Maximum Oversell, Maximum Under-deliver
A 28-year-delayed retrospective of Maximum Overdrive
A PROMISE IS A PROMISE.
Of course it is. Something simply IS what it is, so that much is obvious. But what is important about this oft-repeated phrase is the intrinsic meaning it conveys; an acknowledgement of obligation, an assurance of dependability, a binding vow that an expectation will be fulfilled.
But what is equally inherent to a promise is that it can be broken.
Broken, broken, broken!
Welcome, dear reader, to my rant about “Maximum Overdrive”.
In July of 1986, the film “Maximum Overdrive”, Stephen King’s directorial debut (and to date, only directorial outing) was released to a wholly deserved negative critical reaction. Featuring wooden performances, stilted dialogue, poor pacing, and plot holes large enough to drive a goblin-grilled freightliner through, the film earned nominations for 2 Golden Raspberry Awards. It was a dud.
Not bad enough to be considered infamously bad, nor good enough to be especially memorable, “Maximum Overdrive” should have been relegated to a completely forgettable footnote in box office history.
But time has a way of sprinkling gold dust over memories, and for some, “Maximum Overdrive” has been thusly graced. In later years it has attained the sparkle of a fun, schlocky 1980s era campy horror favorite with a corresponding devoted fan-base, of which I am decidedly not a member.
I do not begrudge this latter stage fandom. A great many cult film favorites gained their infamous notoriety years after a poorly received initial release. In the case of “Maximum Overdrive” such fandom appears to consist of viewers younger than the initial target audience (mid 1980s R-rated viewing age) who discovered the film in yard sale VHS bins, late night cable channel filler, or online streaming video, occasionally cataloged as parody horror. In their minds “Maximum Overdrive” stands proudly among a class of notorious contemporaries that typify the sub-genre, perhaps due in large part to an overdose of cheesy one-liners, one-dimensional clichéd characters, and a comically uninspired performance by Emilio Estevez. With these factors alone, I completely understand why fans of horror schlock have embraced “Maximum Overdrive” with such enthusiasm. But it is a perspective in which I simply cannot share.
Because I was there.
I was there when Stephen King himself, genius storyteller, master of horror, and director of “Maximum Overdrive” looked me directly in the eye and told me, PROMISED me, that it was supposed to be different. It was supposed to be better. It was supposed to be.terrifying.
By 1986, Stephen King had already made quite a name for himself. (Actually two names, but who’s counting?) Having enjoyed a string of literary knockouts for well over a decade, as well as a number of wildly successful film and television adaptations, any opinion that King would offer regarding the horror film genre in general, or about his adapted works in particular was sure to garner attention.
But things were different then. We didn’t have the always-on internet treasure trove of perpetual information, feeding us layers-deep analysis of every topic imaginable – and certainly no dynamic, openly accessible digital databases through which film fans could track every detail of filmmaking from pre-production to opening night reviews. During the 80s most fans of Stephen King had never seen, nor knew anything more about him than what was provided in the author bios at the back of his books. The most personal connections that most of King’s readers felt were developed through the Introductions and Author’s Notes with which he would frequently bookend his novels, detailing his creative process, or describing events of his life that may have contributed to, or otherwise inspired the events of that story, and always, ALWAYS thanking the reader for having taken the time to invest in the life stories of his beloved characters.
There was a connection there. It stemmed directly from the most notable characteristic of King’s own novels. He understood people, and he wrote about their most heartfelt personal struggles. Sure there was blood, gore, savage violence, fear and screaming, but at the heart of his stories you could always find people….trying to come to grips with challenges inherent in the human condition; isolation, self doubt, betrayal, regret, oppression, depression, a sense of purpose, longing and belonging. Through their experiences King’s protagonists and antagonists would grow and evolve, or sometimes devolve through their character arcs. Even if these crucial elements were couched in narratives of demonically possessed cars, evil curses, vampires and werewolves, or even telekinetic combustion, King’s stories were written in such a way as to compel readers to understand, and even empathize with the characters. For devoted fans each book became a symbol of trust between author and reader. And it was with that trust that Stephen King finally stepped in front of a camera to address his fans directly, and more personally.
Early in 1986, several months before the July release of “Maximum Overdrive”, I sat in a darkened theater awaiting the feature presentation when the curtains parted and the screen lit up with a preview of coming attractions. Although I am sure several such attractions were presented, only one of them still sticks in my memory to this day;
Against a darkened background stands a silhouetted figure who steps into the light and announces himself.
“Hi, my name is Stephen King.”
This becomes the very first representation of a moving, speaking, living Stephen King that most of his fans will have ever seen. He explains that he is there to introduce you to his new film, his first directorial effort. It’s called “Maximum Overdrive”.
And then he lays down the gauntlet.
“A lot of people have directed Stephen King novels and stories”, he says.
“and I finally decided if you want something done right, you ought to do it yourself.”
Did I just hear Stephen King, the HORROR MASTER HIMSELF, throw those other Stephen King films straight into the crapper? Films that up to that time included undisputed classics like “Carrie”, “The Shining” and the groundbreaking television mini-series “Salem’s Lot”? Or even the less well known, but still highly lauded “Christine” or “The Dead Zone”?
Wow. Those are fighting words.
“I just wanted someone to do Stephen King right.” he added for clarification. Which is to say that with regards to previous Stephen King films, directed by the likes of Stanley Kubrick, David Cronenberg, Brian De Palma, John Carpenter, and George Romero, King had decided to take the directorial helm for his next film outing, and despite it being an inaugural effort, he was going to do a BETTER job.
With eyes fixed on the camera in a cold hard stare, Stephen King stretched out his arm, pointed his index finger directly at the viewer and proclaimed, “I’m going to scare the HELL outta you! And that’s a PROMISE!”
As I left the theater that night, my mind was still buzzing with that short film preview. Sure, now it’s common knowledge that Stephen King had always been very vocally dissatisfied with Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of “The Shining”. But this fact wasn’t as widely known in 1986. Certainly it was obvious to any of King’s readers that filmmakers had oftentimes taken significant creative license in bringing those stories to the screen. And of course not all such efforts were well received, even by King’s most loyal fans, with films like “Firestarter”, “Cat’s Eye”, and “Silver Bullet” scoring somewhere between fair and decent at best.
But to have Stephen King himself stand before me and state that ALL of these prior cinematic adaptations were outright failures of his true vision, and that it would be up to him, the Master of Horror, to step up to the plate and show me what a REAL horror film is supposed to be….well, that was some pretty big talk. And I believed him. I trusted him. And I fully expected that come July I was going to have the hell scared outta me.
The rest, of course, is history. “Maximum Overdrive” was released. It bombed. I don’t need to retread what I wrote at the start of this rant.
So we can chalk it all up to a collective learning experience. We ALL learned things:
– Stephen King learned that the singular effort of writing a novel is not the same as the communal effort of making a film. It’s typically supposed to be a balance of flexible control and shared vision. He later admitted that his own directorial effort through “Maximum Overdrive” resulted in the absolute worst representation of his vision.
– As filmgoers we learned a little bit about sacrifice. King’s use of AC/DC to write and perform the soundtrack for “Maximum Overdrive” was a genius move, and the results of this powerhouse pairing is nearly perfect, as far as film soundtracks go. Having watched this movie in a first-run theater I can attest that where the music is concerned, hearing this soundtrack burning through speakers of a large auditorium Cineplex was the very best way to enjoy it. But such enjoyment came at significant cost, for this highly amplified musical gratification also corresponds with the very worst way to suffer Yeardley Smith’s incomprehensibly incessant shrieking bride, “Connie”, a character who is mysteriously granted an overly gratuitous amount of screen time, but who is also screaming at the top of her lungs for every moment of it. By the halfway point of “Maximum Overdrive” Ms. Smith had already taken the record as the most insufferably annoying incessant screamer in film history, a record previously held since 1971 by Jessica Walter in “Play Misty for Me”. And though Ms. Smith was nearly unseated by Dakota Fanning in 2005’s “War of the World’s”, she still manages to retain this infamous crown of notoriety to this day.
– As fans of Stephen King’s writing we were affirmed in something we had already known about what makes his work so personally resonating and successful – namely, character development. This was affirmed through our realization that “Maximum Overdrive” was entirely devoid of it. It could have used some.
– And as for me? Well, I guess I learned that sometimes a promise just might not be much of a promise after all. Especially when it’s broken before it’s even made. Because what you have then is a lie. And in the case of “Maximum Overdrive”, a stinging, somewhat visually arresting, AC/DC infused, silly, campy, cardboard flat, 10 million dollar lie.
In the words of Yeardley Smith’s franticly shrieking character, “I DON’T LIIIIIKE THIS!!!”
And that, my dear reader, is a promise.