From the incestuous 'Sleepwalkers' to 'The Shining' you don't remember, inside secrets of the most underrated Stephen King movies

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Writer Stephen King (left) and director Mick Garris (center) on the set of 1992's Sleepwalkers. (Photo: Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Mick Garris has been adapting Stephen King’s supernatural stories for the big and small screen for two decades and counting, but it took a psycho of a different sort to bring the two of them together in the first place. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment, Garris says that his 1990 TV movie, Psycho IV: The Beginning — a prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic, and the last time that Anthony Perkins played Norman Bates — caught King’s eye. “The stuff I had made before that was more family-oriented,” Garris says, pointing to his script for Batteries Not Included and installments of Amazing Stories. But Psycho IV, along with his work on sequels like Critters 2 and The Fly II, put him on the shortlist to direct an original King-penned screenplay called Sleepwalkers. “Stephen King had director approval and I met with the studio and it went great,” he remembers. “They said, ‘We’re going to hire you, we just have to meet with another director as a courtesy to his agent.’ And then they hired the other director!”

Fortunately for Garris, that unnamed filmmaker swiftly fell out of favor. “He started taking it in a very, very different direction than what King had written — the title was Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers, not Other Director’s Sleepwalkers,” he says, laughing. “At a certain point, no one was happy, and I was called in for a lunch meeting and they moved me into the office afterwards. I was like, ‘I guess I’m making this movie!’” Unlike his predecessor, Garris made a point of collaborating with the author instead of re-writing him. Flash-forward to 2019, and he’s one of the most prolific adapters of King-based material, alternating feature films like Sleepwalkers and Riding the Bullet with such TV miniseries as The Stand, The Shining, Desperation and Bag of Bones. Garris walked us through his long history with America’s best-loved boogeyman, from incestuous cat-people to the “other” Jack Torrance.

Sleepwalkers (1992)

Alice Krige and Brian Krause play mother and son (and lovers!) in Sleepwalkers. (Photo: Columbia Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection)

The rare Stephen King film that’s not based on a pre-existing novel or short story, Sleepwalkers stars Alice Krige and Brian Krause as a small-town mother and son who also happen to be literal cat people and, more shockingly, lovers. According to Garris, the incest storyline freaked out the studio — and the audience — more than any of the gore.

Sleepwalkers is set in Indiana in a Norman Rockwell America. And one of my favorite themes is “Norman Rockwell Goes to Hell.” That’s something King is really good at! I love embracing the fantasy of what America never was; it’s something that David Lynch did so beautifully in Blue Velvet — Norman Rockwell’s America, but with a severed ear in the grass. I only dealt with King during pre-production by telephone; my job was to be simpatico with what was on his mind. I’d talk to him about the notes the studio might have, and the next day in the fax machine, there’d be six brilliant pages, so it truly was his vision. I didn't get to meet him in person until we shot his cameo scene. What made that less than thrilling was that morning, I was having my granola and broke a molar. I had to rush to a dentist for an emergency temporary crown before Stephen got there.

Everything on set went really great, but the biggest stumbling block was that we had started shooting with a different studio president. Then Frank Price became the head of Colombia Pictures, and he read the script as we're already making the movie and said, "No movie with a mother and son having sex is going to come out of this studio while I'm in charge." He was prescient! Halfway through production, he got the boot and was replaced by Mark Canton.

Krige in her cat person form in Sleepwalkers. (Photo: Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection)

I think we had to make nine different cuts to get an R-rating, but none of them were for the sex. Well, one of them was. There’s a scene that was intended to be all one shot where it starts in the mirror, and then goes down to see the clothing on the floor. The camera pans up to see bare feet, bare legs, bare bodies and then reveal the mirror behind them as they’re having sex in cat-creature for. But Brian’s bare buttocks were going up and down, which gave it an immediate X-rating. Fortunately, I covered myself with an overhead shot of their head and shoulders that I was able to cut away to.

So we had our challenges, but I’m grateful and amazed that we got away with as much as we did. Nowadays, it might not be a big deal, but 27 years ago it was a rule-breaking thing. Alice was very game and really threw herself into the role. I love that we had a Shakespearean actress doing this part, and giving the same respect to Stephen King that she gave to William Shakespeare. She and Brian had great chemistry together, and I was very protective of both of them. What’s wonderful is that I saw the film on opening night at the Mann’s Chinese Theater with 1,200 teens and twentysomethings. When Brian says, “Oh mother!” and then they kiss and he carriers her up to the bedroom, all of them went, “Ewwww.” I’ve never had a more gratifying experience in my life than 1,200 young people going “Ewwww” together. It was definitely a highlight of my career!

Sleepwalkers is available to rent or purchase on Amazon, iTunes and Vudu.

Stephen King’s The Stand (1994)

Molly Ringwald and Sinise in The Stand. (Photo: ABC/Courtesy: Everett Collection)

Four years after the classic It miniseries terrorized America, King tapped Garris to direct the TV adaptation of an even longer novel: The Stand. The four-night ABC event featured an all-star cast — including Gary Sinise, Molly Ringwald and Rob Lowe — and an epic post-apocalyptic scope.

We broke the rules right in the title sequence. One of the first rules back then was no open eyes on corpses. But during the title sequence, we move right in on a dead woman with her eyes wide open! That was kind of our middle finger to ABC standards and practices, and we got away with it because it was Stephen King. You put Stephen King's name in the title, and people know what they're in for. So ABC allowed us more flexibility than we would have had if it been a traditional TV movie. Had it gone to the MPAA it probably would have gotten an R-rating because of the violent aspects. We went in knowing that it was going to be four parts and that each part was going to be two hours, which in reality is 90 minutes without the commercials and news breaks and stuff. So King wrote a very tight and really terrific 450-page screenplay, and it was quite a brick on the porch when it was delivered by the FedEx man!

The Lincoln Tunnel sequence was very demanding, because in the book it all took place in pitch-blackness, but it would have been a five-minute radio play if we had done it that way. The exteriors were of the real Lincoln Tunnel, but we shot those scenes in Pittsburgh. There was a tunnel that we were allowed to block off, and we filled it with cast and crew cars, as well as anything else we could find. It was all about figuring out how I could convey the darkness, while still allowing audiences to see the movie. I thought, “If the batteries of these cars still had a little bit of life in them, then there'd be blinking lights that might die and dim during the course of this. That might heighten the tension because of the dissipation of the light.” So we figured it out through performance, angles, lenses and lighting techniques that are both atmospheric and still allow an audience to be in on the action. It was very weird watching the very first episode of The Walking Dead [where Rick enters post-zombie Atlanta]. It was like, "I think I made this movie!”

Stephen King’s The Stand is available in a remastered Blu-ray edition; purchase it on Amazon.

Stephen King’s The Shining (1997)

Courtland Mead plays Danny Torrance in the miniseries version of The Shining. (Photo: Warner Bros. Television / Courtesy: Everett Collection)

Everyone loves Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining... except for Stephen King. So the author decided to write his own version, which aired over three nights on ABC in 1997. Unlike the 1980 movie, the miniseries hews closely to the original novel, including scenes that Kubrick deliberately left out, most notably an attack by hedge animals that come to life... via admittedly iffy digital effects. At Garris’s insistence, his Shining was also filmed in the hotel that originally inspired King to write the book: the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colo.

Originally, the studio wanted us to go to Canada and I said, “Please let us at least scout the Stanley Hotel. It’s the hotel where Stephen conceived of the whole thing.” One of the studio executives was there with us, and I said, “Do we really need to go to Canada? This is the place!” So we didn’t go even to scout, which was perfect. It would not be the same movie had it not been in that actual location. Now, we did build some sets: the Torrance apartment is a set, and so are some of the hallways and Room 217. But we used the hell out of the actual hotel, and it was a spectacular experience. The atmosphere really made a big difference.

There's an interesting thing about the movie vs. the miniseries, and Kubrick vs. King. Steve had written a draft for Stanley, who maybe never even read it, or, if he did he just never paid any attention to it. This is a really personal book to King, and when I saw the movie, I was so disappointed because I loved the book so much. But for the people who saw the movie first — especially young people — it became iconic. It took me years to realize that it's a great Kubrick film, but it's not a very good King adaptation. Kubrick is one of our greatest filmmakers, but [his movie] is more about the external effect on a human being, whereas King works from the inside out. I feel that Kubrick works a lot from the outside in. I think what Kubrick was trying to do was make an anti-horror movie. He was trying to prove that there isn’t a standard to how you shoot [horror] or present it. For example, when Scatman Crothers gets attacked, it’s in a wide shot and he’s way at the other end of the room. You see it in the distance, rather than up close.

Stephen King makes a memorable cameo in The Shining. (Photo: Warner Bros. Television/courtesy Everett Collection)

David Cronenberg once said to me what what didn't work about The Shining for him was that Kubrick cast the movie for the ending. Jack [Nicholson] is crazy from the very beginning and gets crazier, whereas in the book and in our miniseries the point is that he's a guy who's trying to do his best, but the alcoholism and the pressures guilt are building on that pressure cooker within him. You know, Jack Torrance is that boiler that’s going to blow at any moment. It was such a personal book for King, and his script was the best I had ever read. It was an opportunity to do something completely different from The Stand in that that was so vast and this was so intimate. We rarely left the hotel or the three characters, so the intimacy of that was completely different. You’re focused on one guy’s descent into madness.

It was King’s idea to cast [Rebecca] De Mornay [as Wendy Torrance opposite Steven Weber’s Jack]; he was thinking about her from the very beginning. [Wendy] is kind of a doormat in the movie, but [in the book] she’s a very strong and capable woman. She’s a complete human being who stands up for herself and protects herself, and there’s a lot of strength there. I would love to see the visual effects upgraded if there’s ever a Blu-ray release; some of those effects look so low-res and they were done on a television live, not a feature film level. Because yeah, cringes!

Stephen King’s The Shining is currently only available on DVD; purchase it on Amazon.

Riding the Bullet (2004)

Garris and King’s collaboration almost came to a sudden end when the author was severely injured in a 1999 car accident. That experience informed King’s 2000 novella, Riding the Bullet, which was also King’s first experiment with digital publishing. The film version was a first for Garris in that it was the first time that he wrote his own screenplay based on King’s words, one that departed from the source material in highly personal — though not very commercial — ways.

Riding the Bullet was the first thing that Stephen had written after the accident, but it was a short story and only 30 pages long. Normally, I feel like the more you deviate from the source material of Stephen King, the sh*****r your movie is going to be. But in this case, I'd had a lot of brushes with familial death; I had lost a brother, I’d lost my father. So I read that story and it really had a heavy impact on me. It was something I changed more than I’ve ever changed anything from King, but with his approval. He was very enthusiastic about it. I set it in 1969 at the end of the ’60s when that philosophical maturation started to turn into more self-involved era. It was a time of upheaval when a lot of choices were being made societally as well as personally, and some of them not for the better.

Making the main character an artist obsessed with darkness and having to make a choice about losing a parent is stuff I brought in to fill out what would have been a half-hour story to feature length. Turning the story into a 90-minute feature that felt really personal to me is something I’m really proud of, even though it’s the least commercially successful thing that I’ve ever been attached to! The reviews were mixed, but I still hear from people who say, "I just lost my mother; I saw your movie and it made me feel something I hadn't felt before, so thank you." Those are the things that make it worthwhile. But that poor movie! Not many people saw it.

I think it failed because people wanted it to be either The Shining or Stand by Me — they didn't want both. A horror audience, especially a teen horror audience, is not going to go for the deeply emotional stuff. I was naïve about it; the producers were constantly nudging me to add more horror and at a certain point, I said, “Let’s not inflate it with artificial horror.” I tried to do something organically horrific, and commercially that was a tough choice to make. Nobody wanted it, until we found an independent production company that wanted to be in the Stephen King business. They produced it, and then had to self-distribute it unsuccessfully, and then to get some of their money back, they sold it to Syfy for a six-year window and the only way people saw it was filled with commercials with big chunks out out.

So I think it deserves better. But Stephen was happy with it! He gave us a quote for it and everything. And if he doesn't approve of a movie, he won't let you use his name in the title. That's part of his contract; until he sees the movie and goes, "OK, you can put my name in,” you can’t. Our relationship definitely helped, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to put his name on something he doesn’t believe in.

Riding the Bullet is available to stream on Vudu.

Bag of Bones (2011)

Pierce Brosnan stars in Garris's adaptation of Bag of Bones. (Photo: Chris Reardon/©A&E/courtesy Everett Collection)

Produced for A&E, Bag of Bones stars Pierce Brosnan as a novelist who loses his wife, and then proceeds to stumble onto a supernatural mystery involving the vengeful spirit of a 1930s blues singer, played by Anika Noni Rose. This spirit has good reason to be angry: decades ago, she was brutally raped and murdered by a group of racist men, and bringing that scene to life took its toll on Garris.

That death scene was horrible; it’s the the most psychologically difficult scene I've ever had to direct. You want it to be ugly, you want it to hurt and you want to have to look away. But that made it extremely difficult to shoot, because if you didn’t have that brutality, it wouldn’t have the power to motivate everything that comes afterwards, and the vengeance she takes would have seemed over the top. To have sympathy for her despite the brutality of her vengeance was really important. I wanted it to hurt, because the longer I’m alive and facing the mortality of the people I care about, the more deeply I’m able to express it and embrace it, and become a richer human being as well as a better informed artist. I don’t want to use the A-word when we’re talking about commercial television, but you still try to bring something deeper to it. And there’s nothing deeper than facing the loss of life of someone you care about, and I think that’s what King does so powerfully. But God, I hated shooting that scene.

Rob Lowe almost played the lead, but he was still doing Parks and Recreation and production would have overlapped. When the network went to Pierce Brosnan, it became something quite different and much more in line with the book. Rob is a great actor, but Pierce brings a level of heartbreak and sophistication to the role. It’s a story about the death of a loved one, and Pierce had lost a wife before this, so the dramatic potency he brought to it was so personal and so powerful. It projected the strength of Stephen King's horror stories, in that they are great drama first and great horror after that.

Bag of Bones is available to purchase on Amazon and iTunes.

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