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.