Revisiting Stephen King’s Storm of the Century (1999)

I may have brought it up a time or two before, but I have a bit of a fascination with film adaptations of Stephen King’s works. I haven’t seen all of them by any means (considering that would probably take more time than I have remaining on Earth), but I’ve seen a decent chunk of them, and as anyone who also has a passing familiarity with the myriad of adaptations knows, they vary wildly in quality. For every Carrie, The Shining, or The Shawshank Redemption, there’s a Langoliers, Tommyknockers, or Dreamcatcher. Most of them, though, if I’m being honest, fall somewhere in the middle.

So I was really interested, one day while I was scrolling through all my streaming services looking for something to review, to see that King’s three-part 1999 miniseries The Storm of the Century was available to watch on Hulu. It originally aired on ABC, but I don’t think I watched it at the time, and though I didn’t realize it until recently, it wasn’t adapted from a novel; Stephen King expressly wrote it as a teleplay (though the teleplay was published in book form not long before the miniseries was broadcast). As far as I know, this was the first time he’d done exactly that; of course he had written TV miniseries before, but they’d been adapted from existing novels, like 1994’s The Stand, directed by Mick Garris (which was pretty good), and 1997’s The Shining, also directed by Mick Garris, which was kinda hot garbage, or at least suffered mightily in comparison with Stanley Kubrick’s masterful—if not entirely faithful—1980 film adaptation.

So I went into Storm of the Century with a slight bit of hesitation, thinking it could absolutely go either way, though I was heartened by the fact that Stephen King often cited it as his favorite of all the miniseries made from his work. It wasn’t directed by Mick Garris this time, but was instead helmed by Craig R. Baxley, a guy who started out as a stuntman and stunt coordinator on a bunch of beloved 70s and 80s action and cop shows, and then would go on to direct films like 1988’s Action Jackson (with Carl Weathers), 1990’s I Come in Peace (with Dolph Lundgren), and 1991’s Stone Cold (with Brian Bosworth).

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, though, Baxley directed several Stephen King adaptations, starting with Storm of the Century, but then moving on to Rose Red in 2002, The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer in 2003, and Kingdom Hospital in 2004. Of those, I’ve only seen Rose Red, and though I remember it being very good, I haven’t seen it since it initially aired. I’m hoping to do a revisit on it one of these days, but for now let’s get back to Storm.

Clocking in at about four-and-a-half hours, Storm of the Century utilizes many of the classic Stephen King tropes: a small town in Maine, a creepy supernatural stranger, townsfolk turning on one another, and a horrific moral dilemma. It definitely contained elements from several of his stories, but the one it most reminded me of was Needful Things, which also involved a mysterious stranger arriving in a small town and making everyone confront their hidden selves, and offering them Faustian bargains. Thankfully, though, Storm of the Century is much better than the 1993 film adaptation of Needful Things was; in fact, although I’d argue that Storm was perhaps sixty to ninety minutes longer than it really needed to be, it was actually pretty solid, with some good acting performances and a terrifically bleak ending.

The story is set on a fictional island off the coast of Maine called Little Tall Island, which incidentally was the same place that Dolores Claiborne was set; a character in Storm actually references “what Dolores Claiborne did during the eclipse” at one point too, so that’s a nice little Easter egg. After a brief prologue in which our main protagonist, Mike Anderson (played by Tim Daly), speaks from the present day, we’re sent back nine years to 1989, when the townspeople on Little Tall are getting prepared for what promises to be one of the worst winter storms in living memory.

From these establishing scenes, the vibe of the town is nicely filled in: this is a close-knit community, used to pulling together for the common good, in spite of any petty squabbles they may have with one another. Everyone knows everyone, and everyone watches out for each other; they’re a bit hardened by the harsh weather and economic conditions, but they’re good people, very salt of the earth.

Not long into the storm preparations, though, the first ripple in the calm of the community’s fabric occurs. An elderly woman named Martha Clarendon hears a knock at her front door, and not having any reason to be suspicious in this very safe town, she answers it. Unfortunately, the man at her door has ill intentions: not only does he seemingly know things about her past that there’s no way he could know, but after a bit of back and forth, he savagely beats the old woman to death with his cane, which is topped with a silver wolf’s head.

The killer, who we later learn is named André Linoge (played by Colm Feore, who is excellent here), then calmly sits down in Mrs. Clarendon’s living room, sipping her tea and watching television, apparently waiting for the authorities to arrive.

And they do, in short order, alerted by a neighbor boy, but the first man on the scene isn’t Mike Anderson, the town grocer as well as its part-time constable; no, Mike’s been dispatched to his wife’s daycare, freeing a child’s head from between staircase railings. The first guy to show up at the murder house is officious town manager Robbie Beals (played by Jeffrey DeMunn), a self-important fellow who’s often pulling rank on the constable. Once he sees the mess that remains of poor old Martha and realizes that, not only is the killer still sitting in the woman’s house, but also knows all kinds of secret shit about him as well, Robbie beats feet out of there, calling Mike on the radio and telling him to get his ass to the scene.

Mike and his deputy and friend, Hatch (played by Casey Siemaszko) arrest the creepy weirdo, who has done nothing but sit placidly in Martha’s armchair, smiling enigmatically and doling out supernaturally-divined information, despite having two guns pointed directly at him. He allows himself to be taken away in handcuffs, not resisting at all, and it’s clear that Mike, Hatch and Robbie have no idea what to do with this guy. Clearly, murder is almost unheard of on this island, and it’s implied that the law enforcement here are not prepared for anything more severe than retrieving a trapped cat from out of a tree. There’s also the small matter of how strange this André Linoge dude is: no one has any clue where he could have come from, as he didn’t arrive on the only ferry, and he seems to have some sort of psychic—and possibly hypnotic and psychokinetic—powers.

Because of some possible paranormal shenanigans involving stuck doors and so forth, Mike and Hatch are forced to march Linoge through the crowded grocery store to the rear of the jail to put him in a cell. During this gauntlet, Linoge cheerfully airs some of the townspeople’s deepest secrets: three of the guys beat up a gay man in another town; one of the girls got pregnant and got an abortion without telling her boyfriend; said boyfriend was cheating on her with the town slut; one guy is growing a shit-ton of weed behind his seafood market.

Mike and Hatch finally stash Linoge in a jail cell, but they’re starting to think that maybe the guy isn’t entirely human, and they’re fearful that he’ll be able to escape. Mike assigns two-man teams to keep an eye on Linoge in shifts, while the rest of the town goes on with their storm preparations, which are becoming increasingly frenzied as the terrible storm grows nearer.

Shit soon starts going sideways, however; though Linoge doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to get out of the cell, it’s obvious pretty quickly that he doesn’t need to. All he has to do is talk to people or whisper creepily in his soothing voice; his eyes start to glow red, and whoever he’s talking to will do his bidding. One guy on watch hangs himself; another guy who isn’t even in the same building with Linoge splits open his own face with an ax (though this is network TV, so this is only implied rather than shown); and the girl who got the abortion beats her boyfriend to a bloody pulp while under Linoge’s spell.

All of these deaths, it seems, are meant to send a message, and that repeated message is: “Give me what I want and I’ll go away.” This phrase is written in blood or red paint at all of the death scenes, and Linoge himself repeats it to Mike and others several times over the course of the story. Mike asks him a number of times what exactly it is that he wants, but Linoge, rather coyly, won’t tell anyone until the time is right. While I did find that this got repetitive and dragged the story out longer than necessary, I suppose to be fair it did tie in with one frequently echoed motif throughout the series, that, as Linoge put it, “Hell is repetition.”

During the second act of the miniseries, several more townspeople either off themselves or murder others at Linoge’s behest, and there’s always that same message about giving Linoge what he wants. There’s also the added drama of the storm hitting and wreaking havoc on the town, taking out the lighthouse and several of the buildings, and causing more deaths as people go wandering out into the elements (also at the encouragement of Linoge). Along the way, Mike figures out what Linoge’s true nature might be, by referencing the Biblical story of Job, and implying that Linoge might be some kind of demon sent here to test them. Linoge himself also makes references to the famed “lost colony” of Roanoke, insinuating that he also had a hand in that mysterious 1590 disappearance.

When we get to the third installment, after the worst of the storm has passed, the townspeople have a meeting and discover that what Linoge wants is one of their children; not as a sacrifice in the traditional sense, but as a protégé. He’s a demonic-style being, sure, and he’s lived for thousands of years, but he’s not immortal, and he needs a child that he can raise as his successor. Naturally, the people of Little Tall are horrified by this, but they’ve been put into what they see as an impossible predicament: of course no one wants it to be their child that gets taken, but Linoge has told them that if they don’t comply, he will kill them all by forcing them all into the sea, just like he did to the vanished colonists at Roanoke all those centuries ago. The residents reluctantly concede, with Mike as the only holdout; in fact, it’s suggested that Mike, whose worst sin as delineated by Linoge was that he cheated on a test so he could stay in college, is the only person in town moral enough to have any chance of defeating Linoge. Sadly, though, he’s never given the chance to find out if Linoge even can be overcome, because he’s outvoted and forced to capitulate, with tragic consequences.

Overall, The Storm of the Century is a very enjoyable, tense, and well-executed adaptation, with a fantastic, compelling villain and a capably realized tapestry of characters that you actually care about. The snowy, isolated setting adds to the spooky vibe, and the storm effects look pretty damn good for a TV production (which I’ve heard was on the expensive side, coming in at over $30 million). Unfortunately, the other CGI effects—such as the kinda silly wolf’s head on the cane coming to life and the scenes toward the end with Linoge flying through the air with all the children—look pretty dated and sort of laughable, but thankfully they’re kept to a minimum, and only appear in the third segment of the series. I also could have done without Linoge having fangs sometimes, as I thought he was much scarier when he was just regular looking, and the teeth came off as more vampire than demon, but maybe that’s just me. Really my only major criticism was the thing’s length; I think this could have easily been compressed into a normal, two- to two-and-a-half-hour movie without losing too much. On the other hand, it was kind of nice to be able to spend some time in the town and get to know the residents and their relationships with one another. I just thought the middle act was slightly baggy, as it was mostly comprised of different people in the town committing suicide or killing one another and leaving the same message behind, and it got slightly frustrating that the reveal of what it was that Linoge wanted was teased out for far too long.

But considering how crap some Stephen King adaptations have turned out, this one was actually a really pleasant surprise, and kept me mostly engaged through its entire runtime. I feel as though it doesn’t get much attention when horror fans discuss King miniseries, but it’s absolutely worth watching, and is far, far better than the 1997 version of The Shining; in fact, this might be a controversial statement, but I thought it was better than the 1994 Stand miniseries as well, possibly because it was a more contained story that worked better within the time limitations. As of this writing, Storm of the Century is on Hulu, so I’d absolutely recommend watching it if you’re a King fan; I think you’ll probably dig it, and it absolutely needs more love.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s