- Coons! Night of the Bandits of the Night (2005)
- You Can’t Kill Stephen King (2012)
- Dogman (2012)
Do you ever feel like the whole world is out to get you? Like the people in your neighborhood want your blood spilled on their newly-asphalted suburban streets? Or perhaps nature wants you to return to its soil womb prematurely? This feeling is completely warranted and you should live in fear. FEAR, of course, meaning, as Stephen King paraphrased an old Alcoholics Anonymous adage in Doctor Sleep, “Fuck Everything And Run.”
Each of the above impositions circled an aspect of this general cosmic paranoia about the expanse around us. Perhaps our neighbors don’t have our best in mind or that there are creatures, natural and “not-natural,” roaming the landscapes just on the edge of our carved-out domain and our sanity. Stephen King, fittingly, has made a career off of building narrative universes around towns such as Derry, Jerusalem’s Lot, and Castle Rock, Maine. King has always been fascinated with how a city or town’s history haunts its residents throughout the generations. The concept, itself, is brilliant and King is far from the first to do it, he’s just perhaps the most popular.
He also happens to not be terribly good at following through on the concept itself in his novels. King is ultimately too interested in the individual stories of his characters and how they intersect with each other to bother with really building the existential dread of the “town” and of Nature these characters find themselves situated within which is devouring them alive. We will get a tantalizing suggestion of such cosmic horror from time to time; just enough to make the endings of his novels unsatisfying in their refusal to move beyond the individual or group dynamics. Some say this is because King is sentimental or humane in his stories. I say it’s because he doesn’t have a big enough imagination.
However, you know who does have a big enough imagination to barrel down these cosmic highways of dread with unfettered abandon? The filmmakers behind these three impositions, including one that revolves around a supposed resort town where King, himself, lives. Basically, this was just a long-winded way of saying that these three films do a better job of grappling with the cosmic horror of haunted pasts and the un-natural than Stephen King has ever done. And I aim to show how.
Dogman and Coons! focus their time on nature gone wrong or, perhaps, nature that is closed off from the comprehension of human beings. These two films take different tacks in tone; one attempts to be a serious horror or thriller while the other is intentionally zany and comedic. Regardless of their varying aims, they present a world where nature is coming alive in ways we don’t see normally. In Dogman, Hanklin and Dorothy Purvis (played by Larry Joe Campbell of According to Jim fame and Mariann Mayberry) are being targeted by someone or something in the woods that keeps stealing their snowmobile, crossbow, and various other items as well as terrorizing the couple’s nephew and his friend. As we ride along the various country roads with the characters, we come to find out that this entity is a “dogman.” It’s not quite clear whether they were going more toward a werewolf or a wendigo as the creature is completely detached from any real or imaginary origin story. All we know is that it looks like a dog, but walks like a man. And apparently knows how to drive snowmobiles. Oh, and protects a litter of what looks to be Alaskan Huskies. The biology of the entity seems to transcend our human taxonomies as well. Truly something from the breaches of the cosmos.
Coons!, however, wears its “terror” on its sleeve as it presents flesh-hungry raccoons (what look to be raccoons preserved by bad taxidermy practices) ravaging a poorly attended one-act music festival in the woods. What caused the raccoons to be savage? We don’t know. Some bad trash? Perhaps government radioactive waste dumped in a local lake? Or perhaps this is just part of The Happening universe where nature turns against humanity? All that stands between the raccoons and the campers is an unsure sheriff—who seems to have gotten the position after a two-week course—his flamboyantly gay deputy, and a couple of really high, chill dudes—one being an unceremoniously-treated Indian whom locals think is Arab. Looking on the drama from the outside, is the local token black man, the representative of the local NAACP-type organization, who runs over the final raccoon while hoping it wasn’t one of those crazy singing white people.
Either way you dissect these films, one thing remains consistent: something has gone awry in nature. Something is after us. Something demands blood.
In You Can’t Kill Stephen King, however, the threat lies in the town itself. For a good portion of the film, the only thing connecting the plot to Stephen King is this tenuous explanation that our protagonists are in the town where King lives and one of the character’s obsessive love of King’s writing. Matter of fact, there comes a point in the film where the token black man is about to be killed first, and a Friday the 13th-style score plays in the background. And this choice, while in drastic contrast with the film’s title, fits the actual tone of the film the best, it’s a comedic version of a slasher film. Where the film takes a turn into dread and into specifically Stephen King-type territory is the discovery that all of the murders that take place during the film’s runtime were committed by the town’s residents (including Stephen King) towards outsiders in the form of a King story. We don’t learn much of anything about the townspeople, because that’s not the point (unlike King’s modus operandi in his novels). The point is the town becomes so grounded in its insularity and has been so deeply infected by its historical sins that the town “comes alive” in a violent rampage against those it perceives to be “not-them.” Do I think the filmmakers merely stumbled into this profound statement? Hell yes, I do. However, art is never completely in the control of those who make it once it is out in public.
There have been a few authors that have gained notoriety from such stories of cosmic dread where indifference reigns and the individual humans do not matter or go mad in the face of such dread. However, Stephen King is the most successful horror writer for a reason: he cares more about maintaining the individualist tale of heroism and makes his villains, supernatural or otherwise, endowed with a kill switch which allows them to be defeated by human goodness, or friendship, or tenacity. He is one of the most popular horror writers because he knows what tickles the ears of the common reader, whether they know it or not. King believes that, at the end of a bloody and brutal day, things will make sense and these tales of horror can be overcome by the individual or group of individuals while merely giving lip service to the systemic sin and violence that inhabits and infects us all within both rural or urban social landscapes.
My three impositions do a better job of giving flesh to the ideas that King only shallowly alludes to in his writing: that we routinely are not “alright” and we don’t have control of the situations we find ourselves in, let alone our very lives. That there are bigger “elements of the world” that we are in bondage to according to Paul’s letter to the Galatians. We are never promised to be saved by God in this mortal coil, but we are promised to be saved eternally. We may die at the paws of a dogman or flesh-eating raccoons or by the limbs of a sin-sick town, seeking to protect its “town-ness” and rotten with systemic ills that exhibit an agency beyond its denizens’ own wills, but our bodies and souls cannot be wrested from the hands of an eternal God. That is our hope as followers of Jesus. Outside of that, death can come to us whether by natural or unnatural causes, whether we comprehend it or not. Coons! Night of the Bandits of the Night, You Can’t Kill Stephen King, and Dogman reflect these eternal qualities in ways that King never can (or hasn’t yet). These films defy all comprehension outside of their central themes that the cosmos (whatever its incarnation might be) is, at best, indifferent to us and, at worst, against us. The powers and principalities do not have our best interests at heart and definitely do not give a damn for any of our fragile attempts at asserting our individual rights, beliefs, or plans. Stephen King could take a note from these films. While they may be shitty films—well, except for Coons! which may, actually, be legitimately funny—they recognize that there is more to this world than the solipsism of the individual or their collective tribalism. Sometimes the evil can be defeated for a time, but most often that evil carries on unabated unlike the typical King narrative. However, like the title of one of my films states: in this day and age of individualism and tribalism, the one thing that doesn’t seem able to be killed is Stephen King. And if you buy into my reading of these films, that might just be the biggest shame of them all.