Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Dark Half

Richard Bachman was the pen name Stephen King adopted so he could publish more books without diluting his brand with overexposure. The books he published under the Bachman name include Rage, The Long Walk, Roadwork, The Running Man, and Thinner. Eventually, the King-Bachman connection was discovered, and King subsequently killed off Bachman with "cancer of the pseudonym."

The Dark Half was the book King was inspired to write because of the whole Bachman business. Written in 1989, the novel is about college professor, Thad Beaumont, who writes both respectable literary work under his own name and trashy pulp crime thrillers under the name George Stark. When threatened with blackmail by a creep who discovers the truth, Thad instead elects to go public and "kill off" George Stark. That's when people around him start getting murdered in gruesome ways, and fingerprints on the scene implicate Thad.

The 1993 film adaptation comes written and directed by George Romero, best known for Night of the Living Dead, and starring Timothy Hutton as Thad. King and Romero have worked together before, most notably on the EC Comic homage Creepshow, but curiously, this is the only time Romero has adapted a novel of King's. For what it's worth, the film remains remarkably faithful to the source material bar two minor tweaks I caught: one being the attempted blackmail is mentioned in the novel but is dramatized on film while the character of Rawlie Delesseps, a colleague of Thad, is now a woman played by Julie Harris.

Despite the names of Romero and King, The Dark Half is less of a macabre horror show than it is a psychological thriller. Yes, there are scenes of victims being dispatched by a maniac with a razor blade and the supernatural eventually finds its way into the proceedings, but the film is more or less a modernized take on Jekyll and Hyde. Thematically and narratively, George Stark is essentially the unrepressed id of Thad Beaumont. Instead of a meek, clumsy professor with a wife and twin babies who has quit smoking and drinking, he is a blunt, tough, dangerous man who takes and gets what he wants, how he wants, and always has a sharp reply ready.

The movie spends a good portion of the first half toying with the question is Thad a victim being framed or is he a schizophrenic. The film has good fun exploiting that ambiguity. Even before the murders occur, Thad continually speaks about George as if he were real person and describes to an interviewer the writing process in which the spirit or will of Stark takes over to write his best sellers. Stark is essentially his chance to be bad, and some level, Thad has always admired and encouraged George.

The movie starts to come apart around the time we learn Stark is another character and not just Thad going nuts. After being symbolically buried and killed, he emerges with a vendetta, going after Thad's loved ones and associates to force him to write another book. The problem is that Stark, played by Hutton in a duel role, is not particularly scary, even when he slices people and threatens Thad's family. Hutton has fun playing  him with his hair slicked back, five o'clock shadow, and a slight southern drawl, always flicking a razor and wearing all black with leather boots, but for a figure so hyped, it's kind of a letdown that the story's idea of a bad boy is a stereotypical bad boy. It's rather mundane.

The supernatural elements, which should have pushed the film over the edge, actually end up falling kind of flat. There's a vague but neat idea that as a developing fetus, Thad was originally a twin who absorbed the other. As a boy, he had headaches and seizures until doctors removed what they thought would be a brain tumor that turned out to be the remains of the other twin (this is revealed in a graphic prologue). Presumably, Stark has absconded with these remains to materialize himself, but like I said, it's vague and not really well exploited or explained. There's also the notion of Stark weakening and physically deteriorating now that Thad doesn't want him around, and somehow it's tied in with all these sparrows that keep flying around, but it feels almost shoehorned in. I got the sense the filmmakers were almost trying to downplay the horror elements and make something a little mainstream.

That's not to say the movie isn't enjoyable. It certainly is. Hutton is good in both Jekyll and Hyde mode. Amy Madigan, with the rather thankless part of the wife, also does well with what she has as the concerned spouse who wants to trust her husband but begins questioning his sanity. And any movie that casts Michael Rooker, his first genre role after breaking out as the title character in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, as a good-guy sheriff has to be channeling some kind of perverse inspiration.The murder scenes and mystery are fairly exciting in their own right, I rather liked the confrontation when Thad and George meet face to face, and there are touches of Romero's trademark dark humor.

What The Dark Half really lacks is an obsessiveness. It never quite gets inside Thad's head, and instead of the proceedings being deranged and paranoid, the narrative feels a bit flat and lacks a much needed edge. Except for a few scenes, we never dig really deep on the more tantalizing psychological aspects, and instead, it's a lot of surface shocks and violence. This is an arms-length adaptation.

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