Analyzing psycho-killer Edgler Vess’s spider-eating ways on the B.C. set of Dean Koontz’s Intensity

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By Steve Newton

Back in ’97 I got assigned by Fangoria magazine to cover the filming of a FOX-TV miniseries called Intensity. Normally I wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about a FOX-TV miniseries, but this one was based on a novel I really loved by Dean Koontz, so I was in.

Here’s a shortened version of the story that ran in the September 1997 issue of Fango, the one with Spawn on the cover.

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Like a master carver, Dean Koontz meticulously sliced away everything that wasn’t essential on his 1995 novel Intensity, ending up with a tidy, 300-page knockout of a horrific suspense yarn. With just two main characters, one storyline, and everything squeezed into a 24-hour time frame, his lean tale of philosophical serial killer Edgler Vess and Chyna Shepherd—the young woman who courageously steps into his blood-spattered path to save a teenage girl—was a short, sharp little switchblade of a story.

Even literary types were impressed.

When word got out that FOX-TV was filming a four-hour miniseries based on Intensity around Vancouver, Fangoanswered the call of duty, and now finds itself on the set in pastoral Langley, about an hour’s drive east of downtown. On a winding country road, director Yves (Mother’s Boys) Simoneau and his crew have taken over a sprawling log cabin, which is being used to portray the Washington State residence of Vess, played by John C. (Seven) McGinley. Next to the house sits a veritable hell on wheels, the motor home that Vess uses to commit his wicked crimes and transport his unfortunate victims.

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While a 35-foot camera crane swoops down above their heads, Molly Parker and Tori Paul—who play Chyna and 15-year-old captive Ariel, respectively—trudge slowly from the front of the house while smoke drifts from its open front door. Blood and bruises are visible on Parker’s face as she comforts the younger girl, who is clad in a school uniform and appears to be in a state of catatonic shock. It’s obvious that the two have just been through hell.

“It’s right after they have their final confrontation with Vess,” explains Simoneau. “Instead of happening in the road, as in the book, it happens in the basement where he’s keeping the young girl. But the action remains pretty much the same.”

Uh-oh. Looks like what we’re witnessing (and thus revealing here) is the conclusion of Intensity‘s celuloid version, which was scheduled to air August 5 and 6. Then again, it’s not as if the milions of Koontz fans who’ve read the book are going to be surprised by what happens at the climax. Indeed, they’ll find that the filmmakers have preserved a great deal of what the author wrote.

“The film is very much in the spirit of the book,” says Simoneau, “so whoever has read the book will know a little bit of what’s happening. Although I must say that the way it’s built up right now, you cannot really anticipate what’s gonna happen. We’re kind of a step ahead of you.”

While hordes of Koontz followers knew the outcome of Intensity long before it was ever a gleam in some FOX executive’s eye, Simoneau himself did not. Before taking on the project, he had never actually read anything by Orange County’s bestselling fright master.

“First I read the script—which I thought was terrific, really suspenseful and well-written, very intriguing—and then the novel. Of course, there are always some differences in an adaptation from book to script, but I think it was done brillantly. Dean Koontz was very happy with it, and I was very happy with it, so we proceeded from there. But the ending was the only area where we wanted to adjust the size of the production, because what was written was a little too ambitious for us. The whole purpose was to have their final confrontation be as powerful as it was in the book.”

Much of the success of Koontz’s novel came from the author’s vivid characterization of the psychopathic Vess, a “homicidal adventurer” who believes that he is motivated by his commitment to intensity of feeling—both physical and mental—and that it is only this intensity that allows a person to be truly alive. As such, much of the success of the miniseries hinges on McGinley’s onscreen portrayal of Vess’ madness. Simoneau, for one, thinks the actor got this villain down pat—so much so that, in the middle of the shoot, Simoneau recalls telling the actor, “I hate to tell you this, John, but I think you were born to play this part.”

“He’s very powerful physically and very articulate intellectually,” Simoneau says, “and that’s exactly what Vess is. He’s somebody who’s able to function in society very well, and is very well-organized. He’s even more terrifying because of that, because he’s expressing his own philosophy of life very clearly, and John delivered that side of the character with brilliance. Everybody who sees the film will tell you right away that this is a scary guy, but he also had to be very charming. He has to be somebody who, if you’re stuck on the side of the road and he stops his car, you will get in with him.”

Pity the poor pedestrian who hitches a ride with Edgler Vess. What he does to his victims—in the book, at least—is hard to stomach. As well as a vicious murderer and rapist, Vess is a skilled torturer—physically and emotionally—and he cares not how young or old his plaything/victims are. Given that, there were some serious concerns about the nature of the material being translated to TV.

“We were walking on a very, very thin line,” Simoneau says. “It’s more psychological violence—it’s not blood and gore—but it’s so full of tension and so twisted in terms of what it deals with that the psychological violence is really hard to take after a while, and we had to be careful about not crossing the line and becoming too disturbing. But it’s still an unsettling piece in the end, and that’s the way the book was. It’s pure evil meeting pure courage, and she will win the day in the end, but she’ll have to go through a lot before.”

Considering how poorly most of the screen adaptations of Koontz’s work have turned out—from 1988’s ridiculous Watchers through 1995’s dismal Hideawayit would seem to be a built-in challenge just to take on a Koontz-derived project nowadays. And Simoneau was fully aware of how some of the author’s fine works had been turned into lousy films.

“I had a long conversation with Dean,” he recalls, “and basically what he told me was that, with Intensity, it’s the first time he really connected with the characters he created. He felt that it’s one of the first times that the spirit of the piece has been completely translated to film, and that was a very high compliment.”

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When the time came to find a screenwriter to translate Koontz’s vision to the small screen, the job went to Stephen Tolkin, who had previously tackled a feature script based on Koontz’s 1993 mystery-suspense novel Mr. Murder for the now-defunct Savoy Pictures. Like Simoneau, Tolkin admits that he wasn’t really acquainted with Koontz’s work—what’s with these people?—before receiving his scripter-to-be copy of Mr. Murder. Prior to that, he had only come in contact with the author through his kids’ reading of Koontz’s 1988 children’s book Oddkins. He became a fan pretty quickly, though.

“When they sent me Mr. Murder I flipped out,” Tolkin says. “I just loved it. His new one, Sole Survivor, is spectacular too. His books get better and better.”

One of the standout scenes from the Intensity novel that Tolkin recalls as examplary of Koontz at his twisted best involves Vess’ consumption of a fat spider in the stairway of the house he terrorizes near the beginning of the book. Tolkin wrote the spider-chomping bit into the miniseries, but it got scissored somewhere along the way.

“They wouldn’t do it!,” he moans. “They didn’t do the spider! I was furious! I certainly had it in the script, but it’s not in the movie, so go figure. The censors had no objection to it in the script, but it was never shot, and I’ll miss it—I’m sure Dean does.”

If the folks at FOX didn’t want to allow any good old-fashioned spider-eating, you’ve gotta wonder how they felt about the human violence factor in Intensity. For his part, Tolkin—who is currently adapting Stephen King’s Rose Madder for HBO—says he appraoched that element of the story head on.

“This is my thing with Standards and Practices, the censors at the studios. I feel that if you’re gonna go for something intense, do it. If you’re so uncomfortable with violence, then just do family movies, you know? I don’t believe that things need to be on camera particularly to be shocking, and Yves has done it in a way where you’re not cringing at the sight of gore—you’re jumping at the fear of what’s gonna happen. Which is what it should be.

“That’s always my approach,” he adds. “My favorite moment in the movie is when Vess tastes the blood of one of his victims who’s a musician—the guy’s a pianist, which is something I invented for the movie—and he goes, ‘You ever taste your own blood, Jack? You taste like Tchaikovsky.’ And I was sure that the censors were gonna cut that, but they didn’t, as far as I know. That strikes me as worse than seeing someone’s head split open or whatever.”

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