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.
Matthew Cheney is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies, a regular columnist for the online magazine Strange Horizons, and a blogger known as The Mumpsimus. He currently teaches English and women’s studies at Plymouth State University.