Saturday, October 26, 2013

Stephen King's Graveyard Shift (1990)

(R, Paramount Pictures, 88 mins., release date: October 26, 1990)

"Good benefits, early retirement" - Voiceover artist Percy Rodrigues, as heard in the original trailer for Stephen King's Graveyard Shift.

Gates Falls, Maine, is a one-horse town with a thousand-rat population. These persistent pests tend to congregate at the Bachman Textile Mill, the dingy, damp center of the town's meager economy, mostly during the 11-7 working hours, where they stare ominously at the poor schmucks hauling bags of cotton into the picking machine. One such dope, Jason Reed (Jonathan Emerson), goes a little too crazy from the heat and not only pounds his fist into a nail, but starts talking to the rats and threatening to systematically feed them into the picker. This angers some grizzly-sized Mother Rat who spooks Jason into falling into the device and getting gnashed into enough blood-drenched cloth to feed all of her hungry babies. And with that, the Bachman Mill once again posts that they are now hiring.

Oh, the satirical possibilities for a black-and-red horror comedy about the ways in which desperate wage slaves are run through the mill and fed upon by vermin of the human, rodent and supernatural varieties. Were it that Graveyard Shift realized that possibility to the fullest and became a bona fide B-movie instead of a C-list footnote in the deathless well of Stephen King film adaptations. Indeed, the full title is Stephen King's Graveyard Shift (perhaps to avoid confusion with the vampire cabbie flick from 1987), a dubious ploy for mass consumption despite the fact that its source material is a short story from the 1978 anthology tome Night Shift. This was before The Lawnmower Man tempted litigation from the author himself based on its loose association to his original text. And Graveyard Shift is also a precursor to Tobe Hooper's The Mangler, which swapped pickers for pressers and did away with the middle man by just having the titular machine be demonically possessed.

In this story, it's a gargantuan, grotesque rat/bat entity who threatens to permanently clock out the overnight crew of the Bachman Mill (now that I mentioned King, no doubt you finally got the in-joke, if it wasn't clearly obvious in the second sentence). Not that it keeps oily manager Mr. Warwick (Stephen Macht) up at night, as he lecherously assigns off-the-street replacement staffers free from those pesky Union constraints. Warwick's latest find is John Hall (David Andrews), a roaming Robert Ginty understudy with a college degree who calls his bluff when told that drifters make for unpromising applicants. Hall assumes the late Reed's duties in his own characteristically pacifist way, merely fending off the rats he sees by slinging soda cans with Robin Hood-worthy skill. Hall even stirs jealousy in Warwick by striking up a friendship with Jane Wisconsky (Kelly Wolf), the only one of the Bachman crew with as much baggage and integrity as he displays.

Warwick entices/coerces all of his employees into working the Fourth of July holiday week in order to clean up the mill and keep the inspectors off his back. He even blackmails the Vietnam vet exterminator Tucker Cleveland (Brad Dourif) into inspecting the nearby cemetery to avoid embroiling him in any license-revoking red tape. Needless to say, all their paths lead underground, as the mill rests atop a labyrinthine cavern which proves useful in allowing the creature to make quick work in vivisecting Warwick and his personnel save for the one noble soul who learned the proper trade secret from the batty rat catcher.

After the popular success of Pet Sematary, producer Ralph Singleton opted to direct his own King-based shocker and thus drew upon the easily-licensed "Graveyard Shift" for inspiration. His fortunes weren't helped by the fact that Rob Reiner's Misery won all the critical and commercial glory in late 1990, thus showing up his shlocky effort as another in the long line of misguided mediocrities associated with King that the man himself was responsible for temporarily stalling thanks to 1986's Maximum Overdrive. Another debit was that Singleton, despite a considerable pedigree as assistant director, was not the visual type of artist Mary Lambert was. She at least had a couple of iconic Madonna videos and a prior feature debut to her professional claim, whereas this was Singleton's first and only go after working up the ladder for well over a decade.

The trouble with Singleton here is that despite surrounding himself with some able crew members, chiefly production designer Gary Wissner (later the art director on David Fincher's Seven) and DP Peter Stein (no stranger to subterranean shock cinema thanks to C.H.U.D.), he can't do anything with them except make a very minor Tales from the Crypt episode. The movie has so little horror because while it knows the atmosphere from which King writes about, Singleton can't put his own creative stamp on it like De Palma, Kubrick, Cronenberg, or even made-for-TV Tobe Hooper did. The set-up for the movie is nondescript fish-out-of-water barnacle involving a bunch of colorless characters who literally live and die by their clichés, most egregious of which are the Fat Bully and the Jumpy Negro, who are even pitted against each other at one point for no good reason.

The performances are regrettably shoehorned by this lack of interest, with the only gold stars going to the hammiest of the lot. Of course, seeing Brad Dourif is good news considering his reliable foul-mouthed fervor serves the jaded exterminator role to a T, resulting in another memorable monologue (this time about the Viet Cong torture technique involving hungry rats) equal to anything found in The Exorcist III. But he gets done in like Ed Harris from Creepshow to my eternal displeasure. Even more unpredictable and unbelievable is Stephen Macht as Warwick. Although he had only been trained, albeit rather extensively, in London, Macht adopts an Englishman's over-the-top accent and overplays with such a swaggering, drawling enthusiasm that he frequently upstages the rest of the cast he has to routinely interact with. Not even Andrew Divoff, the once and future Wishmaster, can keep up with him as a cowardly underling.

After an hour's worth of stodgy, soapy conflicts, during which the most extraneous characters are bumped off without much grief from within the movie's universe or amongst its audience, it all culminates in a boring chase sequence full of every stupid situation you'd associate with a low-grade horror film, including wimpy hysterics, sprained ankles and characters reaching into holes where something is waiting to bite their arm off. The reveal of the monster itself doesn't live up to the hype, either, especially after countless scenes of giant wings and tails in plain sight of thudding oblivious stereotypes. But Warwick almost makes it all worthwhile by channeling his inner Fred Dobbs, turning his noxious self-preservation into psychotic mania by smearing soot all over his face, starting a brawl with Hall on top of a mountain of skeletons and crawling across the murky pits like he was once stationed with in Con Thien with Tucker. Macht also dominates the movie's loopy end credits theme, a Planes, Trains and Automobiles-style mix of chintzy funk crossed with random, looped sound bites.

Stephen King's Graveyard Shift is campy cable fare through and through, the kind of movie where laughter is constantly provoked instead of fear and it disappears from your memory save for a few ludicrous pleasures. At least it is available on DVD by Paramount in one of their commendable "widescreen collection" releases complete with 5.1 Dolby Surround remix and not a single bonus feature. Best to pick this up in the triple-feature budget pack with the superior April Fool's Day and the slightly more enticing Tales from the Darkside: The Movie to give you more and better viewing options.

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