Thursday, September 1, 2011

Movie Review: "The Dark Half" (1993)

"We all have something of the beast inside us.  We can either suppress it or encourage it.  In your case, you encouraged it too much. In your subconscious, you wanted it to live. You wanted it so badly, it actually came to be." -- Reggie to Thad in The Dark Half

Stephen King and George Romero have had a long association, although that association has resulted in only a few movies actually getting made: Knightriders (I'm being generous there, since King's only involvement was a cameo appearance), Creepshow, Creepshow 2 (which Romero wrote and produced), Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (Romero wrote the screenplay for the "Cat From Hell" segment), and The Dark Half .

What fell through the cracks: Romero-directed adaptations of The Stand, Pet Sematary, and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, all of which were deeply in development as Romero films at various points.  I'm by no means an expert on Romero's filmography, but my perspective as an outsider is that he's a legendary director who has, despite the legend, really only managed to put together a small handful of truly notable films.  He's a bit like John Carpenter in that regard, I suppose.

In 1991, while filming The Dark Half -- a movie based on a massive bestseller from only a couple of years previously -- it must have seemed as if Romero's fortunes were in the midst of changing.  Two years later, when the film was finally released after lengthy distribution woes, the result was indifference from both audiences and critics.

So: what happened here?

The thing is, I don't think The Dark Half is a bad movie.  It isn't a particularly good movie either, though, and in some ways, I'm at a bit of a loss to explain why that is.  I'm tempted to blame the source material: after all, the notion of a writer's pen name coming to life and going on a slicing-and-dicing spree is ... well, it's ludicrous.

The reason it works in the novel is that Stephen King's ability to spin a yarn is quite considerable, and he was able to combine his excellent narrative with enough subtext that it ended up being genuinely weighty on a thematic level.  That's all fine and good on a conceptual level, but King was also writing at a sufficient level of prose quality to make it all hang together.

So for the movie to have worked, Romero needed to replicate the weighty subtext, and then also bring enough filmmaking prowess to the table to keep the premise from being a stumbling block.

Unfortunately, neither of those things happened.  One of the biggest problems with the novel is that King -- perhaps purposefully -- really doesn't make it terribly clear just what George Stark is, or how he came to be.  Maybe he's a ghost; maybe he's the ghost of Thad's never-born twin; maybe he's a Forbidden Planet-esque projection of Thad's subconscious, a Monster From The Id with a southern accent and decomposing flesh. King never quite manages to spell that out one way or the other, but I'd argue that he gets away with the omission ... barely.

Romero never quite manages to define George's nature, either, although he makes a couple of valiant stabs at it.  Problem is, those attempts are actually working at cross purposes, and they serve only to muddy the waters, not to clear them up.

Consider the quotation at the top of this article.  Here's some more dialogue from that scene.  "I think the absorbed fetus was merely a vessel.  A stolen body, if you like.  It just happened to be there, wholly by accident, and Stark used it.  He took it for his own."  Reggie continues on, telling Thad that "Stark is a conjuration ... an entity, created by the force of your will."

You will perhaps notice that these statements contradict what Reggie goes on to say about Thad having created Stark.  I could accept either of those explanations; I cannot, however, accept them both simultaneously. Admirable attempts, both: I wish Romero had picked one and stuck with it.

Because of this, the movie feels unbalanced from a thematic standpoint.  I don't think we ever feel entirely sure of what is going on, either above or below the surface.  So what we're left with is the filmmaking itself, and while there are some good elements to that, there are also severe problem areas.

Timothy Hutton is not one of those.  At least, not during the vast majority of the movie.  He plays the dual roles of Thad and George, and he's quite good in both.  

As Thad, I think he actually makes improvements on the character.  In the novel, Thad is a bit of a blank; here, we've at least got a charismatic guy with excellent hair, and that counts for a lot.  The only times Hutton drops the ball as Thad are during a couple of scenes in which he gets angry. In one, he bellows the line "He doesn't want to be dead anymore!", which is both grammatically suspect AND poorly delivered.  If this was the best possible take that editor Pasquale Buba had to work with, then I hate to think how bad some of the outtakes must have been.

As Stark, Hutton is even better.  I'm not sure why Romero opted to have Hutton wear some prosthetic makeup to alter Stark's features a bit, but that hardly matters.  Hutton exudes menace as Stark, and walks with a fuck-you swagger that someone else (after Romero) ought to have taken advantage of in the twenty years since that role.  

I'm sure plenty of people who read the novel disapproved of the decision to have one actor play both roles; after all, in the book Stark resembled the "person" as Thad had imagined him, whereas here we have to assume that he secretly imagined himself as Stark all along. In a way, I think that might actually strengthen the themes a bit, and even if it didn't, Hutton was great in both roles.  Sadly, it didn't buy him much as a result.

The remaining major roles -- Liz Beaumont and Sheriff Alan Pangborn -- are filled out by Amy Madigan and Michael Rooker.  Here's a photo of Amy Madigan in the role:

Here's a photo of a child who looks vaguely like Michael Rooker as Alan Pangborn:

Seriously, there's just not much on the interwebs in the way of Michael-Rooker-as-Alan-Pangborn photos.  Either that or my Google-fu has failed me.  Either way, that kid is creeping me out, so I'm going to continue to type so as to make him go further up the page and therefore out of my sight.

Moving along, can I complain some more about the editing?  Sure I can.  There is one incredibly-poorly-paced moment in which Rooker, standing by the corpse of poor Homer Gamache, barks to a deputy to get every policeman everywhere working on the case; "I want to get this fucker!" he snarls.  Cut immediately to some policeman somewhere driving by a poorly-lit pickup truck on a poorly-lit used-car lot, and of course he immediately knows that he's found the stolen vehicle.  This is a fantastic example of how NOT to edit a transition from one scene to another.  Got to give the story room to breathe a bit, fellas.

The rest of the movie, luckily, hangs together better, although occasional moments stand out like sore thumbs.  Early on, the child actor playing Thad begins having a headache, and literally flings himself onto the bed in what is about as poor a depiction of physical pain as I have ever seen.  Yikes.

There are also some casting decisions that fundamentally don't work (hardly an isolated incident in Romero's filmography), and while individually none of them are disastrous, cumulatively I think they hurt the movie.  With a movie that has this out-there of a premise, you have to be able to believe in everything that's happening, or it's all in vain, and every scene that involves a substandard performer just weighs the whole down that much more.  Hutton, Madigan, and Rooker make up for a lot of that, but they can't make up for it all.  (And Rooker, especially, can only pull so much weight, as his character is almost totally removed from the climax!)

I would also have to complain that the film ends way too abruptly.  The novel gleans a lot of its impact from the post-climax suggestions that while Stark has been dealt with, the problem itself -- Thad's darker impulses -- remains.  Given how much emphasis the movie puts on Thad's potential for darkness, it's a shame Romero opted not to pound on those chords a bit heavier as a coda.  As is, the movie just ... stops.

Lest I sink too far into negativity, though, let me mention a few things I think work well.

For one thing, the birds are fairly well executed.  There are a couple of really, really bad effects shots while Thad and Reggie are looking at the sparrows, but the climax is solid, and I love the shot of the birds massing outside the hospital at the beginning.

As mentioned previously, I also like the added emphasis on Thad's darkness.  Romero wisely added a scene in which Thad is confronted by Frederick Clawson, the blackmailer whose discovery of Thad's pseudonym prompts Stark's forced retirement.  As a part of that scene, Thad "threatens" Clawson by telling him that he is going to write him into a future novel ...and put his fictional self to a very nasty death.  Thad even goes so far as to coo the details of this "murder" to his infant children!  This is all very solid stuff, and it helps to make the first act of the film engaging.

Young Thad is typing a story titled "Here There Be Tygers."  Kingophiles will chuckle at this.

I very much appreciated the lack of phony Maine accents.  That's another decided plus.

The score by Christopher Young is good, somewhat in the vein of what Danny Elfman was doing during this era.

Finally, I liked the nightmare sequence, in which George communes with Thad -- or Thad communes with himself, if you prefer -- during his sleep.  It's surreal and creepy, and it's aided big-time by the use of an Elvis Presley song, "Are You Lonesome Tonight?"

Let's discuss that for a bit.

First of all, let me say that I love that song.  I generally love Elvis songs, and that's one of my favorites.  I'm aware that it's cheesy.  However, it is also creepy.  It's creepily cheesy AND cheesily creepy, and top of that, it's also entirely persuasive.  In some way, this completely fits the character of George Stark, and the somewhat tacky elements of the song don't hurt that; they enhance it.

It gets better. Elvis, as you may already know, had a twin brother -- Jesse (sometimes spelled "Jessie") Garon Presley, who died during birth, some half an hour before Elvis Aron Presley came into the world.  There are some biographers who have claimed that Elvis was -- in the metaphorical sense -- haunted by his twin's death, and that Elvis's success can in part be attributed to an active desire he took to live twice as much and accomplish twice as much so as to make up for his brother's untimely death.

If that don't give you the chills, I don't know what would.  In his mostly-excellent television movie about Elvis's life, John Carpenter and the screenwriters played this angle up, going so far as to have Kurt Russell film a scene in which he is sitting in a room talking to his brother, looking for inspiration from him.  Elvis's shadow is cast on the wall, and it's eerie as hell.  It's not a perfect movie, but it's got a lot in it that is sublime; that scene is one of them.

Romero, then, did a very subtle thing in choosing an Elvis song for The Dark Half.  The song would work even without the real-life elements of twin-related tragedy in Elvis's own life, but with those elements, the song becomes somewhat goose-bump-inducing in the movie.  That was a great move on Romero's part, and if the rest of the film had a few more like it up its sleeve, then The Dark Half would almost certainly have a better reputation that what it's got.


Elsewhere in the world of Stephen King, while I've been writing this, has delivered King's new novella, "Mile 81," to the Kindle program on my laptop.  (I don't have a Kindle, sadly.)  I'm sorely tempted to open the program and start reading, but it's fast approaching four in the morning, and I don't want to be falling asleep while reading brand new S.K.

So, I know what's on the docket for tomorrow.  Also on the docket for tomorrow: watch the DVD I bought today of the brand-new release Children of the Corn: Genesis.  I'm sure it's going to be a masterpiece.

I hope to be able to get to both of those things tomorrow, and to also write up a review of each.  They'll be spoiler-free, and therefore brief, and therefore it's probably an attainable goal.

Until then, if the chairs in your parlor seem empty and bare, gaze at your doorstep and picture me there.


  1. "I very much appreciated the lack of phony Maine accents. That's another decided plus."

    A-frakking-men. As a New Englander (in exile) I am constantly appalled by these. New England accents are as varied as Southern accents, but there seems to be this singular go-to awful-approximation of one that is all too damn prevalent. (For both Southern - my Dad's from Georgia, so that's the only one I can pinpoint with accuracy, but I can hear a great deal of difference between it and, say, a Florida panhandle drawl - and New England) Storm of the Century had some of the worst offenders in this regard, although I really enjoyed that one overall. (Nothing beats Laura Linney's horrendous attempt at a Boston accent in Mystic River, where she just ends up sounding mentally handicapped. And Ben Affleck - despite BEING from the Boston area - can't pull one off, either, which is odd. Anyway.)

    Quite a fair review. I just saw this for the first time last night and enjoyed it as well. Still picking over a couple of things. I haven't read the novel, yet, but the movie was decent enough.

    Good catch with the Elvis stuff - I didn't pick up on that at all, but that certainly adds to the subtext.

    I thought the same thing with Timothy Hutton's performance. Why hasn't any other director picked up on this aspect of his performance skill set? He plays a good baddie.

    I don't know what to make of Romero (Side-note: I had no idea he almost made TGWLTG or the others you mention. Interesting.) Night of the Living Dead, The Crazies, Creepshow, Dawn of the Dead = all classics. Then, his other stuff is so hit or miss. (Bruiser and Knightriders have some interesting things going on, but ultimately, I think they're flawed.) I'll add this one, though, to his list of hits.

    1. My guess is that if you liked the movie, you'll love the novel. I look forward to finding out!

  2. I went through a Romero marathon after his death and this wound up pretty low on the list. One of those movies where there’s nothing specifically wrong, it just never really takes flight.

    It’s too bad that he didn’t have the foresight to cast the perfect Ed Harris as Pangborn, seeing as how they had already worked together and his wife is playing Amy!

    1. Yeah, that would have been cool. I'd also have settled for having Michael Rooker star in "Needful Things." Missed opportunities both!