Sunday, May 08, 2011

Stephen King Month: The Dark Half (1993)

When I was in third grade, I attempted to read Stephen King's Misery, which my mom had gotten accidentally from her book-of-the-month club (she's never been into horror), but it proved to be too much for me, and I didn't get very far. Two years later, I picked up The Dark Half, which is the first King book (and possibly the first "adult" novel) I ever finished. So it was a long time ago, and I don't exactly remember all that much about the book, but it obviously it made me want to read more King. I saw George Romero's film version a long time ago as well, probably around the time it first came out on video. I watched it again with only a vague recollection of what the plot was and whether I enjoyed it, and I think the movie comes off pretty well for the most part. It makes me curious to see how the book would hold up for me after all these years, too.

The Dark Half's biggest weakness is its star, Timothy Hutton, who does an okay job as mild-mannered writer Thad Beaumont, but falls short as Thad's evil alter ego George Stark. Stark is Beaumont's pen name, under which he pens violent thrillers in contrast to the genteel literary novels he publishes under his own name. When a sleazy hanger-on threatens to expose Thad's secret, he preempts the guy by coming clean and "killing" his pseudonym. George, however, comes to life and decides he doesn't want to be killed off, and so sets out to eliminate everyone associated with Thad's writing career, ending with Thad's wife and twin children.

Hutton's performance as Thad isn't bad, although he's not exactly compelling as the movie's lead. But Hutton does anguish reasonably well, and his increasing frustration comes off as genuinely felt, if a little soft. The problem is that Hutton's George is far more silly than scary, with a goofy greaser look like he's an extra from Grease, not a psychotic killer. The eventual confrontation between Thad and George thus doesn't seem like an even match (even though the same actor is playing both characters), and the ending is abrupt and unsatisfying. The path there, though, is frequently creepy, and Thad's fear as George closes in on his family is palatable.

The Dark Half is the second King movie from Romero (after 1982's Creepshow; he wrote but didn't direct Creepshow 2), and it's a little outside of the director's typical style, lacking any social commentary and going pretty light on the gore. Maybe this isn't the ideal material for Romero, but he creates a nicely foreboding atmosphere throughout most of the film, and even when certain elements stumble, the overall effect is creepy. It's a worthy complement to King's novel.

How far to Castle Rock: The Dark Half is one of the primary Castle Rock novels, and Romero keeps the setting intact. Michael Rooker plays Castle Rock Sheriff Alan Pangborn, who leads the investigation into the Stark murders; he was played by Ed Harris in Needful Things, which was released just a few months later.

No comments: