This week on TCM Underground: MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE (1986)

Maximum-Overdrive

Humanity falls before an onslaught of electronic devices — from pinball machines to 18-wheel trucks — while staff and customers at a roadside diner make an unplugged stand against the rise of the machines.

MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE (1986)

Cast: Emilio Estevez (Billy Robinson), Laura Harrington (Brett), Pat Hingle (Mr. Hendershot), Yeardley Smith (Connie), J. C. Quinn (Duncan Keller), John Short (Curtis), Ellen McElduff (Wanda June), Christopher Murney (Loman), Holter Graham (Deke), Frankie Faison (Handy), Pat Miller (Joe), Giancarlo Esposito (Video Game Player), Stephen King (Man at ATM). Director/Screenplay: Stephen King. Executive Producer: Dino DeLaurentiis. Co-producer: Milton Subotsky. Cinematography: Armando Nannuzzi. Music: AC/DC.

Color-97 min.

Showtime: Saturday January 17, 11:o0pm PST/2:00am EST

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By 1985, novelist Stephen King should have had every reason to rest on his laurels. Wildly successful by almost anyone’s standards, beloved by book readers (if not critics), set for life, and ten years into a career as an international Master of Horror, King had a kerjillion books (number approximate) rotating on airport spinner racks (among them, such novels as Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Dead Zone, Firestarter, Cujo, Christine, Pet Sematary, and the short story collections Night Shift, Different Seasons, and Skeleton Crewand an ever-growing number of feature films based on his works adding bulk to his bulging coffers. Despite his good fortunes, though, the Bangor-based sultan of shock was greatly dissatisfied, uncomfortable with his mounting celebrity, addled by drug and alcohol addiction, and annoyed with almost every film adaptation bearing his imprimatur. Having struck a multi-picture deal with Italian money man Dino DeLaurentiis (who had constructed his own film studio to rival Hollywood, a veritable Cinecittà on the Cape Fear in Wilmington, North Carolina), King turned in a film script for a project titled OVERDRIVE, an adaptation of his earlier short story “Trucks.” According to DeLaurentiis, King’s script was so specific in terms of camera angles and other auteurist flourishes that he offered the writer a chance to direct. Though King turned him down, eventually DeLaurentiis got his man. King himself appeared in trailers for MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE (as the finished film was called), breaking the fourth wall to announce:

I’m gonna scare the hell out of you… and that’s a promise!”

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That King failed to make good on his promise is not the story I’m here to tell today, though some of the behind-the-scenes particulars are of note from an historic perspective. King had a bit of a nightmare experience making the film, facing his own inadequacies as a practical filmmaker and dealing with a mostly Italian crew, with whom he could not communicate directly. Shot during the summer of 1985, the North Carolina location was unbearably hot and an accident during principal photography cost cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi an eye, which resulted in an $18 million lawsuit. (A veteran Italian camerman, Nannuzzi had twenty years earlier photographed Vittorio De Sica’s IL BOOM, about a businessman who is offered an exorbitant amount of money if he will sell one of his corneas to a one-eyed.) Thinking he would have an easier time directing the trucks than his actors, King was dismayed to have the machines break down on him repeatedly during shooting… and ultimately the whole enterprise destroyed his relationship with DeLaurentiis, which had spanned the films THE DEAD ZONE (1983), FIRESTARTER (1984), CAT’S EYE (1985), SILVER BULLET (1985) and, lastly, MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE.; the two never spoke again. Taken out of his hands during preproduction and its gore diluted to ensure an R-rating and maximum audience attendance, the film flopped anyway. King never again attempted to direct, realizing he had, in addition to the myriad frustrations suffered during the project, lost something like $4.5 million in potential revenue by spending the better part of a year making a movie rather than writing a new novel.

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I admit I was guided by voices rather than my own gut regarding MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE and, though I was then and remain (if in a somewhat diminished fashion) a King fan, I stayed away. I missed the movie entirely during the VHS boom and never checked it out on DVD. In 1997, the original King story was made into the made-for-TV TRUCKS, and I never bothered with that either. And then, by fate or serendipity or perhaps the fly-over of an obscure comet, my wife and I left the TV on when MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE began unspooling on some long-forgotten TV channel. Too lazy to get up or look for the remote, we just let it happen. And we had fun. We had hell damn-ass fun.

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King isn’t an innovator – he’d probably tell you as much himself. Some might call him a stylist but I’ve always thought of him as a prism, through which the light of genre shines, only to be bent into something uniquely personal. Half horror machine movie, half siege scenario, MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE is a slumgullion of DUEL (1971), KILLDOZER (1974), THE CAR (1977) — hell, you might even find Ray Bradbury’s 1950 short story “There Will Come Soft Rains” in here – THE KILLER SHREWS (1959) and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) but the movie speaks in a voice that is unmistakably King’s. That is both its strength and a perceived weakness; it is not fleet and classy horrortainment, like THE HAUNTING (1963) or ROSEMARY’S BABY (1967), but a beer burp of a movie: loud, gross, inappropriate, and funny. MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE doesn’t find King playing the auteur but the guest DJ, spinning tunes he likes. The movie is a mix tape, a cinematic equivalent to Mad magazine’s “Scenes We’d Like to See.” Like a cement roller flattening a Little League team, a predatory ice cream truck that seems to hum Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” as it searches for victims, and Broadway actor Pat Hingle (who lost out on the title role in ELMER GANTRY in 1959 because the elevator of his New York apartment building stranded him between floors and in trying to crawl out fell fifty-three feet to his near death) blowing up a semi full of toilet paper rolls with a rocket launcher. Ferris Bueller didn’t do that on his day off!

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Stephen King can write a pretty sentence when he is in serious writer mode but he is at his best, I think — he is at his most effective and useful — when he plays the fire circle storyteller, holding us rapt with equal parts suspense and preposterousness,before going for the big finish. MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE shares certain thematic similarities with THE MIST (2009), Frank Darabont’s far more serious and successful adaptation of the same-named King short story. THE MIST seems to have pleased more people but I like MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE better because it’s more fun, it has a better understanding of its own inherent absurdity while still playing it fairly straight-faced. There’s a lot to love here, from a pre-THE SIMPSONS Yeardley Smith as an apoplectic newlywed survivor, Frankie Faison (who has been in every Hannibal Lecter movie ever made) as the trucker whose Green Goblin-faced big rig becomes the leader of the killer trucks, CHUD‘s J.C. Quinn (who, as fate would have it, died in a car crash in 2004) in too brief a bit as a doomed grease monkey, and even King himself in a Hitchcock cameo as a bank customer who gets called an asshole by an ATM at the First Bank of Wilmington. There’s also a disturbing scene in which a boy (Holter Graham, who went from this to a role in John Waters’ HAIRSPRAY) escapes the slaughter of his entire Little League team rides his bike through a neighborhood whose inhabitants are all dead as well — a scene that might have transcended disturbing to become genuinely devastating had King not piped in AC/DC over the visual. Best of all, there’s not a lick of CGI in this thing’s pyrotechnical shine box. Shit really blows up and it blows up good.

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Though King writes off MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE as a “moron movie,” and one he directed while coked out of his mind (his words), it’s better than its reputation and has won favor with a new generation of horror hounds who were left to discover its charms on their own. (According to the YouTube subscriber rocky66, “It’s a good kind of suck, only us 80′s kids can understand it.”) Your mileage may vary, of course, but there are worse ways to kill 95 minutes.

Logan's Run

Chasing MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE in the “overnight” slot is LOGAN’S RUN (1976), Michael Anderson’s much-maligned adaptation of the classic science fiction novel by William F. Nolan. I know I’m supposed to dislike this movie, which I saw first run nearly 40 years ago, but I just can’t not like it. It’s so pretty. And Jenny Agutter.

8 Responses This week on TCM Underground: MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE (1986)
Posted By The Autist Formerly Known as Prince : January 15, 2015 3:25 am

Liking either of those movies is not something you should admit.

Posted By jojo : January 15, 2015 4:39 pm

This biggest problem this movie had came down to distribution, as it should have only played drive-ins.

I guess two in the morning on TCM is okay, but not idea. Ideally, it should really only be savored within the comfort of your own car.

Posted By The Autist Formerly Known as Prince : January 15, 2015 8:17 pm

“This biggest problem this movie had came down to distribution, as it should have only played drive-ins. … Ideally, it should really only be savored within the comfort of your own car.”

Yes, while you’re making out in the back seat.

Posted By Phil Marchesseault : January 16, 2015 5:56 pm

I am one of those probable few who did watch this movie on VHS (I think sometime in the mid-nineties). Now as the days grow short, alas, it remains an hour-and-a-half of my life I can never reclaim.

Posted By george : January 16, 2015 9:41 pm

I see MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE as the first chink in King’s armor — the first hint that he could fail spectacularly. Even if he intended it as a “moron movie,” it’s not funny or scary or interesting, although it may help if you follow King’s lead and get wasted on chemical substances. A truly awful movie.

Posted By Murphy’s Law : January 17, 2015 5:42 am

I loved both of these movies in my childhood and loved them. I’ve seen Logan’s Run later and it doesn’t hold up. I’ve not seen Overdrive lately, which is probably for the best.

Posted By george : January 17, 2015 9:10 pm

“I’ve not seen Overdrive lately, which is probably for the best.”

It probably is, Murphy’s Law. I saw OVERDRIVE in a theater when it came out. I was in my 20s and it didn’t work for me, although I was a major King fan at the time. Haven’t had any interest in revisiting it.

Posted By swac44 : January 18, 2015 7:18 pm

I have no problem with the idea that Maximum Overdrive is better than The Mist.

Also … Jenny Agutter.

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