Romero’s second foray into the mainstream came in the shape of an adaptation of Stephen Kings The Dark Half, and even before it was shot the film had fallen into production woes. Orion Pictures, who had managed a string of hits with films such as Robocop, Platoon, Dances with Wolves and (most notably) he Silence of the Lambs (as well as Romero’s own Monkey Shines) had found itself tied into a battle with Dino Delaurentis over the rights to the character of Hannibal Lector, and both companies had taken significant financial hits over the fight for this lucrative character.
There were many casualties, of which Romero’s The Dark Half was one.
Though it was filmed in 1990, just after Romero had finished Two Evil Eyes, the film was not released for another two years and even then it was done so with little fanfare, undoubtedly hurting any box office the film may have achieved with such a collaboration.
The film follows the story of Thad Beaumont (excellently played by Timothy Hutton), a highly respected author who for some years has been writing pulpy suspense novels under the pen name of George Stark. However this run of books has come to its end as Thad decides to retire Stark rather than pay an inept blackmailer who has found out about the connection between the two authors.
So Thad stages a mock burial of Stark, pronouncing the line of novels dead.
But Stark does not remain buried and a series of grisly murders take place as the now corporeal Stark makes his way to Thad and his family to exact his revenge.
The Dark Half boasts a good cast headlined by Timothy Hutton, Amy Madigan and Michael Rooker, all of which manage their roles admirably and the production design, make up and technical standards on the film are all what you would expect. Where the film does fail however is the script.
I shudder writing such a phrase when we are talking about a script adapted by Romero from a Stephen King novel but The Dark Half is not one of King’s better works and unfortunately Romero’s adaptation does not do anything to fix any of the issues of the source material.
The movie opens with a younger Thad Beaumont undergoing surgery when we are treated to a moment that is genuinely jaw-dropping as Thad’s skull is opened and we see a blinking cloudy iris of the eye inside. It transpires that Thad would have been one of twins but in utero his foetus absorbed his brothers (in an act called “Vanishing Twin Syndrome”) and this tissue continued to grow inside Thad as he matured to adulthood.
This shocking scene is never adequately revisited and though it adds a clue as to where George Stark may have come from it is not explored nearly enough to provide an explanation. Stark just appears in the film and on first viewing it is tempting for the audience to believe that he is an imposter or disturbed fan who has taken on Stark persona when he learns of the book series demise. When it is revealed that Stark is a supernatural character the audience are left high-and-dry without a plausible explanation to what has transpired.
At one point it is revealed that the flesh removed from Thad’s brain as a child was buried by his parents, coincidentally in the very spot they later mocked up George Starks grave (a space bought for Thad in the family plot), and this reveal could have been elaborated on to fill this gap in logic. It is clear that something was needed here, and it seems equally clear that the film makers were aware that this didn’t quite gel together, but seemed unclear of how to overcome the problem.
This is the movie adaptations only major fault, otherwise the script is a solid creation, with some snappy (and authentically amusing) dialogue, characters that go against the stereotype (especially regarding Madigan as Thad’s wife) as well as some genuinely unsettling moments. Unfortunately Starks “mythology” can never be fully realised and because we do not have an understanding on what brought him into existence we have no real understanding what he wants or how to eliminate him.
If we compare Stark to one the “greats” of horror we can clearly see how this works.
Freddy Krueger: Child murderer executed by parents who then returns to terrorise the children of those parents until vanquished by those very children denying their fear of him.
The mythology of Freddy is circular and it ties into some of the themes of the film itself, that being dreams and our fear of our inner selves, and this is some of what makes Freddy Krueger work so well.
Unfortunately George Stark has none of this and in spite of a great performance from Hutton, as some excellent dialogue from King/Romero, the character cannot help but fall flat.
When Romero’s previous films, and their arguable strengths, are considered this turn of events is not a particularly surprising one. The Dark Half in unique in his filmography in that it is the only film Romero has made that involves a single iconic villain, and it is the only movie that could be described as a “slasher” film.
Usually Romero deals with subverted heroes and The Dark Half would have been a much better “fit” for Romero if the hero and villain roles had been reversed in it. If George had been battling for life against a writer who had used and discarded him for his own ends (which he actually had) then this character would not have been so dissimilar to any of Romero’s better protagonists. In The Dark Half we find characters that are battling for a “status quo” rather than any positive change and Starks murders are a “deus ex machina” in order to drive this forward and this is backwards to Romero’s usual work.
Logically why Stark doesn’t just wander off and write his own books is never explained (he is after all the author of these books, not their protagonist) and why he kills even those who facilitated his sales seems unclear. At one point he even kills a man who prefers his work to Thad’s and this moment could have been used to add depth to his character mythology if this individual had remained unharmed.
It’s hard to come to the conclusion that this was not a good fit for Romero, and if one thought of Wes Craven, John Carpenter or Steve Miner making The Dark Half it’s hard to imagine them not making a better job of it. This is not to say any of those people are better directors but it is clear that each of them knows this sub-genre of horror better than Romero does.
Ultimately The Dark Half does include enough good film making to provide its audience with a good two hours of viewing, and if the viewer can disregard its one huge flaw they will enjoy it a great deal.
The film bounces back from the muddy visuals of Monkey Shines with some crisp deep imagery (marred only here and there by inconsistent lighting), sharp editing and some truly excellent music that evokes (rather fittingly) Hellraiser, a previous score by The Dark Half’s composer Christopher Young.
Romero manages a small town setting rather well and evokes a “Kingness” to the film that feels quite similar to Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone at times. There is a bleak beauty to the town of Castle Rock and realism to the setting that allows us to believe in Thad Beaumont’s life and those of the supporting cast. Some of that supporting cast are barely held on screen at times, veteran character actors like Royal Dano (in his final film) bring such texture to these characters that it’s a shame they aren’t used more. The Beaumont’s photographer Homer Gamache (Glenn Colerider) is so wonderfully eccentric that he could be the lead of his own film and when Stark meets him on a deserted road it is a genuinely upsetting moment for the viewer.
Though not considered a high point in either Romero’s or King’s career The Dark Half holds up much better than it should as a movie, and this is mainly due to Romero’s solid direction and some great performances from the cast. It is also an interesting change of pace for Romero and an attempt at a sub-genre very alien to his other work. It is only a shame that the source material was a poor fit.
Ironically George Stark was based in no small part on Stephen Kings own pen name (Richard Bachman) and a few of Bachman’s books would have worked much better for Romero. One in particular, Rage, fits Romero’s M.O. extremely well and it would be interesting to see what he would do with such a work.
Unfortunately we will never know.