Saturday, May 17, 2014

Cinematic Dregs: Maximum Overdrive

(1986) Written and directed by Stephen King; Based on the short story “Trucks,” by Stephen King; Starring: Emilio Estevez, Pat Hingle, Laura Harrington and Yeardley Smith; 
Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Rating: * ½

“A lot of people have directed Stephen King novels and stories, and I finally decided if you want something done right, you ought to do it yourself.” – Stephen King (from the Maximum Overdrive trailer)

I’ve wondered, off and on, if there was any value to continuing with Cinematic Dregs, my ongoing exploration of the worst of the worst.  Inevitably, these reviews about (generally) awful films take the longest to write, with an inverse relationship between quality and time to complete my post.  While it’s an admittedly painful process, I can rest easy knowing I’m performing a valuable service for filmgoers everywhere, watching these movies so no one else has to, taking one for the team, if you will.  I keep holding out with the vain hope that some minor gem will turn up during my exploration of the awful.  Hell, a few of the flicks I’ve examined (For Your Height Only, Ice Cream Man and The Car) were at least watchable, and even enjoyable in spots, so that’s why my quest continues.  Maximum Overdrive, however, is not one of those films.

In an expression of (allegedly) coked-up hubris, Stephen King, tired of watching other directors handle his work, set out to make a horror movie the way he wanted.  And why not?  Riding a wave of popularity as an acclaimed author, and success writing the screenplay for Creepshow, a fun ode to EC Comics, directing a movie seemed to be the logical next step.  Too bad the results were so inept.  Maximum Overdrive starts with a basic premise that would have seemed hackneyed in a B-movie from the ‘50s.  When Earth passes through the tail of a comet, cosmic forces beyond our comprehension cause machines to take on a life of their own.   The bulk of the movie focuses on the hapless humans terrorized by driverless tractor trailers at the Dixie Boy truck stop.

In an introduction to his treatise on horror, Danse Macabre, King commented, “…if we invest in the people, we invest in the movie… and in our own essential decency.”  Unfortunately for King, he failed to heed his own advice.  The audience is given nothing worthwhile to invest in.  Instead of archetypes, virtually everyone in the film is a stereotype.  Veteran actor Pat Hingle is wasted as a hateful redneck, and a large amount of screen time is devoted to a pair of annoying newlyweds (including a shrieking Yeardly Smith).  In an early scene, when a drawbridge inexplicably opens up, sending one truck over the edge, and other vehicles crashing into each other, we’re treated to a Volkswagen bus with a hippie exclaiming, “Wow!  Far out, man!” (Yep, that’s about the film’s speed.)  Emilio Estevez, whose downward spiral could probably be traced to this film, comes closest to being a sympathetic character.  After Repo Man and The Breakfast Club, it seemed as if there was no stopping his trajectory as one of the more promising young actors of the ‘80s.  That is, until he met this movie. 

Another major offense is King’s inconsistent tone.  When he wants to be funny, he fails miserably, and when he wants to be serious, the results are laughable.  It’s impossible to watch a scene in which an autonomous lawnmower chases a kid on a bicycle with a straight face.  In another profoundly stupid sequence, little leaguers are assaulted by a rogue soda machine and a steamroller.  Maximum Overdrive also fails to follow its own rules.  Why some trucks come to life while others remain dormant, remains a mystery.  By the same token, it’s never explained why the aforementioned newlyweds’ car fails to turn against them.  Things that shouldn’t move, do, such as a machine gun that swivels on its own.  (SPOILER ALERT – If you care) When the survivors are making their getaway in a sailboat, the motorboats docked in the marina make no attempt to ram them.  Earlier in the film, the survivors discover weapons stored in the basement of the Dixie Boy, but they don’t think to use them against the trucks, and become their willing slaves instead.  The titles at the end try to wrap things up, with a half-assed explanation of the strange goings on, but the only thing you’re likely to feel is relief that the movie’s finally over.

Over the years, Stephen King hasn’t minced words expressing his disdain for Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his novel The Shining, implying that Kubrick didn’t really understand horror films.  After watching King’s stab at directing, I think it’s safe to say King may not either.  As a movie that’s more horrible than horrific, Maximum Overdrive may just be the crown jewel of bad movie night.  All others are advised to stay far, far away. 

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