Have you ever noticed how everyone seems to think everyone else’s job is easy? Just try complaining about something that’s happening at your job, and tell me if you can finish a sentence before everyone around you is giving you answers. Why don’t you just do this? Why don’t you just to that? It doesn’t matter whether the person speaking is a meter maid or a submarine commander; everyone knows how YOU should be doing YOUR job. So of course, at some point Stephen King decided that he should be directing movies. Hindsight is 20/20, so let me point out that when the most prolific and celebrated writer in American history says “I have no idea how to direct a major motion picture, but I’d sure like to try it anyway,” nobody is going to tell him “no.”
Viking Night: Maximum Overdrive
By Bruce Hall
June 29, 2016
Certainly not Legendary producer Dino de Laurentiis (who’d worked on previous King adaptations like Firestarter and Dead Zone). The idea was to come up with an adaptation of King’s short story “Trucks,” a typical King yarn regarding a ragtag group of survivors trapped inside an interstate truck stop while homicidal machines plot to kill them. The deal was sealed and presumably, (judging by the finished product) 72 hours later, Maximum Overdrive was belched into existence. I say this with an air of wonder because while this is a very bad film it’s still better than it SHOULD be, and it still has an absurd, almost genial charm to it.
It’s hard to watch, but it’s also hard to look away. It makes no sense, it has no coherent narrative to speak of, and the character relationships feel pretty arbitrary. As of this writing, it stands at 17 percent at Rotten Tomatoes. The words “Maximum Overdrive” has become synonymous - with the few who even still remember it - with Maximum Suckage. Make no mistake, this film comes by its reputation honestly - but it’s still a little unfair. At the end of the day - despite his later claims of being super high on coke the whole time - Stephen King made exactly the movie he said he wanted to. The only question is why? Why take what was a dark, atmospheric horror tale and turn it into an aggressively dumb, low budget redneck slasher movie with literal monster trucks?
Well, I’ve never used cocaine, but if Mr. King was telling the truth, that was some seriously strong shit. Maximum Overdrive isn’t just bad, it’s bad in confounding and glorious ways that make me happy it exists, even if I have zero desire to ever see it again. So that you may know why, I’m now going to explain the plot, what there is of it. Please don’t blink or you’ll end up a paragraph down and miss it entirely:
A mysterious comet crosses the earth’s orbit, enveloping the planet for seven days. The radiation basically causes Judgment Day, and all the machines rise against their human masters. But instead of it being awesome, like it is in The Terminator, the tone is more of a cross between They Live and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2.
This is not really intended as a compliment. I feel like the type and level of mayhem depicted in Maximum Overdrive was determined largely by the $9 million budget. As a result, the film opens with Stephen King himself trying to make an ATM withdrawal and getting cussed out by the machine. Nearby, a drawbridge lifts itself in the middle of traffic, causing all the clearly miniature cars on it to tumble backward on top of each other. On the one hand, Stephen King is clearly not a natural director. The drawbridge scene continues for several minutes after it stops being interesting, and if you watch the movie closely, you’ll notice King seems to have a habit of mismatching reverse shots. It’s more amusing than distracting, but the result is that the entire time you’re watching Maximum Overdrive, things feel...off.
The carnage continues as cars kill their drivers, hair dryers somehow strangle people with cords, soda machines turn themselves into grenade launchers and lawn mowers grind their unsuspecting owners into hamburger. The delineation between what constitutes a “machine” and when they choose to attack is handled arbitrarily, which kind of enhances the cheapness of the film. Ultimately it becomes clear that the script is trying very hard to push a certain group of characters toward a central location - the Dixie Boy truck stop. There, twentysomething parolee Bill Robinson (Emilio Estevez) works the grill as a short order cook, sweating under the thumb of his corrupt boss, owner Bubba Hendershot (Pat Hingle).
Estevez plays to character as an exploited everyman, just waiting for a chance to be a hero. The time comes when the arcade machines in the back of the restaurant murder someone, and the big rigs out in the parking lot fire themselves up and start turning people into street pizza. It’s the kind of role he’s probably best at; you could drop his character from Repo Man right into this movie and it would work seamlessly. I can’t say the same for everyone, though. Over the course of the film a core group of characters ends up at the Dixie Boy, battling killer trucks as Bill fearlessly attempts to lead them to safety. The problem is, most of them kind of disappear into the film like a drop of water lost in a sponge. The good-natured but hyper-dumb story just kind of sucks everyone in like a black hole, and little to nothing ever comes out.
Laura Harrington plays an attractive drifter who immediately becomes Bill’s love interest. In fact, it feels kind of like they’re in love with each other by act of law or something. Harrington spends most of the film looking like she went to bed in Manhattan and woke up in Wilmington, North Carolina with Stephen King standing over her bed, eating a meatball hoagie. Yeardley Smith appears, in case you want to tell people you know what Lisa Simpson looks like in real life, but the cast is largely anonymous in the face of impossible odds. The lone standout might be Holter Graham, who completely convinced me of how hard it is to go on when your father is murdered by killer trucks.
Maximum Overdrive is the kind of movie that’s best watched along with some kind of drinking game, the more lecherous the better. Perhaps the only truly positive thing I can say about it is that I had no idea letting AC/DC do an entire film score could possibly have turned out so well. It’s as if Stephen King woke up one morning, pulled a rail of coke as long as his forearm and decided to make a movie with all of his favorite things in it, narrative coherence and character development be damned. And by God, he did it. It’s not a lot of fun, and it’s difficult to enjoy even in an ironic sense, but if you’re looking for an excuse to invite your friends over for tequila shots, this is the movie you need to rent.
Just remember to pace yourself.