There is not a more lamented film based on the work of Stephen King than 1990's Graveyard Shift.
In some ways, maybe there is not a more focused, single-minded, and unapologetic King film, either. Graveyard Shift is a hard row to hoe, and anyone repelled by such a foul, foolish movie is forgiven. It can also be said that Graveyard Shift tries a lot of difficult tasks, and achieves most of them through sheer grit-teethed effort. Light up the flashlights, pull on the hip-waders. We're goin' in.
It's dirty, it's gross, it's slimy. All in a day's work.
In Graveyard Shift, Gates Falls, Maine's dilapidated but still-operating Bachman Textile Mill (tee hee!) has some trouble in its basement, which is overrun with disused machine parts, garbage, and rats. Hordes of rats. A sullen, college-educated drifter John Hall (David Andrews) blows into town, and takes nighttime work running an ominous cotton "picka" machine, under the watch of cruel factory foreman Warwick (Stephen Macht). As crazy Exterminator Tucker Cleveland (Brad Dourif, cranked well past 11, four tires blown, exposed wires dangling out) struggles to flush out the rats, workers begin disappearing in the dank basement.
That's pretty much it, and a rote stalk-and-eat plot, fun special effects creatures, and a bucket of grue at the climax is all it takes to satisfy the monster movie fan. For a film based on a short story first published in a 1970 issue of Cavalier men's magazine, maybe it should be a little sleazier than usual, too. Graveyard Shift has those tangible elements, but it's got something more. Graveyard Shift keeps pushing.
Everything about the film is overwrought, as if screenwriter John Esposito were operating under instruction from Tennessee Williams. There is the requisite "comic relief", but in low-budget horror history, perhaps no film has ever taken itself so very clenched-jaw seriously. The performances are uniformly intense, but the actors refuse to acknowledge the histrionics as ridiculous. Besides Dourif- having an utter blast, as he twitches and whispers through a sick-joke monologue about Viet Cong rat torture, or screaming in triumph as he floods thousands of rats into a polluted stream - there is precious little winking from this cast.
Macht is the standout, and his Warwick is a 6000-lb. heavy, an unnecessary devil-incarnate in a film which already has a giant mutant rat beast as a villain. His attempted Maine accent spans from the deep south to the European continent, but his deadly serious, puff-chested performance turns Graveyard Shift into an insane class struggle melodrama. The tyrannical foreman sends work crew after work crew to certain death, even after it's clear they are being eaten by a mammoth bat/rat hybrid. Warwick's motivation for this nihilistic way of running a factory is anybody's guess. In the film's economy of endless power struggles, it becomes about Warwick needing to control every aspect of his workers' lives, even their very mortality. Warwick talks to all personnel as if psychological gamesmanship were required for simple duty delegation. He is given a history of trading sexual favors for cushier working conditions, and when he repays his secretary (Ilona Margolis) by putting her on the crew list to clean out the scary sub-basement, she smashes his car up with an axe. In turn, he assaults her in front of a crowd of slack-jawed gawking townfolk. ...and in turn, John Hall comes to the damsel's rescue and beats up Warwick. This is how Graveyard Shift works: for every action, there is an even crazier overreaction.
We're privy to any unnecessary number of internal soap operas at Bachman Mills and in the greater Gates Falls area. Upon arriving in town, Hall is immediately beset by the hostility of the townies, who call him names and serve him a dead rat at the diner. In the loony character motivation-obsessed Graveyard Shift, this reads as the locals hicks' repressed self-loathing exploding because of the very presence of a "college boy." David Andrews performs Hall as an unknowable lone wolf, so tightly bound up that he doesn't even look like he's enjoying his smoke breaks, staring intensely at his cigarette and exhaling smoke in thin, hateful streams. He has made a hobby of pegging rats with Diet Pepsi cans and a homemade slingshot. Our hero's slingshot marksmanship is granted cosmic Signs-like significance in the finale, its import foreshadowed in mind-boggling slow motion close ups.
Hall is given a nominal love interest in fellow Bachman employee Ms. Jane Wisconsky (Kelly Wolf), who says she hails from Castle Rock (don't get excited: all lines to larger continuity stop here). Everyone in town seems to be at the mercy of the mill foreman, and their lives apparently would be ruined should they lose their shitty, dangerous jobs. They sweat and scream and fume at Warwick, and all the principles eventually end up not just in the basement, but its sub-basement. And the mysterious corpse-infested river under that. And a massive cathedral-sized bone-filled cavern under that. Graveyard Shift sees to it that everything is 10 times larger than it need be.
More melodrama per pound
than any other giant rat movie.
The unearned gravity given to every moment is silly, but it's fascinating and there's something else going on in Graveyard Shift. Director Ralph S. Singleton conjures an intensely physical world that captures some aspects of King's prose like no other film. This is one of the most convincingly grimy films I've ever seen. One can almost smell the wet fur as armies of rats are hosed down with scummy brown water. Infected-looking mud cakes every surface. The mill workers have to labor at night because of the summer heat, so characters are shiny with sweat before they start working, and coated with dirt, bloody with small injuries, and slimed by unidentified ceiling-drip by the time they finish. The monster rat coughs up rivers of opaque goop when it's in good health, and torrents of ooky crap in its death-throes. All human deaths are gruesome, painful-looking and a hair more graphic than one is expecting. One character's arm is shredded to the bone, and he just keeps screaming and waving it around. Another can't just be decapitated, but has his skull crushed into wet grave-mud by a coffin.
All of this is what's usually missing from King adaptations: either nobody can, or nobody dares try to bottle the vivid, earthy language of Stephen King. Graveyard Shift understands that King's stories are frequently writ-in-body-fluid, but misses all his other easy breezy charms. As an adaptation, Graveyard Shift takes few liberties with the plot, and on paper it sounds smart to beef out the slim 16-page short story with deeper explorations of the characters, but this mad parade was not the easy solution.
The song "Graveyard Shift" (one assumes) that plays under the credits must be heard to be disbelieved. A slow-b.p.m. dance beat grinds like the picker machine, as disembodied dialogue samples from the film are reassembled into illogical conversations. "When was the lahst time you wuh in a grayve-yahd?" asks Stephen Macht, as the drum machine thumps. Answer: I don't know, and I don't know that I want to go back, but Graveyard Shift achieves things no other Stephen King adaptation has even attempted. You may or may not find this admirable.
There are two kinds of people in this world. In Graveyard Shift, there's a scene in which a bunch of rats go surfing on a filthy board, while a Beach Boys song blares from a boom box. Now, everyone in the world is thinking about the money they spent to see this film. The first kind of person wants that money back. The second kind of person has just seen justification for the admission price. Answer for yourself: when was the last time you were in a graveyard?