Before we even get going, let me establish one thing: Graveyard Shift is not a good movie. When last I ranked all of the King-based films, it came in at #54 out of 83, behind The Lawnmower Man, Children of the Corn, and (why, Bryant?) Dolan's Cadillac but just ahead of Children of the Corn IV and the first two seasons of Haven.
Lists like that are highly subjective, of course, and I find when I make them that they depend as much upon my mood of the moment as they do upon any idea of critical objectivity I might be nursing. And in fact, it probably outweighs that critical objectivity more often than not.
Here's what I had to say about the movie at that time, a bit less than a year ago:
I kinda love it. It's a terrible movie, but for whatever reason, I have an affection for it. So sue me.
Some of the acting is ludicrously bad, but I like Stephen Macht as the villain, and I thoroughly like Brad Dourif in his small role. He plays an exterminator who takes his job so seriously that you get the feeling he would be better off in a lineup of other dudes who are applying for a job with Darth Vader to locate and detain the Millennium Falcon. Dude: chill; they're just rats.
So, do I stand by those words now?
Yeah, sort of. Especially the last two sentences. Here's the thing, Graveyard Shift IS a bad movie, but despite that, I've got some affection for it. I cannot explain why that is. I didn't see it until I was an adult, so there's no nostalgia factor at play. The best I can figure is that it . . .
Sorry, I've got nothing. I just typed the first part of that sentence, assuming the sentence's resolution would present itself to me (that's how these things usually work), but then I sat there just staring at the screen for what must have been a solid sixty seconds. End result: I've got nothing.
So let's dive into the actual review and see if I can figure it out along the way.
The first idea that presents itself is that the screenplay by John Esposito, while being sloppy and illogical, is at least somewhat faithful to the short story. I'm judging the screenplay in terms of how it is represented in the final product, of course; I've not read it in isolation from the film. So, to be fair, I am making assumptions about it. For all I know, it may be a masterpiece that was ruined by the production. Somehow I doubt it.
A few words about Esposito seem in order. Graveyard Shift was his first screen credit, and it would be eight years before the next arrived: Russell Mulcahy's Tale of the Mummy, which currently carries a user rating of 3.7 on IMDb. After that, he's got episodes of Teen Titans and Legion of Superheroes to his name, and eventually he wrote an episode of Masters of Horror called "Right to Die." After that, things seem to have okay for him, and he's got both an Emmy (a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Children's Series on R.L. Stine's The Haunting Hour) and a WGA Award (for Outstanding Achievement in Writing Derivative New Media).
That latter is for a little thing called The Walking Dead. He's written ten episodes of The Walking Dead. To be clear, we're not talking about the massively successful zombie series which airs on AMC and stars Andrew Lincoln; we're talking about the webseries spinoff which consists of short films. "Webisodes," some people call them. I've not seen any of these, but evidently the Writer's Guild of America thought they were worth honoring, so there must be something to it.
My point is, Esposito seems at first glance to have not had much of a career after Graveyard Shift; but on the other hand, he's still in the industry, he's winning awards (albeit somewhat obscure ones), and he's obviously made a living doing what he loves doing. In this, he is roughly a hundred times more distinguished than I will ever be, and let's bear that in mind when the time comes for me to begin giving this films its lumps.
However that ends up going, Esposito won't be in for too much of the criticism. It seems clear that he, at the very least, put some thought and effort into what he was doing. And to be honest, Graveyard Shift shows a significant amount of interest in remaining faithful to the short story. Let's chart that for a bit, using quotes from my recent review of the short story:
- "For me, what really moves the story is the relationship between Hall and Warwick." -- This is not AS central to the movie as to the story, but it's certainly there.
- Warwick "is a big beefy man with a crew cut" -- Beefy, no; big, yes; crew cut, yes.
- "Warwick is a supercilious, condescending fellow who never passes up an opportunity to put his subordinates in their place." -- That's a big yes.
- "He gets onto Hall for chucking soda cans at rats rather than working" -- He does indeed catch Hall doing this, but he doesn't chastise him for it in the movie.
- "[H]e gets onto Wisconsky for sitting (pants up) in a toilet stall rather than working" -- Sadly, this does not happen in the movie; Wisconsky has been given a gender-reassignment and is now Hall's love interest.
- "[H]e threatens to fire Ippeston when he considers walking out rather than risking his health and safety farther than it has already been risked" -- This scene absolutely exists, but Warwick does fire Ippeston in the movie.
- Of Hall, King says "He was a drifter, and during the last three years he had moved on his thumb from Berkeley (college student) to Lake Tahoe (busboy) to Galveston (stevdore) to Miami (short-order cook) to Wheeling (taxi driver and dishwasher) to Gates Falls, Maine (picker-machine operator)." -- Though less specific than in the story, the screenplay does indeed carry over Hall's transience.
- "Warwick taunts him for being a 'college boy' on numerous occasions, and while this is obviously a big deal to Warwick, it doesn't seem to be a big deal to Hall, who shows no sign of wanting to be an overachiever in terms of his career trajectory." -- Check, check, and check.
- "Hall studied the foreman's face closely," King tells us, "and he had a sudden premonition of a strange thing coming. The idea pleased him. He did not like Warwick very much." -- Hall clearly does not have any affection for Warwick, but Esposito does not really carry over much in terms of Hall's "sudden premonition of a strange thing coming." And that is a good thing, because it's such a vague and interior idea that it would not have worked on film at all. It barely works in the story!
- "[T]he foreman is finally killed and eaten by a blind, legless rat that is 'as big as a Holstein calf.' " -- No mention is made of Holsteins, but that's about the right size for what we see in the film.
- In the story, Warwick descends into the sub-cellar only at Hall's insistence. The circumstances are different in the movie, as is the end result, but it is still Hall insisting that management should be represented that gets Warwick down there.
- "But King also puts spiders and beetles into the mix, and gross old mushrooms, and weird nasty moss." -- The film doesn't do much with the creepy-crawlies, although there is a moment in which Brogan walks into a spiderweb and has a spider on his eye. And there is also gross water, rotting coffins, old bones and the like; so the movie does exploit a bit of the same fear of the dark underground spaces that the story exploits.
- "Two early instances of King's proclivity toward including brand-name items: an Orange Crush thermometer, and Hall's use of Nehi cans as anti-rat projectiles." -- I don't believe the thermometer has a name-brand tied to it; it's just a generic thermometer, if I recall correctly. As for the soda cans, Nehi gets replaced with Diet Pepsi.
- " 'They looked like a jury,' King writes of a group of rats that are silently looking at Hall at one point." -- It isn't Hall who is present for this, but the guy at the beginning who puts a few rats through the picker. But still, the idea of them being a jury sort of comes across, even though the word "jury" is never mentioned. The millworker speaks to them like they are a class of schoolkids, but they definitely appear to be judging him for murdering rats.
- "To some degree, you could make the argument that the story's events are motivated by economic necessity, and maybe even economic despair." -- Check. Warwick makes it plain that Gates Falls is a dying community, and that it is only the mill which is keeping it afloat. We don't get much of a look at the town and its denizens, but what we do see looks awfully run down and desperate.
- "Warwick at one point says of the mill, 'this ain't no unionized shop, and never has been.' " -- The movie makes it clear that the unions do have a presence in the mill, so this one is a miss.
- "Warwick's snide line asking Hall if he wants a Purple Heart for barking his shin" -- In the story, there are subtle hints that Warwick is former military, or at least that his sympathies would be very much pro-Vietnam. In the movie, that is carried over into both the scene in which the exterminator recounts his experiences with V.C. rats and the bizarro sequence in which Warwick "goes native" in the subcellar.
- "It feels like there is intended to be a bit of mystery -- possibly mystery of a Lovecraftian variety -- over why that subcellar exists at all, and especially why it was locked from the inside." -- It doesn't appear to be locked from the inside in the movie, and an implied explanation is given: the subcellar housed a bootlegging operation, probably during Prohibition. But there is also a bit of room to permit for the possibility that whoever was running the still was also sacrificing people to the rats; I mean, there are a LOT of bones down there.
So clearly, Esposito was determined to use as much of the short story as he could while expanding it to include conflict and a love interest and whatnot. Compare that to the butchering some King stories and novels have received, and I think you've got to salute Esposito for at least doing that much to honor King's original work.
Esposito does not seem to have written a masterpiece or anything, but it does seem that his screenplay was at least competent, with a few good ideas on how to expand things out and a few topical themes about war, labor disputes, shady business dealings, and the plight of the loner. I don't know that it would be possible to make a great movie from that screenplay, but I think it might have been possible to make a movie that was, at its worst, decent.
Enter director Ralph S. Singleton, whose only directorial credits prior to Graveyard Shift were two episodes of Cagney & Lacey and whose only directorial credits after Graveyard Shift were any home movies he happened to make. Most of his career has been spent as either a producer or a production manager. As producer, he's got some notable credits to his name: Pet Sematary, Leap of Faith, Clear and Present Danger, Another 48 Hours, Last Man Standing, Murder at 1600, etc. He's been a production manager for Francis Ford Coppola (One from the Heart) and Mel Brooks (History of the World, Part I), among others, and as an assistant director he can claim Martin Scorsese (a little flick called Taxi Driver), Sydney Pollack (Three Days of the Condor), and Sidney Lumet (Network).
So in the grand scheme of things, Singleton has some great credits to his name. I would tend to guess that he hoped to use Graveyard Shift as a launching pad into a new phase in his career, and that he probably had the best intentions to make a gritty, impactful b-movie that had some serious subtext and went for the throat the way the best low-budget horror movies do.
I'd like to give him that much benefit of the doubt, and assume that what happened next was that he found out a core fact at roughly the same time the rest of the world found out (to the extent it cared to): that he simply wasn't up to the task. Graveyard Shift is undeniably a swing and a miss. I'm sure it has its fans, God help them, but I don't know that I would be inclined to take anyone seriously who chose to defend this movie from a directorial point of view. The film is filled with moments that simply do not work.
In fact, I'd say that a large potion of the problem with the movie is how incongruities tend to pop up at a regular pace. What I mean by that is that the screenplay seems at times to be wanting to go in one way, whereas the direction and/or acting seem to want to go in another. One good example of this comes early on, when Hall walks into the local diner and goes over to the corkboard to see (I think) if he can find a room to rent. He walks by a table, where Brogan and Danson and Stevenson are sitting. They see him and decide immediately to treat him as though he is an unwelcome outsider, so Brogan asks him what's in his duffel bag and Stevenson flicks a piece of food at him. Hall, too proud (or perhaps too disinterested) to stoop to their level, simply walks out.
Now, the idea here seems to be that Hall is, as an outsider, the subject of immediate and intense disdain and distrust. Hall is a drifter, so maybe he's seen this play out before. But the way the scene is staged and acted, Hall comes off as a bit of a prick, and therefore almost justifies the way Brogan and Danson continue the bullying throughout the movie. "Justifies" is the wrong word, of course; let's instead go with "encourages." I mean, if these are kids in high-school, maybe that's a different situation.
But if you were Hall, and a group of guys behind you in a diner engaged in some ribbing that -- let's be honest here -- is only perhaps a single step beyond good-natured, what would your reaction be? Speaking for my part, I would turn around, smile at the guys, and ask them if they knew the answer to whatever question I was trying to get figured out. "Hey, fellas," I might say, pleasantly. "Y'all know of a place where a guy can rent a room? You know if that mill is hiring on right now?" I might even ask them what's good to eat in the diner.
My point is, I'd make an effort of some sort. If they then chose to continue their belligerence, then so be it; but I'd at least give them an opportunity to treat me like an actual human being.
So, in this scene, one of two things has happened: either the actors playing Brogan, Danson, and Stevenson have underplayed their antipathy for Hall, or the actor playing Hall has underplayed his reaction to their (rather mild) taunts. It's one, or it's the other; the actors are not on the same page, and that is one of the director's primary responsibilities.
There are other such instances in the film, but we'll let that suffice, example-wise.
Let's turn our attention toward the actors, starting with:
David Andrews plays Hall, and he's a solid fifteen years too old to be playing the "college boy" of the short story. That's not to say he gives a bad performance. He doesn't. He's fine, for the most part; as fine as one can be playing a stoic in a movie with as loose a grasp on what do with stoicism as this movie has. I'll say this for him: he's given a performance that remains consistent throughout the film. If we are choosing -- as I am -- to fault the movie's shortcomings on inept direction from an inexperienced helmer, then turning in a consistent performance is nothing to look down upon. It's actually the mark of a solid professional, so you'll hear nothing unkind about Andrews from me.
Some of Andrews' other roles through the years include: a small part in A Nightmare on Elm Street; a one-episode appearance as Sonny's no-account cousin on Miami Vice; the lead role on Mann & Machine, a sci-fi cop show that aired on NBC for all of nine episodes in 1992; one of the Earp brothers in Wyatt Earp alongside Kevin Costner; Pete Conrad in Apollo 13; Frank Borman in From the Earth to the Moon; a support-group member in Fight Club; an FBI agent in Hannibal (the movie, not the tv show); a general in Band of Brothers; another general in Terminator 3; a major general in numerous episodes of JAG; a sheriff in numerous episodes of Justified; a naval commander in World War Z; and a starship captain in a fine single Enterprise episode titled "E²."
Not too shabby a career there for a guy who starred in Graveyard Shift.
|Stephen Macht as Warwick|
What can we say about Stephen Macht's performance as Warwick?
I'll tell you what:
As Warwick, Macht is going so far over the top that he may as well be in a hot-air balloon. His accent is up there with him, and I'm reminded somewhat of Clifton James, who played the redneck sheriff J.W. Pepper in both Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun opposite Roger Moore's James Bond. James seemed to feel he was playing in a cartoon, and he strapped on a cartoonish southern accent to go along with it. I like to imagine him and Macht (with his cartoonish Mainer accent) in the hot-air balloon bellowing down at everyone still on the ground. "Seekrit agent?!?" James hollers; "oan whose side?!?" Meanwhile, Macht counsels the gawping onlookers that they best be punchin' their tahm cahds.
Now, you might reasonably assume from context here that I'm down on both James and Macht in terms of their respective performances, but I have to now dispel you of those assumptions. J.W. Pepper still cracks me up every time I see those two Bond movies, and Macht sort of cracks me up as Warwick, too. It's a campy performance, no doubt about it. Check out this moment from late in the movie:
I mean, here, Macht has produced a second hot-air balloon from inside the first hot-air balloon, and he has ascended even farther and is now taunting Clifton James from the stratosphere, warning him about how he's a shrimp in an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Again, you've got to wonder how much of the blame for this ought to be laid at the feet of Singleton. Rein your actors in a bit, chum.
That said, Macht does at times make Warwick seem genuinely crazy, and you have no trouble believing that the mill's workers would be totally cowed by this crazed man who has a punching bag in his office, wears wife-beaters, and sports a crew cut. Is it a bad performance? The word "bad" is irrelevant; it is, within the bounds of the movie in which he is appearing, an effective performance. And no matter what, it's memorable.
Macht has all sorts of credits to his name, most of them episodic television appearances (including favorites of mine such as Deep Space Nine AND Babylon 5), but he is perhaps best known to my generation as the father in The Monster Squad.
|Kelly Wolf as Jane Wisconsky|
Kelly Wolf gives a decent performance as Jane. There isn't much of a character there to play, apart from a couple of scenes, but she's feisty in her refusal to kowtow to Warwick's salacious overtures, and she's got a sort of appealing openness to her.
Wolf gets victimized -- as do many of the actors -- by some genuinely awful ADR work. But on the whole, she's not bad. I find her to be rather sexy, too, so there's that. Speaking of sexy:
That's Ilona Margolis, who plays Nordello, the wronged "secretary" of Warwick's. It's not much of a part, but Margolis is pretty, and as far as I can tell the internet doesn't have too many decent images of her, so there you go, world; my benevolent deed for the day has been done.
That's Andrew Divoff, who plays Danson. Divoff is probably best known to horror fans as the Djinn in the Wishmaster movies, but you might also recognize him as Mikhail from Lost or as Ivan Sarnoff from CSI: Miami, or maybe even as one of the Russian soldiers in (the somewhat underrated, for my money) Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Divoff is not Russian, however; he's Venezuelan, and he's pretty cool, and he gives the most naturalistic performance in Graveyard Shift. There's nothing flashy about it; he just seems like a real person from beginning to end.
He's also part of one of the film's better moments, which I have attempted to screencap:
|Insert J.J. Abrams joke here.|
Only one other cast member is going to get my attention:
This, of course, is Oscar- and Emmy-nominated actor Brad Dourif, who plays Cleveland, the exterminator.
What can we say about Dourif's performance? We can say it is a great performance. Alternatively, we can say it is a terrible performance. What we can't reasonably say is that it is an indifferent performance. Love it (I do) or hate it, Dourif has delivered a performance here that goes for broke.
His big scene is the one in which Cleveland tells Hall about his experiences with rats in Vietnam, which involve the rats "going to work" on behalf of the Viet Cong. In one aspect, it is an absurd monologue; it is far too weighty a topic to actually work within the confines of a trashy movie like Graveyard Shift. But on the other hand, if you ignore the fact that the rest of the movie can't support it, I think it's a very memorable scene, and I know Dourif crushes it. He's fantastic.
|He actually moves himself to tears during this monologue about rats feeding on American soldiers.|
Dourif has a few shaky moments toward the beginning of the movie, but those could just as easily be attributed to poor editing as to anything he himself is doing.
Dourif also cannot be blamed for the fact that Esposito's screenplay fumbles Cleveland's fate quite badly. So, this guy is an exterminator, right? And he's been given ample dialogue about how rats are essentially his a-number-one enemy in life, right? AND he's in a movie that features bloodthirsty killer rats, at least one of whom is as large as a calf, right?
Right, right, and right. And yet, the movie manages to have Cleveland NOT be killed by a rat, but by a stone coffin that crushes his skull. As screenwriting decisions go, that's a terrible one. It feels instead as if Cleveland was intended to somehow meet up with Hall and Warwick and Jane and the others in that subcellar, and come to some sort of a noble if tragic end. I don't know why you'd do anything else, to be honest, especially with a heavy-hitter like Dourif in the role.
Dourif at that time was making hay off of his voice role as Chucky in the Child's Play movies, but 1990 also found him earning some praise for his role as the Gemini Killer in The Exorcist III. I recently had occasion to rewatch him in the awesome X-Files episode "Beyond the Sea," where he plays a death-row inmate name Luther Lee Boggs. Other prominent tv roles in which he was a killer: "Passing Through Gethsemane," an exceptional episode of Babylon 5; and a trio of fine Star Trek: Voyager episodes. He's also in a great Millennium episode, plus all sorts of fine movies, ranging from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to The Lord of the Rings to Rob Zombie's Halloween films to Alien Resurrection. He's also one of the major players in Deadwood, which might get my vote as the best television series ever made.
In short, Dourif is a bit of a legend. And I don't think he disappoints here at all.
So, what else need be said about this movie?
- The movie was filmed partially in several different real-life mills and other industrial sites, and it shows. On the one hand, the locations are not exactly all that photogenic; but on the other hand, the seedy quality they bring helps to create -- at times -- an atmosphere of genuine and palpable grossness and disrepair. It may be that that is a part of what causes me to give this movie a bit of a break in the critical department.
|The mill wasn't named "Bachman," of course; that was a wink-and-nod for King fans.|
- I mentioned the lousy dubbing earlier, but the sound effects aren't much better. This is especially true of the many rat squeaks, all of which sound as if they were being performed by a man in booth who was eating cheese and twitching a lot.
- The fact that the resolution of the plot hinges on a guy being able to use a slingshot to activate a mechanical picker with a soda can is so daffy that you almost have to stand up and salute it.
- By far the worst scene of the movie is the one in which Brogan is shooting stuff with the water hose and yelling. It seems as if that scene will never end.
|Why anyone would allow Vic Polizos to get away with this much bellowing is beyond me. Even a novice director should have known that was a bad idea.|
- Speaking of daffy, man . . . what about that stuff with Warwick going into kill-mode at the end? If I'm not mistaken, I think what's going on here is that two separate ideas are conjoining. First, we have the idea that Warwick represents Management, whereas Hall and Jane and the others represent Labor. Not merely in the literal sense, but also in the political and philosophical. Second, we have the idea presented via Cleveland that the rats represent the Viet Cong specifically and anti-American interests generally. So what's going on here is that somehow, Cleveland's haunted pro-soldier storyline has been transferred onto Warwick. (I wish there had been some sort of effort on the part of the screenplay to link the two in that fashion; if I wish to do so, I can make shit up in my mind and hypothesize that the two are of the right age to have served in Vietnam together. Or, at the very least, that Warwick was in the military between Korea and Vietnam and perhaps has some fraternal sympathy for Cleveland and all ex-soldiers. But that's ONLY me making shit up; it's not in the movie.) From there, we get the idea that in Warwick's brain, the various representatives of Labor and of the Viet Cong are, in effect, on the same side. Both represent anti-American interests. Ah-hah! Thematically, that begins to make sense, doesn't it? The movie doesn't handle it well, or gracefully; it doesn't do anything interesting with the ideas. But they are there, I think, and (again), they have their origins in King's short story.
|If you are ever cleaning a subcellar with a guy who suddenly begins putting on warpaint, go somewhere else as fast as possible.|
Final thoughts: there's nothing wrong with a b-movie in theory, and this one seems to have had the raw materials available to make a fairly decent one. It just didn't work out that way. There seems to have been some serious lack of experience in certain key areas that hurt, and while I doubt there was ever a chance that this was going to be anything more than a b-film, if it had had a bit more consistency and a slightly stronger vision, I think it might at least have ended up as a decent little flick.
As is, it's a trashy, guilty pleasure at best. But I'd argue that there are elements of it worth admiring, and I'd also argue that it is far from being the worst Stephen King movie.
On that note, let's have a listen to the incredibly odd end-credits song:
But to be honest, I kind of dig it. And that probably sums up my feelings about this movie as concisely as anything.