Watching Stephen King and Joe Hill’s New Movies Back-to-Back

I was dimly aware, as a fan of both Stephen King and Joe Hill, that movies based on King’s A Good Marriage and Hill’s Horns were on the way. But Uncle Stevie totally took me by surprise with this tweet from last Friday: “My son’s film, HORNS, is ALSO available via VOD today. Father and son movies! HOW COOL IS THAT???”

Horns is the first film made from a work by Joe Hill, based on his 2010 sophomore novel. A Good Marriage is from the same year, with Stephen King adapting his own novella, found in the collection Full Dark, No Stars, for the screen, something he’s done rarely and not recently. (The last King feature screenplay appears to have been Pet Sematary, 25 years ago.) I watched both films back-to-back. Here’s how they stack up alongside one another.

Stand-alone Entertainment Value
starts out like a realist film about a guy who grows horns and supernatural powers, but director Alexandre Aja (the Hills Have Eyes remake, High Tension) embraces its crazy in the back half and becomes something deliriously fun and gross. The script, from Keith Bunin — a first-time feature-writer and graduate of HBO’s In Treatment — is pretty hamfisted, however, full of devil puns and exposition. (Hill’s novel was not exempt from these either.)

A Good Marriage had the misfortune of being released the same weekend as Gone Girl, with which it shares tenuous thematic details (one half of a married couple discovers their partner is not all they seem). It is yet another smallish film where a director does his or her best to capture what Stephen King does so well on the page. In this case it’s Peter Askin, who wrote and directed Company Man in 2000 and also did the documentary Trumbo. It’s not a slow-build-epic-ending that can play ball with Misery or Cujo or The Shawshank Redemption, but it’s a faithful Stephen King movie. If Stephen King continues to entertain you — and, clearly, he does if you consider yourself a Constant Reader — this is a good little movie.

Faithfulness to Source Material
King’s 84-page novella is slightly stretched, and at one hour and 43 minutes it feels close to a half-hour too long. Hill’s 368-page novel is trimmed, and at two hours it feels, also, oddly, about a half-hour too long. Both films are faithful enough that if you read these books around four years ago, when they came out, you’ll remember plenty, and you’ll have your footing, but you might still be surprised by the twists. If you just read A Good Marriage or Horns to prep for the viewing experience, well, that’s just never the way to go about this type of thing, and you’re setting yourself up for nitpicky disaster.

Faithfulness to the Overall Vibe of the Author’s Work
Three big elements of Joe Hill’s work are music (musicians are frequent characters, and the music itself is often a character), badass automobiles (especially NOS4A2), and bleak black humor. Horns does justice to all this. Stephen King is the master of the slow burn to the explosive finish, and A Good Marriage generally follows that style. Both films shed some of the humanity King and Hill fill these situations with on the page, though, because #movies.

In Horns, everyone fades out around star Daniel Radcliffe, who is good, but Harry Potter is still so recent that it’s not always easy to accept Radcliffe in another role. And there’s a strong, almost pushy sense that “This is one of his edgy new movies.” Radcliffe, as the gothically named Ignatius “Iggy/Ig” Perrish, says fuck! He pisses on a memorial! He watches people screw! Heather Graham is also there, briefly.

In A Good Marriage, everything lives and dies by what you think of the low-key performance from three-time Oscar nominee Joan Allen (The Contender, the Bourne movies, Nixon). There are bit parts by Stephen Lang, House of Cards’ Kristen Connolly, and a big co-starring role for Anthony LaPaglia (Without a Trace) as Allen’s husband. But the novella is completely from the wife’s point of view, so Allen-as-Darcy is the window to everything in this film.

Creepiness Factor
Most of Horns isn’t especially scary, just unsettling (and suddenly, no-warningly gory in places). But toward the end, the last half-hour or so, there is no shortage of nightmare imagery, including the worst drug trip you could imagine and the most graphic shotgun-explodes-head I’ve ever, ever seen. The concept of A Good Marriage — woman discovers husband of many years, father of her adult children, is serial killer — gets under your skin, but it’s more of a sober, realistic look at what that realization, and its aftermath, would entail. (And, one more time on Misery: Fans will find a brief, important echo in A Good Marriage.)

Also: One has a happy ending, and one has a bittersweet, vaguely dissatisfying ending. No spoilers on which is which.

VOD or Theater?
A Good Marriage is VOD all the way, and it’s at a good price ($7 for the HD 24-hour rental on Amazon) right out of the gate. Horns feels much more like a big October horror mystery you’re meant to see in a theater. And if you’re all in on the concept, on Daniel Radcliffe, on Joe Hill, on just going to the movies because it’s been so long, the movie earns its ticket price — it’s set piece after set piece, shot in a beautiful, mountainous locale. But it’s also fine for a $10 VOD (again, Amazon; 48-hour HD rental this time, though) with a couple of friends. A Good Marriage is mostly static interior scenes and close-up human drama. Also, there are a lot more snakes in Horns.

What Do They Think of Each Other’s Movies?
We reached out to Hill and King to find out what the father and son had to say about the other’s movie.

Hill:A Good Marriage explores a grim subject — what if the person sleeping next to you every night was a monster? — with a moral intelligence and a calm, clear-eyed authority that is rare in any form of storytelling, but especially in the movies, and especially these days. I’m a words guy, and I thought this film was full of great ones. Also I’m sick of CGI skyscrapers collapsing in a big crash of digital dust and Dolby noise. I’m bored of CGI robots beating dents into each other. All the software in the world can’t give you a great story or a wrenching performance like you get in MARRIAGE from Joan Allen. To me, those unique human contributions are the first and best effect of them all … and the one reason to still love the movies.”

King: “I liked Horns for the crisp, bright cinematography, but what I loved about it is the fearless way it mixes humor and horror, creating an all new taste treat. Daniel Radcliffe’s performance encompasses both the laughs and screams effortlessly. I go to the movies to be entertained. Horns was big entertainment.”

Watching Stephen King and Joe Hill’s New Movies