Directed by George A. Romero, 1993. Starring Timothy Hutton, Amy Madigan, Julie Harris, Michael Rooker. 122 minutes.
Thad Beaumont is an acclaimed writer of “literary” novels who also publishes violent crime novels under the pseudonym George Stark. When Thad decides to go public and retire the Stark name, people around him start dying…and whoever’s doing the killing leaves Thad’s fingerprints at the crime scenes. It turns out that George Stark has become real, and he’s not quite ready to retire just yet.
The Dark Half, adapted by writer/director George Romero from a 1989 novel by Stephen King, was filmed in 1991 but not released until two years later, and kicked off nearly a decade of development hell for Romero (he was attached to The Mummy, which he conceived as a stricter remake of the 1932 movie, and Resident Evil). He returned to the public eye in 2000 with the straight-to-video Bruiser, and he hasn’t been quite the same—or as vital—since. (And I’m saying this as someone who enjoyed Bruiser…not to mention Land of the Dead, and Diary of the Dead…Hell, I managed to find a few nice things to say about Survival of the Dead!) The Dark Half marks the end of a nearly fifteen-year winning streak that started with the excellent Martin in 1977 and includes classics such as Dawn of the Dead and Creepshow.
King has written enough stories with writers as protagonists for it to have become a cliché, but The Dark Half (inspired heavily by King’s experience in “outing” his pseudonym Richard Bachman, the name under which he published five novels, most notably The Running Man; King even incorporated some of Bachman’s final work-in-progress into The Dark Half) is one of his most intriguing stories about the relationship between a writer of fiction and the worlds he creates. Romero reproduces these themes, and the overall storyline of the original novel, remarkably faithfully: all the major set pieces are present, along with some nice little character moments (including one of my all-time minor King characters: the Connecticut cop who discovers a car stolen by Stark and is fond of saying “Ask Momma if she believes this!”). I certainly came away from The Dark Half feeling that Romero understood the source material.
However, sometimes the adaptation is a bit too faithful. You can’t translate a story from a four-hundred-plus-page novel to a two-hour film without taking a bit of license. The pacing of the two formats are different, and there are a couple of places where the film drags and the pacing should have been tightened up a bit. King is also a master of writing things that look great on paper and stupid on screen, and a couple of very faithfully reproduced scenes simply don’t work well visually (for example, the “automatic writing” sequence). There’s also quite a few lines of dialogue taken directly from the novel that sound a bit awkward when spoken aloud.
Despite the faithfulness of the adaptation, fans of the novel will find some some surprises on hand here. Most notably, Thad’s friend and colleague Rawlie DeLesseps is now Reggie and female (perhaps because there’s another “Rawlie DeLesseps” in Creepshow, which, lest we forget, was written by King). Romero also makes the interesting decision to shoot the movie in a style that approaches giallo; specifically, Mike Donaldson’s murder scene shows a great deal of Dario Argento influence. (Note that Romero made The Dark Half on the heels of Two Evil Eyes, a collaboration with Argento.) In fact, The Dark Half might be the last Romero movie that really looks distinctive; one of my problems with Land and Survival is that they look more or less like every other American horror movie being made nowadays.
(I may be a bit of a broken record on this issue, but it seems like most horror movies nowadays all look almost exactly the goddamn same, indies as well as huge Hollywood productions. One of the best things about ’70s horror movies is that most of whom we today consider the “master” directors—not just Romero and Argento, but also David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper—have, or at least had, very distinct styles. There seem to be few high-profile modern horror directors with distinct visual styles nowadays, and even the strongest modern stylists—Eli Roth and Rob Zombie amongst them—seem to derive most of their influence from the directors of the ’70s. This is why I want Kevin Smith to stop fucking about with bullshit like Zack and Miri Make a Porno and Cop Out and get Red State into production already, and why I felt Grindhouse would have been more interesting if Tarantino had directed Planet Terror instead of Death Proof.)
Timothy Hutton is excellent as Thad. He also plays Stark, and somewhat less convincingly—although it doesn’t detract as much as you might think, and in fact this may be deliberate. My interpretation of the character (both in the movie and the novel) is that he’s intended to start out a bit cartoony and one-dimensonal, and gradually become more “real” as the story progresses, and certainly Hutton’s performance as Stark in later scenes is more nuanced and subtle than earlier ones. (The one exception is a scene in which Stark tells Thad’s wife that he hopes she will “think well” of him once he’s taken over Thad’s life. The implication in the novel is that Stark is being sincere, but Hutton delivers the lines with obvious sarcasm.) Most of the rest of the cast is also excellent, with Michael Rooker putting in a wonderful understated performance as the county sheriff. Amy Madigan (as Thad’s wife Liz) and Julie Harris (as Reggie DeLesseps) also deserve special mention.
Overall, I’ve always felt that The Dark Half was one of King’s most underappreciated novels and it’s good to see it treated with such respect by a talented filmmaker who understood the material. I hope that Romero is eventually able to regain the vitality that he shows here. (I dunno…maybe he should stop it with the zombie movies already? Just a thought.)
Moment of Zen
“Ask Momma if she believes this!” (Although, sadly, there is no mention of fucked-up crawdaddies.)