Quantcast FIRST LOOK: Stephen King's Nightmares and Dreamscapes review


It isn't often that I use the wod "nuanced" in reference to a movie or a show inspired by the work of Stephen King.

This is not to say that I have a dislike for King. I loved Misery, Carrie, The Shining (the original), Creepshow, and The Stand. But for every film of his that I love, there is at least one Pet Semetary II, Sleepwalkers, Graveyard Shift, Langoliers, or Needful Things.

Essentially, while I like some of his work, I do not embrace him as the Shakespeare of Modern American Horror Cinema and Literature as some do. So I approached the advanced screening of Nightmares and Dreamscapes unsure of what to expect.
TNT decided to put together a series inspired by King's stories after last year's success with Salem's Lot. The series features 8 one hour episodes starring some of the most critically acclaimed and well known actors Hollywood has to offer including William Hurt, Tom Berenger, Jeremy Sisto, Marsha Mason, Henry Thomas (fresh from his appearance on Masters of Horror:Chocolate), and William H. Macy.

The screening featured two episodes: Battleground with William Hurt and Umney's Last Case with William H. Macy and Jacqueline McKenzie.

The story behind Battleground is simple, which made me wonder how it was going to fill an entire hour. A group of toy soldiers wants to avenge the murder of their creator, which was perpetrated by a hit man played by William Hurt. The reason for the murder is never revealed, much like in Poe's classic tale A Cask of Amontillado, to keep the viewer focused on the action. What makes the episode interesting is that there is no dialogue keeping the story free of snarky remarks or cliche lines. Although the episode did lag a bit and I did have to wonder at King's propensity to make people walk on the ledges of high rise apartments (the second story in Cat's Eye), it was better than I anticipated most likely because it was written by Richard Christian Matheson.
Umney's Last Stand focuses on a tragedy stricken writer and one of his most popular characters. King previously explored the tension between creator and character in the Dark Half with Timothy Hutton. While the Dark Half deals with a character seeking to punish his creator for "killing" him, Umney's Last Stand deals with a writer's envy of his creation's existence. The character in question, Umney, is a private eye inspired by the works of James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, and, my personal favorite, Dashiell Hammet. He lives in old Vegas where he chases girls around his desk, drinks rye, and thwarts bad guys with ease.

With this set up, I was expecting something like the premise to the musical City of Angels in which a hard luck gumshoe suddenly finds the relationship with his creator hostile when the author is contracted to turn his novel into a screenplay and his marriage falls apart.

What happens, however, is not nearly so straight forward.

Perhaps more than in other works, like Misery and the Dark Half, this episode explores the dichtomous existence of writers. The author has lost his son in a pool accident, and his wife wonders why her husband, who can write a character able to comfort a widow, can't help her in real life. While Umney saves broads and survives gun battles, his creator spends days absent from his own life starring at a blank computer screen.

Shamed by his inability to comfort his wife, overwhelmed by the loss of his son, seeking a simpler easier existence, and wanting to find a just world, the author proposes to take Umney's place. Unfortunately his creation, who rather enjoys chasing skirt and saving the day, is not too keen about taking the place of creator. To motivate Umney to make the switch, the author kills Umney's true love inflicting his own feelings of senseless and cruel loss on his creation. The loss, instead of motivating Umney, only strengthens the antipathy he feels towards his suddenly omnipresnet creator. Unfortunately, this time the author hasn't fully thought through the consequences of his acts, and the switch has many unforeseen and deadly consequences for all involved.
April Smith does an amazing job of balancing original and entertaining patter with the recognizable conceits of Roman Noir. William H Macy rises to the occasion of playing both the tongue tied author and the patter happy private dick.

Part of what makes this episode particularly interesting is that it overtly recognizes the role of homage in an author's work. King has often been accused of taking material from other stories. While King acknowledges that he has often modeled his own work on the work of others, he claims that he is really offering homages to the great works that have inspired him. The author in this story not only admits that he has taken from the greats of Roman Noir, but is proud of his ability to weave influences from Cain and Chandler into his own work.(Homage also makes a brief appearance in Battleground when one of the dolls from Trilogy of Terror makes a cameo.) It becomes clear that far from expecting us to miss these reference, homage is being used to play a game with the audience, winking at us and allowing us to take pride in our knowledge of horror film history.

Both episodes are worth watching, but Umney's Last Case is riveting. If these are any indication of the other six episodes, Nightmares and Dreamscapes is not to be missed.

- Bunni Speigelman

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