Thursday, April 20, 2006


Kinetoscope totally hearts Maximum Overdrive

Near the beginning of Maximum Overdrive, Stephen King, the bestselling novelist in America sticks his face in an ATM security camera and calls to his wife "Honey! C'mon over here, Sugarbuns! This machine just called me an asshole!" An AC/DC rocker kicks in on the soundtrack.

That pretty much draws the dividing line for Maximum Overdrive. The world obviously connects with King's darker road trips through the night landscapes of the American experience. It is easy to forget, among the Shinings and Cujos that he has a deep love for the rip-roaring, action-oriented side of American horror. King's directorial debut is amiable and unpretentious, and Overdrive's 16 wheels are firmly in goofy, balls-out gory drive-in action horror. This is wise, because it's a forgiving genre. All you have do do is deliver some inventively icky or crazy setpieces, give the stock characters a few memorable quirks and quotable dialogue, and save the biggest explosions for the climax. Make them laugh a couple times, make them wince a few more, and make them cheer when the villain gets smushed. Thus does Maximum Overdrive deliver in spades.

The plot, suggested by the skeletal outline of King's short story "Trucks," is an instant-apocalypse recipe a la King. Radioactivity from a passing meteor causes the skies to glow florescent green, and machines to come to life, filled with unexplained homicidal rage. Causing the most mayhem are big rig trucks, so powerful, mobile, and fast. At the Dixie Boy gas station and diner in North Carolina, a small band of truckers, wayward travelers and restaurant staff are holed up as the perimeter is circled by a maximumly overdriven trucks.

Even when the trucks begin demanding that they be fed gasoline, and their intentions to enslave the human race become clear... Even when Bill Robinson (Emilio Estevez), the disgruntled short order cook, decides to lead the Dixie Boy survivors in a final stand against enslavement... None of this is really about our relationships with technology. Maximum Overdrive exploits our queasiness on this hoary s-f topic, but uses it to build horrible, comically brutal images. The movie has an unapologetically mean sense of humor, but it is King's ghoulish glee that redeems him. The first huge amazing setpiece involves a traffic jam on a drawbridge, and truckload of watermelons. If this is the kind of scene that interests you, then everything you could want of such a scene is delivered, and then some. If you are not curious about such an event, you may be a lost cause. You will likely not be amused by Little League players being chased by steamrollers, waitresses being assaulted by flying electric carving knives, or a guy getting hit in the balls by a Coke can blasted out of a vending machine with shotgun force. The point here is to be big, loud, messy, and above all fun.

Maximum Overdrive is a far more faithful adaptation of "Trucks" than it is commonly given credit for. King's primary change is in tone, transforming a tense, if improbable, survivalist pressure-cooker drama to a splatter-happy headbanger's ball. The short story is not a void of characterization, but even the stock characters of Overdrive are more colorful. A particular standout is Pat Hingle as nasty diner-owner Hendershot, who is hoarding a stockpile of military firearms in his basement, and swears and spits a lot. Easily the weakest link is Laura Harrington as Brett, a sassy tough-but-sexy (ugh) drifter who hitchhikes in with a lecherous Bible salesman (Christopher Murney - don't worry folks, he'll get smushed). If one grows impatient for Brett and Bill to fall in love in the war-zone, take satisfaction that they will have to consummate their affection in a truck stop break room. Most of the "Trucks" characters do have rough analogs in the film, but this isn't necessarily a blessing. A memorable nervous breakdown moment from the story becomes awkward and misplaced, when a waitress (Ellen McElduff) snaps and rants against the trucks "we made you!"

The film is also one of the rare King adaptations to deal in images that match the earthy language of his writing. In this respect, it is perhaps only bested by Graveyard Shift and Stand By Me. The Dixie Boy survivors grow sweatier and grimier as the day wears on, spit, bleed, blister and snot like real people. In probably the sweetest scene Maximum Overdrive can muster, two men on a recon mission through a tunnel full of raw sewage (don't ask) bond by scaring each other with rats, and cracking wise when they get feces in their mouths.

The cinematography is attractive and bright, but not stylish, and the AC/DC music, while I know King-approved, is not what I associate in my head with his work. That's all that's stopping at least one sequence in Maximum Overdrive from being the closest any film has come to capturing the feeling of reading a Stephen King novel: a young boy, having escaped the steamroller carnage on the baseball diamond, rides his bike down the empty suburban North Carolina streets. He passes mute scenes of destruction and death, some funny (a guy killed by a Walkman), some horrifying, all sort of giggly-yucky and inventive. Arcs of lawn sprinklers shoot up in the background, a moment of simple, strange poetry amid the unabashed schlock, as a young American metaphorically grows up. And then the ice cream truck comes to get him.

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