STEPHEN KING WEEK: Maximum Overdrive (1986)

After seeing other people direct his work, Stephen King was probably pretty unsatisfied with the results. He famously disagreed with the direction that Stanley Kubrick took The Shining, after all. In 1986, thanks to Dino De Laurentiis, he got to direct this ode to insanity, based on his short story Trucks (which has also been made into a SyFy movie).

That’s the copy that starts this film, which begins with a cameo from King and his wife, as an unresponsive ATM machine calls him an asshole. That ATM machine must have had to sit through this film — I kid, in all honesty, before we even get into this movie…I loved this. It’s pure stupid junk food. You feel sick afterward, but it’s pure sugar. And sugar tastes great.

The comet that passes our planet makes machines (and not every single machine, which means there are plot holes wider than King’s nostrils during this era) go crazy and kill humans. Literally, that’s all you need to know. There’s no need to worry about subtext or character development. Just watch machines kill people and people kill machines and enjoy 96 minutes of your life without the need to make decisions.

This is a film that does not give two shits about offending anyone. People are killed at will, including a Little League team (a bad squib that went off too early gives the effect that a kid’s head has exploded in this scene, a point that went moot as King loved it and wanted it in the film; if you’re gonna run a kid over with a steamroller, go for it I always say. Censors disagreed.), a coach who is killed by a soda machine (after a wacky shot to the nuts), lawnmowers rolling over people, arcade machines electrifying people, electronic knives trying to slice up waitresses…this film has it all. If you have a bucket list that includes the phrase, “I want to see human beings cut down at will by the very tools that they created,” King is ready to check that one for you.

The survivors are few, like Deke Keller, who escapes on his bike, escaping a trail of blood and death (and some sinister lawn sprinklers). There’s Bill Robinson (Emilio Estevez), who figures out that things are going wrong when a toy truck with a Greek Goblin mask on the front runs down Deke’s dad in the parking lot. There’s Bubba Hendershot, the owner of the Dixie Boy truck stops where everyone hides, who can’t wait to use his bazooka. Here comes tough hitchhiker Brett Graham, who will, of course, fall for Bill. There’s Connie (Yeardley Smith, the voice of Lisa Simpson!) and Curtis, a married couple. There are also plenty of other folks, but please, don’t get too attached to any of them.

There’s something for everyone in this film, like waitresses flipping out and screaming at bulldozers before being shot (“We made you! We made you!”), plenty of AC/DC, including the song Who Made Who that was written for the film (King wanted the band to be in the film and even won them over by singing “Ain’t No Fun” in its entirety to them), an ice cream truck that tries to kill the survivors (the dolly grip had to pull the cameraman to safety), the machines demanding gasoline via Morse code, the small kid shooting a drive-in menu board to get revenge for his dad…seriously, this is a film chock full of moments. Crazy moments.

Even this last title that spells out what happens next is ridiculous. I laughed out loud when it went across the screen.

King contends that this is a moron movie and that he was coked out of his mind making this film. I’d have to say that he’s 100% on target here, as this trailer attests.

The filming of this movie was so chaotic that people were left scarred for life. A radio-controlled lawnmower went out of control, hit a camera support and cost director of photography Armando Nannuzzi (Jesus of NazarethThe Damned) his eye. He asked for $18 million dollars in damages and the case was settled out of court.

There’s a great article by Blake Harris that interviewed many of the principals involved. Amazingly, Blue Velvet was being filmed in the same town at the same time! And Milton Subotsky, formerly of Amicus, was going to produce!

Maybe it’s the law of diminishing returns, but I enjoyed Maximum Overdrive more than any new film I’ve seen this year. Watch it half awake, with someone you love, and yell at the screen. You’ll feel so much better.

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