Maximum Overdrive (1986)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #284

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Number of Views: Two
Release Date: July 25, 1986
Sub-Genre: Exploitation/Thriller
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $9,000,000
Box Office: $7,433,663
Running Time: 97 minutes
Director: Stephen King
Producer: Martha Schumacher
Screenplay: Stephen King
Story: Stephen King
Special Effects: Dean Gates, Gordy Wein
Visual Effects: Barry Nolan
Cinematography: Armando Nannuzzi
Soundtrack: AC/DC
Editing: Evan Lottman
Studio: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group
Distributors: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, Anchor Bay Entertainment
Stars: Emilio Estevez, Pat Hingle, Laura Harrington, Yeardley Smith, John Short, Ellen McElduff, J.C. Quinn, Christopher Murney, Holter Graham, Frankie Faison, Pat Miller, Jack Canon, Barry Bell, John Brasington, J. Don Ferguson, Leon Rippy, Robert Gooden, R. Pickett Bugg

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Suggested Audio Candy:

AC/DC Chase The Ace

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A lot has been made of Stephen King’s work being translated to the big screen. The legendary author has consistently terrified readers worldwide with his chilling novels but precious few have translated well to full-length features. This view is echoed by King himself who has only ever been satisfied with a handful of adaptations and has publicly slated certain film-makers for making a pig’s ear of telling his tales through the medium of film. There have, of course, been exceptions to the rule and King was so pleased with Rob Reiner’s faithful treatment of his short story The Body when stretching it across 88 minutes for Stand By Me that he was afforded another crack at it in 1992 with the similarly well received Misery but numerous others tried and failed to breathe life into his delicious fiction.

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King had a rather exclusive relationship with Dino De Laurentiis who had already manufactured Firestarter, Silver Bullet, Cat’s Eye and The Dead Zone during the mid-eighties and, despite their relationship being somewhat turbulent, he trusted the producer and agreed for the short fable Trucks from his Night Shift collection to undergo its big screen makeover. Originally he had no intention of donning the directorial cap as he was fully aware that it meant operating out of his comfort zone but, whilst scouting for locations with his production designer Giorgio Postiglione, he allowed himself to be talked around and De Laurentiis was happy to bankroll the project, although King was not to receive final cut. Consequently the film bombed both critically and theatrically and arrived straight on video in the United Kingdom as many regarded it shambolic.

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This was par for the course as many of the films based on his stories had been met with indifference or hostility and King fully expected the turkey baster to be primed for the film’s release. However, a frustrating seven-week shoot whereby most of the crew didn’t speak English, coupled with King’s lack of directorial know-how promptly sealed its fate and it was left for Maximum Overdrive to proceed with damage limitation as it ultimately found its natural home on home video. Once the dust had settled it garnered something of a cult following and is often fondly remembered nearly thirty years later. Indeed the tale has even been retold when Chris Thomson attempted a made-for-cable translation in 1997, with the intention of using it as pilot for a series which never came to fruition. It is far, far from perfect and King would be the first to admit that his first foray behind the camera was a somewhat failed exercise, but that’s not to say it wasn’t a whole truck load of fun.

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Once again, time is the great healer as, while it didn’t resonate with audiences then, now it is seen as a movie evocative of its era. No bells or whistles, just pedal to the metal terror which you cannot help but harbor a fondness for. King’s message may have been lost in translation with his colleagues but the same couldn’t be said about the reinforced sentient killers. The trucks, and various other domestic appliances, were the real stars of his picture and were plenty portentous to boot. From vending machines that spat cans of soda pop first into the groan and then foreheads of hapless victims, to an ATM machine which hilariously informed King himself, in a brief uncredited cameo, that he was an “asshole”, they earned their pay check unreservedly.

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Another winner came in the shape of Emilio Estevez, son of Martin Sheen who had appeared in a number of King’s previous translations. During the eighties, this guy could do absolutely no wrong. From carrying extra terrestrial cargo in Alex Cox’s wonderfully wacky cult classic Repo Man to playing peeping tom with Richard Dreyfuss in John Badham’s Stakeout (donning a beautiful facial growler I might add), everything this fella did only served to endear him to us further. He was perfectly cast in the lead role here and struck the perfect balance between frowning and growling to sell Bill Robinson to King’s addressees effortlessly. He was joined by a spirited cast of deadbeats and infidels and we enjoyed watching them die horribly. Alas, the Motion Picture Association of America slapped an X certificate on Maximum Overdrive, forcing King to cut two specific splatter scenes to tow the line to a hard R. I recall the stills from Fangoria and felt somewhat deflated when the glorious FX of Dean Gates never made it from the cutting room floor.

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The plot, for those of you who aren’t already familiar, involved a rogue comet which tickled the Earth with its tail whilst passing our atmosphere, causing all manner of electrical appliances and mechanical behemoths to short a fuse and become, shall we say, a tad mischievous. A group of survivors congregated in the Dixie Boy diner in Wilmington, North California, penned in by science and bickered their way to obliteration as the vengeful trucks steadily worked its way through the menu. That is it, in a nutshell, a simple story of good vs evil although the often loathsome characters made it tough at times to distinguish any saints from the sinners. Again, this is forgivable, as were never there to make friends and influence people; rather to watch humanity shoot itself in the foot just as it did in George A Romero’s zombie saga. The difference here is that social commentary was never really the goal. The Mist did a fine job of showing our appetite for self-destruction when incarcerated in numbers.

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It would be easy to pick hefty holes in King’s directorial debut and damn-near epitaph. When all is said and done, De Laurentiis’ production company posted significant losses for the quarter based partially on poor returns and there can be no smoulder without flame. Was it abysmal? Not in the slightest, as aforementioned, it was something of a hootenanny and certainly not the outright travesty it was billed as by so many. King evidently learned his lesson from having his fingers burned by first-hand studio interference and scurried back to his typewriter before the ink had dried on his last novella. At least there his vision was afforded to be exactly that. It is well documented that he almost perished in a road accident in 1999. I like to imagine that, just fleetingly, the comet returned and the automobile involved performed CPR on the legendary scribe just to say “Thanks Stephen. Thanks for telling our story. By the way, we found it a whole lot of fun. Chin up son, love your work” I’m with the trucks on this one.

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

 

For the Grue-Guzzlers: Whilst somewhat neutered by the MPAA’s refusal to go easy on the first cut presented, Maximum Overdrive had plenty of wonderfully mean-spirited shenanigans going down. More violent than grue-sodden, it rewarded us for suffering its ill-mannered patrons by opening a rather large can of whoop on their sniveling asses. Speaking of which, the scene where coach gets more than he bargained for at the hands of that virulent vending machine was the whole reason slow play was invented and reinforced the warning that one should never shake up their soda. That head injury alone convinced me to lay off the Coke for an extended stint afterwards.

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