The Stand (1994)
The end of the world is just the beginning.
We’re now getting the new TV miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s apocalyptic 1978 doorstopper, The Stand. The new version comes to us under the aegis of Josh Boone, whose last effort, The New Mutants (2020), was much delayed and met with a fairly muted response when it finally got released, and features an all-star cast as this kind of big TV event is wont to do. Indeed, it’s been wont to do so for decades now. Why, I remember when we first got a TV miniseries version of The Stand all the way back in 1994, when I was not even a year out of high school. That version, directed by Mick “the nicest guy in horror” Garris, spanned four episodes and a whopping 366 minutes, which was a lot back in the day when we weren’t all accustomed to marathoning bloated ten-episode Netflix series on the reg, and the cast included Gary Sinise, Molly Ringwald, Corin Nemec, Miguel Ferrer, Rob Lowe, Ray Walston, Laura San Giacomo, Matt Frewer, Ossie Davis, and Ruby Dee … gosh, I could hit my word count just by listing the ensemble.
Now, that wasn’t quite as “all-star” as the new version, which boasts James Marsden, Odessa Young, Whoopi Goldberg, Alexander Skarsgård, Amber Heard, J.K. Simmons, Ezra Miller, and more, but it was a different time. The borders between TV work and movie work were clearly demarcated and strongly defended; it was unthinkable for a movie A-lister to do commercial television unless they were really passionate about the project or really hard up for cash (the big change point, I am convinced, was when Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte signed on for the doomed horse racing drama Lucky in 2011), and so the ’94 The Stand boasts a company of recognizable TV regulars, stars on the upswing (Sinise, pre-Oscar at this point) and downswing (Lowe, and you should Google his sex scandal to get a handle on why he was slumming it), and character actors.
There are other differences, too, with the main being that while the new adaptation is on the US streaming service CBS All Access, the original aired on Original Recipe CBS, a commercial channel subject to commercial standards and practices. It’s amazing what you can get away with on streaming (or even commercial TV these days — Hannibal (2013-15) aired on CBS too, lest we forget) because streaming services are opt-in, while free-to-air must kowtow to, if not censorship, then external standards which might, shall we say, compromise the artistic integrity of the work at hand, or at the very least force creative creators to find a way around S&P with some imaginative representations of sex and violence.
Even taking that into consideration, Garris’ The Stand is a remarkably forceful and frightening work, even after 27 years; worth of advances in gore gags and loosening of social standards. It feels, for the most part, eerie and unsettling, a faithful rendition of both King’s authorial voice and the plot of his novel. At over six hours, it sprawls, but it never feels padded or turgid; it’s epic in the truest sense of the word, encompassing both a large cast of characters, a lengthy plot, and a literally apocalyptic, earth-shifting tone. Which, dealing with a nigh-biblical apocalypse, it ought to.
So, to the plot. Set in the then-modern world, The Stand sets about scouring it of almost all human life when a deadly superflu, nicknamed Captain Trips, wipes out most of humanity. The scant survivors find themselves drawn to one of two camps; while the good of heart, including Texan everyman Stu Redman (Gary Sinise), New York rock singer Larry Underwood (Adam Storke), pregnant teen Frannie Goldsmith (Molly Ringwald), mute drifter Nick Andros (Rob Lowe), and retired Judge Farris (Ossie Davis) find themselves drawn to Nebraska and the centenarian Mother Abigail (Ruby Dee), the evil, among them criminal Lloyd Henreid (Miguel Ferrer) and insane pyromaniac the Trashcan Man (Matt Frewer) heed the call of Randall Flagg (Jamey Sheridan), King’s oft-used avatar of pure evil, and head to Las Vegas. While the good guys work to restart civilization with good old-fashioned know-how, gumption, and pure American Baptist values, Flagg sets up a kind of Caligulan feudal state and sets his minions to firing up all the old fighter-bombers and nukes left lying around after the military lay down and died. The final battle between good and evil is on the cards.
Which sounds pretty good, and for the most part it is. They really pulled out all the stops in terms of production value at the time, with Garris and his team haring around the country and filming in dozens of locations — generally two a day — and on over 200 sets. The series was shot on 16mm rather than video, giving it a much more cinematic feel than most TV projects of the time, and the effects and production design are generally very good, with the gore and blood really pushing the envelope in terms of what was permissible at the time.
Crucially, Garris’s adaptation makes a good fist of capturing what is, to me at least, King’s most vital gift as a writer: his ability to conflate and contrast the mundane and the fantastical. In print, King’s use of telling details, pop culture references, recognizable brand names and songs, work to ground his characters and settings, which in turn heightens his supernatural elements when they come into play: the horror set against the pedestrian and familiar. It’s an old technique, and it sounds like it should be an easy one, but if you do it wrong, you fall into farce — the balance must be precise to get maximum effect. When he’s firing on all cylinders, King rarely fails to get that maximum effect. Look at It, at Carrie, at Salem’s Lot, at Misery, and at both the novel The Stand and this adaptation thereof. King and Garris have a real affinity for regular, workaday folks, and it shows.
The cast are generally up for it and occasionally inspired. Sinise has that stoic downhome thing nailed, and his appearance here is one of the times when you first see an actor and wonder where the hell that guy has been all this time. His performance is assured, and the camera just loves him. Ringwald struggles a bit, but that’s mainly because Frannie, in both the book and the series, doesn’t have a whole heck of a lot to actually do (King took a while to really get his feet under him when it comes to writing women, and yes, that’s taking Carrie into account).
Personally, my favorite performances come from the bad guys. Corin Nemec — frickin’ Parker Lewis, for crying out loud — is pretty great as the lovelorn, self-pitying, traitorous but ultimately tragic Harold Lauder, whose pining for Frannie and resentment at the world leads him down a dark path. Even better is Laura San Giacomo as Nadine Cross, the self-loathing Mary Magdalene to Flagg’s Antichrist, all haunted and seductive, witchy, twitchy and damned. Miguel Ferrer makes some really intriguing choices as Lloyd Henreid, small-time armed robber turned Flagg’s right-hand man. Whereas in the new version, Henreid is a kind of barely-leashed mad dog, Ferrer plays it down; his Henreid is a guy who knows Flagg is his last, best chance to get his piece of the pie, and he projects the cold, ruthless professionalism of someone who has run the numbers and come up with a formula that gives him his best shot, morality be damned.
And then there’s Flagg, as played by Jamey Sheridan.
I must admit, back in the day, Sheridan’s performance didn’t work for me. His blonde mullet and double denim bit, his kind of charming everyday affect, did not speak of ultimate evil to me. When you consider that Garris originally considered Christopher Walken, Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, James Woods, Lance Henriksen, and David Bowie for the role, you get a decent idea of how Flagg might be presented. As it turns out, none of those guys were available, and so we got character actor Sheridan instead — and that was the right call.
Here’s the thing — Randall Flagg, the Walkin’ Dude, the Man Without a Face, is not frickin’ Sauron, despite the shadowy mythology that accretes around him. The genius of Sheridan’s performance is that it is redolent of reasonable evil. Lower case e evil. The kind of evil that will offer you a good time, a good life, if you turn a blind eye to what it’s doing to those people over there. It’s the evil we most often confront (or ignore) in the real world. It’s the kind of evil that leads to offshore detention camps, Robodebt, bombing, and drone strike campaigns in the Middle East. It’s the kind of evil that your everyday folks — and for all its Manichean apocalyptic posturing, The Stand is really about “jus’ folks” folks — can follow, or at least tacitly endorse, and still sleep at night.
What’s great about The Stand is that even Flagg’s followers — the odd outlier like the Trashcan Man aside — are just as straight-up normie as Mother Abigail’s tribe — they’re just taking “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” a little too far. What’s straight-up genius about it, and about Sheridan’s performance, is that it makes the point that there’s no difference between lower case e evil and capital E evil — the one is the other, or leads to it, or is orchestrated by it. Flagg isn’t Sauron, except he is — this reasonable, genial, charming man is a goddamn monster, and while the effects used to showcase Flagg’s demonic form are both overused and a little unconvincing, thematically, what Garris and King are doing here is really on point. It’s the smiling evil bastards you really have to watch out for; they’re still monsters. And if recent events in our time haven’t driven that point home enough for you, the character of Greg Stillson in King’s bravura The Dead Zone (beautifully played by Martin Sheen in David Cronenberg’s screen adaptation) surely will.
Between starting this essay and finishing it, I managed to get a look at the first six episodes of the new TV version of The Stand, which has given me, if anything, a greater appreciation of Garris’ take. If nothing else, Garris manages to faithfully channel King’s voice, which strikes me as the main object of the exercise. It’s also what lets the series down in the end, too. As written, the climax of The Stand has never really worked for me, as it relies on a pretty on-the-nose deus ex machina to bring things to a literally explosive conclusion. On-screen, Garris makes the deus quite literal, and without going into deep detail (I’m still gunshy after some dude came at me for spoiling Star Trek: First Contact (1996) over two decades after it was released) the effects used to render it also render the whole scene laughable, especially in concert with the oh-so-earnest performances of the cast involved. Couple that with a narrative choice that to me didn’t even work well in the source novel, and The Stand whimpers when it should bang.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a look. Mick Garris’ The Stand is a big swing, and the fact that it connects at all is admirable. That it can do so now, over a quarter-century down the track and in a very different TV landscape, is kind of remarkable.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Travis Johnson