GORE IN THE STORE

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THE DARK HALF ****

Directed by George A Romero. Starring Timothy Hutton, Amy Madigan, Michael Rooker, Julie Harris, Rutanya Alda, Royal Dano. USA 1993 121 minutes. Certificate: 18

Out now on Blu-Ray from Eureka.

 

Other than his (relatively bland) half of the Argento collaboration TWO EVIL EYES, George Romero only notched up one feature directorial credit in the 1990’s, a sad reflection of the career-long difficulties he experienced with funding and aborted projects. In the wake of the intelligent, though compromised, mainstream thriller MONKEY SHINES, Romero was hired by the same studio (Orion) to adapt Stephen King’s autobiographical horror novel “The Dark Half” - inspired by the writer’s experience releasing books as Richard Bachman, until the alter-ego expired from “cancer of the pseudonym”. Although its intended 1991 release seemed well timed to follow in the profitable footsteps of King movies PET SEMATARY and MISERY, Orion’s financial collapse resulted in THE DARK HALF being shelved until 1993, when it slipped out barely noticed at a time when King adaptations were becoming bigger audience magnets in the format of American TV mini-series.

 

In retrospect, THE DARK HALF is a more tonally consistent and satisfying picture than the schizophrenic MONKEY SHINES, and it’s fun to see Romero tackling what amounts to a slasher movie variant of DR. JEKYLL AND MR HYDE on a Hollywood budget. The opening stretch is highly effective, as young budding writer Thad Beaumont experiences a series of strange mental blips and, after collapsing in front of the school bus, undergoes a gruesomely depicted bout of brain surgery that reveals an eye, teeth and nostrils lurking in his grey matter – the presence of an unborn twin. King’s brain-cancer paranoia, some Romero-style viscera and a Hitchcock-inspired spontaneous sparrow assault at the hospital all make for a potent introduction.

 

Two decades later, Thad (Timothy Hutton) is a full-time writer married to Amy Madigan with two kids in tow. He discovered early in his career that writing serious-minded fare about “yuppies and faggots” (as one disparaging character puts it) didn’t equate to financial stability, so has spent the last six years writing “tits and tough guys” pulp thrillers under the pen name George Stark, allowing him to unleash a trashier, darker inner voice that simultaneously impacted on his own behaviour at home. When “fan” Robert Joy exposes Thad’s secret and plays a blackmailing card, he decides to reluctantly “kill off” George; encouraged by Madigan, he stages a Stark funeral for People magazine and sets about getting his “respectable” career back on track. Unfortunately, Stark’s “death” is followed by the return of Thad’s blackouts and aural hallucinations…plus a series of violent deaths of those complicit in Stark’s farewell – the crime scenes awkwardly showcasing Thad’s fingerprints.

 

King’s self-satirising narrative about the beast within us all becoming flesh and blood results in a busily plotted picture with frequent killings : some are understandably off-camera (an old man beaten to death with his own wooden leg, a castration in which the guy’s cock is shoved down his throat), but a straight razor assault on genre veteran Rutanya Alda is genuinely intense. Hutton evidently relishes his dual role, with Thad predictably dull in comparison to the malevolent Stark: a chain smoking, hard-drinking, black clad, swaggering greaser with a fondness for corny 80’s horror-style wisecracks and a love of Elvis’ “Are You Lonesome Tonight”, he’s an enjoyably nasty antagonist.

 

The script relies on the kind of genre clichés that Romero’s more personal and original work scrupulously tended to avoid: like MONKEY SHINES, the filmmaker indulges in what might have been studio-mandated tropes to satisfy test audiences -  the occasional jump scare, an only-a-dream shock, surrealistic practical FX left over from the ELM STREET era of rubber-reality, and a routine family-in-peril climax that confirms the destiny of Madigan’s character to be tied to a chair and await rescue. The cast is impressive, with a post-HENRY Michael Rooker as a Sheriff character who crossed over int other King novels and films, and a lovely role for THE HAUNTING’s Julie Harris as a witty Basil(ette) Exposition : “I hate to think of George Stark taking over your lecture group…”

 

The production values reflect the studio backing, Christopher Young’s score is characteristically elegant and the recurrent sparrows provide a marvellously gruesome centrepiece to George Stark’s final stand during the meta-infused finale (“Is it gonna be your ending or mine?”) – though the early 90’s CGI elements, predictably enough, didn’t even look good in 1991. Unloved at the time, Romero’s third consecutive literary adaptation might lack the bite (no pun intended) and distinctive voice of his unsurpassed original DEAD trilogy, but it holds up as stronger horror entertainment than most mainstream offerings from a notably barren time for the genre.

 

Eureka’s handsomely adorned new release presents the movie on blu-ray for the first time in the U.K. The late Romero’s audio commentary and some deleted scenes (including a bit more screen time for Chelsea Field as Rooker’s wife) are among the extras carried over from the American Scream Factory release. A 2014 36 minute “Making” of features a typically articulate Romero talking about wanting Rooker for the lead prior to a difficult shoot in which he encountered many of the same irritations as MONKEY SHINES, including the test screening process and the necessity for reshoots. Timothy Hutton is painted as a bit of an arsehole who demanded a separate trailer for George Stark. The most enjoyable bonus feature for a lot of U.K. viewers will be the 1989 episode of “Son of the Incredibly Film Show”, in which an outrageously young Jonathan Ross breezes through Romero’s career while on location in Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania, interviewing key collaborators, including John Amplas and Tom Savini and spending some valuable time with the man himself, who is characteristically witty: “I’ll never get sick of zombies, I just get sick of producers…”

 

Steven West

 

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