Friday, 4 September 2009

Maximum Overdrive (1986)

10-4 good buddy, haulin' this shipment of
pumpkin bombs to the Big Apple

Did you know that passing through the diffuse tail of a rogue comet can cause everyday machinery to come to life and attack people? That's what the opening text of Maximum Overdrive suggests. Or maybe it's got something to do with the UFO that a heavily armed "Russian weather satellite" shot down, as mentioned in the closing text. Who knows? Such are the mysteries of Maximum Overdrive, Stephen King's first and only foray into direction, a film that explores mankind's dependence on machines through the medium of people getting fucked up by trucks and household appliances.

Much of the film takes place at the Dixie Boy truck stop, which is populated by a bunch of forgettable trucker stereotypes and also Emilio Estevez. Estevez plays a short order cook who I guess is the hero, even though we don't know anything about him except that he went to college and used to be in jail. During the film he bones a hitchhiker, who arrives at the truck stop courtesy of a slimy bible salesman named Loman. There is also the truck stop waitress, who is attacked by an electric carving knife early in the film. Later on she goes completely off the rails, screeching "WE MADE YOU!" over and over before (thankfully) being jackhammered by an animated jeep-mounted machine gun. For pure eardrum-shredding annoyance though, you can't go past Connie and Curt, the most annoying newlyweds ever. Connie is played by Yeardley Smith and spends approximately 40% of the film screaming hysterically. You will pray for her death. Stephen King is known for his character development but here the characters are less than one dimensional. They are zero dimensional, an infinitely small, singular point in space-time.

Occasionally the film cuts away to follow a kid as he attempts to find his father at the truck stop. This subplot adds nothing to film, but it does provide some of the more memorable scenes. For instance, his little league game is interrupted when a steamroller bursts through the fence and flattens a little kid (awesome). Later, as he rides his bike through a deserted suburban neighbourhood he passes by several dead bodies, including a dog with an RC car jammed in it's mouth. This had the potential to be genuinely creepy, but the kid exhibits nothing but a blank stare and the soundtrack doesn't do him any favours. King personally selected AC/DC to score the entire film, which is an interesting experiment but doesn't always work out that well. There are a lot of scenes that could and should suspenseful, but the tone is constantly undermined by wailing guitars. Apparently there is such a thing as too much AC/DC. Who knew?

The "villain" of the film is a truck with a plastic Green Goblin head mounted on the front, and when all of the trucks comes to life he acts as the leader. One part I really liked was the trucks circling the truck stop like hungry sharks and then, when they run out of fuel, forcing the humans to man the fuel pumps at gunpoint. This is the part of the film most faithful to the short story upon which it is based (Trucks) and apparently there is a 1997 TV movie that concentrated solely on this idea. I don't know if it's any better for it, but there are all sorts of inconsistencies as it's presented here. Trucks are evil but cars are driven around just fine. A jeep mounted machine gun can aim and fire itself but when Estevez finds a hidden cache of firearms nobody seems to have any problems. Where is the line drawn? I mean, technically any sort of pulley or lever is a machine, but I didn't see any killer wheelbarrows.

The film has some decent effects with a lot of car crashes and a surprising amount of explosions, thanks to a bazooka with seemingly unlimited ammunition that the truck stop owner just happens to have. I thought there was a reasonable amount of blood but there is also a rare uncut version of this film that includes some additional censored scenes. For instance, there is a head explosion effect when the kid is run over by the steamroller and when the waitress is shot there is a Verhoevian amount of bloody squibs. One of the craziest things I read is that apparently when Loman is lying half-dead in a ditch, a man (who is also hiding in the ditch for some reason) cuts off Loman's face with a knife and runs off with it. He is credited as "Man the Face Stealer". What. The. Fuck.

During interviews King admitted that he was "coked out of [his] mind" when he was making this film and had no idea what he was doing. The film isn't as crazy as you might expect from that statement, although it is outrageously stupid and campy, especially compared to most other King adaptations. I kind of enjoyed it though. I guess the experience of watching Maximum Overdrive is best summed up in the opening scene of the movie. King makes a cameo appearance, attempting to use an ATM which plaintively declares "You are an asshole." That is this movie. It is your DVD player calling you an asshole.

No comments: