The Dark Half (George A. Romero, 1993)
George A. Romero and Stephen King: two great tastes that taste great together. Sadly, Romero’s chocolate and King’s peanut butter didn’t get together as often as they could or should have. The number of projects the two men were to produce together that failed to come to fruition is pretty ludicrous.
I say that we should celebrate what we have instead of what we don’t. While Creepshow is the most famous Romero/King lovechild, I am here today to sing the praises of a film that doesn’t get enough respect: Romero’s 1993 adaptation of The Dark Half.
If the small towns of New England make up Stephen King Country, then Western Pennsylvania is Romeroland. There is a certain look that all of Romero’s Pittsburgh-produced pictures have: their events seem to unfold in a perpetual autumn, and the way the Rust Belt surroundings are shot will have you wanting to get a tetanus shot booster after leaving the theater.
In The Dark Half, King Country and Romeroland perfectly overlay one another. Romero uses Edgewood Borough and Washington, PA, to stand in for Ludlow and Castle Rock, ME, to great effect. The bare trees filled with birds (both real and fake), the rolling hills with roads winding through them, and the great stone buildings on the campus of Washington & Jefferson College give the picture a Norman Rockwell meets Charles Addams vibe.
When we talk Romeroland, we don’t just mean places, we mean the people, too. The Dark Half was Romero’s last film made in Pittsburgh, and there are familiar folks in front of the camera as well as behind it. Romero’s second wife, Christine, was an executive producer as well as an actor in the film. David Early, who had taken part in Dawn of the Dead, Knightriders, Creepshow, and Monkey Shines, gets a cameo as an NYC cop. Cletus and Barbara Anderson returned to work their production design and costuming magic. The biggest Romeroland contributor, in my opinion, is editor Pasquale “Pat” Buba. Buba had a long relationship with Romero, going back to Romero’s foray into TV sports documentary with The Winners in the late-1970s. Buba understood Romero’s shooting style and editing needs, delivering a picture that feels the man himself cut it together.
As a former Pittsburgher (a “yinzer” to yinz in the know), all the above gives me the warm and fuzzies at the same time as sending chills up my spine.
- First Things First (which is 2nd on this list…go figure!)
A good horror movie needs a freaky set piece at its start to let the audience know what they are getting into. The Dark Half has got a doozy that never ceases to creep me out.
Poor, pre-teen Thad Beaumont just wants to be a writer. Unfortunately for him, he’s got more than stories about Miss Bird saying things brightly in his head. After suffering from headaches and then collapsing on his way to the school bus, the doctors crack open Thad’s skull like a nut and find the remnants of a twin peeking up at them.
When that eyeball in the middle of Thad’s brain opens up and takes a look around through the milky film of its cornea, I don’t blame that nurse from screaming and hightailing it out the operating room. Yuck!
- “It takes two to make a thing go right…”
Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock were right: it really does take two to make it outta sight.
I love movies about doppelgängers, evil twins, and split personalities. You know, pictures like Dead Ringers, Psycho, The Parent Trap. I especially love it when the same actor gets to play the two parts, because you just know there’s gonna be some tasty scenery-chewing.
Timothy Hutton was best known at the time for winning an Oscar for Ordinary People, but that had been nearly a dozen years in the past when The Dark Half began shooting. He was an “actor” (please do a Steven Toast impression when you say that word) who’d never done a horror movie before. He seems to relish the chance to get his Jekyll & Hyde on. As Thad Beaumont, he slowly loses his cool and his mind over the course of the picture. As George Stark, he lets it all hang out from the get-go. He’s fierce, nasty and, by the end of the movie, pretty gooey. During one scene, an apartment dweller sticks his nose out into the hallway and asks what all the hubbub’s about. Hutton as Stark turns to him and responds in a deadpan, Southern drawl, “Murder…want some?” You can tell Hutton had a good time slinging lines like that around.
- Creepy Oldies
One of the things I love about horror movies in the 1980s is the ironic use of those moldie, golden oldies of yesteryear. Maybe it’s the lyrics about obsessive love or the juxtaposition of voices happily singing in harmony while something horrifying happens on screen, but the songs of the 1950s and pre-Beatles 1960s are just inherently creepy to my ears. “Mr. Sandman” by The Chordettes in Halloween II is a good example. Sure, it only plays at the beginning and end of the movie, but it puts everything in between in a new, weird groove.
I know a lot of fans think heavy metal and horror are a match made in heaven (or hell, if ya know what I mean), but there’s nothing off-kilter or off-putting about an Alice Cooper or Dokken song playing over a murder scene. (It pained me to write that, because I love “Teenage Frankenstein” and “Dream Warriors” so much!) But if, as happens in The Dark Half, you play “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” by Elvis Presley while blood squirts out of a turkey and Amy Madigan’s porcelain face shatters to reveal the skull beneath…well, then you’ve got something with a little frisson to it.
There’s another reason why I think the “King” works so well in The Dark Half: Elvis was a twin. Jesse Garon Presley was delivered stillborn half an hour before Elvis Aron Presley followed his older brother into the world. The movie doesn’t make anything about that fact, but knowing it adds another layer of weirdness to ol’ Thad and George’s sibling rivalry.
- Miriam’s Murder
This is a George Romero film. You expect the red stuff to flow, and I don’t mean Heinz ketchup. This is the man who pounded a stake into John Amplas’s chest in Martin, chewed Adrienne Barbeau’s face off in Creepshow, and tore Joe Pilato in half in Day of the Dead. The man knows gore.
The Dark Half was a Hollywood studio picture by a man who was one of the last of the independents. He may have been pressured to bring a more commercial film to studio execs, which may account for the lack of in-your-face blood-n-guts.
There is one moment, however, where Romero’s sensibility comes through loud and clear. It is the most disturbing scene in the picture – maybe one of the more terrifying I’ve ever seen: George Stark’s killing of Thad’s book publisher, Miriam.
The bulk of the credit for the power of this scene goes to actress Rutanya Alda. The noises she makes as she’s menaced by Stark are guttural and horrifying. When Stark “helps” her keep her happy thoughts by jamming his thumb into the wound in her face, her screams sound so real. When he zips his razor across her cheek, she sounds like she is actually losing her mind. The coup de grâce is delivered off-screen, but in a single take, which makes Stark’s smile at Miriam’s sudden silence all the more effective.
The scene creeped me out the first time I saw it in the 1990s on VHS, and it creeped me out just now as I re-watched it.
Honorable mention: Julie Harris as “Reggie,” Thad’s academic compatriot and enthusiastic research assistant. (Still…c’mon, Thad, you couldn’t get a grad student to do that?) She’s the funky, pipe-smoking, clunky wooden jewelry-wearing, VW Bug-driving, literature professor that you dream of encountering in college, and she steals every scene she’s in.
UNK SEZ: Thanks for sharing this stellar FFT, James! Folks, make sure you visit James at his home base LARPing Real Life HERE!