Mick Garris has long been a champion of horror, developing platforms for icons in the genre through series like Masters of Horror and the Post Mortem podcast. As a talented director in his own right, Garris had the unenviable task of holding down the fort in what many deem to be horror’s “rebuilding years” of the late ’80s and early ’90s. But he did so with style, producing work that tiptoed deftly between dark and fun in films like the bizarre, campy, incestuous feline flick Sleepwalkers. Apart from being a great movie, Sleepwalkers also kicked off a creative relationship between Garris and Stephen King, as Garris would go on to adapt not one, but two of King’s books into miniseries in an era when “event television” was still a thing. The first of which was a bold undertaking in bringing one of King’s biggest, most epic tales to the screen: ABC’s 1994 production of The Stand.
The story of getting The Stand from page to screen is about as long as the book itself, starting with initial attempts to produce a feature film directed by George A. Romero. For obvious reasons, King struggled to condense such a sprawling story into a feature-length script, but he was hesitant to go the television route because, as he pointed out, “You can't have the end of the world brought to you by Charmin toilet tissue.” Eventually, however, he realized a miniseries was the only way to come close to capturing everything from the book, and that’s even considering he chose to adapt the original 1978 version of his novel rather than the thousand-plus page behemoth he re-released in 1990.
Any way you slice it, there’s a lot going on in terms of story. When the military accidentally releases a weaponized strain of influenza known as “Captain Trips,” they wipe out over 99% of the population in a matter of weeks. Among the few immune are Stu (Gary Sinise), Frannie (Molly Ringwald), Nick (Rob Lowe), and Larry (Adam Storke). They and others are compelled in their dreams by centenarian and God’s spokeswoman Mother Abigail (Ruby Dee) to find her in Nebraska and try to rebuild civilization in Boulder, Colorado. But Abigail isn’t the only one making nighttime visits, as they also see visions of the demonic Randall Flagg (Jamey Sheridan), who is rebuilding a civilization of his own in what used to be Las Vegas with the help of survivors like small-time criminal Lloyd (Miguell Ferrer) and pyromaniac Trashcan Man (Matt Frewer). As both groups grow in numbers, conflict becomes inevitable as a showdown looms between good and evil.
Even beyond its scale, The Stand isn’t an easy story to adapt, as it incorporates a wide array of characters and narrative themes into one massive piece. Consider, for example, that entire movies have been devoted to the spread and attempted stop of a worldwide epidemic, and then realize that in The Stand that entire storyline is pretty much only the first act, as the narrative shifts to the survivors’ attempts to rebuild, and then again pivots into a Biblical story of the conflict between God and the Devil.
What’s more, Garris had to marry these elements together for $23 million, which was probably a pretty hefty sum for a television series at the time, but was peanuts compared to the kind of cash thrown at films even back then. Take Forrest Gump, for instance, a film released in 1994 that runs 142 minutes and had a $55 million budget. Garris had to stretch his $23 million over 366 minutes, meaning he had to make every dollar count.
All things considered, he does a pretty damn good job. The money definitely wound up on screen, as Garris leverages shooting locations in Utah and Las Vegas that convey the epic scale of the story. And sure, some of the CGI effects in the climax don’t quite hit the mark, but this was even true of big-budget movies trying to leverage the burgeoning technique in the early ’90s. Plus, Garris offsets some of the questionable CGI with some inspired makeup work from Steve Johnson, who gives us some creepy iterations of Flagg in his various demonic iterations, turns Ruby Dee into a pretty convincing 100-year old woman, and obliterates poor Matt Frewer’s visage as Trashcan Man enters progressively more advanced stages of radiation poisoning.
Casting is another crucial element, especially when we’re talking about event television like this, and I defy you to name someone who embodies Stu Redman’s blue-collar everyman better than Gary Sinise. I’d be surprised if his cast mates didn’t continue calling him Stu even after the cameras stopped rolling. And as Flagg, Jamey Sheridan leans into a different brand of blue collar, hiding sinister intentions behind a wink and a smile while absolutely rocking a Canadian tuxedo complete with matching mullet.
Given the massive ensemble cast, I could have spent the entire piece just talking about performances. Suffice to say that everyone capably carries the load, although as a deaf mute it did seem like Rob Lowe’s Nick delved into Silent Bob territory from time to time. Also, Adam Storke is an interesting case because as white blues singer Larry Underwood, he spent most of the first half of the series getting on every last one of my nerves, and his hit song “Baby Can You Dig Your Man” is hot garbage. But as the story progresses and he becomes a lot more likeable as a reluctant hero, I’m left to wonder if he wasn’t in on the joke in his initial obnoxious portrayal.
I also need to make mention of the truckload of cameos we get in the series, as Garris has always had a knack for weaving fellow horror directors in his work. In this case Sam Raimi, John Landis, and Tom Holland all make appearances, but it’s also interesting to note that he called in a few faces familiar to those who’ve watched previous King adaptations, including Ed Harris, Kathy Bates, and of course King himself. And rather than distracting from the story, they add big-name recognition to boost the grandeur of the event.
Now, even with as much as King trimmed to fit into a miniseries, there’s a lot packed into The Stand, which means certain threads may work better than others depending on the viewer. I, for one, found myself drawn to the epidemic storyline, perhaps as a morbid impulse to pick at the emotional scab from all the fun we’ve been having with COVID. As someone who didn’t grow up with the church, I was less enraptured by the Biblical elements (including an ending that seems the definition of deus ex machina), but there was something charming about the old-fashioned battle between good and evil at play.
Regardless of whether or not every storyline works for everyone, The Stand has an earnestness that carries us through four episodes and six hours. Whereas the latest attempt to adapt the story in 2020 met with considerable pushback for toying with elements such as telling the story out of order, Garris takes a much more “what you see is what you get” approach that fits well with a story that borders on parable. And that sincerity seems to have paid off, not only at the time with 19 million households tuning in for each episode, but also in achieving a pretty solid legacy, as in 2014 The New York Observer called it the second-best King miniseries of all time (losing only to 1990’s It). As it turns out, baby, I can dig this, man.