Friday, March 02, 2012
MOVIES MADE ME #40: STEPHEN KING'S GRAVEYARD SHIFT
One of the things I realized while re-reading Stephen King’s Night Shift collection is that the author seems to write short stories as a way of capturing new, and potentially fleeting, ideas. Several of the short stories in Night Shift proved to be the seeds of his more famous novels. “Jerusalem’s Lot,” written in 1967 as a college term paper, eventually became Salem’s Lot. “Night Surf,” first published in 1974, reads like a prologue to The Stand. “The Boogeyman,” first published in 1973, is the forerunner of It. In comparison, several of the other stories in this collection evolved (or devolved) into films. For the most part, those adaptations have been out of King’s hands. The author once joked that having one of your stories adapted to the screen feels like sending your daughter off to college. Sometimes she gets her degree, and sometimes she gets date-raped by frat boys.
At this point, many of the Night Shift stories have been faithfully adapted into independent short films. The trend started in the early 80s, when “The Boogeyman” (an effectively moody adaptation by director Jeff Schiro) and “The Woman in the Room” (an early effort by Frank Darabont, who would become one of King’s most successful collaborators) were paired together in a video release called STEPHEN KING’S NIGHT SHIFT COLLECTION (1989). “The Ledge” and “Quitters, Inc.” were combined with a third story for Lewis Teague’s anthology film CAT’S EYE (1985). “Battleground” became the basis for the first (and some say best) episode of the 2006 TNT miniseries NIGHTMARES AND DREAMSCAPES.
Feature film adaptations have not fared quite as well, illustrating that it’s no easy task to expand on King’s storytelling. CHILDREN OF THE CORN (1984) was one of the worst adaptations of the early 1980s, but it’s a masterpiece compared to its seven direct-to-video sequels and 2009 remake. A short film adaptation of the original story, titled DISCIPLES OF THE CROW, and packaged in a cheeky 1987 video release called A STORY FROM STEPHEN KING’S NIGHT SHIFT COLLECTION, isn’t much better. Even more embarrassing is the 1992 cyber-thriller THE LAWNMOWER MAN, which has nothing to do with King’s short story of the same name. The author sued to have his name taken off of the film, but suckers like me had already paid to see it in the theater.
It’s not hard to understand why the author would want to try his own hand at directing a film based on one of his works, but his only attempt, MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE (based on the short story “Trucks”), is generally regarded as a travesty. For me, it’s a guilty pleasure. Yes, the movie is silly as hell -- that’s obvious from the opening credit sequence, in which King pelts Marla Maples with a truck full of watermelons while blasting AC/DC -- but that’s the kind of movie that I will always stop to watch if I’m flipping through TV channels on a Sunday afternoon. SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK is a more dignified release from the Dino DeLaurentiis camp. I interviewed director Tom McLoughlin at length about this picture, and came away with an even greater appreciation for it.
This brings me to GRAVEYARD SHIFT (1990) and THE MANGLER (1995), both of which I regard more highly than the usual horror fan. I have already written about THE MANGLER, and made my case for Tobe Hooper’s oppressive storytelling... which was, unfortunately for Hooper, NOT a popular mode for horror movies in the mid-1990s. I think THE MANGLER plays a little better today, but no one will ever regard it as an unqualified success. GRAVEYARD SHIFT has a similar tone, which is to say that it’s surprisingly bleak and gruesome for a monster movie made in 1990. All in all, it has quite a few things going for it.
First there’s Brad Dourif, who sets the scene as a crude exterminator who works nights at the world’s dingiest cotton mill. An entire book could (and should) be written about Dourif’s work as a character actor, from ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST to THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. When he made GRAVEYARD SHIFT, he was best known to horror fans as the voice of Chucky in CHILD’S PLAY (1988), and he had more than enough confidence to chew the scenery. Dourif is the kind of actor who can always do something with next to nothing, but here the writer has given him at least one particularly juicy scene, where he tells the film’s nominal hero (David Andrews, doing his best imitation of Rowdy Roddy Piper in THEY LIVE) about an encounter with bloodthirsty rats in ‘Nam. His monologue reminds me of Quint’s suspense-building war story in JAWS, and it works just as well. (Okay, maybe the GRAVEYARD SHIFT example is more “gross-out horror” than suspense-building, but that’s true to the spirit of King’s short story.) Dourif caps of his gruesome anecdote by warning the listener not to mistake him for the kind of crazy vet that Bruce Dern plays in the movies. In this movie, he’s no crazier than anyone else.
Well, maybe that’s not quite true... Stephen Macht gives Dourif a pretty good run for his money in the scenery-chewing department. You could argue that Macht's performance as mill manager Warwick is over the top. I wouldn’t argue with you, but I'd add that his exaggerated performance enhances the sense of menace in the film. Warwick is a sadistic tyrant, and Macht is gleeful in his portrayal. He’s just plain fun to watch... A guy you love to hate.
And that accent? I grew up in the South, so I have no idea if his rural Maine accent is accurate. All I can say is that he’s doing the same accent that Fred Gwynne did in PET SEMATARY, and I’ve come to think of that as an accurate “Stephen King’s rural Maine” accent. The author loves to emphasize local accents in his writing and, whenever he drops the word “ayuh,” I can practically hear Ed Gwynne and Stephen Macht. And frankly, I like listening to them talk (which is more than I can say for thick Southern accents). The voice and the performance make Macht's character compelling instead of just abrasive, and that allows me to regard Warwick not simply as a stock villain, but as a desperate and determined man fighting in vain against the spirit-crushing atmosphere in a part of America that mostly resembles a third-world country.
Unlike most Stephen King movies, this one was actually shot in Maine. King’s short story is set in the fictional town of Grave’s Falls, but (like “The Mangler”) it is inspired by the author’s personal experiences while working in a sweatshop in his hometown of Durham, Maine. (On a random sidenote, the Worumbo Mill plays itself in King's latest novel, 11/22/63.) I visited Durham a few years ago, and took some photos of the now-abandoned factory on the banks of the Androscoggin River.
It doesn’t look quite as intimidating as the “Bachman Mill” in GRAVEYARD SHIFT... at least, not on the outside... but it's not hard for me to imagine that the place must look like a death-trap on the inside. In the short story, King describes it like this:
“The bulbs couldn’t banish the twelve-year darkness; it could only push it back a little and cast a sickly yellow glow over the whole mess. The place looked like a shattered nave of a desecrated church, with its high ceiling and mammoth discarded machinery that they would never be able to move, its wet walls overgrown with patches of yellow moss, and the atonal choir that was the water from the hoses, running into the half-clogging sewer network that eventually emptied into the river below the falls.”
GRAVEYARD SHIFT captures that sense of a cavernous ruin, like the rotting corpse of some giant mythic creature, permeated by water and pale artificial light. Much of the credit, I suppose, should go to production designer Garry Wissner, who would later oversee the gloomy aesthetics of SEVEN (1995) and the pilot for the TV series MILLENNIUM. Cinematographer Peter Stein, who achieved a similar urban gothic aesthetic in the previous year’s PET SEMATARY, should also get a nod for the off-kilter camera angles that make the mill look so imposing from the outside and so vast from the inside. Bachman Mill is the kind of place that I had nightmares about as a kid. It’s a place that you enter willingly, just to prove that you can, only to find that you can’t get out the same way you came in. Desperately, you wander deeper and deeper into the belly of the beast, and soon come to realize that the place simply goes on forever. In the film, the characters descend into a “sub-basement” (the term alone makes me nervous) that might as well be the pits of Hell.
What they find down there in the third act of the film is, in my mind, the missing link between ALIEN (1979) and THE DESCENT (2005). In fact, until I re-watched GRAVEYARD SHIFT last night, I didn't remember how much the mutant rat-bat creature resembles Giger’s alien (minus its protective shell), or realize that I had scenes and shots from THE DESCENT mixed in my memory with scenes from this earlier film. Now, I can’t imagine that Neil Marshall didn’t take some inspiration from GRAVEYARD SHIFT. And I’m a little bit bummed that the writer and director of this film haven’t gone on to bigger and better horror flicks.
I assume that director Ralph S. Singleton got the GRAVEYARD SHIFT gig based on his work as a producer on PET SEMETARY. Since 1990, he’s had a very respectable career as a producer and production manager, but he hasn’t directed another feature. Writer John Esposito recently did a MASTERS OF HORROR episode (RIGHT TO DIE, for director Rob Schmidt), a segment of the horror anthology film THE THEATRE BIZARRE, and an entire season of THE WALKING DEAD webisodes (co-written with the great Greg Nicotero), so maybe his star is on the rise. Certainly, as a horror fan, I’d welcome more experiments like GRAVEYARD SHIFT -- films where tone, setting and characterization prevail. There's no question that the rat-bat creature in this film plays second fiddle to the mill itself. And maybe that’s the secret to adapting Stephen King... No filmmaker (especially in this CGI-dependent era) can hope to build a monster as terrifying as the one in the reader’s imagination. What they can do is build the perfect environment for it.
Labels: Stephen King