February 2, 2005 -- One of my favorite Stephen King adaptations is “The Stand,” a huge book adapted to a six-hour TV miniseries in 1994. I watched the whole thing last night and this morning, finishing at 6 a.m., just in time to see the groundhog emerge at Gobbler's Knob in Punxsutawney, Pa. I could not stop myself. It had been years since I first saw “The Stand,” but I recently picked up the two-cassette VHS edition of it at a second-hand store for a buck. It is also available on DVD. The made-for-TV movie was even better than I remembered.
“The Stand” is an apocalyptic story about a battle between good and evil after most of the world has been wiped out by a plague. The good guys are holed up in Boulder, Co. and the bad guys are holed up in Las Vegas, Nev. The good guys are led by 106-year-old Mother Abigail Freemantle (Ruby Dee of “Do the Right Thing”), a holy woman. The bad guys are led by a demon in human form, Randall Flagg, (Jamey Sheridan of “Life as a House”). Flagg is evil, but he's got a sense of humor and style. Flagg's top aide is Lloyd Henreid (Miguel Ferrer of “Traffic”) and pyromaniac Trashcan Man (Matt Frewer of “Dawn of the Dead”). Mother Abigail's top aide is Stu Redman (Gary Sinise of “Forrest Gump”).
The early part of the film is taken up by the story of the plague. It starts in a government bioweapons lab and spreads like wildfire across the nation. The government tries to keep the plague secret, which, of course, causes it to spread faster. General Starkey (Ed Harris of “The Truman Show”) is in charge of misinformation, which includes gunning down newsmen and talk show hosts (Cathy Bates plays a talk show host in the film). This kind of nonsense appeals greatly to conspiracy theorists. It is also an amusing pre-Internet scenario. A few people are immune to the plague for no known reason. The plague spreads too quickly for scientists to come up with any answers.
The next part of the film follows the survivors as they head to either Boulder or Las Vegas for the final showdown. They are guided by dreams of Flagg and Mother Abigail. For some, the decision is easy. Others are torn between good and evil. One of the more interesting characters is Harold Lauder (Corin Nemec of “Stargate SG1” TV series), who is corrupted by jealousy and by another turncoat (also a loser in love), Nadine Cross (Laura San Giacomo of the “Just Shoot Me!” TV series). The two become spies and saboteurs for Flagg in Boulder. The Boulder group sends spies of their own to Las Vegas, although it isn't clear what good that does.
The last part of the film has to do with The Stand itself, when a contingent from Boulder go to Las Vegas to confront Flagg directly. The final battle is amazing. This is a classic good versus evil battle. It is one of King's best, and most religious adaptations. There is little doubt in this telecast that King is depicting God versus Satan in Christian terms. There is no ambiguity, no alternative secular world views. The story resonates with Biblical themes, the self sacrifice of some, the cleansing in the wilderness that Mother Abigail goes through when she realizes her pride has gotten in the way of her faith, a man who was last among the survivors becomes first. All of these story elements resonate with the power of archetypal themes. The story is classic.
The production also has cute little in-jokes. In one scene, Flagg introduces himself by saying “Please allow me to introduce myself,” a line from the Rolling Stones song “Sympathy for the Devil.” When the person doesn't get the reference, Flagg says, “Sorry, classical reference.” Several movie directors appear in the film, including Sam Raimi, director of the “Spider-Man” movies, who appears as a gun-toting thug. Director John Landis is also in the film. Stephen King also appears in the film, as one of the good guys, of course. Basketball Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar appears in the film as a sign-carrying harbinger of doom, yelling “Bring out your dead,” which happens to be a funny line from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” about another plague in the Middle Ages. I don't think this line appears here as a coincidence.
Of course no story works well without good villains, and this film has some great ones. Matt Frewer gives a chilling performance as the crazed pyromaniac. He is way off the deep end. Jamey Sheridan is truly scary as Flagg. He is able to turn from charming to deadly in an instant. It is a truly memorable performance. The late Ray Walston turns in a nice performance as the kindly curmudgeon-hero Glen Bateman. Miguel Ferrer is good as a bad guy who would rather be a good guy, but he's made his decision to be faithful to Flagg and he sticks with it.
The film features good cinematography and some good special effects, especially Flagg's morphing scenes when his face turns from human to satanic form. This is a well-made film with a lot of good acting talent. It's got some slow spots in it, as you would expect in a six hour movie. It rates a B+.
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