The Dark Half

Hollywood George Romero is not my favorite George Romero, but he’s the most underrated one. With THE DARK HALF (1993, but shot in ’90 and ’91) he’s still filming in Pennsylvania (portraying Stephen King’s Castle Rock, Maine), but funded by Orion, with enough of a budget ($15 million) for Academy Award winning movie star lead Timothy Hutton (CITY OF INDUSTRY), three months of training for 4,000 birds, and some early computer effects. It has more of a slick, Hollywood feel than we associate with Romero, less of his hand-crafted-by-local-artisans vibe, but that’s not the end of the world. It’s cool to see how well he can do a straight-forward adaptation of a book by King (“Hoagie Man,” KNIGHTRIDERS). Better than most, it turns out.

Hutton plays Thad Beaumont, novelist and college professor who has made a good living mostly from his pulp novels under the pseudonym George Stark. The “Machine” series, about hitman Alexis Machine, are macho, lowbrow, gory, and hugely popular, but his authorship is kept a secret to protect his respectable reputation. Unfortunately he’s ashamed enough of his pulp success that when a blackmailer (Robert Joy, DEATH WISH V: THE FACE OF DEATH, LAND OF THE DEAD, THE HILLS HAVE EYES remake) threatens to out him he not only goes public but announces the “death” of George Stark and Alexis Machine.

In Misery it was a fan who felt entitled to force the artist into rehashing his old shit against his artistic instincts; in this one it’s his own dark side and/or unborn twin. You see, as a child Thad had a tumor that turned out to be tissue left over from a parasitic twin. But we can gather that when he writes as George Stark – a method that involves writing with a specific pencil, drinking, smoking, and being an asshole – he’s unknowingly channeling the spirit of his sibling. The soul is transferred through birds (long story).

So after he announces Stark’s death at a mock grave, people involved in this publishing decision start showing up dead. To Thad, his wife, and even us, it’s unclear whether Thad is taking on a second personality, or whether something literally crawled out of the grave to give him shit.

Ain’t that a bitch, though? Even those of us who were lucky enough not to be born with an evil lump-brother that we have to hide in a wicker basket, we still might have a twin out there that our parents never told us about, and he could disagree with our artistic decisions and come after us. No one is safe.

And we’re never gonna know what’s going on unless we have one of those friends who knows ancient legends and maybe reads things to us out of big leatherbound magical tomes. For example in THE MANGLER he had his neighbor/brother-in-law who figured out the demonic cause of the industrial accidents and performed the exorcism. Here it’s Thad’s university colleague Reggie (Julie Harris, THE SPLIT) who jokingly refers to herself as “an old witch doctor” and takes the situation as a fun puzzle challenge. I like this version of the character type – she’s so friendly and self-deprecating that you can see why she would be just be your eccentric friend and you wouldn’t look down on her for her interest in the occult.

Romero fought to cast Michael Rooker as Sheriff Alan Pangborn (HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER was released a few years before), and it’s really cool to him playing a nice guy. Actually, he’s too nice – in my opinion he gives Thad way, way, way, waaaaaay too much leeway and benefit of the doubt in his investigation. He not only lets him remain free, but seems to believe him more than not, despite overwhelming physical evidence, witness accounts, motive and circumstantial evidence linking him to one murder after another in a short period of time with him acting weird the whole time and telling insane supernatural stories to explain it.

Romero wrings more tension from the appearance of guilt than the murders themselves, especially when he shows Thad’s wife Liz (Amy Madigan, STREETS OF FIRE)’s worried eyes react to each new piece of troubling information. It actually had me wondering what I would do if presented this evidence against myself, and I thought I’d probly turn myself in!

Luckily, I don’t have a George Stark, I am a George Stark. And instead of killing one side or the other I just merged them together and we both learned from each other and there has been no murder or kidnapping. I recommend that approach.

According to an August 1991 Fangoria, Hutton is a Method actor and would not allow outsiders on set while filming the Stark scenes. I wonder how he feels about it – does he fear his Method-self taking over? When we first see Stark he’s unrecognizable as Hutton. It’s well done enough that I thought it was mostly Hutton’s performance that was different – in fact he’s also wearing contacts and a four-hour makeup job to accentuate his slicked back hair and aggressive swagger. It’s young Stephen King’s idea of what a cool bad boy looks like – black clothes, pointy boots, black Toronado that says “HIGH TONED SON OF A BITCH” on the back, inexcusably terrible driving, bottle of whisky in hand unless he decides to smash it against a wall…

This toxic supernatural asshole talks in kind of a Jack Nicholson voice, becomes increasingly wobbly and bandaged as his body degrades, and insists on wearing thick leather gloves while writing. I love the scene where they finally sit down together to write the further adventures of Alexis Machine, and the macho tough guy suddenly seems like the school bully forced to ask for help on his homework. A great moment of subtle vulnerability by Hutton.

Madigan is also really good considering she seems like a no-fun prude with her reactions to Thad’s books and taking the photo in the cemetery – stances the movie seems to agree with her on. But she projects enough strength and seriousness that I still really liked her.

After CREEPSHOW, Romero came close to being the director on a bunch of different King adaptations: SALEM’S LOT, PET SEMATARY, THE STAND, even a 7-hour version of IT. I’m sure he would’ve been good on any of those, but this was a nice fit and a great movie premise. It’s pure King: magical, illogical, symbolic, yet autobiographical and giving an illusion of being down-to-earth, everyday, possible. It doesn’t have to make any more literal sense than this because it makes enough poetic sense. Thad must protect his wife and kids from the worst parts of his nature.

I don’t like the implication that it’s wrong for him to write these violent books, or that writer alter egos like Richard Stark or Richard Bachman would have to be total psychos to write those books in earnest, so instead I’ll take it as a warning that Thad should not be ashamed of his pulp career, shouldn’t hide and compartmentalize. If he would’ve just kept writing fun books with people knowing it was a pseudonym, none of this would’ve happened! He just needed an outlet for that stuff. It is, after all, half of him.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, October 18th, 2017 at 10:30 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

18 Responses to “The Dark Half”

  1. The novel was the first King book I ever started reading. I never finished it, since the book got lost somehow. I now own anothe copy of it. I remember the opening stuff with his twin in the brain. Urgh. That was gross. And if I recall teh film it was pretty gross as well.

  2. The book is one of my favorites and the movie has grown on me over the years. As a kid just figuring out that writing was going to be his calling going forward, it had some very welcome insights into the writing process and mindset. I can’t say that I behave like a different person when I’m writing, but I instantly recognized that feeling of losing yourself to the story in your head, of the thing seeming to burst forth of its own accord from a place not of your own creation.

    I don’t think King was ever condemning Beaumont for his pulp work. I see a lot of sympathy for Stark’s crowd-pleasing tendencies in the book, as well as contempt for Beaumont’s navel-gazing self-importance. Besides, we all know which side Stephen “The Big Mac of Literature” King would consider his own work to fall on. What causes all the trouble is not the indulgence of one’s own dark side, but the repression of it. Everybody is happy and safe as long as Stark gets his say, as much as the wife might not approve. It’s only when he has no more outlet that he gets murdery. Is this not a theme that Romero, a gentle teddy bear of a man whom the world at large saw as some kind of bloodthirsty psychopath, could relate to?

    Apparently Rucker did not get along well with his fellow cast members, who were much more on the Beaumont side of artistic pretension than Rucker was. He was a blue-collar, let’s-get-this-bitch-in-the-can type surrounded by Method douches. I’m sure this quality is what made working-class-to-the-core Romero fight so hard to cast him.

    The sheriff character Rucker plays is also the star of NEEDFUL THINGS, where he’s played by one-time Romero leading man Ed Harris, so hopefully that’s next up on the King marathon.

    Also, I always wanted King to write some Alexis Machine novels for real. They’d be like Parker novels, but with an actual evil bastard in the lead instead of a cold-blooded professional. Too bad Richard Bachman was dead by then, because I think he’d really have killed it.

  3. Rucker? You mean Rooker?

  4. Whoops, my bad. It felt wrong in my head when I was typing it but I plowed forth anyway.

  5. Speaking of Bachman, I like RUNNING MAN and LONG WALK alot. Sure, they come across written by an immature writer, but the lack of subtlety and nuance that ( especially the characterizations) is made up by the sheer energy of the writing. A very angry sort of writing. A young writer who see a lot of injustice in the world and wants a place to vent it. That place is the writing.

    RAGE however I always felt misguided in its anger and I can see why King want it out of print.

  6. King was referencing Donald Westlake/Richard Stark in this, although he’s a fan so I don’t think it was meant as a knock. Just a jumping off point for a story.

    I also just watched a Romero Q&A thing where he said the cinematographer tried to get him fired off the movie.

  7. I watched this a long time ago in early 2006, so it’s not exactly super fresh in my memory, however I remember liking it a lot, Romero managed to capture a certain vibe of King’s work well and it’s a shame he didn’t make more King adaptations.

  8. Just to echo McKay – The Long Walk i think is a great book – maybe even the great King film yet to be made (apparently Darabont has the rights, that’ll be neat.

    It’s a small story, done right I think it could genuinely be brutal and powerful. Really hope we get to see it.

  9. Just saw 1922 on Netflix. Thomas Jane gives a career high performance in this. The novella* is one of the best things King has written in the last fifteen years and this adaptation is almost as gross and gruesome as the source material and manages to maintains its subversive subtext. It is Poe-esque, haunting and I can´t recommend it enough! ( They did leave out the novellas most gross mometn, which I am thankful for.)

    *The novella is from the FULL DARK, NO STARS collection. Almost all of them will make your skin crawl. Especially this one and A GOOD MARRIAGE

  10. Alan Pangborn is a recurring character in a bunch of King books. He’s the sheriff of Castle Rock, so he’s seen some crazy shit in his time. That’s why he has few issues believing Thad’s story.

  11. Scott Glenn is apparently playing him on the new CASTLE ROCK show.

    For your information, in BAG OF BONES, we learn that Thad Beaumont committed suicide after the events in THE DARK HALF.

  12. Kinda wizened for the role, ain’t he? Is the show taking place in real time, i.e. 25 years after the last Castle Rock story was written?

  13. Speaking of movies by writers for writers. Interesting to see this and IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS get reviewed so close to each other. They’d make quite the double bill.

  14. Nobody really knows. The teaser was kind of cryptic. But I am guessing it does.

  15. Even though Stephen King is mentioned in IN THE MOUTH…there are a lot of similarities between King and Cane. Sutter Canes books have similar fonts to a lot of the older King novels. King, like Cane. lives in the middle of nowhere typing away in a small town as a recluse. And the way Sam Neill talks about Canes novels. Like how they are trash, but way more well written than you´d expect. That sounds an awful lot like how some snotty guy would describe Kings´works.

  16. The Long Walk is my jam. I’ve thought many times over the years how a movie adaptation could possibly work- given how unremittingly grim it is, with ****SPOILERS**** basically every single main character in the story being killed one by one ****END SPOILERS**** I’m not sure it could ever work for a big enough audience that would justify the budget it would need (those crowd scenes and halftracks won’t be cheap).

    It’s unfortunate that Darabont has the rights, considering just how diminished those diminishing returns on King adaptations got: “The Mist” is one of the worst movies I have ever seen in the theater (and I’ve seen “Hell Ride”).

    On topic: I don’t love the Dark Half- the book at least, never seen the movie. I heard Michael Rucker is good though.

  17. Wo, I just got so confused when you guys were talking about Scott Glenn. I thought for sure he recently died, so I had to look him up and sure enough he’s still kicking. Then I was tripping out trying to figure out who really died. I realized it was Sam Shepard.

  18. Watched this on Hulu for the first time since vhs and it held up better than I remembered. The two split screen shots did some ambitious interaction between Huttons, although you could see a thick line between them. And this was after Back to the Future II.

    Always fun to see King so stories about authors.

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