The Dark Half - 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.
Duality has always been a prominent feature for Stephen King in both his writing and his personal life. In 'The Stand', survivors of the Captain Tripps virus are faced with a choice between good or evil and in 'The Shining' the ghosts over the Overlook use Jack Torrance's addictions to lure him from a life of sobriety. In his personal life people would examine the difference in his writing before and after his sobriety or before and after his near fatal accident. It is these two sides that have followed him his whole life but the most obvious one of all inspired his book 'The Dark Half' in the wake of the discovery of his pseudonym Richard Bachman.
Director: George A Romero
Starring: Timothy Hutton, Amy Madigan, Michael Rooker, Beth Grant
Written by: George A Romero
Produced by: Declan Baldwin
Cinematography by: Tony Pierce-Roberts
Original Score by: Christopher Young
A writer's fictional alter ego wants to take over his life...at any price.
In an interview with the Washington Post in 1985 Stephen King declared to the world that Bachman had died of exposure, revealing that he was the man behind the pen after a discovery by bookstore clerk Steve Brown. Whilst King's novels can be pretty dark affairs, the Bachman pseudonym allowed him to push himself even further as the pen name didn't carry the expectations his own did. Whilst promoting 'The Dark Half' in 1989, King talked about the inspiration behind the novel in an interview with Authortalk. During it he said, "For a while I started to think, 'Suppose Bachman wasn't dead?' And immediately the idea jumped to mind: What if a guy had a pen name that didn't want to stay dead". 'The Dark Half' answers this with the central character Thad Beaumont's alter ego George Stark taking a life of his own and carving a bloody path of revenge.
In a perfect world after their collaboration on 'Creepshow' George A. Romero would have gone on to greater success adapting King's novels 'Pet Sematary', 'It' and 'The Stand' but unfortunately for a variety of reasons these efforts never came to fruition with Romero at the helm. When the opportunity to adapt 'The Dark Half' came along, he thought it was too good an opportunity to turn down. Although it was his third feature with a major production company (after Creepshow and Monkey Shines), Romero's independent background clashed with producers on the film and lead actor Timothy Hutton's method approach caused issues on set. On top of this the bleak financial situation with Orion Pictures meant that the film was released almost two years after shooting had finished leading to an underwhelming performance at the box office but this didn't equate to a bad film.
It opens with a young Thad Beaumont suffering from a series of debilitating headaches which his mother thinks stem from spending too much time writing, which was very similar to what happened to King at a younger age. They grow so bad that Thad requires an operation on his brain where the surgeon discovers an assimilated twin complete with teeth and a blinking eye showing the influence this story had on the likes of 'Malignant'. The operation is interrupted with a flock of thousands of sparrows surrounding the hospital inducing a creepy and ominous atmosphere to the film.
We then cut to an adult Thad Beaumont (played by Timothy Hutton) who has forged a career as a writer living with his wife Liz (played by Amy Madigan) and their twins. He is somewhat successful but this isn't down to his own writing, rather his pseudonym George Stark who writes ultra violent gangster stories. In the film Hutton plays both Thad and George and is great in both respective roles (particularly the latter). As Thad he captures the fallibility of the character and his clumsy yet good natured manner but at the same time he manages to
exude just the right amount of darkness that dwells within his character. It is summed up pretty well in the scene where gives a lecture on duality in writing when he says, "the writer has to let their inner being out to prevent its voice from being inhibited". He fumbles at times during it but you detect a darkness at the corner of his eyes. The lecture ends with one of the attendees approaching Thad revealing that he knows he is George Stark which forces his hand leading him on a journey which unleashes his dark half.
Romero does a masterful job with the introduction of George Stark and you can tell the most enjoyable experiences he had while filming must have involved this character even though Hutton's commitment to method acting proved to be a little frustrating. He would make outrageous demands such as having two separate trailers for each of his characters. We first meet George on a dark road hitchhiking when photographer Homer Gamache (played by Glenn Colerider) stops to pick him up thinking it is Thad. From the red glow of the exhaust fumes a dark silhouette lit only by their cigarette emerges and pulls Homer from his vehicle beating him to death off screen with his own prosthetic leg. It is the perfect introduction exhibiting the pure evil the character possesses. When we see him in full view with his greased back mullet complete with a southern drawl spewing from his lips he becomes more cartoonish but not less threatening. You can see Hutton loves playing Thad's self confessed "drinking buddy" in every exaggerating move or inflection the character makes and it is a lot of fun to watch.
With the other cast, Amy Madigan does a good job at playing the supportive wife who tries to convince Thad to do what is best for his family when it comes to George Stark but ultimately her character feels a little underwritten. Michael Rooker is terrific in the supporting role of the town sheriff, Alan Pangborn. Initially Romero wanted him to play the leading roles but the studio told him that he couldn't. Nevertheless he is a great addition to the cast. Although he brings his trademark intensity to the role it is his character's humanity that shines through. Romero perfectly captures the down to earth eccentricities that exist in small town America with the smaller roles in the film such as the photographer and the caretaker of the graveyard. It goes a long way at bringing King's words to life on the screen.
Whilst the film begins strongly, the pacing in the second act becomes an issue as the manner in which George murders anyone tied to Thad becomes episodic and diminishes a lot of tension in the film, which could partially be down to his devotion to the source material rather than trying to tighten it more for a feature film. It hurts the film but other elements work wonderfully such as the makeup effects led by Everett Burrell and John Vulich (who worked before with Romero on Two Evil Eyes) work wonderfully. Their work on the deterioration of George as Thad ignores him is impressively gruesome but the grand finale inspired by H.P. Lovecraft's poem, 'The Psychopompos' when George is torn apart by sparrows and taken to another world is the big gory highlight.
Perhaps the film's greatest feature is its use of music. The use of the song 'Are You Lonesome Tonight?' is creepily effective at showing how George haunts Thad, reminding us that he could be lurking around the corner waiting to strike at any moment. The film's crowning achievement belongs to Christopher Young whose use of strings intertwined with the piano get across the duality between Thad and George. The use of haunting choral vocals also gets across the otherworldly and fantastical elements of the film that sometimes fail to do so visually. In short it is a joy to listen to from start to finish.
'The Dark Half' can be described as being a cathartic work for King. It was like the final chapter in his recovery trilogy alongside 'Misery' and 'The Tommyknockers'. Whilst something like this can't fully drive your personal demons away, it does allow you to confront them and heal from the lessons learned from them. For Romero this was not the case because although he managed to make a good film despite all of the issues on and off set he was left soured by the studio system. An often unfairly maligned adaptation from Stephen King, 'The Dark Half' is one of the better adaptations put on the big screen.
- Joseph McElroy