Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Black Mariah

My interest in The Black Mariah, a 1994 novel by Jay R. Bonansinga, came about when I learned director George Romero had at one point been in line to direct the movie adaptation. Even on its cover, the book claims it will "soon be a major motion picture." Nineteen years later, that project appears all but cancelled.

I have a strong inkling the release of Speed might have put the kibosh on the planned adaptation of The Black Mariah. You remember Speed? Keanu Reeves plays a cop on board a Los Angeles bus that can't drive slower than 50 mph or a bomb planted by Dennis Hopper's terrorist character will go off. The Black Mariah reads like the horror version of that scenario.

In The Black Mariah, the characters are not on a bus but a semi-truck, so named the Black Mariah. The two characters at the center of the plot are not a cop and passenger like in Speed but the trucking team of Lucas Hyde, a big, black, does-things-his-own way man, and his partner Sophie Cohen, the feisty, college-educated woman; later on, they're joined by Angel Figueroa, a determined teen with a Metallica shirt, cleft lip, and pronounced lisp. The threat here is not a ticking bomb but a Voodoo devil curse that will cause its victims to erupt in flames when they stop moving, burning them out from the inside. Lucas and Sophie witness this threat firsthand when it falls upon a young black man named Melville Benoit, who tells them about the curse and how it fell upon him. They try to help him by refueling his vehicle while in motion but can only watch in horror when he burns alive in front of them after the attempt fails. Before too long, they're back on the road being pursued by mundane (police) and supernatural threats as the Black Mariah begins eating up its fuel.

Knowing this was at one point to be a Romero film, I had fun picturing the actors he's worked with over the years as the different character. For Lucas, I envisioned Ken Foree, the heroic, thoughtful SWAT officer from Dawn of the Dead. For his partner Sophie, I imagined Adrienne "Oh, just call me Billy" Barbeau (though I don't think she comes from a Jewish family like Sophie). Another Creepshow alumna, Viveca Lindfors, probably could have had fun as Vanessa DeGeaux, the ancient, Southern aristocrat in a failing body who initiated the curse business and follows the Black Mariah in her limousine. I could also see Tom Atkins (he played a cop in Two Evil Eyes and Bruiser) as Sheriff Dick Baum, who's just trying to make sense of everything.

It's easy to imagine how The Black Mariah would have worked as a movie because unfortunately, it doesn't necessarily work as a novel. Suspense is generated by all the obstacles the truckers encounter as they try to keep moving : dwindling fuel reserves, pursuit by the police, other vehicles blocking the road, etc. Bonansinga also does a solid job charting the progress of the curse; it's not just stop and ignite, but rather, it grows and festers in their bodies. Lucas, Sophie, and Angel become sicker, weaker, and susceptible to hallucinations the slower they move, and it's not pretty.

But the author also throw in too many elements and too many characters that distract from the immediacy of the protagonists' dangerous situation. We got Sheriff Baum in his office and home, a deputy who flies to Florida to investigate the origins of the curse, Angel's uncle who senses the supernatural danger, Vanessa's long-suffering limo driver, and other assorted drivers, clerks, and even a railroad engineer that are introduced, given a back story, and then dumped, never to be mentioned again after their part is done. There are also a number of flashbacks and dream sequences that halt the story's momentum.

Bonansinga also undercuts the sense of mystery and discovery by having Melville explain everything about the curse right from the start. This information is relayed secondhand in the narration and dismissed by Lucas, but really, it included almost everything about the curse. How much more frightening could the book have been if the curse had not been explained, if we never knew where it came from  or why, and it just was?

I'm reminded of another story-turned-movie, Duel. That was about one driver being chased endlessly by a truck. We never learn why, we never discover who the trucker is, and we remain, the entire time, with the hero as his situation becomes more and more desperate until it reaches a breaking point. That's really the model I think The Black Mariah should have followed. Just keep it centered on the truckers, the curse's effects, and what they do to keep going. The book is too colorful when it should be more stark.

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