Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, September 17, 2016

NO ENCORES: Maximum Overdrive (1986)

1. Maximum Overdrive (1986)
Director: Stephen King

Few horror authors have had the level of commercial success that Stephen King has. King’s immense popularity has led to practically a cottage industry of films based on his novels and stories. Considering how big Steve’s name is at the movie theaters, letting King direct a movie himself probably seemed like a sound decision. Hey, it worked for Michael Crichton and Clive Barker, kind of. Yet being a successful storyteller doesn’t necessarily translate to one being a successful movie director. “Maximum Overdrive,” based off King’s own short story "Trucks," quickly became a critical punchline. King himself has referred to it as an “moron movie” while expressing his disinterest in ever directing a feature film again.

In the summer of 1986, Earth passes through the trail of a mysterious comet. As the green auroras shine overhead, a revolt begins below. Any machine more advance then a bicycle suddenly develops a mind of its own… A homicidal mind. At the Dixie Boy truck stop, the eighteen wheelers outside brutally run down anyone they encounter. A disparate group of people gather inside the roadside building, trying to survive the fatal machinations of the machines.

“Maximum Overdrive” functions on an interesting premise. What if the machines we rely on turned against us? Through this concept, a theme of servitude and uprising emerges. The machines have been at man’s beckon call for eternity. Now, the tables have turned. In one sequence, a series of vehicles force the truck stop employees to fill them up with gasoline. The machines will enslave man now. “Maximum Overdrive” extends this theme further. At the story’s beginning, it’s hero Bill, an ex-con employed at the truck stop, is forced to work unpaid overtime by his boss. There’s this idea running through “Maximum Overdrive” that all workers are just waiting for the chance to overturn those who subjugate them.

The concept of technology turning on mankind has the makings of an epic science fiction/horror flick. A remake set in the modern day could become apocalyptic just by focusing on computers. “Maximum Overdrive” doesn’t have the budget to support such a large vision. Instead, it focuses on one small corner of this world at war. King has written about his admiration of “Night of the Living Dead.” Similarly, “Maximum Overdrive” is a siege picture, a story of multiple survivors stuck inside an isolated location, beset on all sides by invaders. Except they’re self-propelled, homicidal trucks instead of zombies.

Stephen King is prolific, so easily identifiable concepts can be spotted across his various works. “Maximum Overdrive” is no different. Throughout his novels, you’ll read about many nice days being interrupted by the sudden arrival of evil. In “Maximum Overdrive,” normal, everyday life is turned upside down when machines become homicidal. The explanation of an irritated comet’s tail – and the further reveal that aliens are behind it – is just a justification for the concept. Also present in “Maximum Overdrive” is the religious fanatic quickly revealed to be a hypocrite. Bible salesman Camp Loman preaches about moral decay and decorates his car with Chick Tracts. He also molests a comely hitchhiker he picks up. When the shit hits the fan, Loman is the first one to loose his cool. (This entire story arc is likely recycled from King’s earlier novella, 1980’s “The Mist.”)

For all the ways “Maximum Overdrive” fits the expected Stephen King story beats, it deviates in one major component. Or location, I should say. The story, somehow, isn’t set in Maine. As the name might indicate, the Dixie Boy truck stop is located in North Carolina. Wilmington, to be precise. Setting the film in the American south causes King to populate the cast with southern-fried grotesques. Such as the fat, farting mechanic, who has a pivotal scene on the commode. Pat Hingle – that’s Commissioner Gordon to you nineties kids – hams it up as the tyrannical owner of the station. Among the staff is a waitress, who launches into ridiculous speeches directed at the revolting trucks. A sense of greasy, redneck glee characterizes much of “Maximum Overdrive.”

In fact, “Maximum Overdrive” doesn’t have much in common with the classy, best seller supernatural horror you associate Stephen King with. Instead, it more closely resembles a trashy monster movie. The film is overstuffed with dumb concepts. The movie opens with an ATM calling Stephen King – in a gratuitously showy cameo – an asshole. From there, it expands to similarly low brow spectacles. A drawbridge opens during a traffic jam, tossing the cars into each other, smashing the passengers. The film’s most notorious sequence involves a vending machine throwing soda cans at deadly speed. A little league coach and the young players are pummeled to death with carbonated beverages. Immediately afterwards, a steam roller crushes a child. People are gorily gunned by a Jeep mounted machine gun. The film is grisly enough to show people killed by headphones and phones but too dumb to figure out how that’s possible.

As dumb and violent as those moments are, they’re at least memorable. For a carsploitation flick, “Maximum Overdrive” does not feature as much vehicular mayhem as you’d hope. There’s quite a few shots of heads smashed into grills, the bodies ran under the wheels. A car yanks itself from a scrap heap and takes chase. The finale has the army of trucks tearing through the gas station. Otherwise though, most of the violence is human-on-truck. In an especially moronic story turn, the basement of the truck stop is full of rocket launchers and military grade munitions. Sequences of people firing bazookas at eighteen wheelers, followed by large explosions, can’t be counted on one hand. Even the film’s main villain – a truck that has the face of Spider-Man’s arch-enemy, the Green Goblin, for some reason – suffers a similarly lackluster fate. I mean, you can only watch rocket-assisted explosions so many times before one grows bored.

The murderous trucks are clearly the stars of the show. However, one could also characterize “Maximum Overdrive” as a vehicle for Emilio Estevez. As Bill, Estevez projects something like a sweaty charisma. He can certainly rock a wife-beater like nobody’s business. When called upon by the script to deliver monologues about brooms, either the limits of the script or Emilio’s acting ability become apparent. Estevez and the Green Goblin truck do not carry “Maximum Overdrive” by themselves. Laura Harrington plays Brett, a hitchhiker that quickly becomes Bill’s love interest. After knowing each other for a whole day, they leap into bed together. Harrington does okay, truthfully, even when given the unlikely dialogue that includes the film’s title.

While Estevez and Harrington prove to be amiable enough leads, “Maximum Overdrive’s” ensemble cast features far more broad characters. Pat Hingle goes way over the top as a character that’s such a Southern stereotype that he’s actually named Bubba. Yeardley Smith, the once and future Lisa Simpson, is deeply unappealing as one half of a newly wed couple. I swear, Smith spends the entire movie whining. (John Short, as her newly acquired husband Curtis, is competent, if hardly notable.) Christopher Murney, as the wicked bible salesman, is similarly obnoxious. Truthfully, the film’s cast is far too large, even for its generous 97 minute run time. Half of the residents of the Dixie Boy truck stop are just slobbering, sweating faces, with nothing memorable about them.

As a director, Stephen King mostly does okay. The carnage is shot clearly, King or perhaps his assistant knowing not to get in the way of the money shots. There’s even one or two neat moment, such as a shattering watermelon standing in for gore or an amusingly eerie shot of a sinister ice cream truck driving down the street. “Maximum Overdrive’s” greatest weaknesses aren’t in the direction but the screenplay, which King also provided. It’s clear he struggled to expand his short story into a feature film. New, mostly unnecessary characters were added. “Trucks” ended on a downbeat note, humanity properly enslaved by their new masters. The equivalent moment in “Maximum Overdrive” occurs with about a half-hour to go. Naturally, an up-beat ending is tagged on. The space between these two beats – the end of the second act, where everyone is moved into place for the climax – borders on the tedious.

I do not like AC/DC at all, which is something my friends some times give me shit for. Yeah, I know they’re a seminal hard rock band. To my ears, they’re the very definition of “dad rock,” all macho bluster with zero substance. Also, the lead singer’s voice is super annoying. Thus, I do not find the decision to score all of “Maximum Overdrive” to AC/DC’s music endearing. Shock moments are often punctuated with shrieking guitars and wailing vocals, which is annoying. The theme song, “Who Made Who?,” has uninspired lyrics and a halting melody. The soundtrack choices for “Hell’s Bells” and “She Shook Me All Night Long” are thuddingly obvious. The soundtrack is basically a greatest hits album for the much loved band. In other words, it features all the AC/DC songs you’re sick of hearing.

Stephen King has no illusions about “Maximum Overdrive’s” quality. He has stated he was coked out of his brain throughout the entire production. (Which might explain why a camera operator almost died.) He has also called the film the worst adaptation of his work. Which really implies that King hasn’t seen “Trucks,” the other adaptation of this story, or about half of the “Children of the Corn” sequels. He gave film directing a shot, found out it wasn’t his thing, and has never bothered trying again. In time, the film would find a cult following among fans of trashy eighties horror flicks. I like those too, which makes it odd that “Maximum Overdrive” doesn’t appeal to me more. In my opinion, King's sole directorial credit is either too dumb or not dumb enough. [5/10]

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