Road Kill

A bad week in the desert in Stephen King’s Desperation.

Stephen King’sDesperation (ABC, Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET), adapted from the 1996 novel by King himself, is a three-hour TV movie that seems like it was a ton of fun to dash off in King’s hammock over a three-day weekend. The supernatural crisis at hand involves a Chinese spirit at the bottom of an old mine in the desert. It’s polymorphously malevolent, with a pretty good sense of humor. (One of King’s favorite tricks is to make the villains much cooler than the heroes.) The promiscuous pop-culture references come from everywhere and go nowhere. Peter Jackson, Lewis Carroll, the Gershwin Brothers, and Apollo 13 get nodded at or name-checked, for starters. There’s a cheap shot at Dean Koontz—well deserved, for all I know. In the movie’s opening moments, a yuppie wife in the shotgun seat freaks out at the sight of a dead cat tied to a road sign, and her flippant husband reaches for his best Rod Serling voice to tell her what dimension she’s traveling in. Then the movie goes on to earn the reference.

The couple gets pulled over by a cop played by Ron Perlman and named Collie Entragian, which must be an anagram of something. He looks like a funhouse mirror’s idea of a drill sergeant; his lips are not so much chapped as molting; his manner is not exactly calming. Mick Garris, apparently Stephen King’s favorite TV-movie director, is always catching him looming in low-angle shots or bulging in a fisheye lens. Discovering a big bag of fine bud in the couple’s borrowed car, he takes them down to the station house, berating the pair in high down-home fashion: “Shut your quackin’ yuppie pothead mouth.” Then he shoots the husband (Henry Thomas) in the gut and tosses the wife (Annabeth Gish) into a cell.

The town vet/drunk is already in lockup, along with most of a family of four. Soon to come is John Edward Marinville, a motorcylin’, self-mythologizin’ writer played by Tom Skerritt with such a grating off-hand arrogance that, at first, you really wouldn’t mind seeing him get destroyed by this cop-zombie. For a while, it seems as if it will fall to Steven Weber (as Marinville’s roadie) and one Kelly Overton (as a hitchhiker wearing a copper bob, a Dylan T-shirt, and what Martin Amis would call “cool pants”) to try to ride to the rescue. But by the time they catch up with the others, they’ve already busted out of jail, after which things only get worse.

Desperation wears its schlockiness well. The lightly starched dialogue, the wisdom of the child who leads them to eventual safety, the built-in pseudo-debate about the nature of God—those are a natural fit and a genuine pleasure. The movie’s best line comes after the evil force, whose name is Tak, uses its evil-force voice to offer Skerritt’s macho author anything he wants in exchange for mercy. And Skerritt’s like, “Aw, man, Norman Mailer burned my ass in the New York Times Book Review. What more could a man want?”