Friday, April 6, 2012

The Dark Half

The Dark Half (1993)
Dir. George MotherFucking A Romero
Starring Timothy Hutton, Timothy Hutton, and Michael Rooker.

You forget sometimes, that Romero did other things than zombie movies. Or I do, anyway. I don’t know what you do. You never talk about your feelings. How am I supposed to know if you don’t tell me? The key to any successful relationship is open communication regarding George Romero and his perceived confinement to the zombie subgenre. I mean, I always try to bring it up, but you’re always getting all offended and telling me to stop talking about George Romero while we make love. As if that’s just something I should magically know not to do. But if that is how you think of him, I don’t blame you. I mean, after all, the guy basically invented the very concept of a zombie which now permeates our culture pretty much to the point of saturation. Before his seminal NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, zombies were basically the fare of racially questionable British Voodoo movies (perhaps understandably, since that’s where the word originates) like WHITE ZOMBIE and KING OF THE ZOMBIES and PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES. These zombies were more likely to be possessed humans than corpses, and were more interested in doing their masters’ bidding than eating braaaaaaiiiinnnnnns or pulling out someone’s intestinal track (those were dark days.)*

Romero changed all that. He pretty much completely changed the definition of a zombie (not intentionally, of course -- as he points out, no one calls them “Zombies” in his films) and created an entirely unique iconography which has since lurched into the popular consciousness so completely that having zombies start running in the early 2000’s seemed like a stunning reinvention. As he made more “Dead” films, it quickly became clear that not only had he created a new monster, but a new metaphor for listless, directionless American consumerism and unfocused aggression. By the time LAND OF THE DEAD rolled around in 2005 (nearly 40 years after the original) the series had established itself as a bleak, ever-refining dark satire on the American cultural, political, and economic landscape. They stand as scrappy, scruffy, unmistakably recognizable milestones not just in cinema, but in popular culture.

But what’s funny is, Romero directed or co-directed a stunning 10 other films in- between the “Dead” films. KNIGHTRIDERS. MARTIN. SEASON OF THE WITCH. Even a romantic fucking comedy! And in contrast to the Dead series’ sometimes shoddy production and inelegant scripts, after 1988’s MONKEY SHINES these films were often big studio pictures with mid-level movie stars, professional lighting, the whole deal. Aesthetically, you would never guess that the guy who made DAWN OF THE DEAD made THE DARK HALF, or even that the guy who made LAND OF THE DEAD more than a decade later made it. There’s almost nothing in common except that they’re filled with little unexpected elements of greatness.  

THE DARK HALF is adapted from a Stephen King book of the same name, and actually feels way more like a King project than a Romero one. I mean, it’s pretty much got all the hallmarks. Troubled writer (Thad Beaumont, played by Timothy Hutton**) ; Northeast Hometown (Castle Rock, Maine), clever poetic device (parasitic twin, sparrow swarms), extremely literal title (“the Dark Half”) etc. If this randomly came on TV and you were too lazy or drunk to check*** you would probably never guess Romero had directed it, but you’d definitely guess that King wrote it. In fact, the novel is apparently somewhat autobiographical in that it was a response to King’s own exposure as the man behind the pen name Richard Bachman, a name under which he published his own more lurid, cynical stories throughout the seventies. So it’s a veritable treasure trove of King’s themes and fixations, including a few of his recurring characters.

Tim “Youngest Person Ever to Win An Oscar For Best Supporting Actor” Hutton is an interesting character in that he’s a nice guy, a family man, and a classy writer of well-respected respectable classy writing, but on the side he’s been writing trashy crime novels under the name George Stark. We’re told that he’s a recovering alcoholic, but we never see him be anything other than charming and responsible. But everyone knows that when he’s writing as Stark, he retreats from the world, starts drinking, becomes a different person. A “Dark Half,” if you will. This might not seem as strange if someone had bothered to explain to him that when he was born there was this giant swarm of sparrows that engulfed the hospital, and when he was young he used to get horrible headaches which could only be cured by writing, and when they cut his skull open to get out what they figured was a tumor they actually found his unborn twin fetus stuck up there, staring out (apparently at the top of his skull, before it was opened) with a giant creepy eyeball of obvious sparrow-induced evilness. OK it still might have seemed strange, but still seems like the kind of thing someone ought to have mentioned to him. I mean, I’d want to know. 

I mean, honestly he seems pretty well adjusted for a guy named Thad Beaumont, a name so outrageously douchey it honestly makes me want to unlock the secrets of time travel just so I can go back in time to the sixth grade and give him a wedgie so powerful they’ll name it after him. But the film implies that his nice guy persona is only part of him, a cover which can exist only because he can also escape to his Dark Side through his fictional alter ego. So when said alter ego comes under threat of exposure and Beaumont resigns to retire Stark for good, a part of him reacts violently, inasmuch as it dresses like Henry Fonda from ONCE UPON THE TIME IN THE WEST and goes about slicing up anyone responsible for Stark’s shit-canning. The question is, though, is the evil murdering Stark actually Beaumont losing his marbles, or has his pen name someone wormed his way into the real world? And granted that second possibility makes perfect sense, but even if it’s true, does Thad have some responsibility for his alter ego’s crimes?

 For a King novel, it’s surprisingly hard on --and maybe even a little unfair to-- its protagonist. Stark, real or not, IS a kind of wish-fulfillment empowerment fantasy for Thad, a way to get his dark side out and still be the nice responsible husband and father he acts like. The film intriguingly challenges Thad to look at the physical embodiment of his darker leanings, and by proxy challenges us to do the same with our voyeuristic interest. In lots of ways, George Stark is a much cooler character than Thad -- he has black cowboy boots, he drinks, he smokes, he’s seductive and powerful and has a menacing folksy wit to him. He’s a seductive fantasy in our imaginations, but when he’s out in the real world he’s a horrifying nightmare. And to the audience, the implicit challenge is the same: you wanted this, right? Wouldn’t you rather watch murderous George Stark than affable nerd Thad Beaumont? I mean, wouldn’t you rather watch a film about Dirty Harry than a thoughtful, fair, effective cop who did his job and tried to help the community? And yet, which one would you prefer to actually have on the job in your home town? But when you fantasize about it, you make it real, at least on some level, and maybe you bear some responsibility for that. It’s not enough that Thad is a nice guy who cares about his family -- just because he can control himself doesn’t mean he’s not a bad person on the inside, on some level.  

Obviously, this is a weird outlook for a horror writer, of all things, to have. But honestly, after so much horror apologist rhetoric about how violent, sadistic, or otherwise fucked-up art helps channel our own darker impulses into something harmless and positive, it’s kind of an interesting perspective. Don’t shrug it off just because you didn’t do it. Look at yourself in horror because you thought about it. Existentialist that I am, I don’t buy the film’s way of looking at things and I can’t exactly imagine that Romero or King do either, but it’s an interesting and different perspective which is built seamlessly into the story itself. It challenges its protagonist not just to act better, but to be a truly better person on the inside, the kind of person who genuinely wants no part of any kind of George Stark, real or imaginary.

The novel Dark Half was published in 1989, so King couldn’t yet have known that his own George Stark would come back to haunt him, but that’s exactly what happened when a series of school shootings from 1988 to 1999 were materially tied to his Richard Bachman 1977 novel “Rage,” which he eventually took out of print over fear it would lead to more violence. Let’s be clear: I’m 100% against censorship of any kind. But not because I don’t think art is harmless -- art can have great power, and sometimes can be dangerous. I don’t think King’s book was to blame for what happened, but I also think it would be foolish to completely dismiss it as irrelevant and meaningless. Fantasies, when shared or even harbored, still have unintended effects on both their creator and the world. THE DARK HALF is a horror movie not about a murderer, but about the unintended ramifications of the darker side of our imagination. 

That said, it’s not a perfect film. Romero is no stranger to cinematic metaphors, but as a director his approach is an entirely literal one. That works for the hordes of zombies, which function as both a literal threat and a literal metaphor. It works slightly less well with the metaphysical nature of this particular horror story, since it removes any ambiguity about what’s actually happening and hence we just have to accept that a lot of this is caused by undefined “magic.” Romero creates some great images, like the oscillating swarms of sparrows which seem to be everywhere in Castle Rock, Maine, or the Argento-esque blue-lit hallways where Stark kills a guy. But this story might have worked better being depicted as the nightmare it surely is. After all, there’s no explanation or clear logic to the world of the film, so why stick so stubbornly to reality most of the time? 

Still, it’s a well-constructed film. For a George Romero adaptation of a Stephen King novel, it doesn’t seem particularly concerned about being a horror film. It takes its time setting up the world and the characters in it, and seems perfectly content letting the horror of the premise speak for itself without throwing a bunch of “boo!(s)” and lame scary faces at us. Long stretches pass where it seems like basically a drama, and the fact that you’re involved enough in the story to be OK with that speaks highly of the film’s strong storytelling fundamentals. Hutton is good both as Beaumont and as Strark, resisting making either part seem showy. The specific connection between the two characters is a little tenuous, but Hutton makes the film’s final act (where the two meet) work very nicely. Impressively, you never get caught up in thinking about the technical achievement of the two Huttons interacting, nor does the duplicate actor draw you out of the film. It works nicely, and manages to capitalize pretty well off the building tension of the film’s themes (also: a great death-by-sparrows finale). 

So overall, a win for the world. The film does reveal some of both artists’ flaws. For Romero: overly literal staging, capable but indifferent cinematography. For King, wandering plotlines and overreliance on handy plot devices. But this particular collaboration ends up generally getting the goods out of the story and creating something unique and memorable. As much as I might have enjoyed, say, a nightmarish David Lynch adaptation of King’s work, I have to say that Romero’s guileless directness brings out the underlying nightmarishness about the work which exists beyond the well-staged murder scenes and effective but standard thriller plot. It could have been a great surreal horror film, but as it is it’s something a little more interesting: a film which makes you ask, uncomfortably, how much of the horror is inside you after all. All the scary images we can put on screen will never quite match that odd feeling of holding up a mirror and asking if that’s George Stark looking back.

*Come to think of it, that actually sounds like an entirely fitting metaphor for this world where the force of the government so utterly suits the whims of the amoral wealthy class. I say it’s high time to make some zombie movies using the traditional definition. That would be cool. Less racism this time though, OK fellahs? Everyone’s fine with Bela Legosi having zombie slaves, but suddenly when its a white zombie he’s gone too far? 

**Who I wrongly thought played George W. Bush in that insipid 9/11 Showtime puff piece that Brian Trenchard-Smith directed. Turns out that was Timothy Bottoms. While obviously Hutton should have seen that mistake coming and changed his name to avoid confusion, I would like to apologize for whatever small part I had in this unfortunate misunderstanding. 

***I know, there’s no such thing as too drunk to check movie trivia, just stick with me for this hypothetical example.

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