King of horror on horror

Special to The Times

The name of writer Stephen King is pretty much synonymous with horror. While he has also written stories that formed the basis for such films as “The Green Mile,” “Stand By Me” and “The Shawshank Redemption,” his fame and acclaim rest most firmly on “The Shining,” “Carrie,” “The Dead Zone” and countless other spooky, macabre tales.

The new film “1408,” based on a short story by King, follows John Cusack as a nonbeliever who slums it as a writer of ghost tales -- the author denies any similarities -- and who finds himself in a hotel room dominated by a genuine, otherworldly evil force. Other upcoming King adaptations include “The Mist,” to be directed by Frank Darabont, and “Cell,” which has controversial director Eli Roth attached to direct.

During a recent interview, King spoke about, among other things, the state of horror, including the recent wave of “torture porn” films, the moral responsibilities of the artist and what makes a good Stephen King movie:


Is there such a thing as going too far? “Sure. I’m very uneasy about this film coming out with Elisha Cuthbert, ‘Captivity.’ There’s an exploitation film about Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer, and I don’t want to see it. It makes me feel creepy just to think about it. It’s almost like exploiting murder for the sake of murder. I understand ‘torture porn.’ It’s a good phrase. But I would argue with you, there’s a fine line there.... There’s something going on in ‘Hostel 2’ that isn’t torture porn, there’s really something going on there that’s interesting on an artistic basis. Sure, it makes you uncomfortable, but good art should make you uncomfortable.”

Where’s the line? “It’s really hard to define, and I’m not trying to dodge the question at all, I’m just saying it varies from case to case. I guess I would say the line, although it’s hard to generalize -- and if you do generalize, you’re really in danger of going down the road of censorship, and that’s a bad thing -- but if you’ve got a movie where some girl gets cut in half, like in “Hostel 2,” here’s the thing, we don’t want that to happen to her. We get to understand a little bit about who she is; the character is pretty well drawn, she’s lonely, she doesn’t really know how to make friends and somebody’s nice to her and she ends up in that situation and is going to be killed by somebody who’s paid to do it. But we don’t want it to happen. [But] if you put us in the situation, here’s a chick in a slasher movie and we know she’s going to get carved up and that’s what we came to see, well, that puts you in the same position as some psycho out there cruising the interstates of America looking for road kill. And that to my mind is immoral. I’m not very interested in the dark side, in a sense. What I’m really interested in is how people deal with the dark side.

What makes a good Stephen King movie? “I like character. I think the best thing that happens to my stuff is when somebody will look past the horror label. If the filmmaker labels it in his mind and says, ‘I’m making a horror movie,’ that’s a bad thing. I also don’t have much respect for directors who say, ‘Oh, no, this is not a horror movie.’ I feel like in ‘1408,’ you’re supposed to go in there and you’re supposed to sweat. I thought it was terrifying. It works on that level as it should. The primary consideration going into something like that , and I never think ‘I want to horrify the reader,’ I think I want to assault him and take his attention and make him forget what’s going on in the outside would. That’s what entertainment is supposed to do.”

And a bad Stephen King movie? “I don’t like movies that are cold. I don’t like movies that approach it like an exercise. A movie, for instance, where, say, Jack Nicholson and his wife are trapped in a hotel and you don’t feel any love between them, you don’t feel any caring, it just becomes sort of an exercise. And that bothers me.... I want to go to a movie and root for them to live. I want to root for John Cusack to get out of that room alive. I want him to find a way out.”