The B-Movie Gimmick From The '60s (That We Want Back)

We’ve discussed William Castle here at Cracked, the all-time king of horror movie gimmicks. And among all his contrivances to get butts in theater seats to watch B-grade schlock, there's a particularly clever one used in one of his ‘best’ movies, Homicidal.

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Why do artists always want to do something other than what they’re good at?  NBA players want to rapRappers want to act.  And horror writers, apparently, want to try their hand at comedy.

Like an aspiring John Hughes, Tom Wolfe, or Joe Piscopo, all-time great horror scribe Stephen King decided he wanted to take a stab at satirizing the 1980s.  And by poking fun at at the citizens of Castle Rock in his novel Needful Things, he thought he had the perfect vehicle.  It was also the first novel that he was going to try to write sober, which, while definitely a good thing for King, may not have been a good thing for comedy.  

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To King, the 1980s were hilarious. (Actually, the 1980s were hilarious to a lot of us.)  He told The Paris Review: “My thoughts centered on Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, of the PTL Club. It occurred to me that in the Eighties, everything had come with a price tag.”

King’s solution was to invent a Castle Rock curio shop where the last things that mattered -- honor, integrity, self-respect, and innocence -- were put up for sale. Hilarious already, right? His goal was to keep it light, with the Bakkers’ dog house (which had heaters and running water) as his North Star for ridiculousness.

The plot is long and convoluted, with lots of complicated character motivations and hidden secrets packed into its 600+ pages. But the real question is … did it work as a comedy? 

King’s marketing department didn’t help much, marketing Needful Things as another horror masterpiece, which wasn’t at all the writer’s intention.  So when readers and critics trounced the book, we have to wonder if misplaced expectations weren’t part of the problem. (Because it was a Stephen King book and because it was 1991, it sold a bajillion copies anyway, though it never reached #1 on the best-seller charts.)

Marketing or no, People didn’t find it funny at all, calling it “page after page of death-by-numbers exercise.”  King himself kinda sorta agreed?  “The reviewers called it an unsuccessful horror novel, even though I had assumed everybody would see it as a satire. Over the years I’ve come to think that, well, maybe it just wasn’t a very good book.”

Then again, King may have accomplished what he set out to do.  He told Time:  “What it turned out to be, I thought, was a satire of the whole Ronald Reagan ethos of “greed is good, consumerism is good.” To me, it was a hilarious concept. And the way that it played out was funny, in a black-comedy way. It really satirized that American idea that it’s good to have everything that you want. I don’t think it is.”

Maybe it’s just that King has a different idea of what’s “funny”?  In another interview, he says, “There’s a subplot in Needful Things about these two gay high school teachers who have a falling out over some misplaced cocaine and shoot each other. That’s the kind of thing where, when I thought that up I said: ‘How neat, how funny,’ and when it comes out it’s kind of sad and horrible.”

If two gay, coked-up high school teachers shooting each other is your big laff scene, then yeah, maybe it's not going to work.

So the sad and horrible comedy of Needful Things didn’t generate the laughs King was after.  Unfortunately for the author, there are funny adaptions of his work -- but all of them are unintentional.  Here are three that we find particularly hilarious:

Lawnmower Man

Lawnmower Man, based very loosely on a short story by King, keeps getting funnier as time goes on due to two factors: 1) The Tommy Wiseau-level lead performance by Jeff Fahey and 2) the computer-generated special effects, somehow unbelievably advanced (for 1992) and jaw-droppingly crude at the same time.  

It’s the movie that the Orlando Sentinel says has it all -- “melodramatic plot, bad acting, special effects that will undoubtedly seem cheesy in about five minutes.”  To King’s credit, the movie had so little to do with his short story that he was able to successfully sue to have his name removed from the film altogether. When the moviemakers slapped his name again on the home video, he won another $2.5 million in damages.   

(If you listen to the open of the trailer, a voice intones:  “From the imagination (hey guys, we’re just going to cut the words “of Stephen King” before he sues again) …. comes the story of a man …” )

The Mangler

This 1995 film might have the weirdest baddie of all time -- a villainous … laundry press? Um, yeah, a laundry press. It presses you to death!  Starch is extra.  

If this was King’s intentional comedy, we might be hailing him as a comic genius!  The damn thing even grows legs and starts chasing people around, a scene that wouldn’t seem that out of place on Tim Robinson’s I Think You Should Leave. Despite terrible reviews and minimal box office, someone has made The Mangler 2 and The Mangler Reborn. You can’t keep an evil laundry press down.

One reviewer’s assessment?  “I've been more frightened by the prospect of folding my own laundry than by anything The Mangler offers up.”

Maximum Overdrive

Unlike Lawnmower Man, Stephen King can’t sue to get his name off this embarrassment -- he directed the freaking thing. (Not surprisingly, he’s never been asked to direct again.)

The plot: A comet passes the earth, making trucks come alive with evil menace.  You know, as comets do.  Apparently, the cosmic streaker has infected all machines -- when King (making a cameo in his own movie) tries to use an ATM, it calls him an a**hole.  

Novice director King had no idea what he was doing in the director’s chair, a situation made even worse by being “coked out of my mind all through its production.”  All the better for unintentional laughter as big rigs intimidate the humans with a malevolent vroom-vroom!   

King is so ashamed of his monster truck epic that he has continually apologized to star Emilio Estevez.  “The few times that I’ve connected with him over the years, he’s like, ‘Can you forgive me for that?’” Estevez told Vanity Fair. “I think at one point my mom said, ‘Why’d you do that movie?’ I said, ‘I wanted to work with Stephen King.’ And she said, ‘Couldn’t you have helped him paint his house?’”

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