Monday, March 16, 2015

Maximum Overdrive (USA, 1986)

Today, over 25 years after the movie came out, the irony of the trailer still remains breathtaking: in it, when it comes to making a filmic adaptation of his work, Stephen King loudly proclaims that "If you want it done right, you have to do it yourself." And the final result? One of the worst-made Stephan King movies ever — a truly noteworthy feat, considering how many crappy King flicks there are out there.
Of course, since the day he foisted this mildly enjoyable if incredibly flawed turd upon the world, King has gone on record as having been totally coked out of his mind when he made the movie, which does indeed explain some of the flaws, especially the one that this movie shares with many of his verbose, mid-career Moby Dick wanna-be novels: despite always being best sellers, they (like this movie) tend to lose their direction amidst a plethora of unneeded, diffuse characters.
And too many characters this movie does indeed have: many, when they die, the viewer has a hard time even placing where they showed up earlier in the film, while others (including some that survive to sail off into the sunrise) are shallow stereotypes that are perhaps meant to be funny but are at best annoying or, at worst, offensive (the black guy killed by the game machines leads the list here). Much like too many cooks spoil the brew, too many characters dilute the movie.
Maximum Overdrive is based on the short story Trucks, which isn't even one of the best ones found in the compilation in which it appears, Night Shift. A simple tale focusing on a small group of people trapped in the diner of roadside gas station when a passing space cloud causes all machines to come alive and attack humanity. In the movie, once the starting situation is explained (and presented by a cheesy-looking green cloud surrounding a photo of the earth glued against a starry sky), the revolt of the machines kicks off with a laugh — with a "Fuck You" on a electronic bank sign and an ATM calling a dorky guy (Stephan King himself) an asshole — before segueing into two truly excellent scenes: the disorganized panic and destruction caused of a revolting drawbridge that opens by itself, and a kid's baseball game beset by killing machines. (The last features a great killer soda pop machine and a cement roller gone wild.)
These opening scenes, followed by the later extended scene of the lone surviving kid, Deke Keller (Holter Graham of Hairspray [1988 / trailer], Six Ways to Sunday [1997 / trailer] and The Curse [1999 / trailer]), wandering through a desolate suburbia full of death, destruction and machines out to kill, truly lead the viewer into believing that the film is going to be a good one — and that Stephan King might indeed have some talent as a director. True, too few killer machines seem to be out and about — there had to be a lot to kill as many people as they did, but we more or less only see one lawnmower and one ice-cream truck — but the scenes have a visual impact and work, which is the thing of importance.
Regrettably, Maximum Overdrive never again gets close to achieving the force or effectiveness of these first ten minutes and, throughout the rest of the movie, drags, annoys, bores, or flabbergasts in its general incompetency — at which point the viewer can't help but suddenly noticing all the flick's narrative inconsistencies, the biggest of which is that although it is inferred that all machines come alive (for example: the electric carving knife that attacks the waitress [Ellen McElduff] or, earlier and in passing, a hair-dryer that obviously strangled its user and a walkman that destroyed some poor sap's brain), too many don't: the cars of various characters, the motorboats in the harbor during the escape on water, virtually all the electronic gadgets at the diner, etc. etc. etc. Indeed, most of the time, aside for the trucks and M151 MUTT with a mounted machine gun, once the final group of humans has gathered together, the world is surprisingly empty of killer gadgets. And, hell, if pinball machines go homicidal, why don't the fucking ceiling lights? And what about the restaurant's radio? And, and — ah, hell: better not get started on that.
In the end, the true flaw of the movie is not the plot inconsistencies; it is the movie's inability to maintain enough tension to cover up the inconsistencies. Once the stereotypical Bible huckster (Christopher Murney of Barton Fink [1991 / trailer]) gets hit by the truck, Maximum Overdrive begins grinding its gears and quickly begins to instigate yawns. This flaw is aggravated by the fact that most of the characters are so one-note and uninteresting, while the few efforts to add character dimension — see: Bill Robinson's (Emilio Estevez) attempt to explain his youthful stupidity to the mandatory love interest Brett Graham (Laura Harrington of Midnight Cabaret [1990 / trailer]) — are oddly wooden and unconvincing. (In general, and in particular the tertiary characters such as the Bible huckster or hick bridesmaid Connie [Yeardley Smith], Maximum Overdrive reveals one of the biggest weaknesses of King's plethora of minor characters: on film, they tend to be shallow or exaggerated stereotypes, for unlike in his books they don't have untold pages of verbosity to tell the full who, what, when, where, why and how behind them.)
What the fuck, though, slagging this movie is a bit like whipping a dead horse since the little reputation it has is a bad one. So, to go ever slightly against the grain: although Maximum Overdrive is indeed a bad movie that need not be put on anyone's "Must See" list, it isn't 100% santorum-dripping elephant anus. The first ten minutes are really good, as are many of the special effects (those that have aged badly have at least become funny). Likewise, Deke Keller (the surviving kid) and one or two other characters — Handy (an underused Frankie Faison, of C.H.U.D. [1984 / trailer], Exterminator 2 [1984 / trailer] and For Sale by Owner [2009 / trailer]) and hillbilly Curtis (John Short) — actually overcome the one-dimensionality of their characters. And, furthermore, more than once King shows a creative eye in his camerawork, be it the visual composition of the shot, the use of foreground and background, or an effective if short dolly shot... given a film or two more, he might have developed some minor directorial skill.
Had Maximum Overdrive only been a bit more bloody, had it only been a bit more unremittedly trashy or sleazy, had it only had more bare skin (it has none), had it only been directed by a no-name, it might have been an acceptable if un-noteworthy trash film. As it is, however, it is only a lesson in how, much like when it comes to your plumbing repairs at home, "If you want it done right, don't do it yourself."
And, of course, how you should lay off the coke when making a movie — a lesson we actually thought already taught three years earlier when Vic Morrow and two kids lost their heads during the filming of the John Landis segment of The Twilight Zone (1983 / trailer).


Unknown said...

How the hell can you post a review of this movie and not ONCE mention the late, great PAT HINGLE?! I mean, Pat Hingle makes this film come alive; he IS "Bubba Hendershot"--the ultimate cigar-chomping Southern redneck. And when Hingle starts blowing up trucks with his rocket launcher ("How d'ya like that shit, Bubba? YEE-HAW!") the film rises to a 4-star, trash production. Unfortunately, when Hingle's character gets killed off we're stuck with a bunch of boring people and the movie tanks.

So if "Maximum Overdrive" proves anything (aside from Stephen King not being a director) it proves that Pat Hingle could redeem ANY film, no matter how small his part.

Abraham said...

True, he was a totally effective asshole redneck in the flick and probably deserves note, if not for being a total dick in the film then for being one the best character actors of his time. But what a loser of a movie...

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