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. Once again, 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.
Our unofficial No Sleep October: Stephen King Wednesdays this year have covered a lot of ground in the master of horror’s filmography. Heather Knight wrote about how Andy Muschietti’s two-part IT adaptation captures King’s unique talent for creating characters who speak to the universal truths and traumas of our lives. Matt Hurt’s essay on The Mist focused on the darker side of King’s abilities, with a story about how the scariest monsters lurk within the human heart and how sometimes all it takes is a little pressure to let them out. Last week, Nick Rogers took a look at how King’s original screenplay for Sleepwalkers expresses the raw political satire of the author’s 1980s golden era.
With four weeks in October, it was open season on which King-related film to cast a focus. We’ve already hosted excellent essays on a number of his adaptations and efforts, such as The Shining by Dave Gutierrez, Pet Sematary by Heather, Graveyard Shift by Eric Harris, Doctor Sleep takes by myself and Mitch Ringenberg, my review of the newest Blu-ray of The Stand and even a review of the most recent season of the show Castle Rock. So … where to go?
I thought about this year’s King essays. The empathy of IT, the despair of The Mist and the biting social commentary of Sleepwalkers? My only choice, truly, was King’s sole directorial effort: Maximum Overdrive, aka the one where Emilio Estevez fights back sentient semi-trucks and which embodies none of those virtues. It’s pure high-concept gonzo King. A “moron movie,” as he described it, created in a fugue state amid his notorious addiction to cocaine during the mid-1980’s. King is right to call it such because it’s pretty dumb, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie. Well, it’s that, too, but that … that doesn’t …
So, the story is a riff on Night of the Living Dead, with a comet entering Earth’s atmosphere and, in this case, animating lifeless machinery. Estevez’s character, Bill, is trapped in a truck stop along with a waitress and other workingman characters. Characters die quickly, and graphically, in pileups, crushings, cuttings and all manner of attacks from psychotic machines. It’s deeply satisfying on a visceral level, aided by AC/DC’s original soundtrack. The cast also includes a young Giancarlo Esposito of Breaking Bad, Yeardley Smith of The Simpsons, and Marla Maples of, um. I digress.
This is crazy, stupid cinema. None of the survivors has a memorable backstory, internal conflict or trauma to process, as in IT. The conflicts that do arise among the survivors are pretty standard “I’m going outside! No you’re not,” lacking the emotional intensity and “society in microcosm” approach of The Mist. Political satire? If you consider the evangelical Bible salesman immediately throwing a prospective customer on the floor at the first sign of damage to his car while screaming “Out of my way, bitch!” the peak of commentary, well, good. It’s pretty funny, vintage King kind of stuff, even if it’s slight.
Instead of any of that, Maximum Overdrive features trucks being exploded, kids being flattened and a sentient drawbridge dumping folks into a river. Our heroes sneak around sewers, hide on roofs and do their best not to get run over. Eventually they’re forced to fuel up the new mechanic overlords. Estevez has never had less charisma, but he still gives it his all. (He’s an actor I actually like a lot, and whose directorial effort last year, The Public, was very good.) Maybe the production was a wild ride, but first-hand accounts are, again, quite slim.
Look, I grew up a fan of Stephen King. I caught onto his work in 2002 at the age of 12, starting with The Eyes of the Dragon. I read everything he published up to the release of The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower in 2004 but haven’t read much since. Sometimes I contemplate how what now feels like vintage King was, at the time, fairly recent King, and it makes me sad because we all grow old.
Case in point: When I read the short story “Trucks,” upon which Maximum Overdrive is based, I thought it was a fine short story taking an everyday object and making it murderous for the sake of entertainment. When watching Maximum Overdrive 18 years later now, I look at it slightly differently because I am now a very boring adult who spends his days looking at trucks all day for professional reasons and his nights watching crappy movies from the 1980s in a desperate attempt to remember what it was like when machines coming alive and trying to chase us didn’t seem like a lot more fun than our current predicament.
Then again, the heart and soul of King’s work has always been that his dark imaginings are preferable to the utter clusterfuck of any present circumstances. There probably isn’t enough thoughtfulness in Maximum Overdrive to yield a commentary about how the rise of conservative economic bullshit had, and has, led to a hollowing out of the working class under the yoke of unyielding conservative dogma that emphasizes productivity and property over dignity, right? We can’t really be in the midst of a half-century-long moral and cultural realignment led by the most selfish amongst us with little cultural respite, right?