Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Film Appreciation - The Sparrows Are Flying Again

Cody Hamman has a newfound Film Appreciation for George A. Romero's 1993 Stephen King adaptation The Dark Half.

I have written about how much I love the work of director George A. Romero many times here on Life Between Frames over the years. I've Film Appreciation articles for his movies Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Knightriders (as well as the Romero-scripted films Night of the Living Dead 1990 and Creepshow 2), and there are going to be more Romero articles in the future.

Sadly, Romero passed away in July at the age of 77. Since then, I have revisited every movie on his filmography, and while these rewatches confirmed my love for so many of his movies all over again, they have also allowed me to develop an appreciation for a Romero film that I hadn't previously ranked very highly. That is his 1993 Stephen King adaptation The Dark Half.

It's not that I disliked The Dark Half previously, I just wasn't all that into it, it didn't work very well for me. Watching it now, twenty-four years down the line, it works much better for me than it ever has before.

Published in 1989, King's novel was inspired by his own experiences as a writer with a pseudonym. For a while, through the late '70s into the mid-'80s, King was publishing novels under his own name and also having novels published on the side under the name Richard Bachman - among them the book that served as the basis (sort of) for The Running Man. Apparently he did this because an author publishing more than one novel a year was frowned upon at the time, and he wanted to get more books out on the market. Eventually, a bookstore clerk noticed how similar the writing styles of King and Bachman were, and after some research was able to prove that the two authors were actually one. King admitted to it, and Bachman was retired, although King has used the Bachman name a couple more times since then, just for the hell of it.

Then, of course, King decided to write a novel about an author who publishes some novels under his own name and others under a pseudonym. But unlike his reality with Bachman, the story on the page had a very horrific twist.

Romero's film stars Timothy Hutton as that author, Thad Beaumont. Under his own name, Thad publishes more high-brow work, but under the name George Stark he writes about the things readers really want to read about - crime, dirty sex, violence, very bad things. Thad has even created a history for Stark that implies the man is writing what he knows.

Thad is a teacher, and after one of his classes he's approached by a slimy fellow named Fred Clawson (Robert Joy), who has somehow figured out that Thad Beaumont and George Stark are the same person. Clawson wants to be paid off, otherwise he's going to go public with what he knows and expose Stark as a fraud. Rather than be blackmailed, Thad decides to do what King chose to do when his Bachman cover was blown - he retires Stark. He takes it public himself, giving an interview to People magazine. At the urging of the photographer taking pictures for the magazine article, Thad even goes along with the staging of a fake burial of Stark: a prop tombstone with Stark's name on it is placed on a Beaumont family plot in a cemetery and Thad and his wife Liz (Amy Madigan) pose with it.

Trouble over, right? Nope. The troubles have just begun.

That Beaumont family plot is disturbed one night, with the cemetery caretaker noting that it looks like someone crawled out of the ground. After that, people involved with the retirement of George Stark start turning up dead, brutally murdered. The photographer. The article writer. Clawson. Thad's agent. The agent's ex-wife/business partner. Etc.

The killer is George Stark himself, also played by Timothy Hutton, and Hutton does a fantastic job making sure Stark comes off as a very different character from Thad. Thad is a clean-cut, academic family man from Maine, while Stark is sleazy, "high-toned son of a bitch" from Mississippi. It's really great to watch him portray characters so far apart from each other, especially when the two share scenes.

Romero never made a straightforward slasher, but there are moments in The Dark Half where he gets closer to making a slasher than he ever did before (except for maybe a scene or two in Martin). Stark makes messy work of the people he holds responsible for this attempt to put him out of existence, not only doing things like beating people to death but also literally slashing them - his weapon of choice is a straight razor. The moments when Stark busts into people's apartments and kills them with that razor, that's right on the edge of slasher territory. The most memorable of these slasher-esque scenes for me is the death of the article writer, who Stark confronts in the hallway outside of his apartment. The lights have gone off in the building, and the emergency lighting is causing the light in hallway to alternate between red and blue. It's almost like something out of a movie by Romero's Dawn of the Dead consultant Dario Argento.

So how the hell does an author's pseudonym come to life and start killing people? The explanation is pure Stephen King. The Dark Half is noted as being the last novel King wrote while under the influence of drugs and alcohol, and I would guess those mind-altering substances had a hand in coming up with this story. You see, when Thad was writing as Stark, it was almost as if he had an alternate personality. Stark's novels were even written in a different way - Thad uses a typewriter, Stark's novels were written by hand with black pencils. Thad doesn't drink or smoke, but he did when he was writing as Stark. Thad believed so completely in Stark as a separate person from himself that he willed this guy into existence. But how did Stark get a body?

Thad and Liz have twins, and at one point in the womb Thad was also going to be a twin. Until his fetus absorbed the fetus on his potential sibling. Apparently this is something that happens quite often. However, that twin fetus wasn't fully absorbed. Part of it remained within Thad's body. Specifically, it ended up in his head. When Thad was in grade school, that fetus started going again... The film starts with young Thad being troubled by this thing growing in his head. Headaches, auditory hallucinations of the sound of sparrows chirping, while writing with a pencil his letters trail off into squiggles. I was a young child myself when I first watched The Dark Half, and witnessing Thad's developing medical issue was troubling to me. Particularly that shot of his writing turning into squiggles. Being a writer myself, primarily using pencils and pens at the time, I could imagine pain and pressure in my head having a sudden effect on my writing.

Thad had to undergo brain surgery to get the twin fetus / tumor removed from his head. By the time the surgeon opened his skull, the twin fetus had developed an eyeball, a tooth, and other tissue. Unbeknownst to Thad, his parents had the fetus buried in the family plot. The one Stark's prop tombstone was set up on. Willing into existence, Stark inhabited the remains of that fetus in the ground, it grew into a grown man, and Thad's twin Stark is what crawled out of the ground at the cemetery... Yeah, it's weird and outlandish, to say the least.

Stark is killing because he wants to continue to exist, but the longer he goes without writing the more he starts to fall apart. Over the course of the film, we essentially watch Stark rot to death. He can't write by himself, he needs Thad to handle the pencil for him, and he will do anything it takes to make Thad write a new George Stark novel so he can regenerate. Killing, kidnapping Thad's family, whatever, Stark has no limits.

Adding more trouble into the mix for Thad is the fact that he is suspect #1 in the murders Stark commits. The two share the same fingerprints, and no one is going to believe a fictional person is who is knocking off all these people in Thad's life. Local Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Michael Rooker) is willing to give Thad a little leeway during the investigation, but when the time comes he won't hesitate to bring Thad to justice.

The Dark Half is a strange story, and at 122 minutes the movie is slightly longer than it needed to be. The ending, which involves those sparrow sounds that Thad heard in childhood and starts hearing again when Stark comes into existence, I'm a bit ambivalent about. It makes sense, but it's a little underwhelming after two hours of build-up. Regardless of that, the film holds up and is very strong overall. Romero brings King's weirdness to the screen in great fashion, and Hutton was a terrific choice to play the lead character(s).

I've been largely overlooking The Dark Half for a couple decades now, but that's not going to be the case any longer. I've finally realized how good it is, and will be counting it as another awesome movie on Romero's filmography from now on.

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