Note: My critical authority was compromised more than usual here. All points speculative.
Schlock, a word derived from Yiddish meaning ‘poor copy’, is what happens when the horrific is made suddenly comic. It is also, for some reason, unfashionable in the theatre. This is something I’ve never understood. Despite its under-the-table connections with the world of ‘low art’, I’ve often found in it something deeply and surprisingly poetic, and it has a long and interesting tradition, beginning, at least in a spectacle sense, with the phenomenal immersive experiment of Étienne-Gaspard Robert’s Phantasmagoria in 1797. The unifying nature of schlock - whereby an audience collectively faces a horrific encounter, and comes away laughing together - I find quite affirming, and sort of nicely, gently shocking. It brightens my mood.
Since the 1970s, all of this is cultural territory claimed by the contemporary horror film, and so Stephen King’s work, which begins in earnest in 1970, sits exactly at this neat crossover, and in some ways defines it. If King wasn’t a well-known exponent of schlock – he’s far too earnest – it can certainly be interpreted that way from a distance. (From a distance, say, of Germany, although some might say that’s not so distant).
This schlockification of King is evident when someone tries to make a film of one of his novels. They inevitably encounter this earnestness, the sincere psychological believability of King’s narratives, which is just plain impossible to represent on film. The best film adaptation of a King novel is surely Kubrick’s The Shining, which is actually open caricature. Jack Nicholson's performance is, to me, an acknowledgement of the medium’s deficiency, an expression of defeat, let’s say, likewise Shelly Duvall’s often mocked performance, known mostly for its lack of acting and dilated pupils. Pet Semetery’s adaptation, where a novel about the psychological torment of death becomes something more shallow and, well, gross, is another case in point. The TV-movie of IT is perhaps the biggest exponent, adapting an allegorical manifestations of a shape-shifting antagonist, standing for some darker psychological malaise in American culture, into a meaningless set of shock-cornucopia. One is potent, the other just means you can’t ever laugh at a clown again.
Foto: Alexander Jaquemet