Maximum Overdrive (1986)

When the flood of Stephen King movie started coming out in the first half of the 1980s the author himself was not pleased.  It started with Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining.  King didn't like Jack Nicholson's performance, was upset a good portion of his story was stripped away despite the runtime of the movie and thought the concentration on the ghost story itself undercut the true message of his novel.  Critics, on the other hand, thought it was wonderful achievement and one of Kubrick's best films. 

His complaining continued on through a number of films despite King having more and more input into the scripts and the making of the movies until Dino De Laurentiis, who was responsible for producing a majority of the films, got fed up and told King to just go ahead and direct a film himself.  He took the challenge and the result is Maximum Overdrive, an adaptation of his short story "Trucks".  With a largely Italian crew outside of Wilmington, North Carolina, King did things his way.  He has not directed a movie since, nor does he complain about other people adapting his work as much as he used to. 

On June 19, 1987, Earth passes through the tail of a comet.  The atmosphere begins to glow green and machines, both electric and gas powered, start coming to life and attacking humans.  Bill Robinson (Emilio Estevez) is the cook in a truck stop run by shady businessman Bubba Hendershot (Pat Hingle), and he and the others start noticing things are wrong when their waitress Wanda (Ellen McElduff) is attacked by an electric knife.  Soon after a Bible salesman shows up with a hitchhiker named Brett (Lauren Harrington) and is attacked by a truck in the lot.

Meanwhile Deke (Holter Graham), the son of one of the workers at the station, survives an attack by a soda machine during a little league game and attempts to make it to the truck stop, while married couple Curt (John Short) and Connie (Yeardley Smith) are forced to take refuge there after being attacked on the road.  It soon turns out that Hendershot has an arsenal of illegal weapons that might just give them a chance against the homicidal trucks that have surrounded the diner. 

King didn't know the first thing about directing when he went into this.  He was at one of the worst points of his cocaine addiction, which also served to impede his judgment.  Because of this cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi lost an eye due to King's insistence on leaving the blades attached to a remote-controlled lawn mower that went out of control, hit a block of wood and shot out a number of splinters.  Nannuzzi sued for more than the actual production budget of the movie, or its box office profits.  Another cameraman nearly died when an ice cream truck went out of control and straight at a camera - a shot that remains in the film.

The effort was for naught as Maximum Overdrive failed to make back its meager budget, was savaged by critics and King's fans, and was a bit of an embarrassment for everyone in it.  It is truly a bad film, with the plot pretty much being The Night of the Living Dead with trucks instead of zombies.  Par for the course of the 1980s many of the better gore scenes were cut to avoid an X rating and what did remain was pretty much a bevy of campy situations with Yeardley Smith screaming her head off non-stop.  

None of that means that it is a movie to be avoided.  I loved it when I first saw it.  It was obvious from the beginning that none of this was supposed to be taken seriously, and it is the "moron movie" that King says it is.  I don't find that to be a huge insult as this feels like the silly exploitation film it is.  It would have been a lot better if King would have dragged his friend George Romero onto the set to give him some pointers, if he wasn't doing Scarface levels of cocaine at the time and if the newlyweds were cut out altogether.  Emilio Estevez was quite aware of what the movie was and he just went with it, as did Lauren Harrington and Pat Hingle.  The soundtrack featuring AC/DC's greatest hits is a cherry on top of cheese sundae.  

It also shows that King wasn't entirely without talent behind the camera.  The opening sequence on the drawbridge is well done as is the attack on the Little League game.  There is a level of creepiness as Deke tries to make it across town, finding corpses and being stalked by an ice cream truck.  The ending credit summary, explaining what eventually happens to end the crisis, is just one more bit of proof that this movie was never supposed to be anything more than a fun, bloody romp.  Still, King figured out that his place was behind a keyboard, not a camera, and the failure of Maximum Overdrive helped put his ego a bit more in check and keep him where he belongs.  

Maximum Overdrive (1986)
Time: 98 minutes
Starring: Emilio Estevez, Lauren Harrington, Pat Hingle, Holter Graham
Director: Stephen King



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