There used to be jokes that Dino de Laurentiis would make a theatrical feature film out of Stephen King’s Laundry List; there was indeed a three-film franchise spun off from Big Steve’s laundry-based horror story The Mangler. Lately King adaptations have tended to be TV miniseries (Bag of Bones), TV movies (Big Driver) or TV series (Under the Dome). In the ‘80s and ‘90s, he was almost the dominant force in theatrical horror – even films (like A Nightmare on Elm St) not based on his works seem permeated by his sensibilities (as does the current Stranger Things, which even sort-of rhymes with his name). The most recent big screen King film was the remake of Carrie, which traded more on associations with Brian DePalma. So this smart, persuasive, intriguing take on King’s cellphone/zombie novel is a refreshing throwback. All it needs is a ‘Stephen King’s’ possessory credit to fit comfortably into his filmography.
With King, it’s all about approach. His packrat borrowings draw on a wide variety of genre precedents – it’s too easy to dismiss something like ‘Salem’s Lot as derivative: it’s the plot of Dracula tipped into the setting of Peyton Place, but that juxtaposition is what makes it so persuasive. King shares a script credit on Cell with Adam Alleca (the Last House on the Left remake), and the adaptation of his novel is quite free (losing a lot of interesting material, but adding in new wrinkles). As so often, you can check off bits and pieces reworked from other sources: Pulse/Kairo and The Signal (the supernaturally broadcast zombie/insanity plague), Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the stand-and-point-open-mouthed yawp), Quatermass and the Pit (human insect swarm), John Wyndham (the influence of Day of the Triffids on zombie apocalypses is huge), early Cronenberg and Romero, Pontypool (a philosophical cataclysm), early Jim Mickle (Stake Land, Mulberry St), Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (the protagonist searching for his family while the world falls apart) and The Birds (maybe even Birdemic). This material is used the way all Westerns draw on earlier cowboy movies rather than in the simple ripping off mode. His not quite naturalistic dialogue, bleak plot turns, unexpected deaths, grown-up humour (love the deadpan punchline ‘Canada’) and clever song choices used to be a default style for mainstream US horror to the point that the tics got stale … but now it feels fresh again. It’s tonally similar to The Mist, if less pompous – protracted production (a 2014 copyright suggests difficulties) perhaps hints at problems getting the piece into shape which have rendered it more interesting.
Director Tod Williams moved from the John Irving adaptation The Door in the Floor to the generic sequel Paranormal Activity 2 – I assumed that he took the latter in order to have a guaranteed hit under his belt to land more personal projects. This would seem to be one of them, though it’s also a solid genre piece. He gets good work from a varied cast, including John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson (veterans of the last major King bigscreen shocker 1408), Isabelle Fuhrman (the creepy kid from Orphan) and veteran Stacy Keach. In a high concept hook, artist Clay Riddell (Cusack) – and parse that character name for super fun – is in Boston airport after a career breakthrough and trying to get to his estranged wife (Clark Sarullo) and son (Ethan Andrew Casto) when a mystery curse strikes through cell-phones (Clay’s battery has just died so he’s on a pay-phone) and turns everyone into frenzied crazies who attack each other and self-harm violently. He makes it to a subway and hooks up with train worker Tom McCourt (Jackson), then makes his way across country – with neighbour girl Alice (Fuhrmann), still traumatised from killing her mother in self-defence – either to a celltower-free safe zone or his old home where he hopes his family have survived. Others tag along, and live or die almost at random – this is a film which knows what you expect and goes against it several times. This allows for shocks and surprises, but also lets a numbed, cumulative sense of loss set in.
As in The Birds and the Romero zombie films, there’s debate about the cause but no real solution – and the characters have to work out the rules rather than understand what’s going on. It seems a global phenomenon, but there are hints it has come from Clay’s mind – as the apocalypse seems to relate to his comic book characters and he dreams of a zombie pack leader in a red hoodie who is interestingly different from King’s Randall Flagg (who also plagued survivors’ dreams). There’s a stopover in a rural prep school, where the sports field is covered by somnolent ‘phoners’ – they have to recharge – who are playing weird old-time music out of their mouths as they’ve become transmitters as well as receivers, and Clay quite credibly becomes a guilt-ridden drunk after taking part in a mass immolation of the infected he can’t not see as mass murder. A roadhouse introduces another set of characters, not all of whom make it – and the climax revolves (literally) around a significant cell-tower Clay sets out to blow up and save the world (really – this borrows from The Earth Dies Screaming), though the actual finish is at once horrific and perversely moving. Cusack has a wordless moment that is – no kidding – among the best bits of screen acting he’s ever done.