The late, great George Romero and Stephen King only managed to collaborate on two full fledged features (not counting the profoundly decent anthologies Creepshow 2 and Tales From The Darkside: The Movie), although it wasn’t from want for trying. After teaming for the spectacular comic book romp Creepshow, Romero bounced from King themed project to King themed project, coming a stones throw from adapting the author’s gargantuan ode to the apocalypse: The Stand, but nothing came to fruition. Then eventually, in 1995, the cinematic lord of the zombie finally got his mitts on The Dark Half, probably one of the renowned writer’s most personal stories.
Thad Beaumont has decided to publically murder George Stark. Of course this isn’t as scandalous as it sounds when you realise that George Stark is the pseudonym Beaumont used to write a lucrative series of pulpy and violent crime novels due to his more sensitive works under his own name undersold. Forced to go public with the details in order to both deter a extortion attempt and as an opportunity to forge ahead with his own works, Thad is generally excited to leave the dark mindset of Stark behind and focus on his supportive wife and twin babies. However, this is a Stephen King story and things simply don’t remain that simple for long. You see somehow it seems that the act of killing George Stark has somehow made him flesh and he’s stalking around, framing Thad for the brutal murders of anyone who had a hand in his “death”, be it the photographer who staged a mock burial for a magazine article bizarrely beaten to death with his own prosthetic leg, or the article writer who has his skull violently punted into a radiator by a pair of jet black cowboy boots.
How on earth can such a thing happen? Does it have something to do with the alarming tumour Thad suffered as a child which revealed the remains of an absorbed twin leaving teeth and a blinking eyeball lurking in his brain? And what is the significance of a reoccurring phrase that keeps being unconsciously written by both men, what does “The sparrows are flying again” really mean?
Sooner or later Thad and George are destined to meet and only one can survive, not due to some sort of physical fight to the death, but because some otherworldly force can allow only one of them to stay. But then, what will become of the one who has to go?
Based extensively on King’s own experience with having a pseudonym he eventually decided to retire – take a bow Richard Bachman, “author” of Thinner, The Running Man, The Walk and others (although I don’t think his came to life and sliced up his agent) – The Dark Half is a cruel, violent and frequently absurd tale on the craft of writing as literally both a creative and destructive act. In the tense (and frankly loopy) final act, whomever is able to write will survive with King fashioning a literal face off between two scribblers like a couple of pencil wielding cowboys hunched over a writing pad at high noon.
The story is plainly but cleanly told (George was hardly dexterous with the camera) with Hutton’s central performance anchoring the whole deal in the dual roles of hero and villain. Not to be disingenuous to the legendarily director but in many ways Timothy Hutton’s double performance as Thad and George IS the movie as the pace of the film is suprisingly thoughtful for such a nasty tale. In the book the two duelling authors are completely different people but here the rather ingenious decision has been made to put the lead into subtle prosthetics and play it as incredibly disparate brothers. Where Thad is quiet and self deprecating, George stalks around with slicked back hair and a straight razor, spitting instant comebacks with his shit kicker drawl and a wit as sharp as the straight razor he keeps in his pocket. “What’s going on?” bleats a confused witness to a crime in process “Murder.” snaps back old George, “You want some?”
It’s alway interesting when Romero leaves his beloved zombies behind to concentrate on other horrors that doesn’t involve undead social commentary but that unfortunately The Dark Half’s main problem, while undeniably interesting, it’s regrettably not overly exciting or even that scary although there are a couple of genuinely alarming moments. As the film trots along at a sedate pace, things noticeably and finally pick up when the antagonist and protagonist sit down, share a cigarette and a drink, and Hutton gets to bounce some deliciously uneasy chemistry off himself but the incredibly balls-to-the-wall-crazy climax suffers slightly from some dated visual effects and one wonders if maybe a remake could iron out a couple of wrinkles and add more of a sense of urgency to such a suprisingly sedate horror flick.
However, even though it rather unfairly stands as one of Romero’s “lesser” movies, The Dark Half is still an intriguing and original piece of work. It just isn’t the horror supernova that audiences at the time hoped to see when Romero and King’s names finally showed up together on a marquee again.