Thursday, May 05, 2011

Stephen King Month: Riding the Bullet (2004)

Mick Garris is one of the go-to guys to direct Stephen King adaptations (he helmed the TV versions of The Stand, The Shining and Desperation, among others), but he doesn't exactly have a sophisticated aesthetic, and you never expect him to bring something exciting or unique to King's work. Riding the Bullet is one of two Garris/King collaborations that made it to theaters (the other is 1992's Sleepwalkers), and it barely made a blip at the box office, opening in a handful of theaters and grossing just over $100,000. This is direct-to-DVD stuff all the way, but it's exactly what you'd expect from Garris, who has a rudimentary charm when he sticks to the basics. Bullet suffers from the same problem as a lot of King short-story adaptations, struggling to make it to feature length when it would have been better served as an episode of Garris' anthology TV series Masters of Horror (or something similar).

The original story was already sort of a gimmick, first published as an ebook in a sort of proof-of-concept test for King's idea that people would buy books online directly from authors for a small fee. It was a huge success but didn't set any sort of precedent, and King never went on to become an ebook kingpin like some speculated when Bullet first came out. Instead the story was just collected with a bunch of others in the next King short-story round-up (Everything's Eventual), and its novelty wore off. Without the gimmickry, it's a passable little ghost story but nothing special, and one in which much of the action is internal, as the narrator struggles with his fear while trapped in a car driven by a dead man.

Garris moves the story from its contemporary setting (in 2000, the year it was released) to 1969 for no good reason, and all it does is allow him to insert some painful cultural references and demonstrate how ineffectively he evokes the past on a limited budget. Garris adds a bunch of back story that mainly just delays the real excitement until more than halfway through the movie, and he transposes the first-person narration into a sort of hallucinated doppelganger of the main character who shows up from time to time to explain what the guy is feeling. None of these changes is an improvement, nor is Garris' penchant for fake-out fantasy sequences and flashbacks that quickly become irritating.

The main action of the story features college student Alan (Jonathan Jackson) hitchhiking home after his mother's had a stroke, and finding himself stuck in a car driven by a demented specter who forces Alan to choose between his mother's life and his own. Garris takes way too long to get around to that part, but the movie briefly comes to life when he does, thanks mostly to David Arquette's typically nutso performance as the apparition. This is the section that works best as a corny but compelling ghost story, but it doesn't last nearly long enough, and Garris blunts its impact with a drawn-out ending and then a clumsy epilogue that attempts to make some sort of comment about the end of the '60s. Certainly King has fetishized that time period plenty in his work, but in one story where it actually isn't a factor, adding it in is just one more example of how Garris needlessly complicates this basic tale.

How far to Castle Rock: Alan's mother tells him that his father died in a car accident on the way home from Castle Rock (the whole movie takes place in Maine, naturally).

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