WRITER/DIRECTOR FRANK DARABONT!
Given his high-ranking prestige pictures, it might be easy to overlook Frank Darabont's love of the macabre. But make no mistake friends, this is a dude who cut his teeth on the horror genre, evolving from a rabid fan-boy and Stephen King acolyte to bona fide screenwriter and ultimately, a first rate film director. In fact, the very first project Darabont is credited for was the 1983 short film THE WOMAN IN THE ROOM, adapted from the Stephen King short story. He must have done something right, as it not only opened the door of opportunity, it also kicked off a 30 year collaboration between the two.
Afterward, Darabont went on to pen scripts for THE BLOB, THE FLY II, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS, FRANKENSTEIN, a pair of "Tales From the Crypt" episodes, and other various genre-tinged projects before finally making the transition to director. And as smooth as one could argue that transition was, making the shift from film to TV has seemed to be anything but. We all know of the ugly, unceremonious departure from "The Walking Dead" - a show Darabont created and ran for the first season...and is now embroiled in litigation over profits. We won't dwell on that saga too much, but instead take a look at what might be surprised to learn is a lifetime of horror film inspiration. Ladies and gents, let us Dissect the writing and directing of Frank Darabont!
His dramatic work notwithstanding - THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, THE GREEN MILE, THE MAJESTIC - Darabont's finest genre flick has to be his Stephen King adapted passion project THE MIST, released in 2007. Equal parts social commentary and good-old-fashion monster-movie - THE MIST grapples with weighty themes on a sub-textual level, yet remains a highly engrossing piece of horror entertainment on the surface. It's also, aside from a well-struck ensemble piece, a survival tale of a man doggedly trying to protect his family, to do the right thing, even against his and their better judgment. The thrills and chills of giant-extraterrestrial-insect-ghouls swarming on the lot work well enough on the base level, but it's the complexity of character decisions that add another layer of brilliance to the overall experience.
But really, as polarizing as it's remained over the last seven years, it's all about the jaw-dropping, gob-smacking ending of THE MIST. F*ck man, I'm still recovering! Love it or hate it (I happen to love it), you cannot front on the sheer balls it took Darabont to potentially risk losing his entire audience with that conclusion. Departing massively from the Stephen King tome, the absolute daring and dire action Darabont gave his lead character (played by Thomas Jane) really ought to be commended. It should be commended in any time period, but particularly in 2007, as we've seen in the last decade more and more risk-aversion from studios that would much rather make safe, anodyne, pat, happy, unchallenging mainstream films that would appeal to enough of the masses to warrant a sequel. Not with THE MIST though, no sir. It's instead a highly watchable, fast-paced entertainment as well as an uncompromising, unflinching, unyielding statement on the family-unit, patriarchy, alienation, and life-altering decision making.
Here's what Darabont has stated publicly regarding the ending of THE MIST:
That's one of the reasons we shot it so quickly and cheaply, because of that ending. I wound up making it for about half the budget that I had been offered which came with the caveat that I changed the ending, and I didn't know what another ending would have been, frankly. And I think trying to adjust it would have felt like a total sell-out to me. Honestly, it's the ending I had in mind, and whether you love the ending or hate the ending, I stand by it. I think cinema is an art form, it's all expression. I thought "Okay, let's make it for half that budget and keep that ending, so I can make the movie I set out to make". Otherwise I'm just a hired monkey."
Straight up, THE MIST is a masterpiece!
Truth be told, Franky D. hasn't put out a lot of bad work. He really hasn't. Even when making a name for himself on low-budget 80s horror remakes and sequels, a la THE BLOB, THE FLY II and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET: DREAM WARRIORS, etc. - he not only acquitted himself well with each outing, he actually became better and more adept as the years went on. Which is why it's baffling to me then, in 1998, well after establishing himself as a fine writer and director, Darabont conceived the story of and wrote the screenplay for a cheesy car-chase thriller called BLACK CAT RUN, a lame TV movie which was directed by the now hack-tastic D.J. Caruso. Double yikes!
In what already speaks volumes, BLACK CAT RUN stars Patrick Muldon as a gas-station attendant whose girlfriend gets kidnapped. At odds with her father to begin with, when the kidnappers kill the girl's father, Muldoon is suspected as the killer. If that's not enough, he must go on a high-speed chase through the dessert to track down the kidnappers and rescue his girl. All pretty chintzy and trampled B-movie fodder, especially for someone of Darabont's stature. Remember, this was 1998, four years after SHAWSHANK, one year before THE GREEN MILE. For as much of a perceptive sweet-spot as Darabont was one...BLACK CUT RUN seems like a very odd outlier. Good thing he didn't direct the sumbitch
Having directed only four feature films to date, three of which being adapted from Stephen King novels, it's safe to say Darabont's literary inspiration has become his calling card. I mean, why fix an unbroken thing right? Clearly King and Darabont have a unique chemistry, the former implicitly trusting the latter to not just turn his stories into films, but great films. Not a single soul has come anywhere near as close to Darabont at aptly adapting King's work. Well, aside from Kubrick that is.
Ever the loyalist, another trademark of Darabont is repeat casting. Jeffrey DeMunn has appeared in all four of Frank's feature films (not to mention playing Dale on "The Walking Dead" and even the aforementioned BLACK CAT RUN). William Sadler has appeared in three of four films (minus THE MAJESTIC), Laurie Holden two of the four (in addition to playing Andrea on "TWD"), etc. Darabont knows how to spot talent and has the wherewithal to know and when to recast said talent. And that's a talent of its own.
Given all the hats Mr. Darabont has donned over the years, I've got two hidden gems of his that warrant a hard look: one writing, one directing - one TV, one film.
In 1990, Frank wrote the teleplay for "The Ventriloquist's Dummy" - one of the best episodes of HBO's sterling "Tales From the Crypt" horror-show. The 24-minute short was directed by the great Dick Donner (THE OMEN, THE GOONIES), and stars Don Rickles and Bobcat Goldthwait. The setup is simple. Bobcat plays a young up and coming ventriloquist, who seeks the advice of his idol, the legendary and now retired ventriloquist played by Rickles. When youngen finally locates the secluded vet, a horrific secret is unleashed that threatens the lives of both men. Funny, silly, tense and suspenseful, "The Ventriloquist's Dummy" is an early example of what Darabont was capable of adapting.
Fittingly enough, that same year, 1990, Darabont directed his first feature-length film, albeit a PG-13 TV-movie called BURIED ALIVE. Definitely a hidden credit, if not an outright gem. I mean, it's far from a terrible flick. In fact, I thought it was better than the Ryan Reynolds film BURIED, which cribbed almost the entire premise of Darabont's flick, which in turn took cues from the classic French film THE VANISHING. What's interesting though is how Darabont isn't even credited for writing BURIED ALIVE, an oddity he's never repeated (he usually writes the films he directs).
BURIED ALIVE stars Tim Matheson as a man whose wife, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, is cheating on him with a well off doctor, played by William Atherton. One day Leigh and Atherton decide to kill Matheson and capitalize on the insurance payoff. Well, the narcotics they give Matheson don't quite kill the dude, and he ends up being buried alive. Problem is, a flimsy pine-box and 6-feet of loose soot ain't about to stop Matheson from serving bloody revenge! Far from a great film, but BURIED ALIVE is definitely a cut above your typical made-for-TV thriller. It also has enough visual panache and enthralling pace of storytelling that more than hints at things to come from Darabont as a filmmaker.
Having been a longtime script doctor, often never even receiving credit for major contributions on stuff like the INDIANA JONES flicks, you may never have guessed that Darabont was brought in to rewrite the upcoming GODZILLA movie. But sure enough, he was, and he did. That news is good enough for me to get excited, despite how shrouded the film remains to be, not to mention it being helmed by Gareth Edwards after a so-so first feature in MONSTERS. But if Darabont's mere presence isn't enough for you, peep what the dude actually had to say regarding the tone of the mega-monster-movie:
What we're trying to do with the new movie is not have it camp, not have it be campy...We're kind of taking a cool new look at it. But with a lot of tradition in the first film. We want this to be a terrifying force of nature. And what was really cool, for me, is there was a very compelling human drama that I got to weave into it. It's not that cliched, thinly disguised romance or bromance, or whatever. It's different, it's a different set of circumstances than you're used to seeing. And that's tremendously exciting as a writer when you're asked to do something else."
F*ck yeah! Given what we know about THE MIST, when Frank is excited to take on a project that asks to "do something else" we should feel in good hands.
Due May 14th, GODZILLA boasts an impressive cast that includes Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, Juliette Binoche, Ken Watanabe, Victor Rasuk and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.
Frank Darabont's love of horror of yore is undeniable. He grew up with the genre as a kid, and even when growing and maturing into an A-list filmmaker out of genre, he's never seemed to have forgotten that love. To be sure, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION is firmly etched in the annals of all time great cinematic achievements, and with that kind of success, it could be very easy to turn your back or snub your nose at what many deem a lesser art-form. But Frank hasn't. Instead, he's gone back and embraced his affinity for all things beyond the grave. He gave us a knockout punch with THE MIST, and most recently, needs to be recognized as responsible for giving us what is currently the most popular TV show (genre or no) in "The Walking Dead." No doubt about it friends, we should all take a second to salute, with much gratitude, what Mr. Darabont has contributed to our twisted brand of film. You're the man, Frank!