It's a classic tourists-lost-in-the-desert scenario. Pulled over by a redneck cop on a deserted stretch of Nevada highway, a husband and wife are arrested when a bag of marijuana is mysteriously found in their trunk, and the cop loads them into the back of his squad car for the trip to the local hoosegow.
Then things get a little weird.
"You have the right to remain silent " the cop begins as the couple protests their innocence.
"You have the right to an attorney. I am going to kill you. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you."
Whoa. What was that again? Is this Miranda as channeled through Stephen King?
As a matter of fact it is, and things get a lot creepier from there in Stephen King's Desperation, a three-hour made-for-TV movie that airs tonight at 8 p.m. on ABC.
With King writing the screen adaptation of his 1996 bestseller and serving as executive producer, Desperation is pretty true to the horror-meister's 700-page book, at least as far as it goes. But it was reduced from a planned miniseries to a single night's showing, and it inevitably loses something in the process. There are plenty of chills along the way, but the characters are short on development, and it's all but impossible to figure out what brand of evil has taken root in the abandoned mining town of Desperation.
But in the world of Stephen King, logic and depth aren't always of paramount importance. It's the struggle of good versus evil that's central to a King story, and this one is no different.
The hulking cop, played with manic glee by Ron Perlman (Hellboy), has been taken over by an "earth demon" named Tak, which has been released from the depths of an old mine and has been bumping off everybody in town, employing the creepy cop to do its loathsome bidding.
Between murders, the cop has also been grabbing passing motorists from the nearby highway and locking them up, stocking Tak's pantry with new host bodies to inhabit once the cop's own body has been used up - and it's deteriorating pretty fast. Early in the movie he has a few scratches on his face, but before long he looks like he crashed face-first through a plate glass window.
Among the captives are a cynical and world-weary novelist (Tom Skerritt, Picket Fences), a former Bob Dylan roadie (Steven Weber, Wings), a shapely hitchhiker (Kelly Overton, All My Children), and a young boy named David (Shane Haboucha) who's recently developed an uncommonly strong faith in God.
The movie has some genuinely scary moments, and there's enough gore that it's not suitable for younger viewers. There are also a few in-jokes for diehard Stephen King fans. When somebody asks the hitchhiker whether she's heard of Skerritt's novelist character, she says no, then adds, "I pretty much stick to Dean Koontz."
Koontz, of course, is King's best-known rival in the horror novel business.
Naturally enough, the only thought on anyone's mind initially is escaping from the nut-job cop, but once it becomes apparent that Tak is a threat not just to them but to all of mankind, they decide that maybe it's their duty to stick around and try to destroy the demon - despite the fact that Tak has an army of demonically possessed dogs, mountain lions, vultures, snakes, spiders, and scorpions at its disposal.
And what do the good guys have in their arsenal? Uh, well, they've got a 12-year-old kid who may or may not be a pint-sized messiah with a hotline to Somebody Upstairs who knows a thing or two about battling evil.
"So what's the plan?" somebody asks at one point.
"We do what God tells us to do, that's the plan," the kid snaps.
All-righty, then. A little sketchy on details, but hey, it worked for Moses, didn't it?
As the story makes its way toward the inevitable confrontation, there's lots of talk among the characters about whether God is cruel or loving, or even paying attention to their plight. When the smoke clears, the answer will probably be evident to most viewers.
But will there be any viewers watching? In a bit of bad scheduling by ABC - or maybe it's just desperate - the heavily promoted movie event is up against the finals of American Idol on Fox as well as The Academy of Country Music Awards on CBS.
With that kind of heavyweight competition, even Tak might run for cover.