The Dark Half, 1993.
Directed by George A. Romero.
Starring Timothy Hutton, Amy Madigan, Michael Rooker, Julie Harris, Robert Joy, Chelsea Field and Royal Dano.
Thad Beaumont, an author who has carved himself as a successful career writing suspense novels under the pen name “George Stark”, decides to “kills off” his alter ego and plot the next chapter of his life. However, it seems that “Stark” won’t let Beaumont move on without him.
Of course, we can’t have an October Horrors without the obligatory Stephen King adaptation. After kickstarting his career in the 1970s with a slew of bestsellers, horror icon King wondered whether his success was due to his talent or just plain luck. This questioning would lead him to create the pseudonym Richard Bachman to test himself while also writing much darker, cynical and violent works than those published under his own name. After his secret was uncovered and inspired by his experiment with an alter ego, King would write The Dark Half, a novel (subsequently adapted by George A. Romero) where an author literally comes face to face with his murderous evil pseudonym.
The story of The Dark Half acts as a melding of psychological horror, murder mystery and a slasher, tackling themes of duality and of confronting the hidden darkness lurking within ourselves. The story keeps you invested as it seems to suggest that mild-mannered Thad Beaumont and whiskey-swilling psycho George Stark could be one and the same, akin to a split personality. The ambiguity made all the more unsettling by a brutal killing spree committed by Stark, but with all physical evidence pointing to Thad being the culprit. However, once it becomes apparent that Stark is indeed a separate physical entity, the story starts to stumble in trying to explain what he is and how he came to exist. While offering suggestions that attempts to mix the supernatural, parasitic twins and a kind of psychic summoning, the film never really settles on a concrete explanation that lands. The film would have been better if it stuck to the idea that Thad and Stark are two sides of one man, with more than a few suggestions supporting this idea early on. Such as a journalist interviewing Thad suggesting that his references to Stark in the third person are akin to schizophrenia. The story still works fine with Stark as a physical entity, but I just wish that Romero had been a tad daring and diverged from the source material to make the story much more ambiguous.
While the film attempts to meld its supernatural horror plot with a murder mystery, the differing approaches don’t blend all that well. And while Romero’s direction is solid, the uneasy mixture can sometimes leave him seemingly unsure about what kind of horror film he wants to make. Furthermore, while it is in the novel, the explicitly supernatural stuff almost feels like a last-minute addition. In all honesty, if it had been discarded, the film might have been all the better for it.
While not as gory as his zombie films, Romero still fills The Dark Half with plenty of violent scenes, as Stark storms around murdering everyone close to Thad like a slasher killer. One off-screen death is especially gruesome in that we only see a shadow of the corpse. However, in thinking back to a comment Thad made about “Rats”, we left in no doubt as to what has been done. The ending features the goriest (and silliest) moment of the film in a surreal sequence that, without revealing too much, serves as a preview for Romero’s unmade remake of Hitchcock’s The Birds.
The horror elements are a mixed bag with it using a few jumps scares here and there with mixed success. However, a few scenes do stand out, such as a surreal dream sequence that brings to mind the likes of David Lynch. I especially like how Romero manages to make Elvis sound creepy. The King of Rock and Roll’s crooning of “Are you Lonesome Tonight?” having a genuinely queasy vibe to it when paired with the nightmarish sights of Thad’s dreams. One such scene even as a nice little preview of Romero’s later film Bruiser, with its image of a person with an emotionless white face mask.
Without question, the best part of the film is Timothy Hutton’s dual performance as Thad Beaumont and his dark alter-ego George Stark, with the Oscar-winning actor successfully creating two wildly distinct and engaging characters through his alternating mannerisms, voices and overall screen presence.
As Thad, Hutton is a mild-mannered writer and family man who is easy to sympathise with. Thad is a man who simply wishes to put his pulpy past behind him and finally write the high-brow work he’s always wanted to. It’s this mild-mannered everyman persona that makes the brief flashes of his darker side all the more unsettling. Take note of a menacing look he gives when confronted with a blackmailer, seeming to contemplate sticking a pencil in his eye. Or when he, seemingly possessed, scribbles on a paper in conversation with his twisted alter-ego, an almost psychotic grin flashing across his face. These hints of menace and madness are brilliantly played by Hutton, the actor subtly using them to hint that perhaps Thad is not so innocent as he appears. Again, making me wish the film had opted for a split personality storyline.
The real fun comes in Hutton’s takes on the mantle of Stark, the psychopathic pseudonym come to life. A chain-smoking, hard-drinking block headed thug, Hutton portrays Stark as a pulp novel character made flesh. Adopting an arrogant, deliberately exaggerated swagger, slicked-back hair, snakeskin boots and a growling Southern twang, presenting the character as an overpowering, larger than life menace. Stark is a vile monster who kills and maims wherever he goes, yet, he is also the best part of the film. The devious glee that Hutton projects at playing such an utter bastard being highly infectious and making for a hugely entertaining performance. Also, is it me, or does Stark look and sound a lot like Josh Brolin?
While far from the best of the many Stephen King adaptations out there, the solid direction from George Romero and Timothy Hutton’s hugely entertaining dual performance ensure that The Dark Half is still, at least, worth a peek. Check it out if you’re curious.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★