61 Days of Halloween: The Children (2008)

The Children, which bears no connection to eponymous 1980 film, continues Ghosthouse Underground’s newly started tradition of showcasing independent horror films that are truly deserving of a spotlight on a bigger stage. This film was recently featured at Toronto After Dark and should be a testament to my feeling that that particular year’s field was very strong indeed.

It is a subtle film indeed, which just goes to show that the horror genre does not need to spoonfeed its audience exactly what is happening at every single turn. The wheels start turning slowly but very surely; as two sisters and their families meet up at one of their houses in the English countryside to celebrate Christmas.

Their children start to come down with a very mysterious virus, which seems flu-like. We get as much detail on what’s wrong with them as the parents do, which is fine. This allows for the parents not to be the typical stupid victims in horror film, and makes most of the kills occur at the first chance the children get.

It’s a film that doesn’t get overly-contrived. We know just enough but it never gets bogged down in details, and it is likely to please the horror aficionado whether they like children (or the acting version thereof) or not.

Another very effective trait of this film is that it’s quite a nuclear tale and occurs in an around this secluded property in its entirety. The unity of space adds to the immediacy of the threat they were facing. They, of course, have to remain stranded there but it is always an effective trait to have in a story of its kind.

It’s also a film whose violence is more about its quality than its quantity, which again proves that body count is usually a cover-up for an ineffective scenario. You may be able to guess what will occur at the end of a film with a seemingly isolated problem, but I will not give it away.

It is a film that finds numerous ways to unnerve you whether it be score, the children screaming, the build up and the violence both actual and implied. It is a film that should most definitely be seen by enthusiasts of the genre.

8/10

61 Days of Halloween: The Children (1980)

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment, I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

The Children may be the best way to introduce oneself to Troma Entertainment, this is a film that I first came upon at Monster-Mania Con and chose it as my first full-fledged introduction to the indie film giant. One could hardly hope for a better introduction to their work than this film, having seen The Toxic Avenger since and Tromeo and Juliet previously this is the truth: this film is basically funny only when it intends to be and can be very effective.

This is a film whose print was lost for all intents and purposes for about two decades. Even the remastered version presented on this DVD is missing a second or two from one scene creating a grindhouse-like artificial jump cut. However, this Cameron J. Albright scripted and produced project does have its redeeming qualities not belying the tongue-in-cheek intro to the film hosted by Troma president Lloyd Kaufman.

The film takes a very typical 1980s model for a terror tale, a disaster at a nuclear power plant, and makes it simple and accessible. This very time-specific fear is counterbalanced by the exploitation of a parent’s worst nightmare: finding their children are missing. Even though the parental figures displayed in this film are typically aloof and unaffected it does feed on the audience’s fear. The sum of fears is simple and the concept is simple: once exposed to the radiation they become mindless destroyers seeking to burn all they touch. Having children, the epitome of innocence to most, turn bad is of course commonplace in horror, but this film turns the simple gesture of a hug into something that should be feared and loathed. One of the most effective moments in the film is a very quickly taken hug by an unaffected child. It is one of the most frightening moments of the film because we already expect the worst.

The make-up effects, which are crucial to this particular tale, are quite good and likely were an influence on the later films cited in the introduction. Even with the phases of burning being introduced with dissolves most of the times and not cuts the shock of the first incident is still rather good and it is another case of how going into a film as a virtually blank slate can be a very good thing indeed.

What’s also refreshing, in essentially what ends up being a zombie film, is that our heroes aren’t too slow on the uptake and only waste a few rounds of ammo before figuring out how to best dispose of these creatures.

There is some very good POV camerawork building the suspense in the first inspection of the empty bus. The acting is not nearly as forced and as hackneyed as one might expect from a Troma picture and some performances and scenes even stand out as being decent and well-done, the bottom line is it’s never painful which even some good horror films are guilty of.

The first impression this film leaves is much stronger than it leaves after a second viewing so Netflix might be the best option for those uninitiated to the Troma style. Fans will certainly want to purchase it. However, it is still well worth your time and I most definitely wanted to and did see it twice. It comes recommended so a score is practically irrelevant, but if pressed it’s an 8/10.

61 Days of Halloween: The Crazies (2010)

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment, I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

First, a comment on The Crazies’ status as yet another film in a long line of remakes: after having recently seen George A. Romero’s original film The Crazies (1973) I no longer opposed this remake. Typically they should be looked at on a film-by-film basis and the original could be improved on, so this was fine in theory if not in fact.

This film starts very strongly with some very notable scoring and some chilling scenes starting with the inciting incident on the baseball field. Most of the action in the beginning flows through Sheriff David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant) and it makes the mystery and horror very tight and close to the vest. The myopic view of the film allows for a very successful build in the horror as many of the characters we meet early fall prey to the disease.

The missteps begin kind of like an avalanche, one little rock rolls out of place and several other things follow. The first of these is that the jump to the assumption of contaminated drinking water is made very quickly, too quickly; it’s debated before they put a finger on anything else. Also, a touch at the beginning with the military satellite views and read outs in are a strength of the film and later they are a detriment because the military is too anonymous in this case.

Around the time when the city becomes occupied by the military, which sets up its perimeter to contain the infection, the film starts to suffer. Those we assume to be uninfected are trying to escape but they take unnecessary detours and the pace starts to suffer with many drawn out skirmishes with small victorious moments of brilliance interspersed among the trite stock episodes.

It is ultimately cannot avoid the trappings of a virus film, which is essentially a zombie movie with a different enemy. There are suspicions of who is infected, killing first and asking questions later, and unease in the survivors and aside from trying to offer unique kills nothing exciting is added to the equation. As is the case with all of these films nothing is ever over, which means we could get more Crazies which would be unfortunate indeed.

Even with the military moving in and posing a threat they are like rats in a maze just trying to avoid dead ends where they can be caught and killed, and there is no light shone upon the townspeople’s situation for far too long. While it can be to a film’s advantage to have the audience know things characters don’t, this takes far too long and slows the film down because the characters do need to find out in order to act at some point. So if we’re ahead of the tale and have to wait for the characters to catch up that’s not good.

There was, however, a goodly amount of intended humor and good acting, especially for the horror genre, in this film. It’s just a shame the material doesn’t quite live up to their capabilities and the early promise the film showed, it truly was a textbook first act but unfortunately for The Crazies films have three.

5/10

11 Creepiest Kids in Supporting Roles

Okay, I know what you’re thinking? Where the hell does dude get eleven from, and no, I’m not setting up a Spinal Tap reference. What I am doing is living up to some of the precepts I put forth in this post. So, in this list there were quite a few possibilities that I decided didn’t make the top 10, but one really stood out and it featured in my favorite horror film of 2011.

It’s really no trick to make a kid scary in a film if that’s the premise of your plot such as in Village of the Damned. In fact, it’s old hat. I’m not knocking the scary kid as a horror film motif, far from it, but it is a much simpler task when that’s the main goal and your protagonist or antagonist, as the case may be, is a child.

This list seeks to acknowledge those who through performance, or circumstance, were the Creepiest Kids in Supporting Roles. Those who made a big impact with minimal screen time. Some of them don’t even feature in horror films and some are the beneficiaries of great filmmaking touches and perfectly suited for the effect the director sought.

11. Spencer List as Martin Bristol in Bereavement (2011)

As mentioned above, this was the selection that came closest to making the list before being dropped in consideration of the arbitrarily considered round number of 10. The bottom line is: if something is good enough to be included among the best it should be. This is why I decided on a top 25 film list for 2011. True, there’s a tragically informed backstory that tinges this performance, but what makes this silent turn so frightening is the way Spencer List interprets his character; distant but not disengaged. You always sense wheels are turning far behind a vacuous facade, that makes the conclusion both work and terribly chilling.

10. Mikael Rundquist as Boy in Dream in The Hour of the Wolf (1968)

Ingmar Bergman’s one surrealist horror tale gets one of its great jolts when its protagonist, played by Max Von Sydow, is attacked and bitten on a cliff over looking the sea by a would-be vampiric little boy. The scene is Rundquist’s one appearance in the film but is set up and executed to great effect, and is a standout in a film of many memorable images.
 
9. Jake Thomas as Martin in Artificial Intelligence: A.I.

OK, the next two selections prove out that there’s not only horror on this list. Many readers will already know my great appreciation of this film but it also presents us with a great creepy kid. Prior to Martin’s return home we feel sympathy for him and then we see him plot, much like a real kid would, to be rid of his unwanted artificial brother.
 
8. Eszter Gyalog as Lucifer in The Annunciation (1984)

Aside from intellectual stimulation this existential Hungarian film also brings you a throughly creepy rendition of Lucifer (on the right) as portrayed by a child, as are all the characters in this film. He has his falling, but he also tempts Adam and Eve, follows them through time and plays with the fate of mankind. If you want an effective devil you’re not necessarily seeking horns and sulfur, but cunning and persuasion, and that’s what you get here.
 
7. Fabiano Malantrucco as Giulio in The Last House in the Woods (2006)

First, if you miss old school giallo you need to get this Ghosthouse Underground selection. Second, Malantrucco in this film does the very difficult balancing act of being both convincingly innocent and evil and is one of the many strong points that this film has.
 
6. Will Sandin as Michael Myers (Age 6) in Halloween (1978)

This is one of the more shocking and resonant entries. Michael’s age when he initially perpetrated these heinous crimes is a secret the film holds on to and it is stunning to see it revealed. Not to detract from the brilliant work that Daeg Faerch did in the remake, but there is something to be said for both Michael’s past being more nebulous, and for him looking like an innocent. It is a brilliant touch by Carpenter.

5. Ari Lehman as Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th (1980)

Slots #6 and #5 are separated by a hair both in effectiveness and in length; they are very short appearances but memorable nonetheless. While the it’s the inferior film, the impact of Jason’s appearance, and the execution thereof, is greater hence it gets the edge. While creepy it is more emotionally rounded since Jason is not the antagonist of the first film so there is some sympathy there.

4. Kyra Schon as Karen Cooper in Night of the Living Dead (1968)

This has become perhaps the iconic image of the film The Night of the Living Dead such that it has been used as the cover image on DVD reissues and the like. Few note that this character is not ever-present in the film just very, very impactive.

3. Joe King as Billy in Creepshow (1983)

This was actually the performance that inspired this list. Joe King, son of Stephen and now best known by his nome de plume Joe Hill, stars in the frame that surrounds the tales in Creepshow (and adds another level to the film) and he is identifiably creepy which makes it more scary. It’s a tongue-in-cheek cautionary tale of what happens when you deprive a kid of his comics.
 
2. Lisa and Louise Burns as the Grady Twin Daughters in The Shining (1980)

OK, while this one may seem kind of obvious it needs to be said: Who knows what The Shining would’ve been if it had not been for the Grady twins being cast such as they are. They are our first and most frequent hosts to what secrets the Overlook holds and just downright creep-tastic.

1. Davide Marrotta as Patua, Bruckner Child in Phenomena (1985)

As if it wasn’t bad enough to make you see it once here you get a mirrored image. Well, such is life. Without giving too much away about in Dario Argento’s film Phenomena this kid and his character steal the show. He ends up being the best and most frightening thing about it. Granted most of that has to do with prosthetic work but that is the nature of the beast, for lack of a better term. The scenes with this character’s involvement elevate the film to a level it would’ve otherwise been unable to achieve. Not to mention that this is the most frightening mug I’ve ever beheld on screen.

Horror Films and Stephen King (Part Seven)

De Laurentiis was the sole production company involved in the making of this film. They gave this movie a budget of $10 million dollars, which may have been risky considering their spotty past varying from Conan the Destroyer to Blue Velvet. Of their 22 productions four were released in 1986. The fact that they spread themselves so thin may have lead to the variance in the quality of the films and their financial success.
    

The distribution of this film is what really sunk it, as in almost no one saw this film. DEG didn’t have the distribution power even of a New World Pictures thus not many theatres ran the film. Even if they did get a decent amount of screens there was still the problem of bad timing. 
 

Maximum Overdrive got slammed financially and here’s why: it began slowly in June, (AIP would have called it I Was an ‘86 Blockbuster) and they rolled in: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Back to School, The Karate Kid Part II and Ruthless People. Then on July 2nd and 4th Disney attacked with The Great Mouse Detective and Flight of the Navigator. OK, so there are a lot of comedies and family films what’s to worry … (gulp) … Aliens, the follow-up to the original blockbuster comes out and becomes the dominant film of the next few weeks beginning on July 18th. With the horror market cornered a small unassuming film directed by a writer involving trucks comes out, what do you expect to happen? Well, as that dude Murphy would say, if he had lived in the 80s, “Yo, it gets worse!” 
 

A fortnight after the truck expedition Rob Reiner released one of the finest King adaptations to ever hit the screen, Stand by Me. It was a film that caught everyone by surprise, including Stephen King, who later remarked, “It seemed to me that Stand by Me was the first really completely successful adaptation of my work.” (Stand by Me). I believe part of that comes from a true filmmaker who wasn’t afraid to involve himself in the text in handling the film. It wasn’t just a studio picking up his latest offering, or struggling writer maxing his credits cards to get a shot or a no-name director getting his one chance. 
    

Ironically, the marketing of Stephen King is only an issue when it’s a horror film. When The Green Mile came out he was the author of The Shawshank Redemption, with Hearts in Atlantis  he was the author of The Green Mile. Dolores Claiborne was probably also thrown in the mix at one point. It’s as if they think he’s only good when he writes something other than horror.

I’d seen Stand by Me as a child and had always liked it. It was one of those things I came to later rediscover in adolescence/early adulthood and when I found that King had written that tale it confirmed his genius in my mind. King and Reiner seemed to have come from similar upbringings and it lead to probably one of his most fruitful collaborations. King commented in 1990 that “Rob Reiner, who made Stand by Me, is one of the bravest, smartest filmmakers I have ever met. I am also amused to note that the company Mr. Reiner formed following the success of Stand by Me is Castle Rock Productions … a name with which many of my long time readers will be familiar.”  (Midnight, xiii). 
 

   

Often the relationship has not been as chummy. King is said to have had many a feud with Kubrick and has publicly aired his sentiments about The Shining over the years. Yet, he is quite an admirer of DePalma’s Carrie, as am I, while he finds no real amusement in his own book which he once threw out, I agree with that instinct but am so very glad his wife saved it from the wreckage. While I know it’s true that it’s usually the studio/distributor that makes the decision to plaster a movie poster with “Stephen King’s” or “From the producers of Independence Day” I sometimes hope that he stipulated that it be removed if he was unhappy with something, like Christine.
    

John Carpenter’s Christine is a galumphing piece of crap about an unsympathetic nerd that never should have been made. The book, however, is a fascinating, ominous, well-developed masterpiece told from three separate points of view and you can sympathize with all the characters. And like the master he is, you believe this scenario somehow because he makes you. 
 
   
To successfully adapt a book one must realize what makes each medium unique in order to capture the book’s essence on film without ruining it like millions of misguided dorks have done in the past. Ira Levin author of Rosemary’s Baby commented on Roman Polanski’s adaptation in a letter to King stating “There is a reason for his fidelity to the book, incidentally…His screenplay was the first adaptation he’d made of someone else’s material; his earlier films had all been originals. I think he didn’t know it was permitted – nay, almost mandatory! – to make changes.” (qtd. in King, Danse Macabre, 296). It is always wonderful when a film can be made that follows the book as faithfully as Levin feels his was followed. However, it’s not always a success like a Harry Potter or a Rosemary’s Baby the words ‘slavish,’ ‘slow,’ and ‘boring’ often come up in reviews. People who want drawn out movies that give you two to two-and-half hours to really examine the characters and the situation their in are rare, more and more studios are reverting to the 90 minute film length as opposed to the 120 and above.
  


 
The issue of time is one reason that Stephen King has found such a comfortable home on ABC writing mini-series’. In 1999 and 2002 he made two originals called Storm of the Century and Rose Red. In the latter he had the luxury of waiting 100 minutes before sending his protagonists into a haunted house whereas, in a feature film most producers would’ve already wanted the story to be over.
    

In the end, making Maximum Overdrive was a valuable experience for Stephen King. Since 1986 it seems that he’s taken a more active role in some of his productions and has ultimately learned to pick his battles. He’s since found a medium in which he can write long screenplays filled with rich, rounded characters and he has since become a producer. Thanks in part to Reiner’s success more accomplished filmmakers have since been attracted to his projects. The high-end Kingflicks are more frequent and there isn’t as much junk inbetween. He’s been involved with Frank Darabont on two occasions on The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile and Darabont has optioned the rights to a short story entitled “The Mist” [It has since been released], William Goldman has adapted three of his novels into films Misery and Hearts in Atlantis and the forthcoming Dreamcatcher. King wrote an episode for Chris Carter’s X-Files and is shopping an adaptation of Patrick McGrath’s novel Asylum to be directed by Jonathan Demme [This never came to fruition]. He’s also developing a television series based on Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom for which he will write pilot [This did happen].
    

Many readers who like to be scared by King, when they’re not going to court with Grisham or seeing the turbulence in Steel’s world, have fallen out of favor with King’s work. Stephen King is a writer who is constantly honing his craft. He is writing richer, more complex novels and has mastered other mediums along the way. A little over 36 years after his career in film began King’s legacy is only now beginning to show his true potency.

Short Film Saturday- The Hearts of Age

Here’s another short that comes from a cinematic legend’ school days. This is a silent (the score, which is very appropriate was added later on), surrealist piece by Orson Welles made when he was 19.

There are commonly referred to images throughout and it’s tonal more than anything else and effective being as such. There will be some discomfort for modern viewers as there is an actor in blackface, my assumption is that it’s done for effect and commentary.

Here’s the blurb from the site that hosts it:

The Hearts of Age is the first film made by Orson Welles. The film is an eight-minute short, which he co-directed with William Vance in 1934. The film stars Welles’ first wife, Virginia Nicholson, as well as Welles himself. He made the film while attending the Todd School for Boys, in Woodstock, Illinois, at the age of 19. 

The plot is a series of images loosely tied together, and is arguably influenced by surrealism. This once-rare film is easily seen today thanks to DVD extras and sites such as YouTube. Many point to it as an important precursor to Welles’ first Hollywood film, Citizen Kane. Welles and Vance were college friends. The latter’s only other film on record is another student short – an adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1932.

To view click the link below:

http://ubu.com/film/welles_hearts.html

Horror Films and Stephen King (Part Six)

Stephen King has always been somewhat uncomfortable with the marketing of his name such that he created his alter-ego/pseudonym in large part to avoid the media’s scrutiny of his work. His name was Richard Bachman. “I’ve been asked several times if I did it because I was overpublishing the market as Stephen King. The answer is no. I didn’t think I was overpublishing the market …but my publishers did.” (Bachman, ix). 
 

Over-exposure is something that Hollywood has never been afraid of, especially when a gifted writer who people love to read comes along. In fact, the film which I examine in this paper Maximum Overdrive was recently re-made for TV and it was called Trucks. Many a time King has had little or no involvement with many of the films made from his work and in the past many people have had little or no regard for his actual text or for his input on the project, this has since changed.
 

“Sometimes I feel like Mickey Mouse in Fantasia. I knew enough to get things started, but once they started to march, things are never the same.” (Bachman, vii). Stephen King was taking the helm of Maximum Overdrive just after his pen name had been “outed.” In a way, this was a chance for King to take control of a project but even this was marketed and commercialized. King was the center of the theatrical trailer claiming that he was “Going to scare the hell out of you.” The one sheet also proclaimed the film a masterpiece before it was released. This marketing scheme was poorly thought up, while it’s hard to sell a horror film that’s not as scary as it’s supposed to be, it’s more difficult to sell a film when all the audience sees is the director saying how scary it is. One thing the trailer does seem to imply is that King was looking for someone to do his work justice up ‘til then no one had until Rob Reiner did later in Stand by Me.
 

Miscasting has been a hindrance in many King films. In reference to the protagonist in The Running Man King said “he’s about as far from the Arnold Schwarzenegger character in the movie you can get.” (Long, vii). This is a problem he faced in Maximum Overdrive was in choosing the wrong actors. Not many good actors do horror films when they’re already famous and it’s hard to make a successful horror film when the characters are so horribly miscast. When the audience knows something was a novel their critical faculties seem abnormally heightened and this makes every decision crucial.
    

His difficulties also came into play in reference to length. King is one who likes to slowly develop things and needs time. He once commented that “these days it seems everything wants to be a novel, and every novel wants to be approximately four thousand pages long.” (Nightmares, 4). With film being what it is today, and what it was starting to become in 1986, it’s no wonder that Maximum Overdrive feels like a sketch by Picasso, it lacked color. Sure, Picasso could do a lot with a pencil but to see his full genius he needed a larger surface. King likewise was confined by the need to be a 90 minute film, I sometimes get the feeling that just another half hour and it might have been a whole other film.

Horror Films and Stephen King (Part Five)

Note: What follows is a full analysis of the entire film, all other parts of this essay are fairly spoiler-free with regards to the film but this is not. You’ve been warned.

Maximum Overdrive begins with a title insert basically stating that the earth will be stuck in the tail of a rogue comet for about a week. The insert seems a extraneous to me and takes away from the story to a certain extent, however, King may have stated his reasoning in an earlier writing “…any horror film (with the possible exception of the German expressionist films of the teens and twenties) has got to at least pay lip service to credibility” (Danse, 156). One will note that even Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street give their slashers traumatic pasts they must exorcise. In this film the explanation comes early and removes a necessary suspense element I feel would’ve helped the story out. One may also notice that the picture of the earth used in this sequence is backwards meaning Egypt now looks out on the Atlantic. I don’t know how no one caught that.
    

The film is set in Wilmington, North Carolina for the duration of the story. The only other time King set a tale in the south was The Green Mile. He’s set tales in Nevada, Pennsylvania and had a few go across some states but usually relied on atmosphere or people he could sketch reasonably well, which is Maine. The characters in this tale while are sometimes sketched and drawn out by King, to the extent he could with the limitations of the film but they’re acted like caricatures in most cases.
 (Note: This geographic note was correct upon the original writing. Since then King has taken to wintering in Florida, thus his fiction goes there sometimes too).    

We first see the way that the comet affects machinery on the streets of Wilmington.  First, we see a news ticker over a bank that constantly displays the phrase “Fuck You.” Then we get the early King cameo in which, he’s a bumpkin who’s called an “Asshole” by his ATM machine, this is humorous but nowhere near as good as his role as Jordy Verrill in Creepshow.  These small details may add a bit of eeriness to the beginning but as is the theme throughout this film we get a lot more humor than fright. In this sequence all the laughs are intended.

After this we get what might be one of the more frightening sequences of the film, unfortunately no one really escapes this scene unharmed. There is no protagonist who makes their way out of this wreckage and moves on to where a bulk of the action takes place. Instead, what we get is quite an effective crash scene that shows that all machinery can now think and the drawbridge lifts even though all the cars got the green light. The bridgemaster and his assistant look befuddled and the bridge is a disaster area. Everyone is stuck at the base of the lifted bridge. A motorcycle rider flies off the edge, this is the source of the big continuity error one man slides of his motorcycle and we see him seemingly go in two directions, and also go out the gap which hasn’t opened as big as camera angles would have us believe later. This huge mistake is also surprising considering Evan A. Lottman, who edited The Exorcist and Sophie’s Choice worked on this film. This scene is somewhat freaky but is also a little extraneous.
    

We then cut and see the Happy Toyz truck, it’s adorned with a huge demon face on the grill and has a slogan emblazoned across its broadside (“Here Comes a Load of Joy,” King’s ability to come up with clever and humorous slogans is uncanny). It is driven by Andy (J. Don Ferguson) who stops at the Dixie Boy Truck Stop. We get our first good shot here it comes when Andy’s talking to one of the gas jockeys, it’s a medium from the inside of the truck and we get a hint that soon there’s going to be some trouble.
 

We’re introduced to our protagonist next, Billy played by Emilio Estevez in his first role outside of “The Brat Pack.” Someone should have told Emilio that it is very difficult to flex your acting muscles and make a name of yourself from one horror film. Inside the Dixie Boy we now see that the pinball, coffee and cigarette machines are going crazy in the game room and we get a bad performance out of Videoplayer (Giancarlo Esposito) who is quickly killed off.

The first act’s pace is relentless as soon after Duncan (J.C. Quinn) is outside filling the Happy Toyz truck and the pump has mysteriously stopped. He removes the nozzle to check what’s going on and gets sprayed in the eye with diesel. At this moment we get our first sample of the score, the true score and not any sort of source music. While the score like so many is reminiscent of Hermann’s Psycho we only get this stabbing music on a few rare occasions. A few old AC/DC songs were used for this film along with a new one entitled “Who Made Who?” I happen to know that Stephen King is a big fan of AC/DC but I feel that he knows enough about horror to not have left most of the music track in this film dead. There is a lot of silence and it wasn’t very effective at all. AC/DC provided the wrong kind of mood with their high to medium Heavy Metal riffs. It makes me wonder if most of the budget wasn’t diverted towards pyrotechnics and Emilio’s salary further taking away from the film’s quality.
    

We’re later introduced to Bubba Hendershot (Pat Hingle) who shows himself to be the human villain in this tale. He is unscrupulous and uncaring. His character is quite well played. Then we see King’s first big touch when we see a headline about the comet. Prior Duncan and Joey (Pat Miller) had been talking and it was more subtle and many people won’t realize that the “Mickey Mantle” they were referring to is Deke (Holter Graham), Duncan’s son. In this film King had a little more than 90 pages and too many characters to deal with in that allotted time.
 
   
Our next two mechanical attacks work in different ways and introduce two more characters. A hand-held electric saw attacks the waitress Wanda June (Ellen McElduff) gets her forearm sliced into this is quite a gross moment and also establishes Billy as the protagonist. Then we cut to the baseball field and Deke’s team has just won and the coach is attacked by soda cans shot out of the vending machine. There is some great makeup work in this scene and it’s also pretty funny along with a shocking steamrolling shot that literally made my jaw drop. There are more characters to get to though.
    

We are in a car and getting a radio report about the odd occurrences a la Night of the Living Dead, but more subtle, and are introduced to the Bible Salesman (Christopher Murney) and Brett (Laura Harrington) a hitchhiker he has picked up. The Bible Salesman actually ends up being quite a good hypocritical character in this tale carrying a briefcase with has gold leaf on it and has “The Holy Bible” scrolled across it. Brett is going to be the love interest and this party like Deke are heading to the Dixie Boy. Laura Harrington should have gotten an Oscar…thrown at her, she was so terrible in this film. As a matter of fact the casting in this movie for the most part is rather weak; I wonder why in the closing credits the Casting Director got top billing. A director should know his actors limitations and should have reworked his characters accordingly.
  

Staying in the mode of less than satisfactory acting we switch over to Curt (John Short) and Connie who are a newlywed couple. Connie (Yeardley Smith) who went on to make a name for herself on The Simpsons as Lisa, is so annoying in this role it is nearly impossible to sympathize with her. John Short is one of the actors who ruins some of Stephen King’s great dialogue by having no idea how to deliver it. This is where King should have stepped in and altered the dialogue. It does pain a writer to change effective and intelligent dialogue for simple, pedestrian dialogue but it should be done when the actors sound stupid saying these lines.
    

Along Deke’s journey on bike to the Dixie Boy we see the wrath of the machines has left many dead bodies splayed all over the place. We get an eerie feeling again with a guitar riff for each corpse that is found. If there is one thing that can be said for this film is that all the effects are well done; as we see the trucks maneuver, drive and terrorize people. When these vehicles are on the move on their own they even drive better than real people in film they did quite an admirable job in that respect.
    

Perhaps the best dialogue King has to offer us in this film is when the Bible Salesman is trying to sell some editions in the Dixie Boy. This is also where we see Wanda June start drinking it may be the most well written scene of the film capped off by the salesman saying “This Bible has everything from the creation of this beautiful world to the fall of mankind.” This is the closest we come to seeing the implications that King had intended to impose, aside from a painting of the Last Supper we see for a few seconds, in the short story and there isn’t enough emphasis placed on this scene in my opinion. I also feel it’s a humorous commentary on how the salesman doesn’t know his scripture because all Bibles, regardless of denomination, include those tales.
    

Right before Duncan goes out to be killed we see how the blood has escaped his burned eyes. It’s a rather creepy shot that reminds me of one of King’s favorite films X – The Man with X-Ray Eyes. This death occurs in minute 32 and already we’ve seen so many characters. The Bible Salesman is later sent flying into the sewer after he charged the truck that smashed his car. King, being one who doesn’t believe in any one Christian doctrine, throwing a Bible Salesman into a gutter is a great touch. The truck that decks him also rolls over his Bible briefcase which I liked. When the body is returned to the truck stop we get another good piece of dialogue Bubba says, “He’s dripping all over my floor.” to get the people moving.
    

Stephen King also usefully employs the sewer in the attempted rescue of the Bible Salesman who we find many minutes later is clinging to life in the gutter. This provides the film with it’s only truly good looking and dark cinematography. John Short also displays his inability to deliver a great off-color line written by King in the sewer sequence (“What happened to the people who peed in this?”). The salesman we see is ultimately not worth saving when Deke finds him and the salesman says “Help me or I’ll kill you,” very Christian.
     

Just after the trucks smash a phone booth, we assume in order to effectively isolate them, and begin to angrily circle the truck stop instead of attempting to build some tension we cut away to Curt and Connie, who are chased by an eighteen-wheeler, it’s literally a cut to the chase situation. King had the opportunity to have a situational and somewhat atmospheric film but I feel that was robbed from him by producers looking to imitate many of the 80s poorer films.
    

The way in which these massive hunks of metal are fought most of the times is through gunfire, this is aided by the fact that Hendershot has a huge armory in his basement, which seems to hold everything from AK-47s to Bazookas. The only way in which the special effects fail in this film, being no ballistics expert I’m not sure, but the bazooka’s missiles are never seen in flight we only see the truck exploding. With something that big I’d go to the optical lab and add it even if it is technically inaccurate. 
    

King touches upon the flying airplane mentioned in his short story but this also comes out as comical. Once again we have a nice shot from the inside of the plane and can see the plane operating itself. It is turned humorous by the employment of Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries.”
    

Aside from the seemingly incessant presence of the comedy in this film we are also pestered by the lack of darkness; we are bombarded by light. “The dark, it goes without saying, provides the basis for our most primordial fear.” (Danse, 182). Cinematographer, Armando Nannuzzi, had done plenty of films in Italy for years on end and had most recently done quite an admirable job with King’s Silver Bullet. The nighttime footage in that film was effective in deemphasizing the low-budget werewolf but he seemed to thrive on the use of daylight to make some of his more impressive shots in Maximum Overdrive. In all fairness, Maximum Overdrive is a bright, pretty to look at film with sporadic good shots but it’s not quintessential horror. With the positive affect of darkness being so obvious one must wonder if budgetary concerns or perhaps weakness in the lighting department played into it. Even though much of the story is at day time in prose King must have realized he’d need more nighttime scenes for the film. He also knows that not only is it needed but the dark and night time is often heavily used in certain films. “All but approximately eighteen minutes of John Carpenter’s Halloween are set after nightfall.” (Danse, 186). Whereas after sunset we have but 17 minutes in the dark, and then we also have the interesting situation in which most of the human deaths occurred in broad daylight. In this film, the first scene to be set in a darkened place is in minute 48 and the sun only sets three minutes later more than halfway through the movie. Later on in the sequence, the truck stop also loses its power but this is not used in any sort of dramatically moving way and it comes back on before ever having taken any sort of toll on the story. And we are made well aware of it by a beautiful shot of the sunset.

Afterwards, we get the weird green effect in the sky which is larger in some areas of the sky than others. It was used at the beginning to symbolize the comet’s tail. In a poorly acted moment yet again provided by Laura Harrington, in the role of Brett, assumes the comet must be causing all this. It’s in a way also King’s most unfortunate piece of writing because the title card shown from the beginning is practically reiterated for the audience.  At night it seems that only Wanda June and Deke have been affected negatively. Billy is courting Brett, all others are unmoved by the celestial oddity. It’s very unusual that King with the understanding of character he has wouldn’t have gotten on these actors and told them they weren’t driving home the suspense and claustrophobic elements that should have been what was carrying the film.
    

Billy and Brett dominate this section of the film with their nighttime romance which I can only describe as filler. While I understand people can cling to each other in such a situation there was too much focus on the romance for my liking while I do applaud King for not being afraid to implement it. Wanda June dies an overacted death, she was completely drunk and yells the lines I least liked from King’s short story “We made you.” and if a film such as this can have a subtext she just blurted out part of it and she made this little speech more than once.

    
Another thing which constantly plagued this film was that it was very heavy with incident in the beginning and towards the middle of the film the action begins to taper off. The story becomes diverted to an extent.
    

Many times we are shown that Deke is the best drawn of all the characters. In the beginning we see him check on his injured coach, he’s then scared off by the salesman. He breaks down upon hearing about his father’s death, then the next morning has apparently regressed and is blowing bubbles. Not only that but when the trucks start beeping he not only realizes it is Morse code but translates it. What would have made this a better film was some more focus. At the end, when the great exodus of the Dixie Boy begins, we see eleven characters running, three of which I don’t think ever had their name uttered in the film but were perhaps named in the script.
    

The Morse incident is where the trucks admit that they need to be refueled. Billy’s reasoning eventually wins out. They pump gas for the truck because the dried out ones might call for one or many that can destroy them. A few more vehicles do show up including what appears to be a mini-flatbed with a machine gun set on a tripod, which in the end seems a little too beatable. During this sequence Emilio Estevez’s performance, which was nothing earth-shattering to begin with, also slips when we see him yelling at the truck, the Happy Toyz one with the Green Goblin face.
    

Towards the end we get an escape. The truck stop blows up. The Evil Truck which has been harassing the people and is the villain gets a bazooka in its open mouth. This moment is somewhat effective as we think for a moment maybe that one can’t be beat but then it explodes. We end with another annoying title card with a sappy finishing touch and some odd Soviet involvement in destroying a “weather satellite.” And the film closes on a comedic note with the last line of dialogue being Connie saying “Ooh, I think I’m gonna whoops my cookies.”
  
 
Maximum Overdrive is a film that has a few shocking and jaw-dropping moments. All the effects are well done and the cinematography is well-composed. What King ends up providing is a movie that ends up being a pretty good comedy/adventure, which is probably why he didn’t like it all that much. He should definitely give it another go because despite the bad casting there were some good performances in this film most notably those of Holter Graham as Deke and Pat Hingle as Hendershot. One thing King can be thankful for is that his film doesn’t ever tread into the so bad it’s good region.
 

Horror Films and Stephen King (Part Four)

The horror genre in film has attracted more than its fair share of crud-ass directors. Amazingly some of these people who lack in the fundamentals essential to filmmaking have managed to create scary films like David Keith’s The Curse, a modern day rendition of Lovecraft set in Tennessee, I dare you to watch it alone! Some, actually many, take a story that’s not all that bad and assemble a group of people who are just talent-less and waste a perfectly good premise, like in Richard Caesar’s The Calling. 

 
“The worst movie sends its own message, which is simply to say stay away from other movies done by these people; if you have seen one film by Wes Craven, for instance, it is safe enough, I think, to skip the others.” (Danse, 216). Contrary to King’s opinion people who begin their careers making junk as filmmakers can move on and make some damn good stuff. Case and point, Craig R. Baxley directed one of the most painful movies of all time Bad Day on the Block, better known as Under Pressure, in 1997 but quickly turned around to direct both Stephen King’s original mini-series (Storm of the Century and Rose Red).
 

And horror always seems to produce some of the worst films in the world, in America anyway, well, why? Stephen King puts it very astutely in his non-fiction examination of the genre “low-budget moviemakers are attracted to horror because it seems to be a genre which is easily exploited – an easy lay, like the sort of girl every guy wanted to date (at least once) in high school.” (Danse, 216).
    

Not only does the genre have to deal with low-budget moviemakers, which isn’t so bad, which the 90s have proven with the rise of the independents, but you also have to deal with rookie filmmakers working in what is likely the hardest genre to be effective in.
 

King approaches the horror genre in film with a very fair-minded and level-headed attitude. He understands that we’re not dealing with Shakespeare and every style has its standards. “I am no apologist for bad filmmaking but once you’ve spent twenty years going to horror movies looking for diamonds (or diamond chips) in the dreck of B-pics, you realize if you don’t keep your sense of humor you’re done for.” (Danse, 200). And one thing many people may not realize is that he is a very funny guy one of the few authors who doesn’t write humor who can make me laugh out loud. One of Maximum Overdrive’s “failings” is that it succeeds as being a comedy. There is some funny dialogue but the tone of the piece ended up being a little more lighthearted towards the middle and it feels totally unintentional.
 

“Once you’ve seen enough horror films you get a taste for really shitty movies.” (Danse, 200). This may be at the root of at least part of the problem with how Maximum Overdrive came out. While King understands the way horror works a more filmic approach was needed and is always needed when handling his tales. The concept of genre should be on the backburner. There were definitely attempts by King to try and build these characters through images but he may have run both out of time and cash to be completely successful.

Horror Films and Stephen King (Part Three)

The short story “Trucks” first appeared in Cavalier, a men’s magazine, in June of 1973, which probably means that no one actually read it, or very few people did anyway. It was later published in Night Shift, King’s first collection of short stories, in 1979. This was King’s first venture into automotive horror. It’s not a sub-genre many of us ever consider but as King demonstrates in Danse Macabre it certainly exists.
 

“Even such a much-loved American institution as the motor vehicle has not escaped the troubled dreams of Hollywood…” (Danse, 163-4) From this tone we can see we’re usually not going to be dealing with masterpieces even within the genre. He then goes on to discuss a movie starring James Brolin called The Car. “The movie degenerates into a ho-hum piece of hackwork before the end of the second reel (the sort of movie where you can safely go out for popcorn refills at certain interval because you know the car isn’t going to strike for another ten minutes or so).” (Danse, 164).
 

We later are given a sense of what would be a better tale and King makes reference to Spielberg’s Duel (164) but ultimately concludes that to find other interesting car stories one should look towards stories and novels (164).
 

So, if King was not actually told to do this story because it was the one that De Laurentiis was willing to buy from him, perhaps he thought he was better off going into territory that hadn’t been handled all that successfully in the cinema.
    

King’s tale is very short and obviously needed to be expanded upon in order to make it into a motion picture. While the short story isn’t perfect, there are areas in which it is much more successful than the film. First off, we get no moments of comedy in the tale, unless we’ve seen the film, and I like the way the characters interacted in prose better.
     

In the short story there was more of an emphasis on waiting it out and also on speculation of impact. The characters discuss how much food they have stored and start to fill jugs with water; these issues are not addressed in the film, it’s as if everyone knows they’ll only be trapped for two days at most. The impact of these trucks taking over may have plays itself in the mind of the narrator and occasionally through dialogue. When there is a debate over pumping gas; the issue of being slaves to the machines comes up. Billy imagines people all over the country pumping gas into driverless trucks. He imagines an escape to a cave a digression to near pre-historic times. The inability for the trucks to reproduce and the contrast of whether or not they were currently being assembled at that moment was also postulated. 
 

Where the story is similar in some places is meaningless because of the way King approached the short story. He starts with the people already stuck in the truck stop. Even if the studio would require the cockamamie comet excuse later on, fine but it is much more frightening without such an outlandish set up; a set up might I add that doesn’t logically lead to machinery working and thinking on its own. Another way in which the short story is superior is in the ending. Here’s the way it ends: “Two planes leave silver contrails etched across the darkening eastern horizon. I wish I could believe there are people in them.” (Shift, 142).  And it’s over. They’re stuck and it doesn’t look like they’re going anywhere. It’s a great ending, but obviously not one many film production companies will want to have, so King had to change.
 

Stephen King has always been a fan of the unknown and while he knows it’s difficult he occasionally likes to leave things opaque like in Dreamcatcher. It may have been better if he had been allowed to do that with this film.
 

In fairness to the film, the characters were more drawn out than they were in the short story. It was just a case of having too many and not having enough time to deal with them all.