Hot Take: THE DARK TOWER is THE Cult Film of 2017

As a part of our effort to keep Ghastly Grinning a place of positivity and celebration, this column will see one of our writers take on a film that wasn’t as well received by others, and provide a defense for their enjoyment of it.

The definition of a “cult film” is highly subjective. It’s not even up for debate, because how do you really define such a broad term? You can’t. So we won’t! But, on a personal level, you know when you watch a “cult” movie. It can be from 1987 or 2017, but there’s something about the “cult” movie that connects with you on a different level than your typical easily-defined genres. And what that connection is will only make sense to you. The Dark Tower, to me, is a cult movie because somehow it combines action-fantasy-western-horror into a rainbow sorbet of what. the. fuck….

I had to do some mental aerobics when I began watching The Dark Tower. In the grander scheme of things I’ve only been a fan of the series for a short time, a handful of years, but I was immediately sucked in by the conclusion of Drawing of the Three. I read the next two in the series back to back, and then I got a little Mid-World hangover and had to take a breather. I haven’t gotten back around to finishing the last three in the franchise. But, hey, gimme a break, I love Roland and the gang, but I want to read other books, too plus #REALWORLDSTUFF.

And during this time what happened? They announced the movie. FINALLY. Everyone rejoiced! But, like fire to brush, the internet went up in a blaze of wild abandon, speculating about the ins and the outs of the movie—most of which (OK, sure, like all of it) making the film out to be a dud.

Then we got the cast announcements and that's when things went south in corners of the fan community. The negative reaction to Idris Elba as Roland Deschain was built on the framework of systemic racism. Many will disagree, but this is a pure and simple fact for me. We all imagined Roland in the text as a fractured white savior (notably Clint Eastwood) and many could not budge on the idea that this hero, for once, wouldn’t look like them. A vast majority of people that felt threatened by the idea of Elba as Deschain, many of whom I am sure are unaware of their own internalized racism, just knew it upset them and I don’t think they could really verbalize why. And while my own personal write-in campaign to Stephen King to get Mads Mikkelsen cast as The Gunslinger (#MIDWORLD4MADS) failed, I am so deeply happy that the role went to the person who played Stringer Bell. Because, I mean, have you even SEEN The Wire? Bottom line: Elba is the man. Plus I want to go on the record and say as a cisgendered heterosexual male confident in his own sexuality: The. Dude. Is. Smokin’.

They ACTUALLY did cast the only person that I ever thought could play The Man In Black, the Walkin’ Dude, the personification of evil himself Walter O’Dim/Paddock/Randall Flag (and like fifty more names, y’all, King is a mad man). And you know what? It’s the strangest thing. In one way, his performance can only be surmised as if William Friedkin had cast Nicolas Cage in Killer Joe, and then THAT character was flung into a dark fantasy/sci-fi film from 1995 and just said “Alright, alright, alriiiight.” Seriously, I don’t even really know what he’s doing half of the time nor do I know if it is completely WRONG for the character or completely RIGHT for the correct and what makes one more correct than the other? Because none of it matters. This is a fanciful performance: I mean, he is literally sinister in every single take. Even in scenes where he clearly ISN’T supposed to be sinister. And it kind of works in that weird way that McConaughey's voice kind of works even though it kind of sounds like he is always being ADR’d—even when he’s just out in public.

But you know in what frame of reference he DOES work in? If you imagine this film is a DARK FANTASY/SCI-FI FILM FROM 1995 with the over-the-top-characters, the extremely detailed set pieces, the overly ambitious plot. The jarring editing and general confusion? Fun aw shucks moments? Wild monsters and special effects? Stupid? It’s all here.

This film, dare I say, may very well be this generation’s Masters of the Universe. I mean, imagine if Cannon Films made The Dark Tower and how BONKERS that would have been? They both feature a villain that is extremely over-the-top and disarmingly skeletal. It has the same amount of ridiculousness that we loved in films like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, or even Highlander:Endgame and the ilk. But on this great big modern budget. The giant open sewers filled with screaming masses. C’mon that HAD to be in Judge Dredd somewhere, right?! Demolition Man? Super Mario Brothers?

But unlike some of the films above, The Dark Tower failed rather miserably at the box office. Which is unfortunate, but not wholly unexpected. The negative backlash from fans every step of the way during production didn’t really help put much faith in the film. The other factor was that the story wasn’t going to follow the framework that King’s epic series had created. But before we get into that I think I just need to have a small little sidebar with The Dark Tower fans first…

Hey ladies and gentleman. We all know Roland and his Ka-Tet rock the casbah, but we have to be mildly forgiving because trying to compress even a sliver of the series into a feature-length film was already going to be a poor storytelling choice since longform limited event series’ are at a cultural high right now with the likes of Game of Thrones, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Olive Kitteridge. To tell these large, expansive stories and retain even a modicum of the thrill and excitement that the books give, television is the only way to properly convey Roland’s journey both backwards and forwards (and sideways) in time and space. So, even when the film was announced, the story was already at a disadvantage. And it seemed that King and company knew this so they gave audiences quite possibly the greatest bit of fan service at a studio level I may have ever seen. The film became the personification of Jake’s infamous words: “There are other worlds than these.”

The Dark Tower series, we discover, is cyclical. More seasoned Dark Tower scholars can fill in all the series blanks I’m omitting, but for the sake of those who haven’t read a single DT novel, you need to know that in this film iteration Roland already has the Horn of Eld from the battlefield at Jericho Hill, meaning that this isn’t the Roland from the novel cycle, but rather a Roland that remembered to take the Horn from his dying Ka-Tet member Cuthbert and in many ways is now closer to his redemption.

TLDR: The film is BASICALLY a sequel to the book series.

But that’s what makes its inclusion so brilliant for the fans and for the producers. For the producers, if a franchise wasn’t born out of this version of The Dark Tower they could easily use the get out of jail free card” that is the Horn of Eld, reboot the film in a few years, and be able to write it off as just another version of Roland that we are following. Yet for fans it did something a bit different.

Of course, fans were pissed off. Any intellectual property that has a fandom attached to it that is making a film or TV adaptation of a prized book/comic/manga/etc. will a massive backlash, despite if the movie is good or not. That’s what happened with The Dark Tower, spurred by the casting of an African American man in a lead role, and it’s really a shame because the world that they created is pretty dang dope. The fans not only get a live-action adaptation of the film, done by a major studio with respectable talent attached, but it also expands the story, enriching it with this new alternate timeline.

It actually reminds me a lot of the much-maligned Doctor Who TV movie starring Paul McGann and Eric Roberts. At the time Doctor Who had been off the air for the better part of the decade and this film was set to not only launch the Doctor into the new century, but also revitalize it for a foreign market more prone for Klingons than Daleks. But the movie wasn’t accepted by fans and quickly fell into obscurity until the television series was revived in 2005. And as Doctor Who took off again, Paul McGann finally began to receive the notice for his portrayal of the Doctor which would eventually lead to him reprising the role for the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Celebration. Now we can go back and read stories and listen to radio dramas of McGann’s Doctor and the adventures we never got to go with him on, and I feel like the same could happen with this cycle of Rolands Ka-Tet. The stories and worlds are so lush with life that the imagination of budding fan fiction writers would have a field day with what the film sets up. It’s just a fun world to live in. And for a studio that many saw as not giving much respect for King's source material, if thought on in a more abstract way, will possibly think twice.

But look, the movie does have some core issues, which are, unfortunately, all wrapped up in the pacing. The movie is a brisk 95 minutes and it just broke my heart to see scenes cut short and the emotional backbone dissected from the film as a result. There’s one particularly jarring moment before Jake encounters a vision of his deceased father where Roland is looking on at Jake as he sleeps. It’s jarring because it’s cut so short you’re left wondering why Roland was being all shady watching Jake sleep, when in actuality you can clearly tell that there are a good 15 seconds of a scene before what we are seeing. You can tell that there must have been a dialogue-free scene where Roland is stoking the fire and watching over Jake, being both perplexed and bemused by this new visitor to Mid-World but feeling a connection that he may not be able to put into words. I think it would have done wonders for the Gunslinger, who atypically is thought of as a cold, steely heroic figure. The film is littered with scenes like that; scenes where you want just a little bit more but we flash to the next scene far too soon. I feel like there is a really weird, Jodorowsky-esque 180 minute epic, family-friendly, fantasy-western here. But we’ll more than likely never know.

But also, bottom line, even if you just divorce it from Stephen King and the source material and everything you know about The Dark Tower this is a SUPER ambitious big-budget blockbuster film that a studio took a chance on. It’s not every day that we get a psycho-fantasy-western, targeted for general audiences, that gets wide distribution. That alone is something to celebrate. But beyond that, I think fans need to frankly...chill. I’ll be the first to admit that it is extremely difficult to divorce much-loved source material from its film adaptation, but just because an adaptation doesn’t necessarily work does not mean that the film is bad— it’s just different. And if you can do that, you may just find that this new visit to Mid-World has a lot more to offer on this last time around.

The Dark Tower is available NOW on Blu Ray and DVD, it is also available to purchase or rent on your preferred streaming platform.

And for fun, here are a smattering of my immediate thoughts while watching The Dark Tower:

  • It’s like if “Jupiter Ascending” had an INSANE Marketing campaign, even bigger stars, and a huge name attached to it like Stephen King. It’s that level of  "Are you kidding me?" film.
  • The lone man using a gun before his words REEEEEEALLLLLYYYYY REALLY doesn't work in today's culturally shifting society. Or really just, ya know, let’s just chill on guns and shit for like FIVE years. Or should I say glorification of guns?

  • All I’ve been wanting as a fan is to see some Lobstrosities and the closest we’ve gotten so far is a fucking spider. It is literally the only thing I am upset about from the film so far as a fan of the book series.

  • It's cleeeearly shooting for the wrong age demographics in terms of what fans know from the series, but to the producers credit what Stephen King created is BASICALLY just a YA novel series but with a lot more sex demons.

  • Geez, Louise, they should have added the TARDIS sound to the last two minutes of the film because that is an ending from Doctor Who. Is this actually just a Doctor Who movie? I think Idris Elba is really just The Doctor cosplaying as The Gunslinger. Shit, AND they both have determiners preceding their titles!? Hold on, lemme go grab my cork board, push pins, and string…
Jacob Trussell