For most of his life, Evan Dossey generally avoided horror films. The genre made him profoundly uncomfortable. This meant he had enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Over the years, he has asked family and friends which essential horror movies he needs to see and spent 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 folks — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
It’s well known that Stephen King’s bibliography is filled with plenty of writer protagonists. Perhaps the most famous among these fictitious scribes is Paul Sheldon from the pages of Misery. Many (myself included) count Misery as one of King’s best works, especially in how it delves into the way creativity can simultaneously be an escape from reality as well as an incubator for one’s own mental prison. Rob Reiner explored those ideas with James Caan and Kathy Bates in his 1990 film adaptation that garnered tons of acclaim and an Oscar win for Bates.
However, Misery is but one side of a thematic duology of sorts with The Dark Half. Both stories tell of troubled writers facing horrendous evil born from their creativity that is hellbent on inflicting pain upon them. While Misery is the grounded (and frighteningly prescient) of the two, The Dark Half is a full-on supernatural journey through the creative process and the artist’s eroding sense of identity. And in 1993, George Romero brought The Dark Half to life in a disturbing adaptation that hits more than it misses and, to some, may still live in the shadow of Misery.
Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton) is a writer who has found success with his work written under the pseudonym George Stark (also played by Hutton). When Stark’s true identity is threatened to be revealed, Beaumont decides to come clean and use the reveal as an opportunity for press attention as he “kills off” Stark. However, things take a deadly and supernatural turn when his literary alter ego materializes out of his faux grave to wreak havoc on the people who caused Stark’s untimely “death.”
The idea of a writer’s pseudonym coming to life for a murder spree is definitely a tough pill to swallow, especially following the more realistic horror of Misery. Romero’s take is successful because it presents Beaumont and Stark’s adversarial relationship with an earnestness that makes it easy to believe. It also helps that there’s an air of slasher mystery that runs throughout the film’s first half. This level hand at presenting the supernatural through a veneer of realism allows the audience to buy into the plot specifically because the characters are reacting to their experiences as if everything is on the up and up. The charade carries even as Beaumont becomes more and more certain of who the culprit is and what he plans to do.
This undercurrent of realism is counterbalanced by Beaumont’s own journey toward realizing his pseudonym is alive and on a revenge kick. As the mystery unfolds and bodies continue dropping, there are multiple instances where Beaumont’s mind manifests horror within his imagination. It quickly becomes clear Beaumont and Stark share a psychic link of sorts, which is understandable given that Stark appears to be a manifestation of Beaumont’s creativity.
However, it’s the way Romero handles these moments of psychic horror links that really makes The Dark Half stand out. The pressure mounts on Beaumont as he experiences horrific visions and loss of control when writing as a result of a direct cerebral link with Stark amid his killing spree. The “fool’s stuffing” dream sequence in particular is an exercise in atmospheric horror and Romero’s ability to lend a certain grimness to peculiarly out-of-place objects in the dream space. This helps sell Beaumont’s confidence in the supernatural situation he finds himself in while he has to contend with a police force unwilling to believe in the truth of what’s happening.
Allowing Beaumont to have a steadily growing knowledge of the supernatural entity calling itself George Stark makes The Dark Half feel more and more chaotic as the film progresses. As Beaumont investigates his own history and learns more about himself and Stark, the sheriff in charge of the investigation, Alan Pangborn (Michael Rooker), remains the stalwart purveyor of logic and reason in the face of the impossible. Rooker’s performance is unwavering in his commitment to selling Pangborn’s repeated effort to find logical explanations in the face of the supernatural. However, he is neither a hindrance to the story nor merely an obstacle who finds himself betwixt the dueling Timothy Huttons. Pangborn and Beaumont’s wife, Liz (Amy Madigan), are important anchors to the rapidly crumbling realism within the world George Stark is inhabiting more and more.
Viewing The Dark Half as a supernatural riff on the themes previously explored in Misery makes for a fascinating window into the way King and his adapting collaborators view the creative mind’s relationship with itself. In Misery, Paul Sheldon is forced by his captor to write a story he has no interest in writing while his erratic and unhinged “Number One Fan” violently chips away at him (and hobbles him in the film). The Dark Half similarly brings Thad Beaumont and George Stark together in the final act under the auspices of a twisted collaboration in which the pseudonym plans to take the reins of Beaumont’s life-force to essentially become a full-fledged human in his place.
Both Misery and The Dark Half depict outside manifestations of the creative mind’s inner demons but in different ways. Annie Wilkes in Misery is a deranged byproduct of a creative endeavor that has Sheldon’s creative tank running on empty at the start of the story. George Stark, on the other hand, is the successful arm of Thad’s creative energy but not attached publicly to Thad himself and is therefore “killed off” in the public eye. The way Annie reacts to the death of the character named Misery in Paul’s manuscript and the way George reacts to being “killed” in the public eye go hand in hand and lead Paul and Thad to discover more about themselves and their relationship to their work, respectively.
While Misery enjoys the well-deserved acclaim and renown afforded it by the stellar and prestigious work of those involved in the film, The Dark Half is a worthy and grisly supernatural continuation on some of the themes of Misery. Romero’s distinctively gruesome eye for horror imagery and commitment to juggling the supernatural with logical reactions makes The Dark Half a memorable adaptation and ultimately an underdog in the storied history of Stephen King adaptations.