Sep 30, 2012


Empty Promises

Maximum Overdrive
Stephen King
Stephen King
Emilio Estevez, Pat Hingle,
Laura Harrington, Yeardley Smith,
John Short, Ellen McElduff,
J.C. Quinn, Christopher Murney,
Holter Graham, Frankie Faison

"Stephen King's masterpiece of terror directed by the master himself."

During the mid-80's legions of Stephen King fans were excited by the news that King would be directing a film version of one of his stories. His fans had high hopes for this one. I know I was one of them. There's the old canard that the movie is never as good as the book. While no doubt true in many cases, simply comparing the film versions of Jaws and The Godfather with the books on which they were based demonstrates that this ain't always so. An equally pervasive idea among fans of whatever it might be, The Lord of the Rings for instance, is that the more involvement the authors have in adapting their own work for film the better. This could be directly, say having the writer drafting the screenplay. Or even posthumously with the expectation that the film makers preserve every jot and tittle of the author's text. So when King announced that he was going to be filming an adaptation of his own work many fans were thinking "finally, we're going to see this done right". I know, I was one of them.

The thing is that in retrospect it turns out that King had not been treated all that shabbily in film up until then. We had Carrie, Salem's Lot and The Shining made in the 70's and Christine, The Dead Zone and Cujo in the 80's. Though not all masterpieces I don't think it could be fairly argued that any of them were turkeys. Firestarter might have been and Children of the Corn definitely was, but this is still not a bad ratio. No, King's work would be adapted into many terrible films but in 1986 these mostly lay in the future. So when King made Maximum Overdrive in an attempt to finally get it right, he was addressing a problem that didn't really exist yet. Ironically, in doing so he managed to make the worst adaptation his work in existence at that time.  Make no mistake, Maximum Overdrive is a disaster. It was a critical and box office flop, a failure in any artistic sense, and someone lost an eye. Oh it has its defenders amongst fans of bad films. Lots of wacky, loud stuff happens so it would be hard to claim that it's boring. In much the same way that being trapped in a room full of flatulent, shit slinging monkeys wouldn't be boring. But that's not what we were promised, promised by the man himself.

"I'm going to insult
 THE HELL out of your intelligence"
In the trailer King confidently declares "I'm gonna scare THE HELL out of you!" Maybe, but it wasn't going to be with Maximum Overdrive. When the film bombed King claimed that he'd been aiming to make a fun, campy B movie. It fails even in this regard. This is no Night of the Creeps or Night of the Comet. The gags have not an ounce of wit. If the movie is funny, and it's not, it would be unintentionally so. I don't believe that King was not trying to give the audience what he thought they wanted. Something not shitty.

In an interview promoting the film, King discusses how the spirit of the author is so rarely captured on screen. He goes on to say that he had received tons of letters from fans complaining about the film adaptations of his work and states, "letters-really started to flood in after The Shining, they ruined your book..." Oh please, this just seems like a cheap shot at Stanley Kubrick. King's dislike of the film version of The Shining is well documented and I find it hard to believe that the Kubrick adaptation is the one likely to receive the most complaints. Though, that novel was a favourite amongst King fans, and fans can be so damn nitpicky, I guess it's possible. King goes on to praise Milos Forman's adaptation of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest as an example of a film which really captures the spirit of the author. Of course, Ken Kesey hated Forman's film. I think that there may be a pattern here.

If Maximum Overdrive was what King thought his fans wanted to see then he must of have had a very low opinion of his fans. Or, he has terrible taste in film. This doesn't seem to be the case based on the insightful writing that he has done on the subject. Maximum Overdrive really runs with the low in the lowest common denominator. This has since been confirmed by King himself who referred to the film as "a moron movie" chalking up the films failure to his inexperience and being coked up out of his mind at the time. That I can believe. And you know, I really don't hold it against him. So he made a crappy movie, big deal. I recently read Under The Dome and it rocked my socks off. I still have oodles of respect for the man. But Maximum Overdrive serves as a shining example to fans who'd like to see their favourite authors adapt their own works for film, be careful what you wish for.

"Emilio...Emilio...psst!...Emilio.... you got any blow?"

An adaptation of the short story "Trucks" from Night Shift, about a bunch of trucks that come to life and start killing people (much better than it sounds, honestly). Maximum Overdrive expands the concept to include all machines turning murderous. Not a bad idea but the concept isn't followed through. We have killer trucks, a killer walkman, a killer arcade game and so forth. The cars continue to behave themselves because...King got lazy? In the film we eventually get an explanation for the machine apocalypse, space aliens. Yet the strength of the story's premise is playing on the irrational fear that machines have a malevolent will of their own. Who hasn't screamed at their computer when it crashes or at their car when it won't start? Attributing a stubborn conscious to machines is a common experience. Now, what if the machines weren't just stubborn but actively murderous?

The film implies that we are witnessing a machine rebellion. Like the machines got tired of being used and decided to turn the tables. Angus Young shrieks "Who Made Who" and the waitress character shrieks at the circling trucks, "We made you! Where's your sense of loyalty you pukey things?" The hokey, tacked on extra terrestrial explanation undermines this by attributing the machines hostility to an outside agency. Sure, the idea that machines could suddenly come to life and hate and kill is irrational and absurd but that doesn't make it a bad concept for a horror movie. So long as the concept is followed through with and maintains an internal logic. This does not happen here. But hey, that's just a blown opportunity. It's not what sinks this film. No, it's the completely unappealing characters and atrocious dialogue that do that.

In many ways Maximum Overdrive is like The Mist. A group of colourful yokels are trapped together as hostile forces gather outside. But the characters in The Mist are presented with skill and display some depth. The people here are caricatures. King loves his dim-witted rubes and here they are at their dim witted rubiest. Good acting and snappy dialog can make this sort of thing work. Check out Slither or Return of the Living Dead for examples of broad, humorous characters portrayed well. The acting here ranges from bad to nerve wracking, though given the screenplay it's hard to blame the actors.

All you really need to know about the characters is that Emilio Estevez  is the good guy and Pat Hingle is the bad guy. Everything Estevez does is good and everything Hingle does is bad. When Estevez fires the rocket launcher it's a good thing when Hingle fires get the idea. There is a hilarious fat guy we see taking a loud poop on the crapper at one point. Hysterical. A kid gets run over by a steamroller. Someone gets killed by a soda machine. Yeardley Smith (Bart Simpson's voice) made my ears bleed. Then the movie was over.

On the whole, I preferred Kubrick's film.

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