Stephen King is a one-man horror industry. The former teacher from Maine, often dissed as a human word processor, has spewed out thirty-two books since his first, Carrie, hit pay dirt in 1974. Bookstores are crammed with his latest hardcover bestseller, Dolores Claiborne, and Gerald's Game is due soon in paperback. In May, ABC will telecast a miniseries of his chilling Tommyknockers.
Now playing near you is the film version of his probing 1989 novel The Dark Half. It's a story about Maine teacher Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton), a serious writer who boosts his earnings — like King, he has a wife and kids — by writing vicious crime thrillers under the pseudonym of George Stark. When Beaumont drops his alter ego to take the high road, Stark — embodied by Hutton in evil-twin disguise — wages a savage war for control.
The Dark Half is arguably King's most personal work. Thad grows up an outsider with a repressed hostility he can let out only through writing. King has admitted to a similar background. The workaholic monster in him can't stop recycling the same revenge plot. His work is alive with dark halves — from the telekinetic student in Carrie to the lonely nurse in Misery. Hell, even the '58 Plymouth Fury in Christine has a spiteful streak. When his publishers told King he was writing too much, he used an alias — Richard Bachman — to churn out five more books, including The Running Man and Thinner. After the press blew his cover, King killed off his alter ego in an author's note to The Dark Half: "I'm indebted to the late Richard Bachman," he wrote. "This novel could not have been written without him." It's a typical King joke, laced with irony. For all his success, he can't get respect.
The film version of The Dark Half isn't likely to win it for him, though it's a step in the right direction. Writer-director George Romero (Night of the Living Dead, Creepshow) appreciates King's other half, the half critics rarely credit, the half that goes beyond plot to character, atmosphere, symbolism and subtext, shaping these elements with a wicked wit you don't find among the pulp herd.
Hollywood traditionally kongs King by playing him safe, meaning crude. Director Mary Lambert saw only the gore in Pet Sematary and reduced King's richest creation to rubble. But King often colludes in his own undoing: He wrote the script for Pet Sematary and wrote and directed the wretched Maximum Overdrive. King lapses into bogeyman mode when inspiration wanes; this is the George Stark side he must guard against. It's no accident that the apex of King on film — Brian De Palma's Carrie, Stanley Kubrick's Shining, David Cronenberg's Dead Zone and Rob Reiner's Stand by Me and Misery — came from directors who responded to more than the scaremeister.
Romero opens The Dark Half with young Thad (Patrick Brannan), who suffers from killing headaches, undergoing a grisly operation in which his brain is found to contain teeth, fingernails and a blinking human eye. Thad, in utero, had absorbed the fetus of a twin. After doctors remove the remnants, Thad's headaches disappear. But the throbbing in his temples returns in adulthood. Only writing as George Stark alleviates the pain.
King's brand of unreality works better on the page than on the screen, where a winking eye wedged in a prefrontal lobe is more likely to prompt derisive laughter. But Romero lulls us with a false sense of security, helped by the idyllic cinematography of Tony Pierce-Roberts (Howards End), who manages the neat trick of making Pittsburgh (where Romero lives and works) look like a small town in Maine.
Hutton makes an intelligent and appealing Thad, attentive to wife Liz (Amy Madigan) and their infant twins. But when Thad poses for a gag photo in People magazine in front of a mock tombstone for Stark, the easy humor gives way to the macabre. The photographer is murdered with his own artificial leg, and Thad's prints are found on it. Stark shows up, grinning like Jack Nicholson in The Shining and demanding to be heard. It's not hard to read the allegory: Thad is bullied by Stark as King is bullied by his jolt-hungry audience. Like the romance novelist in Misery, he's not allowed to stretch.
For a while, The Dark Half is a compelling study, in chiller guise, of an artist wrestling with his creative demons. But Stark is a real terror only in the shadows. When he emerges, all we see is Hutton — in a showy makeup job — struggling to change his wimp image. To bolster the performance, Romero piles on the blood and guts. Once again King's laudable ambition to plumb the violence of the mind is betrayed by formulaic shock tactics. The Dark Half ends as a Stephen King movie only a George Stark could love.