Jul 21, 2012


Every once in a while, a genuinely great horror movie—one that would rightfully be considered a classic, had it gotten more exposure and love at the box office—makes an appearance. It comes, no one notices, and it goes. But movies like this are important. They need to be treasured and remembered. If intelligent, original horror is supported, then that's what we'll begin to receive, in droves. We need to make these movies a part of the legendary genre we hold so dear. Because these are the unsung horrors. These are the movies that should have been successful, but were instead ignored. They should be rightfully praised for the freshness and intelligence and craft that they have contributed to our genre.

So, better late than never, we’re going to celebrate them now… one at a time.

Dir. Taylor Hackford
Castle Rock Ent. / Warner Bros.
United States

Dolores Claiborne has always been the most wrongly unheralded Stephen King adaptation. Despite the immense talent in front of the camera and behind it, for some reason it never became either the box office juggernaut like Stand by Me, or the underground cult classic The Shawshank Redemption. And I could never figure out why, as it is far superior to both those admittedly great films. While Dolores Claiborne is not a traditional horror film per se, horrific themes are definitely at play here. There is an unrelenting darkness, along with several disturbing scenes that lend itself to our genre. While it may not be about horrific creatures that hide in the dark, it is very much about horrific human beings and what they are capable of doing to people they claim to love. It is about the horror of memory, time, betrayal, and so many other weaknesses that make humanity just as flawed as we are intriguing. And besides, on what horror blog is a work by Stephen King not welcomed with open arms?

Dolores St. George (Kathy Bates) is a loving but no-nonsense, bull-headed and forthright woman who says what’s on her mind, and hardly minds what she says. She lives on Little Tall Island, Maine, with her husband, Joe (the slimily good David Strathairn) and their young daughter, Selena (Ellen Muth of “Dead Like Me”). Joe drinks too much and seems as bull-headed as his wife, but otherwise life isn’t too bad. After all, Dolores has just gotten a job working for the very rich Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt), and though the money isn’t rolling in, she receives enough to put in the bank every week for Selena’s eventual college tuition.

What many would consider a pretty ideal life, living in picturesque New England and right on the beautiful Atlantic ocean, comes to a screaming halt one particular afternoon when Joe’s had a bit too much to drink and he misinterprets Dolores’ chiding as an attack on his manhood and his ability to provide for his family. After swinging a large piece of firewood directly into Dolores’ spine, sending her shaking into a nearby seat, he goes back to watching television as if nothing ever happened. And what could have ended with an angry husband’s act of dominion over his wife instead ends with an intensified act of reciprocation, in which Dolores smashes a dish over his head and threatens him with an ax. An understanding between man and wife is temporarily established, but Dolores knows she’s got to get out. She just has to save a bit more money and she'll be free to flee with Selena…until one day she sees that Joe has closed her bank account, something he had no moral or legal right to do. Dolores sees her future, as well as Selena’s, come crashing down before her eyes. All the hope that was stored away in that account is gone, and she must now risk resigning herself to a permanent future where Joe is abusive to her…and a sexual predator to their own daughter.

In an eerie scene in which Dolores breaks down in Vera's presence and confesses having discovered that Joe has been molesting their daughter, Vera shows the closest thing to humanity she will exhibit during the entire film. With restrained tears in her eyes, she tells Dolores, "Men die every day. Sometimes the brakes in their cars fail as they are on their way home from their mistresses'. They die, leaving their wives their money." The message is clear: Some men do not deserve to live. Joe does not deserve to live. 

Dolores makes a choice to no longer exist as a woman in a man's world. She decides to take action. During a much-ballyhooed eclipse, which has stolen the attention of the entire town, Vera excuses Dolores from her housekeeping duties and tells her to spend the day with Joe. The exchange is simple, but her eyes speak volumes.

Dolores sets a trap, weighing Joe down with too much food and too much liquor. Once he is nearly drugged from the spread she has prepared for him, she confronts him. She tells him she knows about the bank account...and of what he's been doing to Selena. He begins to chase her, and she leads him to an open mine shaft located not too far from their property. Still drunk, he plummets through the ancient wood and hangs on for just a brief moment before falling to the darkness, and his death.

Many years later, Selena is grown and gone, and Dolores still maintains duties at Vera Donovan's house, though this time as a nursemaid. Vera, an invalid imprisoned in a wheelchair, is disgusted with what she has become. She tells Dolores she hates the smell of being old, and she just wants to be done. She throws herself from her wheelchair and tumbles down the stairs, injuring herself quite badly but not quite finishing the job. She begs Dolores to put her out of her misery. Dolores nearly does, with a marble rolling pin, before she is interrupted. For the second time in her life, she will be tied to a murder of someone close to her. It will bring a daughter home (now played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) and force her to confront the memories she has long repressed, and it will cause an old nemesis to begin circling again, this time determined not to let her get away.

Dolores Claiborne is very much a film about female empowerment. Dolores, Selena, and Vera are all victims of the men in their lives who were never supposed to do anything more than love them and take care of them. Dolores suffers physical and emotional abuse, Selena is sexually used by her editor/boss, not to mention her own father, and Vera is imprisoned for years in a loveless marriage with an unfaithful and distant husband. Vera’s own adage, “Sometimes being a bitch is the only thing a woman has to hang onto,” is eventually passed from her, to mother, to daughter, and all three recite the motto at some point. And yeah, it's easy to point to a film like Dolores Claiborne and call it a female empowerment film, all based on the fact that women play the primary roles in the film, but to make such an assumption would cheapen the care that went into the careful crafting of the story. Dolores isn’t just roughed up by her husband; she’s disregarded by Mr. Pease, the local bank’s president, whose silence basically concedes to Dolores’ claims that Joe had no rightful access to her account. And she’s been the target of John Mackey’s decades-long attempts to see her pay for Joe’s death, for which he knows she is responsible.

In one particular scene where Mackey requests a hair sample from Dolores’ head, she wryly states, “Go ahead, I ain’t entering any beauty pageants this week.” Because Dolores was never meant for that kind of life, her physical attributes notwithstanding. Because she’s not a womanly woman. Though she is loving and fiercely maternal, she has a man’s resolve and even his masculinity. Her years of wintry outdoor laundry has given her a man’s ruined hands and stolen any good looks she might have had. She did not live the idealized life of a woman, or even a man. She lived her life as a broken soul, isolated, persecuted, and alone.

Following the death of her husband, Dolores changes her name back to the maiden Claiborne. Because after rightfully (?) killing Joe to save her and Selena from a life of torment, she has rediscovered her womanhood and her independence, though not without consequences. Perhaps most telling, during the last scene that Dolores and Vera will share in the past, where the death of Joe becomes an inevitability, Vera icily tells her, "It's a depressingly masculine world we live in."

Though the film details the redemption of our three primary women, don't assume that the few men present are painted as weak, imbecilic, or otherwise inferior. That would be an easy out, and the novel and script are smarter than that. However, that doesn't mean the men aren't your antagonists, because they most certainly are. In fact, there is a male antagonist present for both time periods: Joe in the past, and John Mackey in the present. And while John Mackey is only doing his job, there is almost no chance for you to like him. He is obsessed with bringing down Dolores for her crimes, either for having killed Joe, or possibly Vera. He never had a chance to be liked. And though I earlier mentioned that the men are not depicted as inferior because they simply are men, it must be a very emasculating feeling for John Mackey that seemingly an entire town knows Dolores offed her own husband, and yet he was never able to prove it. As for John C. Reilly’s Constable Frank Stamshaw, he is the perhaps the most decent and likeable character in the film, though he seems all too eager to stay out of Dolores’ and Mackey’s warpath, leaving him appearing gutless and childlike.

Five years after winning Best Actress for her deranged portrayal of Annie Wilkes in another King adaption, 1990’s Misery, Kathy Bates revels in yet another King-created woman riddled with dark secrets and a past she tries to keep buried. Her role is one in which she is not afraid to look unkempt and unglamorous. She wears every year of her life in her winkled face, and her gray hair swirls above her in the cold winter winds. Her eyes are the most haunting part, as they contain a deadness that only comes from too much life. She is someone who has spent the better part of her life with only one person: her employer, the irascible Vera Donovan. Dolores’ tenure at the Donovan house gradually matriculates from house keeper to house nurse during Vera’s elderly years, feeding her, cleaning her bedpans, and lifting her in and out of bed. The pay is shit, and Dolores is too old for such work, but the two women remain together because they are all each other has. It’s a sad life for both of them, but it’s the life each was given.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is probably the most underrated actress of our time. She has shown an amazing versatility throughout her career, leaping from mile-a-minute news reporter in the screwball comedy The Hudsucker Proxy, to outright psycho in Single White Female. She is that very rare actress who possesses the ability of her male counterparts Daniel Day Lewis and Gary Oldman to disappear, chameleon-like, into her roles. Her performance here is her career-best, forced to play a woman living in complete denial as to what happened in her youth, hoping that pills and booze and a career grilling prominent male figures for the truth will help to bury the real truth, should it ever begin to work its way up into the recesses of her mind.

Speaking of underrated, David Strathairn plays the perfect kind of slime ball here. Relegated to supporting work for most of his career, he plays wonderfully against type and paints himself as the cancer tearing through the St. George household. He is rotten to his wife and daughter, but in very different ways. There is a very disgusting undercurrent within his “relationship” that he shares with his daughter. It’s bad enough that he’s molesting his own flesh and blood, but he even goes as far as giving her a piece of jewelry that once belonged to his mother…as if Selena were not his daughter, but a woman he were courting. It’s sick and depraved, and subtly makes you wonder just what on earth is going on inside his mind. In the scene where the grown Selena is forced to recollect her father’s abuse, and Joe forces his daughter’s hand inside his open jacket, he isn’t a grinning monster with a deviant face. He looks very worried and even terrified—that he’s become this man willing to do this to his own daughter, and that he seems unable or unwilling to stop.

The hardest job on the film belongs to Ellen Muth, who is tasked with displaying a wide range of emotions. She plays a girl who goes from happy-go-lucky to emotionally destroyed almost over night. Like many victims of sexual molestation, she is filled with anger, humiliation, and guilt. It rockets across her mind almost daily, where it gets to the point that she tries to spend as much time away from home as possible, spending it at a nearby hotel where she has been working. And in the scene I earlier mentioned in which Joe forces his daughter’s hand, Hackford lets the camera linger on young Selena’s face. The moment her hand makes contact with her father, you can literally see her die. All the fear disappears from her face and her eyes become immediately hard. On the commentary track, Hackford explains that for this scene, Muth utilized a tactic she learned after spending time with victims of familial molestation: that every time it happened to one of them, they pretended to be a bird, or a stone, or a cloud—something that allowed them to leave their body and become this other thing, so that they did not have to experience the horror that was occurring. While this does come across in Muth’s performance during this scene, I see more of the former. I see quite literally the death of her innocence.

In a well-known anecdote, after Judy Parfitt auditioned for the role of Vera Donovan, Kathy Bates reportedly turned to director Hackford, and said, “Who was THAT?” With such a performance, it’s not hard to see why. Judy’s role as stone-cold bitch Vera Donovan is stone-cold good, and her transformation from the uppity, bitchy socialite into the bed-ridden invalid is even more impressive than Kathy Bates’ own. She is the catalyst that both dooms and saves the entire St. George family; her presence systematically seals each of their fates. It is because of her that Joe dies, that Dolores becomes hunted and vilified, and Selena is rescued from her tormenting father, if not the scars he left behind.

As for Christopher Plummer, well, he could shit on a dinner plate and call it steak and I’d believe it. The man is a genius, and his presence on any film immediately legitimizes it. His obsessive and ruthless take on Detective John Mackey is a wonderful foil to Bates’ Claiborne. He proudly claims that he’s never been wrong (“not when it counted”), and he makes it known that he was able to close every single one of his murder investigations except one. Guess which. The scene he shares with Leigh at the conclusion of the film – one in which Dolores, for the first and last time in the film, remains meekly quiet – is nothing short of miraculous. These two titans go at it with all the unleashed fury and vitriol they can muster, and it’s completely awing to watch them go back and forth. Besting the antagonistic opponent in a film is one thing, but when that subjugation comes using only words, its extremely powerful and rewarding. It’s one of the best-scripted scenes I’ve ever seen.

There’s one more performance in the film that needs to be mentioned: that of Nova Scotia, standing in for the fictional Little Tall Island, Maine. Though the surroundings are often dark and foreboding, and the elements harshly cold, there is no denying the natural beauty of the place. From the water to American iconography, Nova Scotia works so eerily well as a New England stand-in that for years I believed the film had actually been shot there.

Director Taylor Hackford injects Dolores Claiborne with cold blues in an attempt to make his audience freeze to death. New England is known for its extreme winters, and he endeavors to capture that as best as he can. And he does. To watch this film is to stand outside in the dead of winter wearing a bathrobe. Like I mentioned in my fellating write-up of Ravenous, wintry landscape does wonders for a film where you want your audience to feel isolated, stark, somber, and hopeless. He wants you to feel like that because that’s how Selena feels, and that’s how Dolores has been living for the last twenty years.

The scenes involving the eclipse are exceedingly complex, combining elements of green screen, in-camera effects, and CGI. While the look of the sky in the last few minutes before the sun is covered borders on artificiality, the look is still somehow appropriate. Because, as we all know, one does not simply watch an eclipse. So who knows what it really looks like? And it helps that Little Tall Island is briefly transformed in this foreign looking place dripping with vibrant and cartoon colors. Because Dolores’ world is changing. After she finishes the job of killing her husband to spare both her life as well as Selena’s, Dolores realizes she will never be the same. That what she has done is going to be with her for the rest of her life, and that it will define her as a person, both from her daughter’s point of view as well as the town’s.

It’s always difficult to tell a story that takes place in two different time periods, but Hackford not only pulls off such a device, but actually finds way to show that past and present are merging. Scenes in which Dolores begins recollecting will feature a character from the past enter through a door behind her, and it never fails to be jarring. If Hackford is the first person to utilize such a device on film I could not say, but I’m confident I’ve seen it utilized several times since then.

Taylor Hackford has had a pretty stable and consistent career, though besides an Officer and a Gentleman, has never really directed a movie that both caught the attention of the masses and pleased the critics. His biggest hit to date may be 2004’s Ray, about the life of Ray Charles, but he’s stayed mainly out of the limelight. Which is a shame, because Dolores Claiborne deserved many more accolades than it received. Though it made five times the amount that The Shawshank Redemption did in its opening weekend, Hackford hasn’t quite enjoyed the same success of his colleague Frank Darabont. Here’s hoping he returns to the Stephen Kingdom sometime soon. 

Dolores Claiborne is not a feel-good movie, not even at the end when the redemption for our characters becomes prominent. This is a film where no one smiles, unless it's a rueful one. And it’s a film where the cold, dark surroundings of wintertime wraps itself around you with frigid arms, refusing to let go, your only relief being the flashback sequences filled with dazzling sunlight and warm breezes…during which a well-known and well-liked man named Joe St. George is inside molesting his teenaged daughter. It is an ugly film about ugly things, and even when mother and daughter are emotionally reunited at the end, their presence in each other’s futures is still left largely ambiguous. We want and need for Dolores and Selena to reconcile, and to have the relationship that many of us are lucky enough to have, and are foolish enough to take for granted. But decades of secrets and pain are a lot to overcome, and we can only hope they both find the peace for which they long.


  1. "...even when mother and daughter are emotionally reunited at the end, their presence in each other’s futures is still left largely ambiguous. " No really, Selena whispers to her mom when they embrace "I don't want to lose you again".

    1. You are very correct - but there's still no real determination as to their future relationship. Selena doesn't want to lose her mother again - and that gives us hope - but still, she gets on the ferry and leaves. If she had chosen to stay on the island with her mother instead, that would've been a 100% affirmation of their love for each other, but it would've also been less cinematic.

      Just how I saw it, anyway.

      Thanks for reading.