With only a few George Romero films left to review, Phil takes a look at the only full novel adaptation the director ever made from Stephen King’s catalogue. His last film before a 7-year hiatus, it’s a keeper.
Back in 1993, I was briefly married to a huge Stephen King fan. My first ex-wife Tina and I were supposed to see THE DARK HALF during its theatrical release. For some reason, we never made it (surprising, given our mutual love of King and my ever growing admiration of George Romero), and I regret that. Especially because it would be another 12 years before Romero’s next theatrical release, LAND OF THE DEAD. But also on the merits that it’s a solid horror movie, with a riveting adaptation written by Romero and a number of chills as it goes along its dreadful way.
Romero has always wanted to adapt The Stand, and has been attached over the years to direct versions of ‘Salem’s Lot, Pet Sematary and From a Buick 8; and he made CREEPSHOW from a King script. But THE DARK HALF is Romero’s only full length adaptation of a King novel. At first glance it would seem an unlikely turn for Romero, given its lack of any social commentary. Much like he did in MARTIN, Romero instead delivers a commentary on the human condition, and the piece fits him like a glove.
The story concerns novelist Thad Beaumont, who as a teen had radical surgery to remove an undeveloped twin from his skull. All grown up, Thad leads a dual existence as both his literary, high minded self and much more popular pulp novelist George Stark. When Fred Clawson threatens to expose him as Stark, Thad decides to go public and bury the character. But George Stark is irate about his premature burial, and starts killing all the important people in Thad’s life. But he won’t take the blame. Thad will. Because George is the dark half of Thad, bloomed full form into life.
THE DARK HALF is Romero at the top of his game. After the lackluster MONKEY SHINES with its fluid camera movement and dull story, the director returned to the quick edits that are his bread and butter, and use them to tell an engaging story. His writing is sharp, hewing closely to King’s source novel. The film has the Romero look, given the geography of Pittsburgh’s outlying areas (though it’s supposed to take place in Maine, where I’ve never visited). MONKEY SHINES and TWO EVIL EYES were missteps, but Romero proved he could still make powerful films with this one.
Credit King’s novel for a large part of the film’s power. I read Tina’s copy before we were supposed to see the flick, and it’s one of his better efforts from that timeframe. King fictionalized his own situation, in which someone tried to extort money from him to keep quiet that author Richard Bachman was, in fact, King. King’s novel asks the question, Who are we when we create? A pertinent question, given that King has intimated he wanted to do some nasty things to the guy who would have exposed his own dual personality. On a deeper level, it examines the idea that we’re all two halves, one light, one dark, and humanity is a constant struggle between the two.
Romero takes this commentary and runs with it on the strength of actor Timothy Hutton, who plays both Thad and Stark. Thad is the clean cut family man whose Hutton’s characters from his youth always offered, in sharp contrast to the violent, evil Stark, the type of character Hutton had never played. A credit to his talent, he’s adept at playing both, and Romero uses some cool camera techniques toward the end to have them share the screen. The whole story hinges on this duality working, and Romero and Hutton pull it off.
Romero surrounds Hutton with a talented mélange of actors. Robert Joy is perfectly slimy as Clawson in a bit part, and Amy Madigan gives a strong turn as Thad’s wife Liz. Julie Harris makes the most of her role as one of Thad’s university colleagues, who provides a bunch of exposition late in the game. The only quibble I have with the movie is Michael Rooker’s turn as Sheriff Alan Pangborn. He turns in a dull performance, especially in comparison with Ed Harris, who portrayed the same character in the King adaptation NEEDFUL THINGS that same year.
The other characters crucial to the plot are the sparrows. When Thad was a kid, he’d get massive headaches accompanied by the tweeting of sparrows. During his surgery, thousands of the birds attacked the hospital. Now that Stark has come to life, the film tells us “The sparrows are flying again,” and shows them doing just that. Romero’s camera catches them taking off from high branches, flying in full flock, and in rather fluid digital form, during THE DARK HALF’s climax. Harris’ character explains they carry souls between this life and the next, and they play a critical role in the gamesmanship between Thad and Stark. Romero puts them to great use throughout, and I felt their presence the whole film, even when they weren’t onscreen.
Romero also puts the score by Chris Young to great use. It’s the single best score in a Romero film (yes, Goblin fans, better than DAWN OF THE DEAD’s iconic score), moving the film perfectly. Young knows when to provide stings, how to build tension through ominous strings, and when to subdue his music.
It’s shocking that THE DARK HALF is such a great film, given what was going on at its studio. Orion Pictures was going out of business, which delayed the release for two years, and led to recuts and other issues that plagued the project. Romero fans would have to wait another 7 years until his next film BRUISER went straight to video, and five years beyond that until we could see his next project LAND OF THE DEAD in theatres. Despite all this, if Romero had never directed again after THE DARK HALF, he would have gone out on a high note.
The sparrows were flying in full force in 1993, the only time George Romero filmed a Stephen King novel. I never did get to see THE DARK HALF in a theatre, and I ended my marriage to Tina before the year was out. I hope she enjoyed it once she finally saw it. I know I did.