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Friday, July 23, 2021

Pure Celluloid Mayhem: Stephen King’s ‘Maximum Overdrive’ Turns 35

Maybe it’s nostalgia. Maybe it’s my undying devotion as a “Constant Reader.” Maybe I’m just a sucker for seeing Pat Hingle fire a bazooka. Whatever the reason, I shamelessly love Maximum Overdrive. This first and only film directed by Stephen King is pure celluloid mayhem. Universally panned by critics and nearly as disliked by audiences, it is a weird, wild, illogical mess of a movie. It is also thoroughly entertaining. I just find it so very hard to dislike a movie that begins with a director’s cameo involving a bank machine calling him an asshole before transitioning into an AC/DC song. There are plenty of behind-the-scenes stories, rumors, and speculations to be found floating around the internet, but I want to focus on the movie itself and take it on its own terms.

At its core, Maximum Overdrive is a type of story that King returned to often—the isolation story. All kinds of Stephen King short stories, novellas, and novels fall under this category, some epic, others intimate. The Shining, Misery, and Gerald’s Game are all prime examples, but a few could also be called “group isolation,” or as Frank Darabont called them, “prison” stories. These usually include a cross section of characters that shine a light on the greater conflicts of American society as they are trapped by some kind of force or crisis. Sometimes that force is mysterious and dangerous. Sometimes it is injury or the elements. Sometimes it is an oppressive system. The Shawshank Redemption, The Mist, and Under the Dome are the more serious and substantive versions. Maximum Overdrive is the pulp dime novel telling of this tale.

Several similarities can be found between these more serious versions and Maximum Overdrive. As in The Mist, a group of colorful characters are trapped inside a building—a grocery store in The Mist, the Dixie Boy truck stop here—against a deadly threat that awaits them just outside the door. Multiple characters crawl through foul smelling pipes and drains seeking salvation as in Shawshank. But the biggest similarity between Overdrive and these others is that an equally, if not more significant danger lies within the walls and among the characters. 

King often enjoys creating large casts of characters and this is no exception. We are quickly introduced to the cross-section of American life with an engaging cast of newcomers and veterans. Bill Robinson, the ex-con cook, played by one of the hot young stars of the era Emilio Estevez, quickly becomes our hero. According to Brett (Laura Harrington), the tough girl who has been hitching her way around the country with a straight razor in her boot, he also apparently makes love like one. How these two are calm enough in the midst of all this motorized mayhem for their trysts is part of the film’s bizarre charm. 

Newlyweds Curtis (John Short) and Connie, played by the soon-to-be voice of Lisa Simpson, Yeardly Smith, supply much of the comic relief to the central portion of the film. Smith’s reading of the line in her heavy southern drawl, “is he deeaad?” never fails to make me laugh. Dixie Boy waitress Wanda June (Ellen McDuff) provides what little thematic depth the film has to offer with her exclamation “we made you!” as if in answer to the theme song “Who Made Who” written by AC/DC for the film. Preteen boy, Deke (Holter Graham), who barely escapes his little-league game alive after an attack from a soda machine and a steam roller, brings heart and emotion as well as a bike ride through the world of carnage brought on by the machines. Rounding out the core group of heroes is the great character actor Frankie Faison as Handy, the driver of the iconic Happy Toyz big rig, along with a number of truckers and Dixie Boy patrons. Giancarlo Esposito also has a memorable cameo as a patron mesmerized by the flashing video screens of the truck stop’s arcade.

The internal antagonists of the film are exemplified by the Bible salesman Camp Loman (Christopher Murney) and the “unbelievable shithead” (in Brett’s words) that is Bubba Hendershot, portrayed by veteran actor Pat Hingle. Loman is a type of character often found in King’s work—the hypocritical religious zealot. Margaret White from Carrie, Mrs. Carmody in The Mist, and Warden Norton of The Shawshank Redemption are among King’s most memorable and frightening antagonists. Loman isn’t exactly that, but he is certainly a sleazeball, the kind of character audiences hope to see die in the most unpleasant way possible. The film delivers on that as his death is protracted over a large portion of the film.

Hendershot is the epitome of the greedy asshole boss. He is the owner of the Dixie Boy and practically blackmails his employees into submission, taking advantage of the fact that many are on parole. He also keeps an arsenal of illegal weapons that he has collected over an unknown number of years stored in the basement. He is insensitive, manipulative, greedy, and a commentary on the oppressors of the working man. He is the backwater representation of the “greed is good” faction of Reagan’s America who takes advantage of his position to the detriment of those his wealth will never trickle down to.

Outside the Dixie Boy is also one of the great and memorable villains of horror—the Happy Toyz truck with its grinning fiberglass Green Goblin head attached to the front. Simultaneously audacious, frightening, and instantly iconic, the Goblin truck became the face of the movie and, along with Christine, one of the all-time great horror movie vehicles. The truck is also somehow a comment on the excesses of ’80s consumerism and how even kids were being forced in on the act. But then again, maybe I’m reading too much into it.

Any commentaries on American society that may or may not be in the film are very subtextual and hidden under the relentless spectacle of the film. This spectacle is often at the sacrifice of any form of rationality or common sense. There are certainly plenty of unanswered questions and leaps of logic in Maximum Overdrive. For example, why do some machines come to life while others remain subservient to humans? How can immobile machines like the electric knife move on their own? And doesn’t that boat the survivors escape on have a motor? There are also a few more mundane oddities. Bill, for instance, apparently lives in the back of the Dixie Boy, so why doesn’t he change his bloodstained, and later sewage soaked, shirt? I mean, I would assume he has some other clothes back there.

These are mere distractions, however, as the film is endlessly fun to watch. In a way, these elements make the movie even more fun to talk about with fellow fans as we discuss our love for this deformed disasterpiece. There’s a great energy in the film, possibly due to the amount of cocaine involved in its making, but it still exudes from the screen. It’s tightly plotted, filled with memorable if over-the-top characters, and has an undeniably scrappy and Cormanesque spirit to it. Besides all this, the movie has everything a B-movie fan could want. The kills are inventive, there’s plenty of gore (though not as much as before the ratings board got its hands on it), and lots and lots of big, awesome ‘splosions. Not to mention that kickass soundtrack full of AC/DC songs.

I must admit that more than a little of my love for Maximum Overdrive is due to nostalgia. It’s one of the first horror films I ever saw and one of the few I watched with my dad. Even then, it was more fun than scary. An exciting romp that we could watch together that was also a little against my mom’s wishes, which made it the tiniest bit forbidden. Always a good recipe for a terrific father-son bonding experience. 

As the story goes, before making the film Stephen King felt he could bring his own work to the screen better than anyone else. He had been more than a little disappointed by the various screen versions of his work over the years and felt directing a film of his own was the logical solution. More than a little hubris involved there, but the man was on quite the winning streak professionally in 1985. Well, as we all know, directing turned out to be much more difficult than King expected, and he has expressed no desire to every sit in that chair again. Despite what the critics, the naysayers, and even King himself have said, Maximum Overdrive is a terrific movie, at least for what it is. It’s something that horror isn’t all that often anymore—it’s a lot of fun. And for me, that’s worth something. It’s a movie I can throw on anytime and it will always put a smile on my face. King’s directorial ambitions may not have panned out quite like he’d hoped, but I for one say Green Glowing Comet Dust bless him for trying.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3675303/pure-celluloid-mayhem-stephen-kings-maximum-overdrive-turns-35/

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