If Judge Bill Gibron ever has to make an extended stay in the hospital, he wants it to be...anywhere but here.
Where malevolence meets malpractice
There is no more inconsistent brand name in the world of literature than Stephen King. Not in his actual writing, mind you. While he may not be everyone's cup of tea, this self-proclaimed McDonalds of the macabre has crafted some damn fine horror tomes in his time. Lament his devotion to the devious all you want, but Salem's Lot, The Shining, The Stand, It, Pet Sematary, and Insomnia are sensational novels. No, King earns most of his bad brownie points when it comes to the visual representations of his words. Certainly, for every successful film or TV adaptation—Stand By Me, Misery, Carrie, The Dead Zone, The Shawshank Redemption—there are dozens that stink like a pile of putrefying dog droppings. Who can forget the flop sweat stench of Maximum Overdrive, Dreamcatcher, Children of the Corn, or Sleepwalkers, just to name a few.
The small screen has been the far more successful venue for the author's thick, complicated narratives over the years, but even then, there have been few guarantees. One of his most trying experiences came in 1991, when he developed a TV series for CBS called Golden Years. Hyped to the hilt as the master of horror's first foray into a weekly drama, it quickly disappeared after fans, and the network, vented their unimpressed disappointment. So it's no surprise that after 13 years, King's latest venture back into the prime time format would meet with equal skepticism. While a string of successful mini-series had polished his tarnished reputation, the notion of King taking on Danish dervish Lars Von Trier's beloved and baffling Riget (otherwise known as The Kingdom) was as unsure as anything the writer had ever tried before.
Thankfully, there was no real reason to worry. Though it didn't make it to a second season (which was the plan, kind of…), Stephen King's Kingdom Hospital proved that, when it came to his craft, no one matched the most successful horror writer of all time. Now, thanks to Sony and ABC, we have a chance to experience the entire maxi-series in one huge, haunting dose. And it is one trip to a menacing medical facility that you'll actually relish returning to again and again.
Facts of the Case
Kingdom Hospital, located in upstate Maine, has a rather redolent past. Built on the foundation of two previous fires (a clinic destroying blaze in 1936, a life destroying mill accident in 1866) and suffering from numerous unexplained phenomena, the doctors and nurses on staff have grown used to the unusual workplace. They include Dr. Hook (Andrew McCarthy), a young idealistic neurosurgeon who lives deep in the bowels of the old hospital. He has his eye on Dr. Christine Draper (Allison Hossack), a beautiful and ambitious young woman. Along with the Traffs—father Louis (William Wise) and strange son Elmer (Jamie Harrold)—and Drs. Massingale (Sherry Miller), Abelson (Meagen Fay), and Jesse James (Ed Begley, Jr.), the eccentric hospital administrator, a tight knit crew has come to tolerate the hospital's ethereal mood swings.
But one doctor doesn't see eye to eye with Kingdom's crazy circumstances. After being forced out of a high profile practice in Boston under a cloud of suspicion, Dr. Stegman has arrived at the Kingdom hoping for a fresh start. Instead, he is hated by everyone and has, again, found himself embroiled in scandal. Too self-involved to notice the more mysterious events going on around him, he is cruel to the staff—including security guard Otto (Julian Richings) and orderly Bobby Druse (Del Pentecost)—and hates everyone in town, including the local transients who taunt him daily.
With rumors of hauntings and ghosts, Kingdom Hospital has a ghastly standing in the community, one Dr. James hopes to put to rest with his Operation Morning Air campaign. But another regular to Kingdom, Bobby's mother Sally Druse (Diane Ladd), thinks there are more sinister, supernatural elements at play. When a local celebrity finds his way into the ICU, however, Kingdom Hospital will reach the paranormal boiling point. It will take the efforts of all involved to right the wrongs of the past, while protecting the potential of a future.
Offered in 13 episodes, the individual storylines explored in Kingdom Hospital are as follows:
• "Thy Kingdom Come"
• "Death's Kingdom"
• "Goodbye Kiss"
• "West Side of Midnight"
• "Hook's Kingdom"
• "The Young and the Headless"
• "Black Noise"
• "On the Third Day"
• "Seizure Day"
• "Shoulda Stood in Bed"
Hospitals are indeed spooky places. They are caverns of disease and potential wellness. They house those who return to the living and others that are nearly dead. They bring life into the world and become the final resting spot for many ready to make the return trip. They seem to ache with the spirits of those who they heal and who they fail, and without another avenue of release, these contradictory phantoms gather and swell, drowning the corridors and rooms in a near stifling sense of flux. Though some could associate this mixed and mired feeling as the emotions experienced by those both in and out of the facility, the truth is that no destination, either of finality or origin, can be free of the ethereal influences of the soul. Hospitals house these horrible half-lives instinctively, and as such, make the perfect setting for a horror film. Around every corner, at all hours of the day and night, the tenets of terror, from blood to blasphemy, throb and pulse.
While not a point-by-point remake of the well-regarded Von Trier entity, Kingdom Hospital does trade on such spiritual unrest. You will find no tumor-obsessed doctors, supernatural pregnancies, or babies in oversized specimen jars in our bestselling author's version of this cult classic. What King has done with his interpretation is boil down the essence of Riget (as The Kingdom was called in its Danish incarnation) and meld it with his own sensibilities, expanding its storyline to include serial killers, shyster lawyers, and a large, demonic anteater. Indeed, when viewed through the famous horror writer's eyes, the nutty, nuanced world Von Trier created seems even more sensible and outrageous. There is not a great deal of scares here—most of us have long outgrown our ghost story spookiness by this stage in the King career arc—but what is surprising is the number of outright black comic moments. Kingdom Hospital is very, very funny at times, albeit in a sick, twisted, and always demented manner. It makes a subtle comment about the state of health care in America while sticking to the standard missives of a spine chilling campfire tale. While it may channel Riget at times, it is very much the creation of its new master.
Anyone who's read King for the last 35 years (this critic included) will instantly recognize his literary mark on this maxi-series (too long to be mini, but cancelled before it could be called "continuing"). For all his narrative invention and attention to character detail, Master Steve is really just a good old-fashioned yarn spinner, a kind of tall tale fountain pouring forth with amazingly intricate fiction. Still, there are recognizable tenets all throughout Kingdom Hospital, concepts and calling cards that he goes back to again and again and again. We have strange psychic abilities whether they are nurtured, as is Mrs. Druse case; unknown, as is Elmer's case; or created, as with Peter Rickman's accident-based powers. We have the psychotic bad man, the high stressed son of a bitch who exudes evil from every part of his baneful being (Dr. Stegman joins such past craven King crybabies as The Langolier's Craig Toomey and The Stand's Harold Lauder). We get a noble hero—indeed, there are about three in Kingdom Hospital, including the amiable, gallant Dr. Hook. And there is a magical creature of some sort, like It's turtle or the robins in The Dark Half.
Indeed, Kingdom Hospital often plays like a Stephen King greatest hits collection, a combination of ideas and interests welded onto a standard cosmic battle between good and evil (another King regular), all laced with a wicked sense of humor and heart. As with many of the writer's best novels, the narrative is sprawling, dense, and yet strangely interconnected. Events that happen in the first five minutes will come back and be important at the end, and misunderstandings in the middle work themselves in both backward and forward glancing fashion. Argue over his merits as a wordsmith, or take him to task for dealing in the realm of monsters and angels, but King is a craftsman when it comes to plot and people. He gets us to care about the characters he creates and react to the situation and circumstances they've been put in. And just like the can't-put-it-down page-turning trance he gets us into with his novels, Stephen King works a similar magic over the long form television format. Kingdom Hospital may not be the greatest dramatic series ever conceived for the small screen, but it sure is one of the most involved…and involving.
Kingdom Hospital is indeed a thoroughly engrossing, highly entertaining experience. Like his best TV works—The Stand, Storm of the Century—we become comfortable and welcome in this world, readily accepting both the beautiful and the bizarre, the real and the paranormal. As time wears on, we become aware of the impending climax, the devious denouement that will bring all the divergent elements together, and we relish as well as reject it. We want desperately for the story to continue, to see these characters living their lives and interacting in their increasingly strange circumstance. But we also understand that if King isn't allowed to finish, then we really don't have a story—we have an idea. Though he hoped the maxi-series would lead to a weekly drama, King never really had plans beyond the 15 hours of Kingdom Hospital that exist (no matter what the sequel-inspiring ending seems to suggest). As any good writer knows, all stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Otherwise, they merely continue on, rambling between competing facets until they grow wobbly and misguided (it's something that Twin Peaks fans know all too well). So even though we dread its arrival, we accept the impending conclusion with full knowledge that King usually delivers a whooper. And he doesn't let us down here.
Throughout the 15 episodes spread out over the four DVDs of Kingdom Hospital, there is not a single unsuccessful installment. Certainly, a few work much better than others ("Goodbye Kiss" is a fine example) and a couple seem unclear in their connection to the storyline (the Red Sox inspired "Butterfingers" and the second coming concepts of "On the Third Day" in particular). But for the most part, Kingdom Hospital is a triumph of an epic scope and focus. It's hard to imagine the series ever working in small, individual doses (if the show had been picked up, another season-long storyline would have been needed) since, even when an installment seems to stick out, a later scene or scenario brings it back in toward the show's center. When you add in all the inside jokes, not only to its creator, but to several of the cast members as well (where have we seen Bruce Davidson emotional over some dead rats before?) and the sharp as a scalpel characterization, Kingdom Hospital has all the elements of an exceptional television production. Gorehounds will love all the botched brain surgeries and ER extremes (it's pretty intense, even by 2004 standards), while those more in tune with the post-millennial spook story scenarios will love the subtle, more atmospheric approach.
King and ABC can't be praised enough for keeping a single director in charge of this material for its entire run. Craig R. Baxley, who helmed two other King TV films, Rose Red and Storm of the Century, has a wonderfully evocative eye, not only for the everyday life of a hospital, but also for the ethereal afterlife of a haunted "in-between" region. The "Old Kingdom" material is superbly decaying and unsettling, filled with the death and disease of a century of mortal sins. The Old Mill backstory is also rendered with exceptional skill. Rarely does period material come across as authentic, but Baxley's attention to detail really helps Kingdom Hospital pull it off. Whether it's the deft handling of the cast or the occasionally visual flair that adds yet another layer of gravitas to the proceedings, it's nearly impossible to imagine Kingdom Hospital in the hands of other directors. Too many divergent voices would massacre the carefully carved spell Baxley creates. With his continuous involvement, the series is a non-stop source of conjecture and astonishment.
Kingdom Hospital has a few surprises in its casting as well. Andrew McCarthy, who long since lost any ancillary Brat Pack / John Hughes karma he carried around with him, is a revelation as Dr. Hook. Before, he has seemed the slightest of actors, getting by on an aura of intensity grafted mostly from his piercing, puppy dog eyes. But in Kingdom Hospital, those sellable soul windows are framed by signs of age, and partially closed from a smirk or smile. Dr. Hook is a serious man, but he handles his life-and-death destiny with aplomb and compassion, and every single sentiment radiates out of McCarthy's performance. He does a remarkable job as the human heart of Kingdom Hospital.
On the opposite end of the likeability spectrum is Bruce Davidson's Dr. Stegman. He is a loose cannon filled with far too much gunpowder, a know-it-all who is unaware that he knows very little or nothing. Stegman is a petty man, pompous without the wontons to support such pretension. In another actor's hands, Stegman would be a raving lunatic, a man to be scorned for his inappropriate behavior both in and out of the surgical theater, but thanks to Davidson, we sense a small amount of sympathy deep inside Stegman's puffed chest, a childlike cowardice being covered up by all the false, ferocious bravado. In all King stories these are battles between ethical and immoral forces, and McCarthy and Davidson personify such a cosmic combat perfectly.
The rest of the company is equally compelling. Diane Ladd, known to many as Lola's fudged-up momma Marietta Fortune in Wild at Heart, does her best spirit-channeling shtick as the terminally touched Mrs. Druse. Jack Coleman, who many may remember for his turn as Steven, the openly gay son of Blake Carrington in Dynasty, has a nice authority and a real feel for the infirmed as the injured painter Peter Rickman. As the competing spirit forces of Mary and Paul, Jodelle Ferland and Kett Turton are very evocative, looking both of their era (the 1860s and 1930s, respectively) as well as perfectly petrifying in their undead state. There is a lot of "stunt" casting in Kingdom Hospital, individuals placed within the fictional facility's walls because of what they represent (the savant-like orderlies played by a pair with Down Syndrome) to how goofy they come across onscreen (Julian Richings's Coke bottle glasses wearing Otto or the sexually obsessed Jamie "Elmer Traff" Harrold come to mind). Combined with the clever cameos—there is a new substitute every show for the always absent maintenance chief, Johnnie B. Goode—and the excellent ancillary players, this is one stellar group of individuals.
But they would all flounder and fail in the hands of a lesser writer. Using his clout to allow for certain creative luxuries (King created the entire series's "Bible" and all the scripts before shooting started) and avoiding the traps of typical television fare to stay true to his designs, the results are as riveting as they are satisfying. The author likes to call Kingdom Hospital a "novel for television," and the truth is that this maxi-series is as satisfying as one of those plump pulp chillers you knock off over the course of a summer. But there is also an intelligence and a wit that you usually don't find in such pastime paperbacks, a real desire on the part of the scribe to say something unique and different. While it may play like a retread of hundreds of other King creations, Kingdom Hospital still manages to maintain its own individual integrity thanks to the skill of the man behind the pen. In the long list of hits and misses, flops and finery, this is one of our man from Maine's shiniest hours. Although Von Trier and his production may have provided the pattern, King has provided the polish. Kingdom Hospital is a sensational trip into Swedenborgian space.
From its amazingly visual credit sequence, filled with arcane images and provocative shots, to the actual series itself, Kingdom Hospital is an unqualified optical wonder. Thankfully, Sony preserves the show's big screen sensibility with a marvelous, nay gorgeous transfer of this title. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is faultless, capturing the cinematic dynamic of the series (King insisted it be shot on film) fabulously. All the colors are shown in pristine clarity, and there is excellent contrast to provide detail and depth. In a wise move, the studio places approximately 160 minutes of material per DVD, and this allows the picture to be preserved without compression or technological defects. While it's not quite reference quality, this is about as good as TV to DVD gets.
On the sound side, Kingdom Hospital also boasts a subtle but sensational Dolby Digital Stereo 5.1 mix that's a marvel of ambient tone and temperament. A show like this one lives or dies by the power of its aural presentation, and from the distant sounds of pain and death filling the back channels, to the subwoofer roar of the occasional earthquakes, the sonic situations here are perfect. The score by Gary Chang is marvelous—both menacing and melancholy, and along with the occasional rock or pop tone (props for the inclusion of Fountain of Wayne's "Red Dragon Tattoos"), this is a great auditory experience.
As for extras, we are treated to five fine, if occasionally flimsy, bits of added content. On Disc Four, we find four featurettes, each covering a different aspect of the production. First up is "Inside the Walls: The Making of Kingdom Hospital," and this featurette offers the majority of the information about the production. We hear from King and his producers and learn how happy Von Trier was that the "master of horror" was adapting one of his works. The rest of the crew chimes in to discuss the ins and outs of realizing the show's epic scope. At about 15 minutes, there is less of a publicity piece feeling to this documentary than in the rest of the bonus material. Indeed, "Patients and Doctors: The Cast of Kingdom Hospital" is that standard EPK offering where talking heads spew forth praise about the production they are in. We learn very little here—except how everyone was "wowed" by King's scripts—and the feeling of backslapping BS is rather thick.
Much better are the more "hands on" presentations, offered on how Kingdom Hospital was designed and how that Hellspawn anteater, Antibus, was created. While many of the CGI mavens in "The Magic of Anitbus' Visual Effects" look like they could use a bath and a few day's sleep, there is no denying how effective their animated "actor" turned out. Similarly, the attention to detail by the set and costume designers pay off wonderfully in the series itself, so it's nice to see how focused the individuals were who made that vision come to life. "Designing Kingdom Hospital: A Tour" also allows us to see how sets were reused—aged for the older shots, made new for the modern footage throughout the course of the show.
But what most fans will clamor over—and wonder about in retrospect—is the single commentary track found on Disc One. Accompanying the opening episode "Thy Kingdom Come," it features King, Baxley, producer Mark Carliner, and effects supervisor James Tichenor. Though it starts strong and ends on a high note (including a discussion of direct lifts from Von Trier's version), the overall emphasis seems to be on selling the series to viewers. They are all in love with the show, and really go overboard with the backslapping praise. Still, peppered in between all the glorification and glad-handing is a nice bit about how Kingdom Hospital was cast, the reality of King's near-fatal accident, and how realistic Stegman is to actual doctors. Though the middle tends to drag with long lapses without anyone speaking, this is still a decent discussion about the making of this monumental series. Too bad the conversation couldn't have been carried over to a couple of other episodes. It would be interesting to hear how the show developed and changed over time.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If there is one minor flaw in Kingdom Hospital, something the series overcomes expertly, it's the use of flashbacks throughout the course of "Finale." Certainly, both King and Baxley can be excused for their desire to recap. After all, anyone who watched the show in its initial run had to wait weeks before they saw the series present its final few shows. Yet these retentive reminders don't really have a place in a DVD presentation. They tend to slow the forward progression of the plot, forcing the audience to ask a lot of unimportant questions. Clearly, the material with the baseball player was important to revisit, since it pays off later in the trip back in time. But why reintroduce the "nutless" corpse from "The Young and the Headless," or the scared Dr. Stegman from the same episode (complete with continuity challenging nose bandage)? It would have been easy for Baxley to trim this material for a home video release, since most folks buying this series will watch it in order within a certain period of time. They don't need mementos from past installments to keep them connected. They are still fresh in their mind.
Also, couldn't King and crew be convinced to cough up a couple more commentaries? While the track on Episode 1 is interesting, the lack of additional dialogue on the show, post-press piece, is a minus here.
While his name may not always elicit product of quality and distinction (Graveyard Shift, anyone?), no one can deny Stephen King's ability to tell a good story. While it may not resonate with the heebie jeebies we've come to expect in our PG-13 horror movie world, or perfectly capture Lars Von Trier's demented design, Kingdom Hospital is great television. It incorporates the medium's ability to tell complex, expanded storylines while staying true to the formulas of its famous founder. While it would be interesting to muse on what might have been had Kingdom Hospital entered a regular prime time slot (would it be another Twin Peaks Season One? Or Season Three?), the initial maxi-series proper is a stellar example of expertly honed narrative devices delivered with style and skill. Past imperfections excused, King is experiencing a kind of renaissance since his near-fatal accident in 1999. Instead of retiring as he promised, he's been as busy as ever. As long as everything he's involved in results in something as special as Kingdom Hospital, this autumn year of his career will be very special indeed. Stephen King is an American treasure, and Kingdom Hospital is one of the jewels in his royal crown.
Stephen King's Kingdom Hospital is found not guilty and is free to go. While it could have provided a few more disc padding extras, Sony is also acquitted on all charges. They provide a near faultless DVD release of this fantastic long form experience.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary on "Thy Kingdom Come" by Stephen King, director Craig Baxley, Producer Mark Carliner, and Effects Supervisor James Tichenor
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