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Summer of ’86: Maximum Overdrive



Summer of ‘86: Maximum Overdrive

The trailer for Maximum Overdrive begins with a voice: “Hi, my name is Stephen King.” A bearded man steps out of shadows. Behind him, we see a giant Green Goblin head. “I’ve written several motion pictures,” King says, “but I want to tell you about a movie called Maximum Overdrive, which is the first one I’ve directed.” We then get our first shot from the film itself: Giancarlo Esposito, bathed in orange-red light, staring down at the camera and saying, “Wowwwww….”

Alas, there is very little wowwww in Maximum Overdrive, but it is not as bad as its reputation. Watching it now, you are more likely to find the movie dull than truly terrible. Its kitsch is not delirious, its actors try hard with bland characters, it had a large enough budget for adequate special effects. It is not, in other words, the 1986 equivalent of Plan 9 From Outer Space or Blood Feast.

The year before Maximum Overdrive hit theatres, Stephen King appeared in an American Express commercial. His face had certainly been well known to fans before (he acted in Creepshow in 1982), and he was already suffering some of the pains of celebrity, with his house in Maine frequently besieged by people seeking autographs and souvenirs, but the amusing commercial increased his visibility exponentially. The opening, in which King descends a gothic staircase with a candle in hand, now seems like a bad wish: “Do you know me? It’s frightening how many novels of suspense I’ve written. But still, when I’m not recognized, it just kills me.” (His 1987 novel Misery would offer a very different opinion about being recognized.)

It is little surprise, then, that the star in the trailer for Maximum Overdrive is King. The only person in the film whose fame might have rivalled his was Emilio Estevez, who had recently acted in The Outsiders, Repo Man, The Breakfast Club, and St. Elmo’s Fire—but the film needed to be sold to people who wanted to see horror movies, not quirky comedies or teen flicks.

What King said in the trailer, though, didn’t do anything to help manage expectations. Previous King films had been directed by, among others, Brian De Palma, Stanley Kubrick, George A. Romero, David Cronenberg, and John Carpenter, and yet in the trailer, King said, “A lot of people have directed Stephen King novels and stories, and I finally decided, if you want something done right, you oughta do it yourself.”

The trailer didn’t stop with King positioning himself as superior to some highly accomplished directors; it then went on to make viewers expect the movie to be really, really, really scary. King points his finger out at the audience and says, “I’m gonna scare the hell outta you—and that’s a promise!”

To find some virtues in Maximum Overdrive, you must give up on all of the ideas the trailer instills. This film is not better than Carrie, The Shining, Creepshow, The Dead Zone, or even Christine, with which it shares a premise of vehicles developing a desire to kill. Nor is it likely to be even briefly scary for viewers over the age of 5 or 6.

Whether a movie can “scare the hell outta you” depends very much on the you watching the movie. Myself, I don’t remember being scared by a film since I was a child. Revolted, yes. Startled, certainly. Disturbed, definitely. But scared? Of what?

In Maximum Overdrive, we are supposed to be scared of big trucks that drive themselves and don’t like people.

One problem for a motion picture that seeks to make gangs of big trucks scary is that big trucks can’t accelerate from 0 to 60 fast enough to be good at targeting people. Trucks lack even zombies’ advantages. Zombies, at least, can swarm and overpower the speedy non-zombies by sheer numbers, as there are more dead people than living ones. Also, zombies can sneak up on you in a way that a 40-ton, 600-horsepower truck cannot.

Maximum Overdrive attempted to overcome these challenges in two ways, one effective and one less so.

The effective method was to have a group of trucks constantly drive in a circle around the Dixie Boy Truck Stop, the primary location in the film. The trucks can get up good speed, and successfully lock everyone in, creating a standoff until the humans discover an escape through a drainpipe.

The less effective method was to have people run in a straight line away from trucks, or directly toward them, or just stand around and scream. The results are generally amusing, seldom convincing, and not even remotely scary.

Cars and trucks should scare us—they kill tens of thousands of people every year. But we repress the knowledge of their deadliness, and it is not so much the vehicles themselves that possess a power to frighten us. It is, rather, certain types of drivers and roads. The young Steven Spielberg knew this when he made Duel, and Duel demonstrates something else that injures Maximum Overdrive’s ability to scare: individuals are more consistently terrifying than groups. Hordes of zombies might be repulsive or unsettling, but it is the individual zombie that scares us with its enstranged familiarity: once-lively eyes hazy and dead, skin grey and torn, body rigid. Maximum Overdrive plays most of its individual trucks and vehicles for laughs, or else tries to make them scary because they are very, very big and loud.

Tone and style are essential tools for horror, as King well knew when he wrote the original short story that provided the basis for the movie. “Trucks” was published in the June 1973 issue of Cavalier, at that time a “men’s magazine” in competition with Playboy, and it was reprinted in King’s first short story collection, Night Shift. It’s a first-person story with a hardboiled tone: tough, tight, macho, relentless, and bleak. A lot of short sentences. Utterly serious. Characters are labels as much as names: the kid, the girl, the trucker, the black counterman. The story survives its absurd premise by cloaking it in a patina of “just the facts ma’am” grizzly grit, Hemingway by way of Mickey Spillane, the sort of Big Penis Prose that, were you to laugh, would get you a punch in the mug.

The style of the film, though, is more Disney by way of Roger Corman, more obviously infantile than the style of the short story. The film’s style is one of bright colors and clichéd emotions and groin shots and plenty of bathroom humor. There’s gore, but it’s less splatterpunk than goofypunk. (The jokes in Maximum Overdrive make The Love Bug look sophisticated.)

The plot of the film and short story differ primarily in their endings. The film expands the scenes, adds subplots, and increases the firepower on both sides so there’s an excuse to blow stuff up, but the premise is the same. The premise is rationalized in the film, however, with an opening shot of the Earth in space, over which yellow titles are superimposed:

“On June 19th, 1987, at 9:47 A.M. EST, the Earth passed into the extraordinarily diffuse tail of Rhea-M, a rogue comet. According to astronomical calculations, the planet would remain in the tail of the comet for the next eight days, five hours, twenty-nine minutes, and twenty-three seconds.”

Misty green light then covers the Earth. The characters wonder what caused most of the vehicles around them to become sentient, and a few speculate that it’s the comet, as we have been led to believe from the opening. But Bill (Estevez) has another idea, saying, “It isn’t the comet. It’s a broom. Imagine you’re a race of aliens, right? And, you’re looking for a new place to live. Say you’re looking for a planet like you and I looking for a new place to live. A new house. So here’s Earth. Only it’s like this big old house. And, it’s kind of polluted, dirty, and smoky. Grease on the walls, soot in the chimney. So, they send in their interstellar housecleaners. Send in their broom. Sweep us all up. That’s what this it is, it’s a broom. Using our own machines to sweep us right off.”
Bill, it turns out, is a genius, and intuited what no-one else understood—titles at the end tell us that, indeed, “a large UFO was destroyed in space by a Russian ’weather satellite,’ which happened to be equipped with a laser cannon and class IV nuclear missiles.”

Thus, it turns out not only that the commies had nukes in space, but it was a good thing they did!

This is all very different from “Trucks”, where the rise of the machines is not explained so clearly, and there is little sense of hope for the planet at all. In Maximum Overdrive, the characters escape to a Luddite island and wait for the comet to pass. “Trucks” ends with a meditation on the return of humans to cave dwelling. A sense of futility fills the last page of the story. The narrator clearly doesn’t think the humans can win against their machines.

Had King brought the tone of his original story to the movie and not merely the premise, he might have been able to create a film near the quality of Frank Darabont’s 2007 adaptation of King’s novella The Mist—not a masterpiece by any means, but still a far more effective study of people stuck in one place and terrorized by forces beyond their understanding. (It’s a situation King has used many times, not just in short stories, but also in such hefty novels as The Stand and, especially, Under the Dome.)

Maximum Overdrive was clearly not meant to be Great Art. King was trying to have fun and to create an entertaining little movie. I have no doubt he knew his characters were thin clichés, his plot was ridiculous, and much better movies had been made from his writings. It was his first time directing, and he probably just wanted to play around.

Various obstacles prevented King from making a particularly entertaining film (substance abuse not least among them), but Maximum Overdrive seems to me to stand primarily as a warning against low ambition. Had King at least aspired to make something more than a disposable film, it might still have been as bad as Maximum Overdrive, but it would have been a more interestingly bad film. Despite some of the reported problems on the set (including cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi losing an eye when a sequence with a remote-controlled lawnmower went wrong), King does not seem to have been a dreadful director. He integrates songs from AC/DC well, blocks the actors competently, sets up shots and action competently. An early sequence on a drawbridge that opens of its own accord is amusing and well choreographed—watermelons that cascade out of a farm truck and onto the windshields of cars below are a particularly nice touch. Many of the later scenes are forced or flaccid, but that seems to be at least as much an effect of the script as the direction. With Maximum Overdrive, King showed himself to be, if anything, a better director than screenwriter.

Like the trailer, the opening scene of Maximum Overdrive stars Stephen King. The character he plays in the film is rather different from the character in the trailer, however. We see an establishing shot of a bank in Wilmington, North Carolina. The electronic marquee above the door flashes the time and temperature a few times, and then a word: FUCK. And another: YOU. Again and again. Cut to a closer shot of an ATM, called the “Money Man II”. A man in white approaches: Stephen King. He puts his card into the machine. Cut to the ATM display: “YOU ARE AN ASSHOLE.” Close on King’s face—the machine’s POV. He turns over his shoulder and calls out to his wife to come over here. Back to the screen, now filling with one word: “ASSHOLE ASSHOLE ASSHOLE…” The man calls to his offscreen wife: “This machine just called me an asshole!”

We could interpret the fact that King gave himself this role in many ways. It’s a fun moment, and fits the basic theme of the film: our machines hate us. But we also know that this actor here is Stephen King, even if it’s Stephen King affecting a Southern accent. We know he is a man who has earned lots of money (is he Money Man I?). We know he is the man who is making this movie, a movie he said he had to direct because, he told us, “if you want something done right, you oughta do it yourself.”

Now here he is staring into a movie camera and saying, “This machine just called me an asshole!”

Maximum Overdrive is not a movie made by an asshole (and, anyway, plenty of assholes have made good films). Maximum Overdrive is a movie made by a man who tried too hard to entertain us and not hard enough to do anything else with all the machines required to make a motion picture.



Watch: Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Gets Teaser Trailer

When it rains, it pours.



Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

When it rains, it pours. Four days after Quentin Tarantino once more laid into John Ford in a piece written for his Beverly Cinema website that saw the filmmaker referring to Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon as Tie a Yellow Ribbon, and two days after Columbia Pictures released poster art for QT’s ninth feature that wasn’t exactly of the highest order, the studio has released a teaser for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The film was announced early last year, with Tarantino describing it as “a story that takes place in Los Angeles in 1969, at the height of hippy Hollywood.”

Set on the eve of the Manson family murders, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tells the story of TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), as they try to get involved in the film industry. The film also stars Margot Robbie (as Sharon Tate), Al Pacino, the late Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Dakota Fanning, Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Kurt Russell, and Bruce Dern in a part originally intended for the late Burt Reynolds.

See the teaser below:

Columbia Pictures will release Once Upon a Time in Hollywood on July 26.

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Watch the Stranger Things 3 Trailer, and to the Tune of Mötley Crüe and the Who

A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence.



Stranger Things 3
Photo: Netflix

A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence. On Friday, Jeff Tremaine’s The Dirt, a biopic about Mötley Crüe’s rise to fame, drops on Netflix. Today, the streaming service has released the trailer for the third season of Stranger Things. The clip opens with the strains of Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home,” all the better to underline that the peace and quiet that returned to the fictional rural town of Hawkins, Indiana at the end of the show’s second season is just waiting to be upset again.

Little is known about the plot of the new season, and the trailer keeps things pretty vague, though the Duffer Brothers have suggested that the storyline will take place a year after the events of the last season—duh, we know when “Home Sweet Home” came out—and focus on the main characters’ puberty pangs. That said, according to Reddit sleuths who’ve obsessed over such details as the nuances of the new season’s poster art, it looks like Max and company are going to have to contend with demon rats no doubt released from the Upside Down.

See below for the new season’s trailer:

Stranger Things 3 premieres globally on July 4.

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Who Killed My Father Is Heartbreaking but Prone to Pat Sociological Analysis

Édouard Louis’s latest is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts.



Who Killed My Father

Author Édouard Louis’s father has been an important figure in each of his previous works, even when he’s never seen or mostly at the periphery (as in The History of Violence). With his latest, Who Killed My Father, Louis finally turns to directly examining his most important, damaged relationship. Both in his previous books and interviews, Louis has repeatedly acknowledged this broken relationship, largely stemming from the author’s open homosexuality. Alongside this, Louis’s prior works have circled around a number of themes to which he returns here: the French political and working classes, the small-town prejudices that surrounded his upbringing and drove a closeted homosexual boy to escape to more cosmopolitan Paris, and the role of state power in producing social and physical illness.

With Who Killed My Father, Louis invites inevitable comparisons to Abdellah Taïa, another talented French writer who’s also gay and largely estranged from his place of origin, and also primarily an autobiographical novelist. Like Louis, Taïa incorporates his complicated relationship with a parent into several of his books. Taïa also connects that relationship, his writing, and his experience with the society he left behind in Morocco and the one he found in France. But what distinguishes his writing in, for example, Infidels or Salvation Army from that of Édouard Louis in Who Killed My Father is a strong sense of meaning. Taïa incorporates his relationship with his mother, M’Barka, to convey something more meaningful and developed.

Louis begins down this same road before clumsily inserting a political tract at the end of Who Killed My Father that doesn’t knit as effortlessly with parts one and two. The book situates Louis’s relationship with his father front and center as compared to his previous work. It’s clear that he’s exposing the painfulness of their relationship for the purpose of speaking about political power and its physical and social toll on those who don’t possess it, but Who Killed My Father stumbles in conveying its message adequately.

Louis’s account of his father’s suffering and violence toward those around him is both painful and sharp. Who Killed My Father is strongest when Louis is demonstrating his father’s most private acts of kindness, as when the father gives Louis a copy of Titanic for his birthday after trying to convince him to ask for a more “masculine” gift. After Louis realizes that his carefully planned tribute to the pop band Aqua at a family dinner has embarrassed his father, the man reassures Louis that “it’s nothing.” In the book’s first and strongest part, Louis expounds not only on the relationship with his father, but also excavates what might have made his father the man he grew up with. At one point, he recounts finding a photograph of his father in women’s clothes—undoubtedly some adolescent joke, but also inconceivable from the man who insisted to his son that men should never act like girls.

Regrettably, part one ends with a trite conclusion that says everything and nothing at the same time. In part two, the story attempts to braid together all the malignant threads of Louis’s family narrative. Louis recalls igniting a violent outburst between his father and older brother as a result of his mother shaming him for acting too much like a girl (“faggot” is what some others in the neighborhood more precisely call him). The insinuation hurts and angers him so much that he betrays his mother’s confidence on another family secret, setting loose a new wave of violence. Part two is short and important to moving Who Killed My Father toward some wider evaluation of the questions Louis begins the book with, but it ultimately fails to find its footing by pivoting in part three to an unearned polemic against the political classes.

Who Killed My Father is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate (except in brief moments of tenderness) through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts, but the book at its weakest when trying to ham-handedly force this narrative into some broad theorizing about power and society and structural violence. Part one aligned beautifully with a narrative of meaning more comparable to Taïa at his best. Unfortunately, the story quickly falls apart when Jacques Chirac is indicted for destroying Louis’s father’s body through changes in health care coverage. It’s not that the questions Louis ends with aren’t necessary and important ones; it’s that there’s so little threading the narrative together into anything cohesive. What was the point of the first two-thirds of the book? His father was cruel, occasionally loving, but never mind because the state is killing him? The life of the poor is one of abject powerlessness against an unremittingly powerful and callous “ruling class”?

Louis deserves credit for the attempt to tie it all together into some grander commentary on the political class and its ambivalence, but the conclusion is simultaneously glib and condescending. Perhaps Louis didn’t intend it, but the book’s conclusion drains away responsibility for the cruelty and bigotry of those like his father, and patronizes them as with a quick How could we expect any better of the noble, working poor? Is it the state’s or the ruling class’s subjugation of his father’s body that’s somehow also responsible for his inability to sympathize with gays or immigrants? Of course, the poor are subjugated by the rich and Louis has written more meaningfully about the implications of that relationship elsewhere. But in Who Killed My Father, he inadvertently demonstrates that the answer isn’t to sanctify them any more than it is to demonize them.

Édouard Louis’s Who Killed My Father is now available from New Directions.

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