May 7, 1991
I don’t think I’ve ever included a TV movie in a summer movie retrospective, but this came up on a summer of ’91 list and I figured why not? After the opening weekend for A RAGE IN HARLEM and ONE GOOD COP, some people checked out a new Stephen King movie on the CBS Tuesday Movie Special. It aired against a Roseanne episode that introduced Shelly Winters as Nana Mary, the fourth episode of a short-lived sitcom called Stat, and a thirtysomething about Hope (Mel Harris) volunteering at a homeless shelter.
One could reasonably assume that a Stephen-King-based TV movie in the ‘90s would be a Mick Garris joint, but in fact it’s a different notable horror director: Tom McLoughlin of FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VI: JASON LIVES fame. He also did ONE DARK NIGHT and, come to think of it, co-created She-Wolf of London with Garris. This one comes from a King short story first published in Cavalier in 1974, and later included in Night Shift. It was adapted by Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal, whose all-over-the-place filmography at this point included THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN, THE JEWEL OF THE NILE, SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE, and DESPERATE HOURS.
Although this is a normal Stephen King horror thing, it has so many shared elements with STAND BY ME at the beginning that it’s kind of funny. It has a narrator – not a professional writer, but at least an English teacher – looking back on his childhood (in this case in the early ‘60s, if you do the math). There are ’50s style bullies with switchblades, leather jackets and a car. There’s a harrowing encounter with a train when they try to take a dangerous shortcut (through a tunnel, rather than across a bridge). There’s an older brother who tells his younger brother how smart he is and gives him a baseball hat as a meaningful gift. And there’s a dead brother.
But the main story takes place in 1990 when the narrator, Jim Norman (Tim Matheson in the same year as DROP DEAD FRED), is an adult. He returns to his small home town with his wife Sally (Brooke Adams, THE DEAD ZONE) and son Scott (Robert Hy Gorman, later in DON’T TELL MOM THE BABYSITTER’S DEAD, LEPRECHAUN and MR. NANNY) to live in his childhood house and teach at the high school.
Jim wonders what it was that kept his parents away from the house and seems surprised that his return is stirring up emotions even though he hasn’t been here since he was 9 when they specifically moved away because his older brother Wayne (Chris Demetral, also in DOLLY DEAREST that year) was murdered by the aforementioned bullies. We learn from his nightmares and flashbacks how they were accosted in the train tunnel, his brother was stabbed but three of the four bullies were also killed when a train hit their ’55 Chevy (pretty cool explosion there).
Matheson is good and Jim seems super nice and also should probly not be allowed to teach. He was fired from his last job for something the principal (William Kuhlke, NICE GIRLS DON’T EXPLODE) refers to as the “Chicago incident” (it took place in Chicago, it did not necessarily involve the musical of the same name) and the students heard might’ve involved throwing a chair or throwing a kid out a window. On his first day a piece of shit jock in his class named “Chip Conway, or the Chipster, depending on how close you get” (Chadd Nyerges, later just on a couple 90210 episodes and stuff) stands up and explains that this is not a real class, it’s just for the football team to get an easy grade. Mr. Norman plays nice guy and fails to say anything when Chip openly calls his classmate Kate (Tasia Valenza, Dixie in RAPPIN’) an “airhead,” but when the jocks start high fiving and chanting he loses his shit and breaks a chalk holder over his desk.
He’s immediately apologetic but serious student Kate tells him not to apologize and outsider, Bob-Marley-shirt-under-army-jacket-wearing-dangly-earring kid Billy (Matt Nolan, later in ARGO) smiles and says, “I liked it.”
He keeps experiencing creepy shit like hearing train whistles, or a kid crying (he thinks it’s his son, but it’s his brother) or straight up finding himself in his past, unable to warn his younger self and brother not to go into the train tunnel.
At school he, an adult man, gets bullied by students – Chip almost hits him with his Firebird and tells him “You’re dead, man!” And then it’s time for supernatural bullying. Billy drops his keys in the parking lot and takes off on his bike, so he tries to chase after him in his van when he witnesses a hot rod, painted with flame designs and spewing actual flames from its exhaust pipe, trying to run him over. Billy’s definitely reacting to it, but other people only see a kid on a bike screaming “Help me!” with Jim behind him honking his horn until Billy rides over the side of a bridge and dies. The principal knows about this when Jim comes to school and tells him Billy was murdered, but leaves it at “I don’t know what to tell you.” And still only gives him a break when on the same day he walks by the classroom and hears Jim yelling.
The reason? A new transfer student named Richard Lawson (Robert Rusler from WEIRD SCIENCE, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2: FREDDY’S REVENGE and DANGEROUSLY CLOSE) happens to be one of the jerks who murdered his brother, back from the dead and not aged a day. He’s such a wimp he tells him “One thing you have to know in my class – no cigarettes.” As if that’s unique to his class! As other students start turning up dead, fellow undead pomade aficionados Vinnie Vincent (Nicholas Sadler, later in HELLRAISER: INFERNO) and David North (Bentley Mitchum, Winnie Cooper’s brother who died in Vietnam) also join the class.
Those guys are such crazy assholes that Chip feels bad and shows up at Jim’s house to warn him about them. But he won’t go to the police because “It’s not my fight! I’m just a jock. I’m sorry.”
It turns more into funny ‘80s horror a little bit less than an hour in when the boys do what they call “the face” – revealing their rotted corpse faces. Two of them are just makeup but one of them is this great puppet:
Then I’m not sure how but they are able to tear Chip into many pieces which we see them tossing one by one over a bridge. In an April, 1991 Fangoria article McLoughlin predicted that this would be censored. “There’s a scene whhere the three punks start to decompose, and all kinds of fluid and shit starts pouring out. There’s also a scene where the punks corner a jock in a car andstart tearing him apart, and we see all these body parts flying around. We went pretty far for a TV movie. Hopefully, the real disgusting stuff will get put back into the film when it’s released theatrically in Europe.”
I was thinking it was impressive that this aired on CBS, but now that he mentions it the DVD from Olive Films is widescreen, and likely is the theatrical cut if such a thing was made. So I’m actually not sure if that aired or not. Does anyone a little younger than me remember being traumatized and/or delighted by it?
Jim is questioned by the police chief (T. Max Graham, THE STING II), who munches on peanuts while yelling at him, and when he comes home Scott excitedly says, “It’s Dad! Dad! How was jail?”
His wife is concerned that everyone in town suspects him of murdering two of his students with whom he had unusual relationships and was the last person to be seen with and went around insisting they did not commit suicide.
“They think you killed Billy and Kate,” she says.
“Yeah, but they have no evidence.”
Not that comforting!
It gets more silly in the last half hour, but I’m not complaining, it kind of makes it more compelling. The ghost hot rod chases little Scott and he’s smart enough to slide under a parked car, which the hot rod rams and causes to roll over. I really wanted there to be some acknowledgment that somebody in the neighborhood saw this kid crawl under a car and then left it and roll it.
They hide out in a church and one of the bully zombies tries to come inside but his foot catches on fire. The ghost of Wayne shows up and fearlessly saves the day and there’s a big emotional scene because he doesn’t know he’s a ghost or that any time has passed since his death and he doesn’t believe at first that this adult man who should not be allowed to teach is his little brother.
William Sanderson (BLADE RUNNER) shows up as the one still alive member of the gang, so that’s kind of cool. His life is a mess on this, the 27th anniversary of the death of his friends. You know 27th anniversaries are always a tough one.
This is a pretty well made TV movie with a strong lead performance that makes Jim seem more reasonable than he should. One thing that’s kind of crazy about it is that on the infamous night he stole the car keys from those guys, making him arguably responsible for their death, and it doesn’t seem like the movie is saying he feels any guilt over that.
My biggest problem with this is that the bullies are constantly doing a high-pitched cackle like the weasels in WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT. I know it’s to establish that they’re unbearably obnoxious shitheads, but it’s alot to ask of us to have to hear it over and over again. It seems like the actors practiced it and got good at it and nobody had the wisdom to tell them okay, good job, but only do that briefly in one scene and please never, ever again, nobody wants to fucking hear that.
According to Wikipedia, the story was originally slated to be part of CAT’S EYE, but Dino De Laurentiis (the company) decided it should be a stand alone. If true it took them six whole years just to get it made for TV. I guess it worked out, though, because several years later there were two DTV sequels, which you can’t say for QUITTERS, INC. The delightful titles were SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK… AGAIN (1998) and SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK… FOR MORE (1998), the first one stars Michael Gross, Alexis Arquette and two time Academy Award winner Hilary Swank.
McLoughlin continued to direct for another couple decades, but it was mostly non-horror TV movies like SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR: THE ALISON GERTZ STORY, MURDER OF INNOCENCE and CYBER SEDUCTION: HIS SECRET LIFE. And in 1997 he got a story credit on the family movie FAIRYTALE: A TRUE STORY. Konner & Rosenthal went on to write STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY, THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, MERCURY RISING, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, PLANET OF THE APES, MONA LISA SMILE and THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE, and more. Damn, that’s alot.
Cultural references: Mostly stuff from the seventies. Billy talks about “That ‘Dust in the Wind’ song” (1977). They rent the De Laurentiis KING KONG (1976). Lawson says “Hello bay-bay!,” a reference to some ‘50s song I can’t put my finger on, also quoted in an ELM STREET two episodes after the one Rusler was in.