Even with Stephen King adapting his own novel, “Desperation” can’t escape the curse that has hounded most of the author’s made-for-TV productions, which have a peculiar tendency of starting out like gangbusters and drifting into nonsense. In that respect, this tale bears a resemblance to “It,” another creepy idea whose payoff wasn’t worthy of the nail-biting buildup preceding it. Nevertheless, before the ill-fated “Kingdom Hospital” King had been a reliable ratings draw for ABC, and this three-hour pic (OK, about 2:10 minus commercials) should at least help keep the lights on against murderous sweeps competition.
King’s personal touch can be seen in the pop cultural references that permeate the narrative, including cheeky asides about novelist Dean Koontz and “The Twilight Zone,” along with veiled references to “Dracula” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”
At its core, “Desperation” plays like yet another extended “Twilight Zone” episode. Unlikely passers-by to the Nevada town of Desperation encounter a sinister sheriff (Ron Perlman), who hauls them in, where they discover that everyone in these parts has suddenly died.
What’s been killing them, and what must be done to stop it, thus becomes the chore of a small but hardy band that includes a few veterans of past King yarns, including Steven Weber (“The Shining”) and Matt Frewer (“The Stand”). Ultimately, though, it’s a child who’ll lead them, albeit one who has stared down death and possesses an abiding faith in God bordering on oracular wisdom, which feels like a pretty lame device.
So it’s up to prepubescent David (Shane Haboucha), with the help of some friendly ghosts, to ascertain how the group can thwart the ancient evil bubbling out of the town’s recently opened mines, inhabiting nasty animatronic animals and people whose flesh slowly erodes as they play host to the demon.
Yet as with “It” and to a lesser degree “The Stand,” which are perhaps King’s most fully realized TV works, the final leg proves something of a letdown. Basically, it boils down to the old maxim (I heard it first in “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad”) that God combats evil through the efforts of weak and mortal men, whose ranks include a famed author (Tom Skerritt), his road sidekick (Weber), the town’s veterinarian (Charles Durning), and Mary (Annabeth Gish), half of an unlucky married couple through which we first meet the sheriff.
Director Mick Garris (“The Stand,” “The Shining” miniseries) is no stranger to the King universe, but despite spooky moments and that fine cast, the pair can’t save the plot from evaporating into sappiness near the end. And while there have been some worthy films derived from King’s macabre works (“The Dead Zone” comes to mind), the author’s TV legacy remains that of a ratings force lacking the creative power to stir the living, much less raise the dead.