You have to wait until the second night of Stephen King’s Storm of the Century to hear a character exclaim ”He chopped his own face in two with an ax!” but the wait is well worth it. King, who recently courted highbrow literary acclaim with his supernatural romance novel Bag of Bones, is looking to cleave brows high and low — to figuratively crack skulls — in this three-night, six-hour, steamy winter thriller.
Irregular as his contributions to television have been, King is the only person writing for the medium today whose stories actually gain in impact the more airtime he’s allotted. His previous miniseries, such as 1994’s The Stand and 1990’s It, benefited from a slow, steady buildup of suspense. Most contemporary horror writers in both prose and film go for the quick jolt, the abrupt spurt. King, however, harks back to expansive, rococo purveyors of fright tactics, even unto H.P. Lovecraft and M.R. James — imaginative, hardworking melodramatists who realized that one strategy to satisfy a reader is to risk boring him stiff for a while before scaring him stiff.
And just so, Storm of the Century takes its time. We’re placed on Little Tall Island, off the coast of Maine (the setting of King’s novel Dolores Claiborne, in fact), which is busy preparing for, well, the storm of the century. We’re in King country; by now, the Bangor resident knows how to write dialogue that effortlessly captures every native Mainer’s lobster-claw-sharp twang and laid-back, affirmative ”ay-uh.” Tim Daly (Wings) twangs it just right as Mike Anderson, the local butcher who doubles as the island constable. He puts down a meat cleaver to pull a badge and pistol out of a drawer; knowing what we know and he doesn’t, we want to yell to him, ”Keep the blade, too!”
For what we learn on the miniseries’ opening night that Mike is unaware of is that a malevolent character has gained entry to the island. Andre Linoge (Colm Feore) is a thin-lipped smirker in a black watchman’s cap and a navy pea coat; he brandishes a cane with a silver wolf’s head, and the wolf occasionally opens its mouth and growls. In the opening moments of Storm of the Century, while the rest of the town is scurrying around laying in provisions for the approaching blizzard, Linoge knocks a little old lady off her aluminum walker, kills her with his cane, and leaves this message in blood on the wall: ”GIVE ME WHAT I WANT AND I’LL GO AWAY.”
Mike and a few of the local fellas capture Linoge and put him in a jail cell, but that doesn’t stop this force of evil from reading minds (he gleefully reveals immoral or illegal things various members of the community have done) or wreaking more violence.
King and director Craig Baxley manage to convey the confusion of it all very vividly. People are worried and distracted, cut off from the mainland by the storm; loss of electricity forces most of them to take shelter on cots set up in a community center. It takes a while for word of Linoge’s nefariousness to get around, but when it does, the town reacts like a mob. It’s not giving too much away to say that when Linoge is brought in front of the townspeople in a charged town-hall meeting, he requests a sacrifice that divides the citizenry as swiftly and surely as that ax divides a human head.
Storm of the Century is King’s version of hirley Jackson’s ”The Lottery” — a creepy tale of small-town life disrupted by an impossible moral dilemma. Storm is populated by a strong cast of relative unknowns (one of the most finely wrought performances, for example, is given by Kathleen Chalfant, currently starring in Off Broadway’s hit play Wit). Like all of King’s work, this miniseries is thin on character; that’s why his films don’t need big stars to be effective: It’s the plot and momentum that matter. If there’s a star turn here at all, it comes from Feore, who manages to embody satanic cruelty in careful, measured tones. (But don’t you think his name should have been Laneige — from the French for ”the snow”?)
In its crucial concluding moments, Storm of the Century goes slack, but there was almost no way to make the awful choice that King sets up pay off in a manner that will satisfy every viewer. We benefit from the fact that King is a TV dabbler — he doesn’t know you’re not supposed to chew over interesting ethical dilemmas about personal responsibility in a piece of February sweeps programming. King wants to scare your pants off while also removing your moral blinders, and he succeeds. A-