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[KING'S CORNER] Graveyard Shift (1990)

Graveyard Shift - King's Corner Review

Welcome to King's Corner. A recurring series of reviews based on the Film and TV adaptations of Stephen King's novels, reviewed and released in order of the original source material publishing date.

Director: Ralph S. Singleton

Starring: David Andrews, Stephen Macht, Kelly Wolf, Brad Dourif, Andrew Divoff

Written by: John Esposito

Produced by: William J. Dunne, Ralph S. Singleton

Cinematography by: Peter Stein

Oriignal Score by: Brian Banks, Anthony Marinelli


In a very old textile mill with a serious rat infestation, deadly accidents start happening, but the corrupt foreman continues to put his workers in danger, until they discover a horrifying secret deep in the basement.

Graveyard Shift Film Review


In an interview with The Highway Patrolman magazine in 1987, Phil Konstantin asked Stephen King why he writes so many stories about rats. He replied, "I write about rats because they scare the hell out of me. I think we tend to write out our phobias." From the gruesome fate of Arlette in '1922' to the faustian bargain Drew Larson makes with a rodent in 'Rat', his fear of the beady eyed creatures has been a feature throughout his work. Perhaps the most prominent story to feature them is with the short story 'Graveyard Shift', taken from his short story collection 'Night Shift'

Originally published in the October 1970 issue of Cavalier magazine, the story follows a young drifter by the name of Hall who takes a job at a run down textile mill in Maine. Whilst working there he is offered double pay to help clear out the basement over the 4th of July weekend. It is here he discovers a massive infestation of rats that is worse than anything he could have possibly imagined. It is a highly significant story for King as it was his first story to be published to a major publication who paid the author a whopping $200. The origins of the story stretch back to King's time working at Worumbo Mills and Weaving in Lisbon Falls. During his time there a veteran of the mill would tell him stories about clean up crews that would find rats as big as dogs. It was this image that inspired King to hit the typewriter. 

The story's journey to screen began when King optioned the story to William J. Dunn for $2,500. Dunn had worked as a location scout on the likes of 'Creepshow 2' and 'Pet Sematary' and worked at establishing the Maine Film Office. In the December 1990 edition of Cinefantastique King explained his reasoning for optioning it for such a relatively low amount saying, "It's a short story, and it's a small company that's got interesting ideas that doesn't have much money. You pay as you go, as far as I'm concerned." On the set of 'Pet Sematary', the director's chair was offered to Ralph S. Singleton who worked with an already completed script from John Esposito to bring 'Graveyard Shift' to the big screen. 

Brad Dourif in Graveyard Shift

The film opens in the dirty, sweaty bowels of Bachman Mills where Jason Reed (Jonathan Emerson) is working hard at loading the picker machine. Whilst tending to a cut on his hand he soon realises he is not alone and the rafters are full of rats looking down on him, akin to something like Hitchcock's 'The Birds'. The difference here though is that it isn't unsettling despite the efforts of the score as the rodents look more adorable than creepy. Reed is then killed by an off screen presence which knocks him into the machine killing him. It sets the scene for what is a film defined by many baffling creative decisions. 

After the accident we are given a look at the exterior of the textile mill which just happens to be beside a graveyard. It is a strange inclusion that feels like a studio note more than anything. It is like they thought that audiences would be confused as to why there is no graveyard in a film called 'Graveyard Shift' which is so earth shatteringly stupid but by the time the credits roll you realise it was the least of the film's problems. It doesn't stop Singleton from leaning into this setting as he pans over decrepit headstones with fog billowing around them. It is a strange attempt to add some kind of gothic atmosphere to a film that doesn't really require it when the previous scene already established it as being a bloody creature feature. 

Having said that, the scene introduces us to the highlight of the film, the tobacco chewing Vietnam vet and exterminator extraordinaire, Tucker Cleveland (Brad Dourif). He completely understands the role and leans into it in a way that lights up the screen every time he appears. With slicked back greasy hair and a tacky ear ring to boot he struts around the mill with the goal of eradicating every rat in sight, even though he knows it's an impossible job. This leads to the most memorable scene in the film when he talks to Hall about his experiences in Vietnam. He delivers a monologue similar to Quint's USS Indianapolis from 'Jaws' only here he talks about his hatred of rats, due to the way the Vietcong used them to torture his fellow troops, with a fear and hatred that only an actor like Dourif could deliver. It is a textbook example of why he is not just one of the genre's best character actors but one of the best in general because no matter what material he is presented with, he delivers a performance with so much intensity. When you watch the film you wonder why it doesn't revolve around his character. His back story alone makes him a no-brainer for the leading role. When his character is dispatched in an unceremoniously dull fashion, it feels like a summation of the film, underwhelming. Rather than having him have a final showdown with his furry nemesis, he is crushed by a stone coffin. 

Another actor who makes the most of their role is Stephen Macht as the ball breaking womaniser mill owner, Warwick. Sporting a crew cut and the most extreme Maine accent this side of Fred Gwynne's Jud Crandall, his performance really stands out. A cartoon of a character, he is determined to exploit his staff at every turn for profit and Macht really plays this up. It is like he has taken every negative stereotype of a "bad boss" he has experienced in his life and hams it up. At the same time he punctuates his dialogue with the regular use of the colloquial phrase "Ayup" to slimy effect. In the third act his character inexplicably goes insane and Macht doesn't let up by revelling in this peculiar move making for an entertaining finale. 

Graveyard Shift Film Review

Opposite him as the film's protagonist John Hall, David Andrews doesn't really add much to the film. Parallel to the delightfully over the top performances of Dourif and Macht, he comes across as quite bland as the drifter in search of a fresh start. He feels like he is going through the motions with the film and the forced love story with his co-worker Jane (Kelly Wolf) does nothing for his character or the film in general. The blame can't be placed on Andrew's shoulders though as the script writes his character in a two dimensional way that doesn't make you care about him at all. It is a shame that the film doesn't lean into the darker side of the character from the short story as it would have made him all the more interesting, giving Andrews something more to chew on with the writing. 

These character issues aren't limited to that of Hall as Jane is billed as the tough independent female character but this is only limited to the story she tells Hall about turning down Warwick's advances. Even in the finale there is an opportunity for her to complete a revenge arc against Warwick only for the opposite to happen. Other workers in the mill feel like they can be summed up in one short sentence as their only role in the film is to be dispatched in a gruesome manner by the giant rodent creature (which is an impressive piece of puppetry) dwelling underneath the mill. The script is also presented with the opportunity to have some kind of substantial commentary about the blue collar worker in Reagan's America in line with something like 'Alien' but it never tries to approach this in a substantial way. It is limited to some throwaway lines of dialogue making it feel like a missed opportunity. 

When you look at a simple concept like the one for 'Graveyard Shift', it feels like a golden ticket for any filmmaker in the genre wanting to produce a crowd pleasing creature feature that revels in schlock, but sadly this adaptation fails at capturing this at almost every turn. It makes all the wrong decisions by not seeing this kind of potential from its use of the cast or how to harness the greatness of the practical effects to produce something fun and scary. King has said on numerous occasions that this is one of the worst adaptations of one of his stories and whilst I wouldn't go that far, I would say that for all of the remakes there have been of his work in recent years, this should be on top of the list as this iteration is an underwhelming disappointment. 

Verdict: ⭐️⭐️

-Joseph McElroy

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