Horror legends Stephen King and George A. Romero come together in this film about duality, identity, and the darker side of human nature.
Highbrow novelist Thaddeus Beaumont (Timothy Hutton) is threatened with the prospect of blackmail by someone who’s worked out that he also wrote schlocky thriller novels under the pseudonym of ‘George Stark’, and believes that making this public knowledge would damage his reputation. Rather than giving in to the blackmailer, Thad decides to ‘out’ himself publicly as the man behind Stark.
In order to free himself of the shackles of his alter ego, Thad decides to ‘bury’ Stark in a publicity stunt, where his photo gets taken with a gravestone bearing Stark’s name. Shortly after this however, people in Thad’s life start dying in horrific ways, and it becomes clear Stark’s managed to somehow manifest himself and is taking his revenge on those who tried to deprive him of existence. Stark wants to live, and he isn’t going to go down without a fight, even if it means taking out Thad.
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Based on Stephen King’s book of the same name, The Dark Half was his attempt to craft a horror story out of something that actually happened to him. King had used the pen name ‘Richard Bachman’ when he wanted to write more than one book per year (as publishers feared authors would flood the market if they did so); under this nom-de-plume, he penned a number of works, such as The Running Man, which was adapted into the 1987 movie.
However, King was ‘outed’ by a bookstore clerk who’d seen there were similarities in King and Bachman’s writing styles, so he publicly revealed himself as the true identity of Bachman. Never one to waste an opportunity, he used this as the basis of his 1989 novel The Dark Half, turning a crisis into a drama. King even went as far as actually dedicating the book to “the late Richard Bachman”, although stopped short of having the book listed as being a joint piece of work by the two of them.
The story itself, however, is an incredibly self-indulgent piece, and it seems to have been written just as a way of exorcising any issues he had about no longer being able to use his other persona. It sadly falls into the ‘evil twin’ genre, which can often be less than inspiring, depending upon its execution. The plot fudges the issue of just how exactly Stark comes into being – the story mentions Thad having an unformed twin embedded inside him as a boy, and which was surgically removed, but never really explains Stark’s manifestation fully, which weakens the tale.
It also ends up using a number of other cliches, like Thad falling under suspicion of doing the deeds himself, and a small town Sheriff (played by Michael Rooker) – who’s a family friend – ending up being torn between his loyalty to Thad and his duty as a lawman. There are elements of this which feel hackneyed, and that we have seen them all before somewhere else, no doubt to much greater effect. It certainly leaves you with the impression that there’s a decent story here, if only a few more drafts had been done.
Adaptations of Stephen King’s material can tend to be something of a mixed bag – for every The Shawshank Redemption or The Green Mile, there’s a Secret Window or Dreamcatcher. Having a filmmaker of Romero’s pedigree, you might expect this film to be something rather special, given how well regarded his zombie movies are, as well as his father offbeat vampire film Martin; with the latter piece being more of a psychodrama, you’d hope Romero would be able to play up the psychological horror aspects of this film, as well as the supernatural elements.
However, the very best that this can be described as is workmanlike, as it shows little of Romero’s flair or style. This could be down to there being production issues throughout, such as studio Orion Pictures going under while the film was still being finished. All in all, the final product sadly ends up being less of a Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and more of the risible TV miniseries version; in fact, for what’s a presumably reasonably budgeted film, the production values mainly feel like a cheap made-for-TV feature.
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That’s not to say the movie is without its charm, or moments which stand out – the sequences involving sparrows, which are used here as being carriers of souls to the netherworld, are generally well realised, and the live action footage of the birds in various murmurations is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s The Birds. Sadly, with a film like this needing a strong lead in the dual roles of Thad and Stark, what we get here is Timothy Hutton, who seems to feel that shouting a lot as Thad when under stress qualifies as acting; similarly, his Stark is rather laughable, seeming to lack the real menace or presence needed.
The Blu-ray release of The Dark Half is a veritable cornucopia of riches, containing plenty of value added material. It ranges from an informative commentary track with Romero himself, to deleted scenes and archival material, such as electronic press kit footage, behind-the-scenes video, and storyboards. There’s also a far more recent ‘making of’ piece, which details the various production challenges which the movie faced throughout, and is an honest and candid overview of what happened at the time.
However, the undisputed highlight of the whole package is the inclusion of a 1989 episode of the Jonathan Ross series Son Of The Incredibly Strange Film Show. While it predates The Dark Half, it does give an informative overview of Romero and his longtime cohort Tom Savini. Ross was never better than when presenting programmes about his interests, such as comic books and cult movies, and having this included here not only reminds you of when Channel 4 was truly innovative and different, but also makes you want to see the rest of the series. A DVD or Blu-ray release, please?
It’s almost a pity the film’s included here, as it takes some of the shine off the special features. All things considered, this Blu-ray release is a game of two halves, which – given the subject matter – seems rather appropriate.
The Dark Half is out now on Blu-ray from Eureka Classics.