Eric Harris is the writer of the website Why Do I Own This? as well as film critic for the Perry County News.
Shift work will kill you.
Graveyard Shift is one of those forgotten Stephen King adaptations that got churned out in the 1990s based on King’s name alone. The story of a textile mill with a giant hybrid killer rat / bat dwelling underneath it didn’t exactly wow audiences or critics, but there’s more going on with this film than you might expect.
The night-shift setting of a factory is tonally and thematically perfect. As someone who works in the factory on an alternating day / night shift, this film spoke to me, but it should work just as much for non-factory workers.
By setting the film in a factory, you can add real-life misery to the supernatural elements. There is plenty of sexism, illustrating what a terrible work environment a factory can be for a woman. There’s the greed of management, which makes you feel like your life doesn’t matter. There’s the childishness of some of the workers, playing pranks or being bullies. There’s the boredom of working long shifts mostly alone. There’s the miserable heat during the summer. And there’s the general hint of insanity that all the workers have from working long hours in the middle of the night. (By the way, I sincerely like my factory job; these are just all the things you might have to put up with.) If you have characters living in that world, throwing a bunch of rats and then a giant killer rat / bat hybrid at them is bound to lead to some entertaining moments.
The setting is thematically vital because factory shift work is something people do to make a living; they don’t do it out of passion for the work. As a factory worker, you think of yourself as expendable to the company. If you die, they will hire someone else. Also, you work so many hours that you think about how much of your life is wasted there, and you tell yourself you will retire as soon as possible out of fear of dying there. On top of that, you also get to read studies about how shift work takes years off your life. So even if you work in a “safe” factory, death is, in some form or another, always in the back of your mind. Graveyard Shift leans heavily into those feelings. The rats and the creature are just metaphors for the death everyone hopes to avoid by working in a factory.
The factory not caring about your life is personified by the foreman, Warwick (a delightfully deranged Stephen Macht). He doesn’t seem very concerned that workers are dying or disappearing under his watch. He is a habitual abuser, giving women office jobs if they have scheduled sex with him. And it doesn’t take much for him to shed the thin layer of sanity he has for most of the film and start to straight-up hunt and kill his workers. Warwick embodies the company man in the most paranoid sense; not only does he not care about your life, he will actively end it, as well.
In reality, working in a factory can make you feel combative towards management. And there’s always a feeling that if things go south, the company will immediately turn on you. But this is all, to a degree, figurative. Graveyard Shift makes it literal, and it culminates in a savage battle between the workers (David Andrews and Kelly Wolf) and the factory man (Macht), as they are reduced to beasts fighting with knives and bones. And while Warwick survives the battle, he is eventually killed by the creature. It’s not rare to root for the creature in a movie like this, and you’re meant to be happy when it kills Warwick. But it’s even more darkly satisfying when that creature represents the death that awaits us all, whether management or shift workers. Maybe “At least we’re both going to get eaten by the creature!” isn’t the most hopeful message to take away from a film, but it’s better than nothing.
Andrews’ character surviving and even killing the creature does mess with this theory a little bit, but it really just means he’s leaving the factory and will live. Were he to stay there, even with the creature gone? It would kill him, and the theme of both management and workers being expendable / replaceable is solidified by the final shot, that shows a “Now Hiring” sign with an added “Under New Management” at the bottom. There’s still money to be made, and it doesn’t matter who’s working.
Despite those depressingly dark elements, Graveyard Shift is very much an intentional dark comedy. The final image of a “Now Hiring” sign is used earlier in the film for comedic effect immediately following a death But it’s mainly a few characters that make it clear that this film, while admittedly nihilistic, can still be fun.
Macht is the standout, delivering such a strange, wonderful performance that you can’t help but think of Nicolas Cage when he’s given the freedom to do whatever he wants. Macht’s New England accent is exaggerated and strange, to say the least, but it’s also hilarious. His reading of common lines and random interjected mutterings of “Yeah, yeah,” make what could be boring expositional scenes much more watchable. I don’t think this is done just for fun, though. Like most of the characters in the film, the factory has driven Warwick to the brink of insanity, so his strange accent is evidence of that. Whatever the reason, Macht is the most watchable part of this movie, and I’ve been quoting lines like, “The show’s … O-VAH!” and “Everybody go back to doin’ what you were doin’!” for years.
In many ways, Macht portrays Warwick the same way Jack Nicholson portrayed Jack Torrance in The Shining (much to King’s chagrin). He’s clearly off balance from the beginning, and it seems like it’s a relief to him when he can finally give in to the insanity. Macht certainly does that near the end of the film, army-crawling and screaming like a maniac. Even his death is funny, biting the creature as he dies. Macht really seems to be enjoying himself, and it translates to the screen.
The other crazed performance is more expected, as it comes from Brad Dourif. If not for Macht, Dourif would be the standout. Even still, he deserved much more screen time. His psychotic glee as he kills rats is great, but his monologue about rats in Vietnam is one for the ages. That scene deserves to be spoken of with the same respect reserved for Robert Shaw’s shark story in Jaws. And I would argue Dourif’s is better.
A few of the other actors add to the humor, as well, most notably Vic Polizos as Brogan, who instantly turns into a maniac once he’s given a hose to spray rats. The overall tone of the film is humorous, too. The aforementioned sign scenes treat death with humor, and Dourif’s character is definitely played for laughs. And then there’s the odd song that plays over the end credits. It’s composed entirely of lines of dialogue from the movie. That is not something the filmmakers would have included if they meant for this film to be taken too seriously.
Writer John Esposito and director Ralph S. Singleton wisely took a very dark story from King and injected some fun into it. I re-read the short story before watching the film this time; it is very short and comes across as a Poe-esque story of death in a factory. I think if they had attempted to film an extended version of that story with that tone, this would have been a truly forgettable experience. Thankfully, they found the chance for dark humor in the story, and cast two key roles appropriately. Because of that, Graveyard Shift deserves a much bigger audience.
That cold opening is pretty disgusting, what with the rat piss and death by picker.
“And Brad Dourif as The Exterminator.” You know with a credit like that, you’re in for at least a little fun with this movie.
The use of a cemetery is typically a cheesy element in a horror film, but setting the credits to footage of a cemetery to finish with a shot of the factory nearby is actually interesting. Of course it sets up that there are going to be more deaths in the film, but it also works for the film’s subtext about literal and figurative factory death.
“And David Andrews as ‘Michael Biehn Passed on This.’ ”
Man, Brad Dourif loves his job.
“That human artichoke. So warm. So juicy.”
“I’ll talk to you later about that there thing.” What a horribly unsexy way to speak to a woman.
“Show’s … O-VAH!”
I love when what first appears to be non-diegetic music turns out to be diegetic. It seems like the Beach Boys song was being used for comedic effect as rats were floating on pieces of wood. Then it turns out to be music coming from a radio in the scene, which makes it even funnier to me. So they’re spraying rats and sending them floating away, and they decide to play some thematically accurate music? I love it.
No way Ippeston stays fired if that is indeed a union shop. He was simply asking about what the actual job was; no way that holds up as a fireable offense.
It seems like a pretty quick turn for Warwick, but he’s honestly been crazy the whole movie. He just snaps in the sub-basement.
Hats off to the special-effects guy who rigged up Carmichael’s mangled arm. As he flings it around pieces of skin and whatnot fly off of it, making it even more gross and disturbing.
Warwick’s plan for the Molotov cocktails was already silly, but it’s even funnier when he goes to throw one and the flame goes out before he can toss it.
Warwick is given one hell of a death. “We’re going … to hell. Together!!!” And he even bites the creature back as he’s being killed.
Never before or since has a Diet Pepsi can been so pivotal to the climax of a film.
I prefer the darker ending of the short story (in which it’s implied they all die).
I would love to learn the story behind that odd song at the end featuring lines of dialogue from the movie, many of which are random. I wish all movies ended with a weird song compiled of random lines from the movie.
For most of his life, Evan Dossey has generally avoided horror films. The genre makes him profoundly uncomfortable. This means he has enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Each year, he asks friends and family which essential horror movies he needs to see in order to fill those gaps and spends the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. This year, he’s sharing the month with those friends and family — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
NO SLEEP OCTOBER 2019
Pop Skull – Richard Propes
The Ghost and the Darkness – John Tuttle