Why, just look what the `Storm' blew in

Preview: Stephen King's better-than-usual miniseries may just make you a believer.

February 13, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

I have never been a fan of Stephen King or the annual miniseries that he has helped adapt from his books for ABC every May the last five years.

But I'm a fan of his new one, "Stephen King's Storm of the Century," a six-hour miniseries about an evil stranger who arrives on a tiny island off the coast of Maine along with a whopper of a winter storm.

The film, which begins tomorrow night on ABC, is classic storytelling. It's Stephen King as spellbinder, gathering us around the prime-time campfire -- enthralling, dazzling and scaring our pants off before sending us to bed afraid to turn off the lights.

And the neatest trick in terms of attracting the kind of mainstream adult audience that you need to be considered a success on network TV is that he does it using so few of the horror genre trappings. Instead, he tells a story steeped in images and themes of Americana: the town hall, Main Street, the nuclear family, neighbors pulling together, the honest and decent law enforcement officer standing up for what's right no matter what the cost.

King takes one of the most basic and familiar narratives of American myth-making, the western, and masterfully adapts it to his modern-day fable of evil come a-calling.

The evil arrives in the person -- if that's what he is -- of Andre Linoge (Colm Feore). The first to meet him is Martha Clarendon (Rita Tuckett), one of the oldest residents of Little Tall Island. Martha, who lives alone, is watching a TV weathercast as the first flakes start to fall, when she hears a knock at her front door.

The last thing she sees is a man in a watch cap, pea coat, blue jeans and boots. He's carrying a cane with an ornate silver wolf's head on its top. The wolf's head is key.

"Born in lust, turn to dust. Born in sin, come on in," the man says cryptically.

Say hello to Mr. Linoge, who calmly sits in Martha's favorite chair, sipping her tea and eating her biscuits, after doing his bloody deed. He's waiting for the island's part-time constable, Michael Anderson (Tim Daly), to come to arrest him. Check out Linoge's eyes as he sits and waits. The eyes, too, are key.

Anderson and some other men of the island manage to lock Linoge in the tiny jail in the back room of Anderson's grocery store, but it is soon apparent that no jail -- let alone their dinky one -- can hold what Linoge represents.

"If you give me what I want, I will go away," Linoge says, ominously sounding what becomes his mantra across the three nights of the miniseries. As the storm worsens and the body count mounts, the town folk are forced to decide if they are willing to give him what he wants.

King does more than just spin a gripping yarn. As the town battles the storm, fights its fear and grapples with the ultimate decision, King challenges some of our most deeply held and shared beliefs about democracy, family and small town values.

He also makes you consider evil -- where it comes from and how best to deal with it. For all the ballyhooed snowstorm special effects and $35 million budget, the film is at its best in the claustrophobic, town hall scenes reminiscent of such technically primitive but dramatically and intellectually juiced 1950s television dramas as "12 Angry Men."

At the center of the debate over Linoge's offer are Anderson and his wife, Molly (Debrah Farentino), and their 7-year-old son, Ralph (Dyllan Christopher). I have never been a fan of Daly's either, but he does all right as a modern-day, down-sized Gary Cooper type. I have long been a fan of Farentino's, and she does better than all right as mom, day-care operator, wife and key player in Little Tall's life-and-death discourse. In fact, Farentino's performance more than anything else makes you buy into the "reality" of King's story.

After watching the miniseries twice, I still don't know what Linoge and King mean by "Born in sin, come on in," or, "Born in lust, turn to dust."

But I'll tell you this: If I open my front door and see a guy there in a watch cap reciting it, I'm running for my life. And, the next time the snow starts to fall, forget the milk and toilet paper. I'm looking for a Jesuit who knows something about fighting the forces of darkness and evil.

TV miniseries

What: "Stephen King's Storm of the Century"

When: 9 p.m.-11 p.m. tomorrow, Monday and Thursday

Where: WMAR (Channel 2) Pub Date: 2/13/99

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