One of the most prolific, successful, acclaimed and influential horror writers of all time, there is no doubting the position of Stephen King in modern literature or popular culture, nor with the accessibility of his work the reason why adaptations of those works have become almost an industry in themselves, both as major film and low budget television projects.
With the highly anticipated feature film of The Dark Tower aiming for a February 2017 release, the most recent King feature is Cell, based on the 2006 novel of the same name and directed by Paranormal Activity 2’s Tod Williams which having enjoyed a limited cinema release in August following the cancellation of the world premiere at Glasgow Film Festival’s Fright Fest is now making its way to disc.
The Raven’s John Cusack, also an executive producer, is artist Clayton Riddell, waiting for his flight home to what remains of his family, his estranged wife and young son, when an electromagnetic pulse sends everyone in the terminal who was on their mobile phone at that moment into a violent frenzy, those few who are unaffected immediately targeted by those who have been in the orgy of flesh eating madness.
Escaping to the subway, shielded from the signal, he and train driver Tom McCourt (Kingsman: The Secret Service‘s Samuel L Jackson) make their way back to the city and Clay’s apartment where they find his upstairs neighbour Alice (The Hunger Games‘ Isabelle Fuhrman) has survived at a heavy cost, having been forced to kill her own infected mother in self-defence.
Together, they make their way out of the city and north in hopes of finding Clay’s family and unravelling the mystery of the signal which has turned the world to anarchy in this latest version of the zombie apocalypse, the population turned into cannibalistic, infectious nodes of the signal initiated simultaneously across the globe by the near ubiquitous technology.
Unfortunately, circumstances are against them as the film makes not one jot of sense. Despite the script having been co-written by King and The Last House on the Left’s Adam Allecca and the source novel having been short by the standards of King at only 350 pages, the necessary abbreviation to turn that into a film of less than one hundred minutes has excised any explanation which should have been forthcoming.
With aspects of Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers in the passage of the signal once it has become transmissible between individuals, the idea behind the chaos of the initial download event may have predated the broadcast of Dollhouse but that remains the rendering which had impact, taking place in a known and supposedly safe environment rather than the bland anonymity of an airport terminal.
Reading like a considerably bloodier update of the BBC children’s television series The Changes other than the substandard digital effects, itself based on the novels by Peter Dickinson, that series had the sense to play by its own rules, yet here despite the immediate interruption of utilities Tom suggests placing their last working cellphone in the freezer to extend the battery life as they are unable to charge it, the question never asked if they cannot recharge the phone how the freezer can still be working?
The imagery of every zombie apocalypse with sufficient budget is inevitably the same, and underneath all the screaming, twitching, stabbing and biting it’s actually quite a pedestrian approach to an already overrepresented genre though here threaded with a recurring theme in King’s work, most notably The Stand, the emergence of a messiah figure in an apocalypse.
The travellers experiencing visions of a ragged stranger in a red hoodie (Last Shift’s Joshua Mikel) drawn by Clay in his graphic novel, the transition from techno thriller to prophecy and mythology, the cult of the “phoners” worshipping the radio mast as though it were a totem, lacks an established framework which would support the leap, the transition less convincing than a similar switchback in Halloween III: Season of the Witch, the ideas proposed by Stacy Keach’s underused character never explored when they could have saved both the scattered survivors and the film.