

Similarly, I didn't consider either Kingdom Hospital or Golden Years for this list. They kind of ended up being miniseries, but neither ever really boldly claimed themselves one way or the other. You snooze you lose. Let us begin.   

11.
The Shining
(1997)

The Shining in addition to being my second-favorite King book is a classic of 20th century horror. You'd never know it from this toothless and abhorrently-paced adaptation. 


King as screenwriter/ adapter of his own work carries as much of the blame for how this turned out as director Mick Garris. King famously hates the Kubrick adaptation - well-trod ground round these-and-all-parts - and set about "correcting" it by emphasizing everything Kubrick "got wrong." And so, as Karina Wilson noted in her book-to-movie-to-mini-series review: "It takes most of Episode One for the Torrances to get settled in to the Overlook, they don't get snowed in until partway through Episode Two, and Jack doesn't get anything but tetchy until Episode Three."

First mistake: underestimating Kubrick's genius for novel-to-film adaptation. That's at least 50% of his genius. The other 50 is his understanding of composition and storytelling. Next mistake: hiring Mick Garris to make a visual rebuttal to Kubrick's film. Say what you will about Mick Garris, but there is nothing in his catalog (and everything in Kubrick's, for contrast) to suggest a flair for visual storytelling. At least for something like The Shining. His penchant for cheap make-up fx and pop-out scares immediately positions this as campy horror rather than the Kronos-laden dread of the book. (Something, ironically, Kubrick's film conveyed a lot better.)

Compare these shots from The Shining to similar make-up from Tobe Hooper's Salem's Lot, filmed almost 20 years earlier.

I don't know how Garris can be so dramatically tone deaf to allow any of the Mommy/Daddy/Danny arguments to stand the way they are. It all feels like a Dark Shadows episode but without the kitsch factor. And several decades too late. And with a subpar-sitcom-kid-actor. (Sorry, Courtland Mead.) Anyway, there's too much to get into - here's my original review where I went full-grumpy. I agree with my buddy Mark - the only way this would have worked would be if they'd cast the entire cast from Wings in all the roles. 

King liked this Ghost-Dad-kiss bit so much that he brought it back for Doctor Sleep. Where it actually works (a little). In the miniseries it's just horrific.

10.
(2004)

Okay, so I've never seen this one. From what I read, though, this seems about where it should place. (Not according to this viewer, sure, but most everyone else.)  

Great cast, though.

9.
Bag of Bones
(2011)

I'm not a particular fan of the novel but even before I read it, I tried to watch this mini-series on three separate occasions. Never successfully.


I eventually forced my way through to the end, but man does this thing drag. Worse, it doesn't exactly make a whole lot of sense. Worse still, we're in well-traveled King backwaters here. Not in and of itself a dealbreaker but not something to light a fire under my feet. 

Pierce Brosnan is decent - most of the cast is decent, I guess, and the scenery of Maine (Nova Scotia, actually - close enough) is gorgeous. Contrary to my snarky comments above, occasionally Mick Garris does produce some nice visual images, and Bag of Bones is probably his best-looking work. Not just the scenery, I mean all the in-frame composition. As observed here, the picture chosen to lead off this section is good visual shorthand for Mike (Brosnan)'s coming ever-so-slowly out of grieving. Garris even seems to have moved away from filming the dialogue scenes dead-center-on, TV-backdrop-style. (That type of composition is all over The Shining, Sleepwalkers, and The Stand.)


8.
The Langoliers
(1995)

As slow as Bag of Bones is, it's Run Lola Run compared to The Langoliers, which has been referred to as a half-hour Twilight Zone episode stretched out to three hours, with some of the most agonizing acting ever committed to film in Bronson Pinchot's portrayal of Craig Toomey. (Not, unbelievably, the most agonizing performance in a King miniseries; that's still to come.) This one hits every negative: bad performances, horrible special fx, simultaneously over-and-underwritten, you name it.

So how does it place ahead of Bag of Bones - or even The Shining for that matter - in this here countdown? The better question is why do I always feel like watching it.

If you figure that one out, let me know. Even talking about how awful it is makes me want to throw it on for background. I've got some kind of problem with this movie. Or maybe I just love The Twilight Zone so much that I'm secretly pleased with a half-hour TZ concept stretched out beyond all reasonable shape to three hours.

(Though technically, it's more The Outer Limits than Twilight Zone.)  


7.
Rose Red
(2002)

This one has some great ambience, and I like the idea of a paranormal super-team investigating a haunted house, as well as the history of the house and its unworking of Joyce Reardon's mind. It's unfortunately distinguished by some really bizarre performances, which is a puzzler. I'll put that on the director Craig Baxley, who as we'll see in a bit has done great work elsewhere, as have Matt Ross and Nancy Travis, yet here everyone seems to be working from different scripts and/or not watching the dailies. Julian Sands and Emily Deschanel are good, though.

And waaay too many slow-pans of the house and reaction shots. It's a beautiful house, but come on now. I could bring up the yet-another-psychic-autistic-kid angle, but I guess it just comes with the territory. 


6.
The Tommyknockers
(1993)

I covered this one in greater depth last month. The mini-series is a very different animal than the book. The book is dark, cynical, indulgent, and gross; it utilizes these qualities to great effect. The mini-series is okay, but it is none of the above. It has the straight-to-video sensibility of a low budget, functionally-atmospheric-but-don't-ask-too-many-questions slice of 80s horror. (Despite coming out in 1993).

I sympathize - the book poses many difficulties to the adapter. In addition to a flying saucer that's three football fields in diameter and other set and special f/x logistics, there's an endless stream of vomit, lost teeth, and blood.  And sometimes all three.




Nevertheless, as the only version I'll likely ever see of a novel I dearly love and one that is more or less faithful to it (albeit in a Muzak way) it could be worse.

5.
Nightmares and Dreamscapes
(2006)

Here's how this miniseries shakes out for me on a scale of zero to five:

"Battleground" 4.5
"Crouch End" 2.25
"Umney's Last Case" 3.25
"The End of the Whole Mess" 3.75
"The Road Virus Heads North" 3
"The Fifth Quarter" 3
"Autopsy Room Four" 3
"You Know They Got a Hell of a Band" 1.25

So basically, there's "Battleground" and then there's the rest of it.  Why they adapted some of the ones they chose and not "Rainy Season," "Home Delivery," or "The Ten O'Clock People" is beyond me. Actually, it's probably a rights issue of some kind - I have no idea. Point is, I haven't looked it up.

But I just love "Battleground" enough for the whole damn miniseries to place here at number five. And it's not like it's the greatest thing ever filmed, either. It's entertaining and slick and clever and William Hurt sells the shit out of his role, but viewed another way, it's all very overdone, a lot of conceit covering a rather mundane (some might even call it silly) plot and William Hurt "does his best despite the material" or some sentiment like that. I can see that side of it, objectively, but subjectively, I'm just start-to-finished pleased with everything.

The others worth seeing are "The End of the Whole Mess", "Umney's Last Case", and "The Road Virus Heads North", none of which are perfect (and the latter might even be bad) but I have this Langoliers sort of relationship with them where I acknowledge they're not great but always kind of want to watch them. "The Fifth Quarter" and "Autopsy Number Four" are inoffensive but unremarkable. The other two are terrible.

And the end of "The End of the Whole Mess" actually deepens and darkens its source material. The episode is uneven, but the end is quite good.

This is from "The Road Virus Heads North," not "The End of the Whole Mess." But it feels like a better ending-screencap for this section.

4.
It
(1990)

As with The Tommyknockers, I sympathize with any adapter of this novel. Director Tommy Lee Wallace did the best he could, I'm sure, between a rock (the novel) and a hard place (network standards.) He chose to emphasize the best of what he had: Tim Curry as Pennywise. The Barrens look pretty cool, and there are a few nice scenes here and there, but Curry's turn as the killer clown who terrorizes the children of Derry towers over the production. 

Everything else? On paper, some of the casting is great; in practice/ as directed, not so much. Like The Tommyknockers, scrubbing the source material of its more controversial elements is understandable, but it lessens the scope and impact of the novel considerably. Sure, the novel's kind of overstuffed and goes to some ill-advised places, but the oversimplifications in display here are not the answer. 



3.
(1994)

If you weren't around or paying attention at the time, this was one of the last Event-TV miniseries of its day. (Despite Hulu's claims re: 11.22.63) This was "Oh my God, they're making The Stand" followed by phone calls after (not during) and everyone taping it on VHS and organizing watching parties. I wasn't reading King in '94, but I definitely was one of 19 million Americans who tuned in for each of its four parts.

Alas, it hasn't aged too well. This AV Club review is worth reading in full for all the reasons why. Here are some excerpts:

"Everything from casting choices to wardrobe to musical cues cements The Stand firmly in the mid-’90s, sacrificing any timelessness in favor of an already dated sensibility. It’s not the self-aware frolic of Clueless or the drab naturalism of Office Space. This is 1994 as an ’80s hangover, complete with former members of the Brat Pack and an 8-year-old Top 10 hit already milked for nostalgia."

(Although I really like that "Don't Dream It's Over" scene, me.)

"When so many performances fall flat, it’s hard to blame the actors. Except for Frannie’s furrowed eyebrows of apocalypse, everything plays so big, with yelling, emphatic gestures, pervasive unearned comradery or antipathy, that there’s no room for small moments to expand, not that there are a lot of small moments in The Stand. Mick Garris never met a Dutch angle or a jump scare he didn’t like, and he didn’t start underplaying in a cross-country tale of Biblical catastrophe."


"Gravity and compassion are what this version of The Stand lacks, as well as metaphor. The story of tragic destiny is rendered flat and trite. It’s not just prosaic and pedestrian, though it is both of those. (It's) constrained, diminished by its dreary pace, by simplistic characters and motivations, and by its cramped, narrow sense of time. "

I liked Nick and Tom, though. Most of the casting, actually. Except Molly Ringwald as Frannie and Corin Nemec as Harold.

The Stand (the book) is two different books: one is an ultra-realistic character study of a society in breakdown and recovery, with micro/macro managed adeptly, and the other is a pulp religious parable where characters receive their instructions from dreams and a retarded man is put under deep hypnosis to become a spy and God speaks through burning bushes and stuff like that. The Stand (the miniseries) skimps on the former and doesn't gracefully handle the latter. 

Nevertheless, it's watchable and has more than a few things about it that I really like, even if it's way too literal (particularly with the "hand of God" at the end.) Sooner or later someone will do the book correctly and I can jettison this excuse but until that happens, I'm forgiving of much of it simply because I enjoy having some version of it to watch.

2.
Salem's Lot
(1979)

Talk to anyone born in the 60s or 70s and you'll hear the same story about how freaked out they were by dead Ralphie Glick (Ronnie Scribner) scratching on brother Mark Petrie (Brad Savage, from Red Dawn and a bunch of 70s/80s TV)'s bedroom window. It's definitely a watershed image of 70s TV, right up there with Kunta Kinte, Wonder Woman, and Columbo.

I was too young to tune in live, myself, but I watched this a lot on VHS growing up, and that scene freaked me out, too. It hasn't aged quite as well as the rest of the miniseries, but it's easy to see how it could have imprinted itself so deeply on a generation of viewers. 

I say "aged quite as well as the rest of the miniseries." Let me clarify - it's not that Salem's Lot does not seem a product of 70s TV; it very much does. Part of you watching this in 2016 has the same reaction to watching Emergency! or Dragnet or something, just an awareness that teleplay has undergone many revolutions since the time these things aired. It's just one of those movies, like Jaws, where its dated-ness doesn't matter too much. 

 

Successful both as a standalone story and as an adaptation of a beloved King novel, Salem's still has a lot to recommend it in 2016. James Mason is exceptional as Straker, for starters. The scenes where Constable Gillepsie question him showcase the actor's effortless skill in conveying menace and snobbery with Old World Charm.


As mentioned here: "Hooper, who made beautifully nasty hash out of family rituals in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), pulled out all stops in showing evil literally erupt into a middle class home to consume the nuclear family and all their social safeguards."


And finally:

1.
Storm of the Century(1999)

I have seen this five or six times over the years, and it gets better each time. This last time - over a stretch of weeknights two-weeks-ago - was perhaps the most enjoyable of all. If this was a novel, it would be up in my Top Ten of King's works. 

It opens with strokes so broad that you'd be forgiven for thinking this was a parody of some kind. The soundtrack swirls and the camera pans over stiff-upper-lip lobstermen assuring themselves that whatever the sea or storm ("staaahm") throws at them, they'll get through it, and the voiceover - Tim Daly in no-nonsense working-class-hero mode - embellishes it. "We're a town who knows how to keep its secrets..."

Then, the familiar scene is shattered when a stranger taps a cane on an old woman's door and brutally murders her by splitting her face open and taking her seat in front of the television.

Born in lust, turn to dust.
Burn in sin? Come on in.


It mirrors the opening of The Regulators, which came out only a few years before Storm: an overly-tropish scene shattered by sudden, furious violence. And while the story definitely follows some trajectories that will be familiar to King Constant Readers, part of its appeal is the ways in which it doesn't resemble any other King work. Particularly in part 2, in the eye of the storm and when Linoge reveals what he's really doing there.

Speaking of, is there any doubt that Colm Feore as Andre Linoge is a top 5 King villain? Movie, TV, or miniseries. He's perfect. I have no problem speaking of him in the same breath as Tim Curry as Pennywise, Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes, or Max Von Sydow as Leland Gaunt, among any others anyone cares to mention.

The eerie and surreal dream sequences showcase the actor's facility for different accents.
(Sorry for how dark these came out; I probably shouldn't even include them.)
Anyway, he seems to work often enough, but based only on this and a few old Friday the 13th episodes, I wish he'd get cast in higher-profile roles; he deserves them.

Ditto for Tim Daly, who anchors the other side of the production, namely the outvoted/ doomed moral everyman. Daly was King's first choice for The Shining miniseries but was unavailable. I wonder if this was written as a sort of consolation prize for him? Whatever the reason, I'm glad it was, and he is great in it.


I feel compelled to mention the complete inability of everyone involved to do a Maine accent. No two people sound alike, and some don't even sound like they're speaking English. I will never understand the lapse into savagery and slurring that marks so many actors' attempts at a New England accent. Some (Daly, Feore, Julianne Nicholson) don't even try, and that's best. The rest of the cast goes from bad (Casey Siemaszko) to worse (Jeffrey DeMunn, Becky Ann Baker) to inhuman (most everyone else.)

Accents aside, though, Storm of the Century, despite being fairly well-reviewed by fans and critics alike, remains something of an unsung moment in King's considerable back catalog. Which is too bad. It's a little overlong, sure, as befits its miniseries nature, and the ending is bleak, but it's also bold, original, and provocative, with considerable repeat-viewing value. 


"It's a cash and carry world. Sometimes you pay a little. Mostly it's a lot. Sometimes, it's everything you have."

~
NEXT: The Regulators. (Probably) 

13 comments:

  1. Oh, I never followed up on my remark about Bronson Pinchot/ Criag Toomey's not, somehow, being the most obnoxious performance in a King miniseries.

    That would go to Matt Frewer as Trashcan Man in "The Stand." Half of the blame of that has to land on Garris, as well.

    I suppose I should have edited this into the blog itself but it's just as good in the comments.

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    1. Frewer is THE WORST as Trashcan Man. It boggles my mind that anyone can give that performance a pass. It is not merely bad, but offensively bad; it is an assault on good taste, a gob of spittle in the eye of aesthetics. Frewer is a good actor; but you'd never know it from "The Stand."

      Pinchot is bad, but his performance does at least seem appropriate: Toomy is supposed to be a real hemorrhoid, so Pinchot took that idea, ran with it, got into the end-zone, and then (Gump-style) kept right on running.

      Frewer, though...? You can't see for one second why anyone would have let him live one moment longer. It weakens Flagg as a character, so it's a performance that is actively harmful to the miniseries.

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    2. Exactly. Frewer also plays that time-traveling-con-man in TNG amazingly irritatingly. I agree he's a good actor, but when he turns on the irritating-actor-business, he goes supernova.

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  2. A note on classifications:

    Personally, I'm with you in that I'd consider neither "Kingdom Hospital" nor "Golden Years" to be miniseries. They were intended to be ongoing series, and simply went bust before they could get much further than miniseries-length in cumulative runtime.

    I could go either way on "11.22.63." Technically, it's a miniseries on account of having been built to last only a specific amount of time. But I have a hard time thinking of a miniseries as anything that doesn't consist of multiple two-hour segments. So I lump "11.22.63" in with the series; it just happens to have been a one-season series.

    Anyways, that's my two cents on that.

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  3. #11, "The Shining" -- Boy oh boy, there are places on the official King-site messageboard where you'd get lynched for placing this one so low.

    You'll get no such sentiment from me. This miniseries is awful in almost every way.

    #10, "Salem's Lot" 2.0 -- Well, buddy, I'VE seen it. It's very, very bad. It's got a great cast, and is based on a great novel (not as closely as you'd hope), and I guess some people must get confused by those aspects into thinking it adds up to a great miniseries. Not for my money. There is not one single thing this new version does better than the Tobe Hooper version; not one.

    #9, "Bag of Bones" -- Obviously, I agree with pretty much everything you have to say here. I'm a bigger fan of the novel than you, and as such, a lot of the changes they've made for this tv version really upset me. They'd be fine if they worked. They don't work.

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    1. I haven't been to the King forum in a long time. Like many such things, it seems to just be clique-y, and the clique-regime who runs things over there I usually don't see eye to eye with at all.

      That there are people that not only defend "The Shining" but prefer it to Kubrick's film is just... depressing. Not surprising, I guess, but sad.

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    2. I mean, to each his own and all, but . . . yeah, I find that stance to be indefensible. It's 2016, though, and indefensible stances are hella in vogue these days. I talked -- verbally -- with someone today who'd recently seen "Raiders of the Lost Ark" for the first time and found it to be "cringey and boring."

      Man.

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  4. #8, "The Langoliers" -- I agree that this one has a watchability factor that some of the others don't have. Which is amazing, because it is truly awful in nearly every regard. My best-guess theory is that . . . well, it's got something to do with the inherent King-iness of the source material, which is elevated to nearly parodic heights in the novella but is somewhat redeemed by King's prose. The prose is missing in the miniseries, but the whole thing remains elevated to that semi-parodic level, and therefore the miniseries is able to kinda cross over into camp. I bet it's a blast to watch drunk on Zima.

    #7, "Rose Red" -- I have always wished that I liked this more than I actually do. It ends up going nowhere, though, so I can't. The last time I rewatched it, though, I found myself appreciating some of the ambition more than I ever had. Maybe it's a grower and not a shower in that regard, but I kinda doubt it.

    You are right to comment on the weird performances. I suspect -- and this is pure speculation on my part -- that at least some of that is due to King being super-specific in his teleplay. It feels to me like he made frequent stage directions about Matt Ross's character leaving his mouth hanging open like a dope. Et cetera. In other words, I'm almost willing to be that Matt Ross gave a performance that was appropriate for how he was directed, and that Baxley directed him that way because it's what the teleplay called for.

    I might be wrong. I betcha I'm not.

    #6, "The Tommyknockers" -- I like Smits and Helgenberger, if nothing else. And it does manage to be fun in a b-movie kind of way. I wouldn't defend it, but I do kind of like it.

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  5. #5, "Nightmares & Dreamscapes" -- I mentally lump this one in with the regular series, as well, but my only real rationale is that the episodes are hour-longs. Granted, they aired two in a night. Ah, what's it matter? Doesn't!

    I wish I was a bigger fan of the whole thing. I can't even summon much love for "Battleground," which has always seemed a bit hollow to me. It's not bad, it's just doesn't do much for me.

    It does HUGE amount of stuff for me compared to most of the others, though, especially "Crouch End" and "Hell of a Band," the latter of which is one of the absolute worst hours of King material ever filmed.

    #4, "It" -- I know a lot of people love this one. I'm not out to prove them wrong. That'd be both stupid and mean. So I'll just say that I kinda hate it. Moments of it work for me here and there, and I do have some nostalgia for it. But overall, if I'm being objective, I think it's terrible. I don't even like Tim Curry in it all that much.

    #3, "The Stand" -- Mick Garris's finest hours. I think I'd say I like it overall, despite its numerous problems (some of which are problems in the sense that a nearly-severed head is a cut -- i.e., only as an understatement).

    In a way, the ninetiesness of it all is kind of charming. It's typically better for a project like this to be timeless, but if it can't be, then being incredibly of-its-time can give it some measure of appeal. It gets to be a sort of time capsule in that regard; we'll always have that window into 1994. I can kinda live with that.

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    1. That's a good point about the impossibility of dated-ness (and even kind of its appeal) in "The Stand."

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  6. #2, "Salem's Lot" -- I really love this dadgum thing. Part of me kind of feels like I need to acknowledge that it's not actually very good, in the objective sense. And yet, I could watch it every year -- and have watched it during at least half a dozen Octobers -- and not get tired of it, so what's that tell us?

    It tells me that it works on me. I love the cinematography, the production design, the effects, the music, the makeup, the acting; it all just works on me, and I don't need no fancy "objective" quality in the face of that.

    #1, "Storm of the Century" -- It does my heart good for this to be on the top of your list. I just love this thing. I know some people say it's slow; if it is, give me slow any day.

    Linoge is absolutely a top-shelf King villain. I wish they hadn't included so many shots of him baring his teeth and hissing (at nobody); they ran that into the ground. But, then again, "Hell is repetition," so maybe it was purposeful. Either way, it's only a mild complaint; overall, I'd say I prefer him to even Randall Flagg. Yep, I said it.

    Ever read the screenplay? It reads quite well on its own. I wish King would publish a few more of his screenplays in similar fashion.

    The ending really IS bleak, but it doesn't feel like it's unearned. The story supports it. I am in the same camp as you as regards the miniseries seeming better every time you rewatch it, and I think maybe that bleakness is part of the reason why. The whole thing still works if you know how it turns out; if anything, it makes it all seem deeper and more resonant.

    In other words, I think it all has the ring of truth.

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    1. Agreed on all points here! I have the screenplay, but I don't think I ever read the whole thing cover to cover, just a few sections here and there.

      Good call on the "Hell is repetition" teeth/ hissing thing! That works for me. Agreed, tho, there's a bit too much of that. King loves to run shit into the ground, doesn't he? Why use something three or four times when you can do it use two dozen? Beep beep, Linoge.

      Agreed on Linoge being better than Flagg. Though, if King kept dragging him out of the villain closet and made him appear a half-dozen more times, maybe we'd see some inconsistencies with him, too. But as for stand-alone villains, Linoge is awesome. As is Colm Feore's performance - just great. "Storm" is awesome.

      I like the idea of watching both "Salem's Lot" and "Storm" fairly often, maybe tied to holidays, for the rest of my days. They're quality enough to be enjoyed in such a manner, and timeless-theme-enough to never grow stale.

      Maybe I'll make "Storm" my Father's Day viewing. That'd be funny. (I was laughing at some channel that played "The Shining" all day long on Father's Day, last month.)

      Thanks as always for the in-depth and thoughtful comments. Glad you enjoyed!

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    2. That'd be a heck of a Father's Day movie. Maybe not quite as on-the-nose as the first segment of "Creepshow," but close.

      Feore is indeed great as Linoge. In some better world, he got an Emmy for the miniseries and got a lead role in some tv show that ran for seven seasons.

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