King on Screen: Maximum Overdrive (1986)

It’s October. With Halloween hot on our heels, we thought it appropriate to take a look at legendary horror author Stephen King’s best, worst, and strangest translations from page to screen. Baby, can you dig your man?

by Jake Arant

Maximum-Overdrive-Poster

Released in 1986, Maximum Overdrive is Stephen King’s sole directorial effort, and an adaptation of his story “Trucks.” He was, in his words, “coked out of [his] mind” throughout all of the production. On paper, Maximum Overdrive looked amazing. After all, it ticks every box on my dream film checklist.

1: Murderous semi trucks
2: Soundtrack by AC/DC
3: That’s literally it

The gist of the movie is that a comet passing by Earth somehow “wakes up” all of our technology, allowing them free will and self-automation. Everything from semi trucks to curling irons comes to life without warning, and they are pissed. The idea of waking up and finding out that every piece of technology you’ve been taking for granted your entire life is now hell-bent on killing you is absolutely hell of spooky, right? How could that not be scary?

After an ATM calls a cameoing King an asshole, we’re introduced to Emilio Estevez as our protagonist—a short order cook in a North Carolina truck stop who soon finds himself leading a rebellion against a roving gang of angry semi-trucks led by a big rig that has a giant Green Goblin face Tacky-Glued to its grille. This isn’t an exaggeration by the way. The lead truck has Green Goblin’s face. The bad guy from Spider-Man. I will find a picture of this for you to see, because as stupid as you might think this looks, you cannot begin to truly get a grip on how straight-up godawful this truck looks. And once you do, you’d better get used to it, because the only thing that gets more screentime than this truck is Emilio Estevez.

"THE HEART, OSBORN!"

“THE HEART, OSBORN!”

Now this is technically a horror movie, but the editing and dialogue read an awful lot more like an action film, albeit an action film where nothing happens. This movie’s title and base premise writes checks that it steadfastly refuses to cash, and every moment it seems like some truly bonkers shit might go down is quickly shot down the tubes in favor of a truck lazily backing over somebody. There were some obvious budgetary constraints at work here, which might partially be why most of the movie takes place in a fucking parking lot at five miles an hour rather than, say, a highway at Road Warrior speeds.

I know for a fact that killer truck movies can be scary (see Spielberg’s directorial debut Duel) but Maximum Overdrive‘s wildly inconsistent tone and bizarre-but-awesome AC/DC soundtrack *somehow* strips the menace out of everything. I wouldn’t have thought that I could be disappointed by a scene where Evil Trucks force Emilio to fill them with diesel fuel while “Hell’s Bells” plays, but here we are. There are so many moments that start to bill themselves as like big ass rock-the-house moments, but it almost always falls flat.

It’s worth noting that while most of AC/DC’s songs in this movie were from previous albums (including a very cool appearance from Bon Scott-era cut “Ride On”) a few of the songs in this film were written specifically for it, and the whole package was released as Who Made Who, which was, at the time, a very rare commercial move for AC/DC.

Here’s my major problem with Maximum Overdrive: Why are the machines so pissed? The predominant antagonists of the film are the semi-trucks, and they spend most of their time rebelling against being driven in big circles around the country by…driving in big circles around the truck stop. The machines are intelligent and can actually communicate through Morse code, but they don’t seem interested in anything besides mowing down anything and everything organic. The machines aren’t even truly evil, just furious for being used for what they were built for. Why are ATMs so mad? What else is an ATM gonna do besides spit out money?

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I also have to stress that this is a disconcertingly slow movie. Almost nothing happens. It occurs primarily in one location, and almost everything else feels so far away from the story you’re supposed to be following that it seems like a different movie. The sequences of random machines going berserk are by far the most entertaining (and brief) parts of the movie, which actually attempt to deliver on the promise of a world where every car is Herbie the Love Bug and they all want to kill you. There are long bouts spent inside the crumbling truck stop where the characters just sort of idly chat about nothing. About three quarters of the way through the movie, the characters are sprawled across booths as the trucks continue to circle outside, and someone finally, exasperatedly moans “I hate these fuckin’ trucks.” Me, too, dude. A fair amount of time is spent on the budding romance between Emilio and drifter girl Brett, which manages to be at least inoffensive.

King spent a lot more time focused on the tension among the human survivors, which doesn’t seem to work onscreen as well as it may have as a short story. The constantly sweaty supporting cast is a 50/50 split between incredibly repulsive and invisibly boring. Pat Hingle does deserve credit for his super hammy performance as the corrupt truck stop owner, looking for all the world like a psychotic rocket launcher-wielding Andy Griffith. Emilio, despite his surroundings, is still an Estevez, and sells it for all he’s worth, the highlight of which is a briefly amicable one-way chat with the Green Goblin truck about the quality of his diesel fuel. The bizarre thing about the film’s heavy indulgence of camp and black comedy is the few moments that manage to be legitimately terrifying, either through straight shock value (a Little League baseball player gets eradicated by a steamroller) or moments of quiet dread and implied horror, of which there are very few.

Maximum Overdrive‘s strongest sequence follows Deke, a teenaged survivor, as he warily pedals his bike through a neighborhood after his baseball coach is killed by a vending machine and his baseball team is chased down by a steamroller. The scene is creepy and tense (despite AC/DC rocking over the top of it), and shows that King actually had a spark of directorial prowess. Half-visible corpses hang from windows and sit on their porches, still impaled and wrapped with the machines they had thought nothing of moments before. A blood-smeared ice cream truck patrols the empty streets, still playing the necessary off-key jingle. A definite bright spot in an otherwise bland, if occasionally entertaining movie.

In a lot of ways, this movie reminds me a lot of a film that came two years later; John Carpenter’s They Live, a blend of campy horror with adult black comedy in a very self-aware fashion. But unlike They Live, Maximum Overdrive just isn’t very memorable or well-made, and survives only on being so bizarrely bad that it’s a curiosity. Perhaps this is an unfair comparison, but They Live was made on a budget of three million, which is substantially less than Overdrive’s nine million. This isn’t to compare the two, as Carpenter was a far more experienced filmmaker, but I feel like Maximum Overdrive carries a sliver of that twisted mojo somewhere in its DNA, and I am curious what it could’ve been like if it had been made by a steadier hand, or if King had been more focused. Or, you know, not on cocaine.

Check back all this month for more essays on Stephen King stories on screen.

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