Cult Horror Halloween Movie Reviews Rants

‘Maximum Overdrive’: Stephen King’s Brain on Drugs

Stephen King is perhaps the most prolific and pop-culture-influencing author alive today, particularly within the horror genre. No one else has produced as many iconic, fan-favorite scary stories as the Maine native has throughout his decades-long career. From Carrie all the way up through to The Outsider, King has been steadily cranking out gruesome hits since the early 1970s, and shows no signs of stopping almost 50 years later.

Naturally, with a bibliography as massive as King’s is, there have been quite a large number of his novels, short-stories, and novellas that have been adapted to the screen, be it for film or television. In fact, his works have been adapted to screen more times than any other modern author. And for the most part, King’s role has been relatively passive with the films based on his work, at least from a technical perspective. He’s written the screenplays for several of them, and has also served as a producer on many of the more recent adaptations. But he’s rarely ever taken a more direct position of control with one of these productions.

Except for one time. In one glorious, ridiculous, magnificent instance in 1983, King decided to take it upon himself to direct the film adaptation to one of his short stories, a goofy little piece of sci-fi/horror fiction called “Trucks.” It’s a pretty simple story, one that seemed easy enough to translate to the big screen, and King had already by this point been involved in some capacity with a number of Hollywood productions, including Creepshow, Knightriders, and Silver Bullet. So it seems logical that he’d have picked up some of the necessary experience to helm a film like this, right?

Wrong. Oh, so very wrong, in the best way possible.

There’s one thing you need to understand about Stephen King in the 1980s: The man was not well. In the prior decade, he had become a severe alcoholic, and by the time the 80s rolled around, he had moved on to harder stuff. Namely, cocaine. His habit was so strong by the middle of the decade that, by his own admission, he barely remembers writing a number of his works from that era, including Cujo. Addiction is a serious disease, one that King would eventually overcome and live to eventually make light of in hindsight. But at the time, it was a major factor in his creative decisions.

So when it came time for King to direct the film, which he would title Maximum Overdrive, he was pretty much coked up out of his mind.

And it shows.

This is a bizarre, insane movie. Like the short, the plot is relatively simple: A mysterious meteorological event in the atmosphere causes all electronic and mechanical devices in the world to go haywire, and develop self-awareness. Unfortunately for the people of Earth, that self-awareness also comes with a seething hatred for the people that built them, and they start systematically massacring anyone and anything in their immediate vicinity. Cars, buses, planes, even smaller gadgets like stereos and arcade machines, all become veritable Terminators, with nothing but bloodlust motivating them.

On the surface, this premise is rife with the potential for social commentary. A satire of society’s dependance on machines, for example, or maybe an environmental parable. You would think that an author as talented as King could pull something elevated and meaningful out of the premise, right?

Nope.

Maximum Overdrive abandons any notion of subtlety or nuance in favor of high-octane carnage and over-the-top, borderline farcical action. From the opening scene in the film, where an ATM repeatedly calls a man (played by King himself) an asshole over and over again, to the final closing text that casually mentions a UFO and a secret nuke by the Russians, this film is filled to the brim with so many crazy gags and misguided comedy bits that I genuinely can’t tell what’s supposed to be serious or not. Maybe nothing at all is. I honestly have no idea.

Maximum Overdrive wants to think of itself as a tense horror thriller at times. It follows a ragtag group of North Caroline natives as they take shelter in a roadside, truck stop diner as the world around them goes “tits-up,” as one unnamed character so aptly puts it. The semi-trucks outside, gaining sentience, circle the building like hungry sharks, waiting for a chance to strike.

But all of the tension in the world can’t dress up a villain as ridiculous as a full-sized tractor trailer. It can’t hide, it can’t surprise you. It can’t even chase you anywhere there isn’t a paved road for it to drive on. How to you make that scary? It turns out, you really can’t. Not organically, anyway, which is why King tries to cheat by having the “lead” truck decked out in the maniacal, grinning face of Marvel’s Green Goblin, for, uh, reasons, I guess.

Also a little truck with a mounted machine gun shows up partway through, I guess because there was no other way to actually have these stupid machines be an actual threat. When you have to give your horror movie antagonist a literal gun, maybe it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

The evil vehicles range from being mindless animals, lashing out at anyone who comes near them, to manipulative tactical geniuses, able to speak in Morse code and coordinate military strikes. Sometimes these machines are played for laughs, with a scene showing a pinball machine electrocuting a young Giancarlo Esposito being treated as comedic. Other times, we’re supposed to be deathly afraid of some of the least threatening villains to ever grace a horror film, like a soda machine which mercilessly, violently nails children with Pepsi cans, and a lawnmower that chases another child at a brisk pace of roughly three miles an hour.

The tone and the direction are so confusing at times, I genuinely can’t tell what I’m supposed to be feeling or what position I’m supposed to be taking. Should I be laughing? Should I be concerned for these characters? At all? Because they’re all just so, so bad. None of them seems to fit together in the slightest. In fact, every character seems to have walked out of another a completely different movie altogether, with half of them being goofy Dukes of Hazzard rednecks and the other half being solemn, action movie badasses. Their phony Carolina accents are so bad that I needed subtitles, and even then I still had no clue what they were saying.

One character in particular, the sleazy owner of the truck stop played by veteran actor Pat Hingle, is so unintelligible that I just gave up trying to decipher what the hell he was talking about in any given scene. There’s one moment in the film when he suddenly appears with a rocket launcher, blowing trucks up as he screams at them in what I can only describe as hillbilly pig-Latin, where even the subtitles gave up and simply read “yelling.”

The rest of the characters are equally as baffling. The lead, played by poor Emilio Estevez, speaks like he just popped a handful of Valium before every scene, never once exhibiting an emotion other than mild boredom. Everyone else ranges from the same disaffected drowsiness to complete and utter flamboyancy, with no middle ground in between. The female characters are especially cartoonish (one of them, Yeardley Smith, literally is a cartoon character, being the eventual voice of Lisa Simpson), with one waitress having one of the best/worst on-screen meltdown scenes in cinema history:

People will randomly cry for no reason at all in scenes where nothing is happening, and then act completely unsurprised and unalarmed when something supposedly scary or exciting happens. One character casually has a conversation about the life-or-death nature of their predicament with another character, who is sitting in a bathroom stall as exaggerated fart sounds punctuate every sentence. There’s a tacked-on sex scene, ostensibly just so the audience is aware that the male and female leads are interested in one another (because God knows it wasn’t going to develop organically, you know, through writing), and people will die randomly without ever having even had their names spoken aloud onscreen.

There are no hallmarks of King’s usually complex and dynamic characters here. Only vague, skeletal caricatures.

King’s directing deficits aren’t just limited to his actors, either. The action is shaky and difficult to follow, as is the spatial layout of the film’s singular location setting. Characters die with no impact, with King seemingly only wanting on focus on the gory aftermath. The pacing is simultaneously glacial and breakneck, with no effort made to streamline or smooth out the procession of events. It’s a mess, basically.

And the soundtrack. Good lord, the soundtrack. All the music in this movie is done by AC/DC. Which, you know, cool enough at first glance. But rather than have them actually make a soundtrack for the movie itself, the album pretty much just has one song dedicated to the film. The rest are standard hits from the band like “Hells Bells” and “You Shook Me All Night Long,” which makes the film just seem like a glorified music video at times.

This is a bad movie. I enjoyed watching it as a kid, but I think that’s probably the age you have to be to be able to digest something like this, completely mindless and ridiculously silly. Revisiting it as an adult was a slog, and I found myself counting down the runtime until it was mercifully over.

But to his credit, King viewed the film as a learning experience, vowing to never again direct. When asked why he would never return to the director’s chair following Maximum Overdrive, he reportedly responded “Just watch Maximum Overdrive.” At least he’s self-aware. I immensely respect when a person admits their faults and their limits, and King’s admission of the film’s quality only serves to endear him even more to me as a creative.

Don’t let me dissuade you though, absolutely watch this if you get the chance. It’s a fantastic little time capsule to the 80s, and if you like AC/DC, you’ll at least be able to enjoy the music. That’s more than can be said for some of the other horror films released around that time, anyway.

Happy Halloween!

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