Pat Hingle, Emilio Estevez, and Laura Harrington star in MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, directed by Stephen King for De Laurentiis Entertainment Group.

Maximum Overdrive (1986, Stephen King)

Maximum Overdrive confuses me a little. I thought–given the movie opens with the writer and director being insulted by a cash machine–Stephen King wasn’t going for anything… well, artistic is a stretch, so maybe genuine. Almost immediately following is a scene where a bunch of watermelons crash into car windshields to humorous effect. It certainly seems like King is well aware Overdrive has the potential to amuse and divert and nothing else….

I mean, he couldn’t have thought the acting was good, right? Emilio Estevez gives what could–I’m not a Estevez aficionado, I’m just guessing–be the worst performance of his career, if not the Estevez clan as a whole (though I think that pronouncement is something of a stretch). He affects a terrible Southern accent and appears to have the same backstory as his character in his own auteur debut, Wisdom, which begs the additional question–is King mocking his leading man?

The movie plays like some guy off the street got a million dollars to make a movie (except King got ten million from Dino De Laurentiis, in one of cinema history’s sounder financial investments). King’s got some neat ideas in the picture–though I think cool might be the better term… cool ideas–and some of them are competently pulled off. I really wish the unrated, ultra-violent version were available, just for the visuals. Maximum Overdrive is not scary, not once, not in the slightest. It’s a goofy sci-fi movie with aliens–it’s like Transformers without the transforming. But King clearly does enjoy himself during some of the movie.

Except it isn’t during the terrible scenes with Estevez or romantic interest Laura Harrington. Harrington is an unmitigated disaster–Overdrive rightly ended her career, at least for theatrical releases. Some of it–the lousy dialogue, could be construed as King’s fault… but she plays it all so straight, it’s like she doesn’t realize she’s delivering bad dialogue. Estevez doesn’t seem to be in on the joke either.

At least Pat Hingle relishes in his role, even if it’s to limited success. Yeardley Smith’s terrible too. Actually, the only good performance is probably John Short.

Anyway, King’s intent here gets confused at the end. Fifteen year-old Holter Graham (he’s real bad too, I forgot about him) is running around with an assault rifle, to the point it’s funny–not only does King run a kid over with a steamroller earlier, he gives another one an assault rifle to play with–only to have what seems to be an attempt at an honest scene. Graham’s father dies early on and after avenging him, Graham doesn’t want to touch the rifle again. It’s earnestly handled, which is a big mistake. If King had mocked the scene… at least it would have been fun.

King’s direction is singularly unimpressive. I don’t think he has one “good” shot in the entire movie and only a handful are bad enough to elicit laughter. His handling of the South is funny; he ridicules it in a way you wouldn’t expect a major motion picture to do… I guess he wasn’t worried about box office returns. The much-hyped (I guess it was back then, wasn’t it?) music from AC/DC is occasionally effective, even if they are just ripping off John Carpenter’s style.

In the interest of transparency, I need to mention it took me forever to get through the movie. If I’d gone to see it in a theater, I probably would have walked. There are long stretches when nothing dumb and funny happens and it’s just Estevez and Harrington–not even any gore. The gore’s actually not very gory and I can’t imagine why King had to cut any of it (thirteen seconds were infamously cut to make the R rating).

Wait… there was one decent sequence. Graham’s biking through a residential neighborhood where everyone’s been killed by some appliance or another (I won’t get started on how the possessed trucks and appliances don’t make any sense). It’s uncanny and effective.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Stephen King; written by King, based on his story; director of photography, Armando Nannuzzi; edited by Evan A. Lottman; music by AC/DC; production designer, Giorgio Postiglione; produced by Martha De Laurentiis; released by De Laurentiis Entertainment Group.

Starring Emilio Estevez (Bill Robinson), Pat Hingle (Hendershot), Laura Harrington (Brett), Yeardley Smith (Connie), John Short (Curtis), Ellen McElduff (Wanda June), J.C. Quinn (Duncan), Christopher Murney (Camp Loman), Holter Graham (Deke) and Frankie Faison (Handy).

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