Dark Half: George Romero’s Version of Stephen King’s Novel

Just when you thought the horror movie had nowhere to go, comes along The Dark Half, the new George Romero picture, based on Stephen King’s 1989 novel. As expected, the Romero-King collaboration proves to be a match made in heaven.

I have always been partial to Romero’s films for a personal reason. In 1969, while an undergraduate student, I visited Paris for the first time. A friend of mine, who was as obsessed with film as I was, took me to a midnight screening of what he described as a schlock film: Night of the Living Dead. The rest, as they say, is history: the film not only put Romero, at age 28, on the cinematic map, but it also went on to become a cult movie.

Produced like many Romero endeavors on a minimal budget, Night of the Living Dead was a tongue-in-cheek essay in zombie carnage, and it still occupies a landmark status in the development of midnight movies. Like other cult films (The Rocky Horror Picture Show), young audiences in major urban cities and college towns embraced the film with their repeated viewing.

Along with Roger Corman, Romero is a key figure in the introduction of explicit violence and excessive gore into the horror genre. Indeed, Romero secured his position as schlock horror king of the l970s, with Dawn of the Dead (1978), a satire of American consumerism and sequel to Night of the Living Dead. Martin (1978), a vampire/sex fiend tale, did little for the tourist trade of Pittsburgh, where Romero lives and works.

Romero’s later work tended more toward the mainstream, though not always successfully. Creepshow (1982) was an uninspired homage to the EC horror comics that he and Stephen King had read as children, and Monkey Shines: An Experiment in Fear (1988) fared poorly with both critics and audiences.

I’m therefore delighted to recommend The Dark Half as an accomplished, if not perfect, horror film. Ironically, Timothy Hutton, who has recently played such undistinguished roles (The Temp), renders one of his best performances to date. I say ironically, because most “serious” actors consider the horror film a disreputable genre–at least compared with epic, dramatic, and even melodramatic narratives.

In this reworking of the famous Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Hutton plays a double role. He is Thad Beaumont, a nice small-town (Castle Rock, Maine) teacher and ambitious writer, and George Stark, a sleazy killer wearing a black leather jacket and lizard-skin boots. Elvis Presley’s popular 1960s song, “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” which introduces Stark, is used as a musical motif.

Stark is the pseudonym Beaumont has given himself when he produces trashy novels. But threatened with exposure of his identity, Beaumont bravely decides to terminate Stark and achieve a new respectability as a writer of honorable novels. But can one do away with one’s inner self with such ease Of course not, and soon the other half–the inner evil–comes to haunt and torture Beaumont and his family.

As with most horror films these days, there are allusions to other thrillers, most notably to Hitchcock’s classic The Birds. There are at least three scary moments that evoke this Hitchcockian imagery, when thousands of sparrows suddenly fly or invade Beaumont’s house. I also wonder is it is just a coincidence that Jeffrey Beaumont was the hero’s name in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.

The film plays skillfully with the notion of doubles–and twins. Beaumont and his wife (played by Amy Madigan) are the parents of twins. In the climax, the two babies watch in bewildering amazement as their father fights with his double, lacking any clue as to what is going on.

The Dark Half displays Romero’s usual dark skills and truly frightening sensibility. Working with a first-rate cinematographer, Tony Pierce-Roberts, who has done marvels for Merchant-Ivory (Howards End) and won an Oscar for A Room With A View, the picture has a stunning visual style. In almost every respect, The Dark Half is an A movie and a major improvement over Romero’s previous flicks.

Problem is, unlike Brian De Palma whose specialty is also the horror genre, Romero’s work is too literal and his films lack the much-needed distancing irony. Even so, as far as the genre’s goods are concerned, The Dark Half more than delivers the thrills, frills, and spills.