Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Dark Half (1993)

“Literary” writer Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton) has a little secret: under the pseudonym of George Stark he is writing a series of pretty nasty bestselling thrillers that sound a lot like what have happened if the Parker novels had been written by Mickey Spillane (one shudders to think). Thing is, Beaumont treats Stark very much like an independent personality, his own behaviour changing for the worse whenever he is writing one of the Stark novels, as his long-suffering wife Liz (a rather underused Amy Madigan) knows all too well. So it looks like an opportunity for improving Thad’s mental health when a shady guy (Robert Joy), who apparently found out the truth about Stark screwing someone working for the writer’s publisher, attempts to blackmail Thad with his knowledge about Stark’s true identity. Thad’s not happy, but he’s certainly not going to pay, and decides to go public with his being Stark and bury his pseudonym for good.

Alas, somebody starts killing off people involved in Stark’s “death” and the ensuing publicity stunts surrounding it. The killer is someone with Thad’s fingerprints who will turn out to look a lot like Thad badly costumed as a Southern tough guy. Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Michael Rooker) and his colleagues in New York at first seem to look at a rather clear-cut case of a writer losing it in murderous fashion (happens every day, right?), but some of Thad’s alibis work out much too well, and there are some aspects to the case that rather suggest the supernatural explanation of an imagined Stark having become very real and very angry about his own death.

George A. Romero’s adaptation of one of Stephen King’s more middling novels probably isn’t the film I should write about to say goodbye to one of the Great American Horror Directors (capitalization fully deserved). But we all know how brilliant Martin and the original Dead trilogy are (and I harbour a heretical love for Diary of the Dead, as well), and there really isn’t much to add to the acres of things written about these films, whereas The Dark Half is generally so ignored even talking a bit about what’s wrong and right with the film seems like a better use of time, and certainly something that makes me less sad than a look at Romero’s career as a whole, at all the films he never got to make, thinking about the opportunities of not being the zombie movie guy that didn’t come his way anymore much after this film - his next finished – and last not “Dead” – film came out seven years later.

Qualitywise, The Dark Half is not the sort of film that should have put anyone in director’s jail. It’s an at times effective, at times a little awkward outing that is never less than entertaining. Its worst aspects are certainly some dubious digital special effects and a bad guy that doesn’t work as well as he should. The problem with Stark as a character is that – particularly in the phases of the film when he’s still killing his way towards Thad – he’s just not that terrifying a guy, even with all the death and mutilation he causes. As a horror movie monster, he misses a hook beyond having a Southern accent and a love for Elvis and annoying with some particularly bad one-liners. He’s basically doing what a normal movie killer in a thriller would do, but in a sillier way, which is certainly not ideal if you want to freak me out. I also can’t help but feel that Hutton doesn’t have much of a grip on Stark (the Method certainly wasn’t invented to create a memorable pseudonym gone rogue), leaving the work of making the character threatening mostly to the stylists. Once Stark gets closer to Thad, these problems dissolve more or less, the increasing emphasis on Stark as a personified part of Thad (that twin business making no difference, really) leading to a handful of moments I found actually disquieting, Stark not so much representing Thad’s dark half than a potential (worse) direction his life could have taken. At that point, the film turns into a very American tale of a guy who can’t quite escape the place he came from, however much he pretends it doesn’t exist, the shadows of his working poor upbringing following him into suburbia and academia.

Which sounds very much like the sort of thing Romero as a writer and director was always interested in, using his monsters as a tool to talk about class, guilt and the way public happenings shape private lives in one way or the other (among many other things of course). If that meant having to turn a rather autobiographical Stephen King novel into a mild 90s style supernatural slasher or churning out another Dead movie, than that’s what Romero would do.

This doesn’t mean the guy didn’t clearly keep his gleeful enjoyment of the more typically brutal parts of his films throughout his career: the murders here certainly demonstrate Romero’s love (shared with King) for EC style violence, and he never falls into the trap of treating the supernatural exclusively as a metaphor, of not treating his horror serious as horror. Romero was just interested in also talking about other things.

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