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June 7, 2016

Doomsday Reels: Maximum Overdrive

Doomsday Reels
Maximum Overdrive (1986)

overdrive

THE TRAILER

THE DIRECTOR
Stephen King

THE ACTORS
Billy Robinson (Emilio Estevez), Laura Harrington (Brett), Holter Graham (Deke), Pat Hingle (Hendershot), Yeardley Smith (Connie), John Short (Curt), Ellen McElduff (Wanda June)

THE CAUSE
Truckocalypse/Aliens, I Guess

THE STORY
“On June 19th, 1987, at 9:47 A.M. EST, the Earth passed into the extraordinarily diffuse tail of Rhea-M, a rogue comet.  According to astronomical calculations, the planet would remain in the tail of the comet for the next eight days, five hours, twenty-nine minutes, and twenty-three seconds.” – Opening text.

THE RUNDOWN
“I’m gonna scare the hell outta you!”  Those seven words have forever put a mark on the career of horror novelist Stephen King.  King has always been and remains very critical of Stanley Kubrick’s all-sizzle no-steak adaptation of The Shining and that coupled with the drug-fueled hubris viewed in the trailer above (Man, Uncle Steve seems really excited to be directing a movie!  He sounds awfully congested though, I wonder if he has a cold) paired with some laughably terrible decisions in this movie have made Maximum Overdrive, the sole directorial effort by King, the laughing stock of his career.

I’m gonna throw out a moderately controversial opinion here.  Maximum Overdrive isn’t that bad.  It has a fair share of issues and I’ll get into those in a minute but it is largely a solid film and yes it is genuinely scary at times.  Is it better than The Shining?  Fuck, no!  It’s not even slightly close to the same quality, but considering that King had never directed a film and that he was somewhere between Andy Dick and Iggy Pop on the recreational drug-use scale at the time, I think he did a pretty solid job.

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Right out the gate the film starts strong, if a tad silly, with a group of people walking into a bank.  Above the door is one of those scrolling light signs that keeps repeating “Fuck you.” over and over with seemingly nobody noticing.  A man (played by King himself) comes up to an ATM that simply flashes “you are an asshole” on its screen as he tries to withdraw funds.  We then go to a draw bridge that starts rising right in the middle of traffic causing vehicles and people to go falling off into the water and onto the road.  An arcade machine hypnotizes a man and then electrocutes him.  A pop machine kills a little league coach and a few players with aluminum pop cans, a steam roller flattens a kid on a bike.  We see people strangled with headphone and hairdryer cords, a chainsaw that turned on its owner, an electric carving knife attacks a woman, a lawnmower chases a boy down the street.

Some of these come across a little hokey but there are genuinely chilling images being played out here.  The pop machine goes from being funny (the first can hits the coach in the balls) to horrifying and the steam roller that jumps out afterword is genuinely disturbing (infamously the shot of the boy being run over by the steamroller featured the kids’ head exploding but that bit was cut in post and has been the subject of internet legend for years.)  But Stephen King has always had the talent to make stuff that just sounds silly work.  Night Shift, the collection of short stories in which the short story Trucks was published, featured a very stripped down version of this movie.  Everything had already happened and our scant few survivors trapped in the truck stop dealing with the various trucks are all we see of the truckocalypse.  The story runs all of 17 pages in the edition I have next to me but it is absolutely terrifying and it’s not the only (or the most) ridiculous concept made frightening in this book: there’s a demonically influenced laundry press (The Mangler, adapted into an underrated but forgettable movie by Tobe Hooper starring Ted Levine), a fat grass-pubed satyr and his evil remote controlled lawn mower (The Lawnmower Man, adapted into a movie so unlike the story that Stephen King sued to have his name removed from it), and story that makes The Boogeyman seem as terrifying as an adult as he did as a small child.

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I’ve always been a champion for the smaller King adaptations that maybe struck out on being taken as seriously as they needed to be but got the tone of King’s writing right.  I love The Shining, I love The Mist, and I love Misery; but it’s bargain bin stuff like Silver Bullet, Graveyard Shift, and Cat’s Eyes that really capture that feeling I get from reading King.  They’re not great adaptations and they’re only kind of okay movies but they tap into that blue collar easygoing demeanor of King’s writing.  Maybe he didn’t scare the hell out of us and maybe he didn’t direct a very good movie but he did nail his own tone… kind of, I’ll expand on that when I get to the bad parts.

The trucks do indeed seem to be malefic and they’re definitely menacing in spite of it all.  The way blood has been liberally splashed onto all their front panels is a nice touch, leaves it to the viewer’s imagination how they’ve attained this gruesome decoration and establishes the murderous qualities of the vehicles.  There’s some great camera work from Armando Nannuzzi and the film is all shot and blocked very well.  Unfortunately Maximum Overdrive’s downfalls are three-fold: acting, editing (especially sound editing), and tone.

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Now, to be fair I have seen much much worse acting than even the worst performance in Maximum Overdrive.  Nobody is egregiously awful but everybody is at least a little wooden; from Pat Hingle’s sneering crooked businessman to a very young Emilio Estevez’s stick-up man turned fry cook there’s just not really any performance to really latch onto.  The only performance of note comes from Yeardley Smith (The Simpsons’ Lisa Simpson, a few years before she got the famous voice-acting gig) she gives a fairly solid performance but it appears that King or producer Dino de Laurentiis was grooming her to be a scream queen.  Smith’s scenes are peppered with ridiculously loud shrieks accompanied by goofy over-dramatic faces and at the halfway mark King appears to have decided that every scene she’s in needs to accompanied by her moaning and complaining about anything and everything in the most obnoxious voice she can do (and Yeardley Smith is capable of doing an extremely obnoxious voice.)

The editing is the biggest nail in this film’s coffin and I mean sound editing for the most part.  I have no clue how King managed to be high enough to think that an AC/DC soundtrack would be a good accompaniment to his horror movie.  I have no idea why he thought it would be a good idea to toss an unending stream of fart noises into the scene where Estevez’s character has a serious discussion with a mechanic sitting in a bathroom stall.  The one thing he did get right is the music stinger, very similar to the one from Psycho, that plays whenever something bad is happening.  That stinger really spices up those bits and makes them as scary as they need to be.

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In all honesty it’s not the stuff that he gets wrong that makes Maximum Overdrive so much of a let-down, it’s all the stuff he gets right.  The movie stumbles a few times in the opening but it’s not until the 44 minute mark that things really dip from being a relatively solid horror film into crazy town.  That’s when Pat Hingle’s character inexplicably walks from inside the diner carrying a rocket launcher and blows up two of the trucks.  It’s at this point in the movie where Stephen King took an extended break and special guest director Cocaine stepped in to finish the movie.  You may be familiar with Cocaine who did a lot of b-roll on Michael Bay’s films and sometimes takes human form and goes by the stage name of Brett Ratner.  In Trucks, the characters deal with the titular machines by throwing Molotov cocktails made from oil and ketchup bottles but Cocaine convinced Stephen King that what this movie really needed was for the crooked diner owner to have a cellar full of grenades, M-16s, and a goddamn missile launcher that had not been even eluded to up to the point of its introduction.

I can only assume that it was also Cocaine who decided that the main evil truck needed to have a literal face and found the semi with the giant fiberglass face of Spider-man’s Green Goblin on its front grille.  It was likely Cocaine who decided that half the characters needed to behave like extras from Smokey and the Bandit in sharp odds to the tone the movie was going for.  Cocaine who decided that a drive-thru speaker should say “Humans here! Humans here!” Cocaine who decided one of the machine victims of the montage earlier in the movie should be a dead dog with a remote controlled car stuck in its mouth.  Cocaine who possessed Ellen McElduff when she gave her over-the-top “WE MADE YOU!” speech.  Stephen King directs a chilling if shaky movie here, Cocaine just ruins it with stupid excess.

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Now not everything that’s wrong with Maximum Overdrive is down to drug-use.  I mentioned the acting but there’s always been one major things about this movie that has always bothered me.  Why aren’t the cars alive too?  We see electronic appliances of all shapes and sizes trying to kill people but aside from a wrecked Volkswagen Beetle with a dead pizza boy inside it early in the film we get no indication that cars are in on the game.  Lights, pop machines, arcade cabinets, cigarette machines, airplanes, an M-60 machine gun, a bulldozer, all of these are alive but cars remain unintelligent.  Admittedly this is a problem with the story itself as well as the made-for-TV remake, but at least both of those stuck primarily to trucks (the story mentions greyhound buses, a tractor with a hay baler, a bulldozer, and maybe a couple of jet planes), I thought maybe the cause might be diesel fuel but I just reread the story and it mentions gasoline vehicles as well.  So I don’t know, and I doubt King does either.

As I said there are a lot of little problems, most of which could be fixed with a new soundtrack.  Maximum Overdrive is a far more effective and well-made movie than people give it credit for.  It does make some pretty dumb and goofy mistakes but so does just about every beloved cult horror movie from the 80s, I’d certainly say that Maximum Overdrive is a better film than any of the Friday the 13th movies and people shit all over themselves and love those.  Tonally it’s a mess but there are moments of brilliance and those less-than-brilliant moments are still wildly entertaining.

THE SHILL
All DVD editions of Maximum Overdrive seem to be 0ut-of-print and hilariously overpriced; this generally means that a re-issue is on the way but I wouldn’t hold my breath.  There is one reasonably priced DVD you can obtain with the catch that it comes packaged with the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Raw Deal.  There’s also a region-free Japanese import Blu-Ray or you can just watch it on Amazon Instant.  Also check out Night Shift, the original story Trucks is genuinely great and the book is just a murder’s row of great early King stories.  It’s available in hardcover, paperback, and E-book.

NEXT TIME ON DOOMSDAY REELS
“There had to be someone driving with their head down, trucks don’t drive by themselves! “

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