by Jack Sommersby
It's somewhat fitting that in making his directorial debut, author Stephen King wound up responsible for the worst screen adaptation of his work. It's good-looking but hopelessly inept, and just downright disreputable in parts.After years of bitching over botched screen adaptations of his best-selling novels, author Stephen King was given the opportunity by legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis not only to write the screenplay for, but to make his directorial debut with, 1986's Maximum Overdrive, which was derived from his short story Trucks from his Night Shift collection. The result is an irrefutable disaster, though: a full-blown train wreck of a film, one completely devoid of narrative structure, ripe characterizations, cohesive logic, and, most of all, suspense. It's so bad, in fact, that it makes those Andy Warhol productions from the '70s seem almost David Lean-ish by comparison. Yet there's a shaggy-dog quality to it that's a bit endearing: it's so downright awful that the awfulness takes on a distinct charm all its own. (A line from Bill Duke's excellent police drama Deep Cover immediately springs to mind: "Undercover, all your faults will become virtues.") I can't make the case that Maximum Overdrive is even remotely worth recommending, but there are some occasional passable moments to be had.
"Stephen King's Directorial Debut is Horrendously Bad"
For the uninitiated, the story involves the freakish events that occur when rogue comet Rhea-M encompasses the earth for a little over eight days. Apparently, a mysterious force is emitted from it that affects all powered machinery; it takes over things like electric knives, Walkmans, soda machines, and, most of all, 18-wheelers, which trap the patrons and employees inside the Dixie Boy Truck Stop of Wilmington, North Carolina (the city where De Laurentiis' now-defunct DEG Studios was based out of at the time). King fails to explain why certain cars aren't taken over, but quite clearly semis are deemed as more physically imposing and intimidating than, say, a Mercedes or Pinto. Logical slips such as this are aplenty in Maximum Overdrive -- so much so that the viewer eventually breaks down and surrenders to the inanity. (You give into it in the same way that allows us to view corruption in politics as a given rather than an exception.)
From an artistic standpoint, De Laurentiis was an idiot for handing the directorial reins to a filmmaking novice like King. From a business perspective, however, I can see where he thought fans of the author's would get turned on over this ("The King of Terror directs the King of Terror!"). It's a pretty tough call: Given the ineptness of King's screenplay, there's little hope a more adept director could have salvaged things, so maybe the writing is matched up well with the inept direction. Then again, with magnets, two negative sides don't successfully attract. So was the film doomed from the moment King signed on as director? Yep. Does this mean the film is a complete and utter washout? Well...no, not exactly.
King opens the action with an ATM spewing obscene insults at a customer, played by King himself ("Honey, come on over here, Sugar Buns! This machine just called me an asshole!"). Next, we're treated to an impressive action spectacle involving a drawbridge's control panel being taken over, causing unsuspecting motorists to drive out on the bridge as it ascends, resulting in expected fender-bending, windshield-crashing mayhem (accompanied by a shrieking, in-your-face music score by AC/DC). From there, we forward to the sight of a semi with a massive Green Goblin-like mask adorning the grill, and already we sense this'll serve as the central villain of the piece. It pulls into the Dixie Boy, and it's in this (conveniently) isolated location where the majority of the action takes place. Most of the humans are etched as essentially clueless country bumpkins; unlike normal people, they need an extra second or two (and, for some, as much as half a minute) to comprehend any ensuing danger and to take suitable action.
If King does anything right, it's in his introduction of Emilio Estevez as the hero: after revealing the customers and a bubble-brained waitress who makes tv's Alice's Flo seem like Janet Reno by comparison, King cuts to a medium close-up of an arm cracking open eggs on a griddle, and from there the camera pulls back, revealing the face of a hip-looking, attractive Estevez with five o'clock shadow and gold earring, and already we know we at least have an agreeable and photogenic hero to save the day. But the remaining characters are simply horrific! There's a hot-headed young hitchhiker (Laura Herrington) who's more repulsive than seductive. That talented character actor Pat Hingle turns up and overacts like a son of a bitch as an amoral lout by the name of Bubba, the owner of the Dixie Boy, who just happens to have a small arsenal in the basement, complete with automatics and rocket launchers. Then there's The Simpsons' Yeardly Smith, with a high-pitch voice that could shatter copper plating, as a just-married newlywed who drives everyone (including the audience) absolutely bonkers with her constant bickering. And there's also a wide-eyed, fresh-faced kid (Holter Graham) who shows up later to fulfill the youth quotient.
The performances (excepting Estevez') are uniformly atrocious, with the amateur acting soon taking on as malevolent an air as the semis. But this, too, turns incidental in lieu of King's writing -- once it's assumed the film is hopelessly idiotic, you're predisposed into accepting any further awfulness as simply hereditary in this diseased celluloid organism. There are limitations to this, however.
The nadir most certainly occurs at about the halfway mark, where, for no discernible reason except to disgust, King stages an appalling scatological set piece where Estevez has a conversation with a fellow employee while the man is staple-gunned to a toilet having a noisy bowel movement. King is so scatologically obsessed, in fact, that not only does he feature an exploded semi with hundreds of incinerated toilet-paper rolls flying through the air, numerous sub-barnyard references to wiping one's ass ("Shitty job, but someone's gotta do it, I reckon." -- Shakespearean, no?), but, finally, he has Estevez crawling around in a sewer pipe, and then falling face-first into the muck, with his white t-shirt displaying the unmistakable brown stains of excrement. (If someone gave me the choice between assigning my name to this or Michael Cimino's notorious fiasco Heaven's Gate, I'd much rather be associated with wasteful egomania than the bottom-basement presentation of human waste.)
Even if you're into lowbrow humor, though, Maximum Overdrive is still likely to disappoint, because as an exercise in terror it offers up neither scares nor sustained tension. Once a red herring occurs, there are about four to six scenes of disposable exposition that bring the bare-bones story to a grinding halt. The worst of these interludes is the romantic one involving Estevez and Herrington (possessor of the most irritating demeanor and flaring nostrils since Ali McGraw); not only is it perfunctory as hell, but not even a single film frame of a breast or buttock can be spied. (This is not to be!) Essentially, King's short stories have a reason for existing in that form: they've only an inkling of sub-text that's best left pondered over by the reader's fertile imagination. The film versions of Children of the Corn and Apt Pupil serve as valid examples of this, with The Lawnmower Man and The Shawshank Redemption wonderful exceptions because filmmakers Brett Leonard and Frank Darabont ingeniously re-imaged and developed the stories, using them as mere taking-off points to fuel their own unique visions. Obviously, King had no such aspirations.
Ever since his landmark Pet Sematary (the novel, not the dreadful film), King's work has become crushingly futile and just plain empty-headed. He has no problem coming up with neat story ideas but fails to provide the necessary grounding to substantiate them (with his most vapid work still the awful Insomnia -- not to mention his introducing the heinous term "blood gravy" ascribed to a pregnant woman's vaginal fluids in Rose Madder). If given a crack at King's Trucks story, Night of the Living Dead director George A. Romero (whom King worked with on the masterful Creepshow) would likely have made much sharper satirical points of consumers being consumed by their gotta-have material possessions. There's a not-bad sequence where Graham rides his bike down an empty street and sees: a dead dog with a remote-control car lodged in its mouth; a pretty blonde woman hanging half out her bedroom window with blood pouring out of her Walkman-electrocuted ears; a poor old man on the receiving end of a power mower; and the like. Yet none of it really means anything to us the way good satire should -- King touches upon things without slyly tweaking them, too intent on putting the emphasis on the grotesque.
So where does this leave a reviewer? It's a bit of a tough call, believe it or not. While I'd be a fool for chalking up unearned brownie points in King's behalf, it'd be unethical of me to deny the film's positive qualities. First, the bombastic AC/DC score has a pleasurable oomph to it that punctuates, rather than punctures, the action. Second, a few sequences are really nifty, like a flipside on a Norman Rockwell-ian Americana portrait where a possessed soda machine spews high-projectile cans at a baseball coach's groin, chest, and then forehead -- which is then followed by two Little Leaguers getting fatally bludgeoned, along with another getting flattened by a steamroller. Third, the 2.35:1 widescreen cinematography is simply gorgeous, with Armando Nannuzzi's lensing far better than the material it's serving. Lastly, King demonstrates a keen eye for visual composition: he knows what to look at and how to interestingly look at it.
The bottom line is this, though: Maximum Overdrive was clearly intended as a fright-fest and ended up as a pitiful compilation of take-it-or-leave-it parts governed by a shabby sensibility for story cohesion. Once that arsenal in the basement is revealed, you've no idea why Estevez & Co., after blowing up a couple of semis with rocket launchers, don't follow suit with the rest. And when the newlyweds are trapped in their overturned car, you're at an utter loss as to why the semis fail to take advantage of their vulnerability and run them down; it's only after Estevez and Herrington get them out do they start a'comin'. And there's a major snafu that you just can't get past: when the semis are running low on fuel, they communicate to the humans by honking Morse Code to fill up their tanks, and a military-issue machine-gun transport rides up to the diner and threatens to blow them away if they don't comply. But the machine gun isn't a powered piece of machinery, just the transport supporting it, so, according to King's own story logic, the comet's force wouldn't be able to manipulate it. Since it does, then why in the world are the guns and rocket launchers not wrecking havoc on the heroes brandishing them?
In an audio commentary, director L.Q. Jones explained one of the reasons why his 1975 cult classic A Boy and His Dog was successful with audiences was that as a storyteller he adhered to his own philosophy that the more "out there" your story, the more rock-hard the inner logic supporting it needs to be. But the naive King apparently just "winged it" throughout the production process, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink (will a toilet suffice?) to pad and stretch out his flimsy story premise for a suitable feature-length running time. Sometimes, the results are favorable on an agreeable trashy level (like the drawbridge sequence, which is pretty impressive). Other times, you're truly aghast at how shoddy the story line really is (like why the humans don't just sprint off into the nearby woods, where, of course, the semis couldn't get to them).
During the film's promotional tour, Stephen King went on the record stating he'd made a purposely idiotic film to appease "the six-pack crowd" like himself who just want to kick back and enjoy an undemanding dumb film. I didn't buy it back then, and sixteen years later, I still don't. I think King's intention was to make a tension-filled horror classic; he wound up not knowing exactly how to go about this from behind the camera; so after screening the undeniable calamity he'd concocted and realizing just how bad he'd screwed up, he tried to pass the buck onto mainstream Americans, averring that he simply gave the general public what they wanted -- whether they'd be apt to admit this or not. But King got caught out in the end, though. For Maximum Overdrive, after a decent opening weekend, died a quick box-office death, which had more to do with the audiences' intolerance for bullshit than its masterly literary author's supposedly 'happening' film debut failing to be fully appreciated on an idiotic level not even an IQ-depleted cretin could appreciate.
Leave it to Anchor Bay Entertainment to give a two-star film a pristine five-star transfer. This is by far one of the best-looking DVDs I've ever had the pleasure of witnessing. The generous letterboxing preserves all of King's careful widescreen J-D-C Scope compositions. The primary colors are bold and solid, with no bleeding or video noise, and the blacks are deep and glossy. The detail and sharpness of the image is simply incredible! Kudos as well to the re-mastered 5.1 Dolby Digital audio. While it's not as slam-bang forceful as desired, it certainly beats the original 2.0 track, and AC/DC's score has never sounded this good. Extra features are limited to a theatrical trailer (featuring a bearded King directly addressing the audience with lines like, "I've always said that if you want something done right, you've got to do it yourself." -- heh, not in this case, buddy!) and informative production notes. Anchor Bay is usually hit-and-miss with supplementary material, and the absence here of an audio commentary by King ranks as a huge disappointment. Still, this DVD makes for a very handsome package.Rent 1983's The Dead Zone, the best screen adaptation of King's work, which features the best screen performance by Christopher Walken.
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originally posted: 12/13/02 09:26:20