More cinematic atrocities have been committed in the name of Stephen King than any other author. While there is room to argue that individual films based on the writings of Jackie Collins, Harold Robbins or Gore Vidal are worse (nobody at Jabootu has volunteered to stomach Myra Breckenridge yet), Stephen King is by far and away the numerical Bad Movie champ when it comes to authors. This is even more alarming when you think that there are quite a number of very good movies based on King’s works, but for every The Shining, there are at least two Graveyard Shifts.
King’s work has been the victim of the usual problems that have sunk many a literary adaptation like Bonfire of the Vanities or The Scarlet Letter (The Demi Moore version, natch). Hollywood has always had a problem (to put it politely) with choosing plays, books, and short stories that will translate well into film. They’ve had an even bigger problem with assigning a cast and crew that can properly bring a book to life.
Ah, but that’s Hollywood, you say. Hollywood is only interested in the name recognition of a particular author, or book, for quick cash, and not doing a book justice. They want ticket sales and there’s no act of savagery they won’t commit if they think it will get them those sales. That’s why they’ll completely butcher the story thread and themes, and change the depressing ending to an upbeat happy one where Romeo and Juliet live. That’s why they’ll cast the most inappropriate people possible. Like…I don’t know, Courtney Love as Desdemona (uh-oh, why do I have the feeling that I’ve just given some brain dead movie exec a “great idea”?).
Authors, on the other hand, care about the story more than the money. If only they were left in charge of the adaptation of their work, everything would turn out great, right? You can make that argument, but then I must draw your attention to Maximum Overdrive, adapted from the Stephen King short story Trucks from his Night Shift collection. Maximum Overdrive was written for the screen and directed by…Stephen King. Mr. King has officially renounced all rights to complain about what hack filmmakers do to his writings henceforth, because he has proven he can trash them up there with the worst of them.
In fact, I imagine other popular authors like Amy Tan, Anne Rice, Michael Crichton, etc., must loathe King now. I can just picture an author arguing with some bean counter over a creative issue. The author says “We’ve got to do it this way. I’m the author, I know what works about my story!” To which the bean counter smugly replies “Oh yes? Just like Stephen King and Maximum Overdrive?”
We know that we’re in for fun ride with the very first credit, which identifies the movie as a Dino de Laurentiis presentation (AKA “The Jabootu Seal of Approval”). As the producer of more overblown movie bombs than anyone else, Dino could well qualify as the Patron Saint of Jabootu.
We start with a starry field, then pan down to Earth (the image of which is backwards, thanks to the IMDB for pointing this out). It’s a little like the beginning of Star Wars, except we get the caption after the planet comes into view, not before. And it doesn’t scroll. And the movie that followed the words “A New Hope” didn’t suck. But other than that it’s a dead ringer.
The caption reads “On June 19th, 1987, at 9:47 AM EST, the Earth passed into the extraordinarily diffuse tail of Rhea-M, a rogue comet. According to astronomical calculations, the planet would remain in the tail of the comet for the next eight days, five hours, twenty-nine minutes, and twenty-three seconds.”
Instead of a Star Destroyer coming into view, a green glow surrounds the Earth. We pan down again and we’re looking at a city, which is identified as Wilmington, North Carolina. Yet another pan down shows the “1st Bank of Wilmington.” I see director King is addicted to the pan down move. I hope he finds a new move soon though. One more pan down and we’ll be looking at earthworms.
An electronic sign on the bank is flashing 9:48. Ooh…Do you know what that means? It’s exactly one minute after the comet arrives. The sign begins to flash an expletive. Sounds a lot like my bank. This is actually the best moment of the movie, so if you want to carry away good memories, now’s the time to stop watching.
Cut to a shot of a man on an ego trip. It’s our director, Steve-O himself. Hey, Hitchcock did it, right? He puts a bank card in an instant teller. The screen immediately informs him “You are an assh*le.” “Honey, come on over here, sugar buns,” he calls. “This machine just called me an assh*le.” It could be worse, Steve-0. It could have said “You are a hack novelist who hasn’t produced a decent book since Misery. Now go and finish the Dark Tower series which is the only writing you do that still has a prayer of being good.” Okay, yes, that was the rant of a disgruntled former fan. I’ll stop now.
And now, the only likeable thing about this movie comes into play. The theme song by AC/DC starts up–“Who Made Who.” There are lots of AC/DC songs in this movie, most of which have nothing whatsoever to do with the story, but that’s okay. We’ll take what little we can get. And to cut the movie a little more slack, AC/DC didn’t make such asses of themselves with this movie. Think of The Ramones and their horrible song for Pet Sematary (Golden Raspberry winner for Worst Song!).
Okay, the credits roll in earnest. And the camera goes down even lower, to get lots of shots of cars and trucks roaring over. We go down any lower and we’ll be looking at magma at the Earth’s core. Cut to an automated bridge. Inside, two hicks are playing cards. For some ‘comedy,’ one is openly picking his nose. They’re obviously two dopey yokel types. This movie was really filmed in Wilmington, NC, an experience the fair city could not have enjoyed. This movie doesn’t make its citizens look very good.
While these two bumpkins are playing cards, we see the control panel for the bridge. A button helpfully marked ‘Control Switch’ presses itself. Gee, I wonder if the light switches around here are marked ‘THIS TURNS THE LIGHTS ON, UNLESS THEY’RE ALREADY ON, IN WHICH CASE IT TURNS THEM OFF.’ A lever turns, and a hertz meter’s needle rises. Then, because this is a horror movie, something truly horrific happens. Maybe you’d better sit down for this. THE WEAK OF HEART, DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER! JABOOTU.COM WILL ACCEPT NO LIABILITY FOR THE CONSEQUENCES OF IGNORING THIS WARNING!
A fan comes on. Scary, huh? Cut outside to another shot of the bridge while the last of the credits roll, including “Written for the screen and directed by Stephen King.” King is known as the master of horror, though from what we’ve seen so far you wouldn’t know why.
Finally some turbines crank, and the bridge starts to rise. Extras on the bridge look confused. This movie has some pretty brutal extras–the kind that look phony when they do something like, oh, walk down the street. These ones are required to recite dialogue too, and the results will make you cringe more than gory moments.
“The bridge is going up,” says one. “That can’t be, the light was green,” says another. These two sound like they’d be more comfortable in a margarine commercial. The bridge is indeed going up, and nobody is doing anything about it. No one is frantically honking their horns, nobody is reversing off the bridge. Cars start slipping. A man falls off his motorcycle, and somehow slides down into the water. The bridge does span a river, but the joint of the bridge is clearly on land. As he falls, he does a scream that sounds like a werewolf howling, and Tarzan’s yell. A) Funny? B) Exciting? C) None of the above?
We see a truck that has stopped right at the divide of the bridge. This shot helpfully shows us that the bridge isn’t raised as high as earlier scenes indicated. The gap is too small and the bridge too level. The driver tries to drive away, but his back wheels come off (?). The next shot shows the truck falling into the river, in slow-mo. Cut to some doofus hippie extra who says “Wow, far out, man.” Apparently Wilmington, NC is ten years behind on the dialogue scene. For a good laugh, picture the Wilmington city council saying that allowing a filming of this movie will “boost the tourist trade.” During this sequence we also spot a van with the AC/DC logo–jeez, you’d almost think that King is trying to make an extended rock video for AC/DC’s Greatest Hits.
All right, a few reaction shots of extras, struggling to emote their only lines as much as possible. They passionately deliver lines like “What the f*ck is going on?” as Drama Coach William Shatner winks from the sidelines and gives them a big thumbs up. Our two bridge technicians are now outside, surveying the mess. “Impossible,” says one, “the light was green.” The other starts hitting him. “We’ve got a situation here!” he wheezes. This is a bit like a Laurel and Hardy routine, except that these two guys are hicks. And poorly directed. And not funny. But other than that, it’s a dead ringer.
Cut to a country road, where a long trailer truck is pulling into the Dixie Boy service station and diner. The truck has a big plastic goblin’s head mounted on the grill. The credits give a nod to Marvel Comics and its character the Green Goblin, so I’m assuming that this is the Goblin’s likeness. It also has a spooky clown image on the back.
At the station, two mechanics are sitting under a “mechanic on duty” sign. Wow, what irony. Just like Melanie Griffith puffing away under a no smoking sign in A Stranger Among Us. The mechanics are discussing baseball. One of them is mocking the other’s faith in a player named “Mickey Mantelo.” I can see why they needed a professional novelist to come up with these imaginative names.
Mantelo’s defender says that he hit three home runs, and one of them must have gone 250 feet. Wow, I’m impressed. A mere 70 feet more, and that ball might clear the left field fence in a Major League ballpark. Yep, look out Mark McGuire. Perhaps they’re talking about Little League baseball, but no dialogue I can discern indicates this.
The driver of the Goblin truck, Andy (J. Don Ferguson), goes into the diner to grab himself a coffee. Inside, waitress Wanda June (Ellen McElduff) is trying to get a clear station on the radio. She says it was fine earlier but “now I can’t get Pete Turkey on it.” Why she’d want turkey on the radio when she’s already starring in one escapes me. “You want to get me a light coffee when you’re done jerkin’ on that thing, darlin’,” asks Andy. Okay, maybe it wasn’t the most polite way to phrase that question, but Wanda looks like it’s an unusual request for a diner.
In the kitchen, our hero Bill Robinson is cooking eggs. Robinson is played by Emilio Estevez, who qualifies nicely for the Embarrassed Actor Seriesâ„¢. In the mid-eighties and early nineties he had a healthy career going, though lately he seems to have vanished. This is not his career low point, though. Maybe someday we’ll get to Estevez’s directorial debut, the brutal ego trip Wisdom.
Robinson’s portly, mean-looking boss Hendershot (Pat Hingle) wants to talk to him. Robbie protests that he’s got eggs on, but Hendershot says “I don’t give a ladybug, I want you in here, now.” This movie is filled with down-home expressions like this which I flatly refuse to believe are really used anywhere outside of this movie. “I don’t give a ladybug?” Come on. I’ll bet the city of Wilmington hired a spin doctor after this movie.
Meanwhile, in an arcade, things are going nuts. A hip-looking Black Dude (well, okay, think what Michael Jackson imitators dressed like in 1985) is watching machines flash random patterns, and pinball machines firing balls all along their boards. The glass cracks on one–wonder how that happened? Some of the vending machines begin spilling their contents, including cigarettes and money.
“Yo’ mama,” says Black Dude (authentic dialogue), and begins to gather it up. Our dude here is played by Giancarlo Esposito, an embarrassing early role for him. He went on to be in several Spike Lee movies and played FBI agent Jack Baer in the excellent The Usual Suspects. He can currently be seen as Yaphet Kotto’s son on the acclaimed television series Homicide: Life on the Streets.
Meanwhile Duncan (one of the attendants) is filling the Goblin truck. The pump stops. Duncan thumps the machine, and then pulls the nozzle. He begins to blow on the nozzle and peers inside. Class, can anyone predict where this is going? Not you, Suzie, you answered the last question.
That’s right Freddie, very good! The nozzle spits gas right in his face, and he falls howling and clutching his eyes, while ‘wha, wha, wha’ Psycho music starts playing. In case you’re wondering, this isn’t a bit scary, and is actually rather dumb. Imagine adding the Psycho theme to a Three Stooges bit. That’s what it looks like. And does anyone else have a hard time believing that a person who probably has done a lot of work at a gas station would stick his eye so close to a gas nozzle?
A bit later, we’re in Hendershot’s office, while another attendant reports Duncan’s accident. When he explains what happened, Hendershot snorts “Is that all?” scornfully, then says “I gotta wipe everyone’s ass around here.” Gee, he’s a pudgy, cigar-smokin’ redneck who doesn’t give a toss about his employees. And he’s in a horror movie. Horror movies love to show unlikable characters getting made into meatloaf. Okay, class, will Mr. Hendershot be alive when the credits roll? Freddie, Suzie, give somebody else a chance to answer.
Robinson is recapping instructions that Hendershot gave him. Hendershot wants him to work nine hours, but only put eight on his timecard. Robinson tells him to forget it. Hendershot indicates a star on the timecard. The star means that Robbie is on parole. “Either your ass belongs to me or the state of North Carolina,” Hendershot leers. Okay, so he’s cheating his employees (though believe me, I know plenty of people who would love it if they only worked one hour of unpaid overtime). He’s in a horror movie. And there are vultures patiently perched on the window of his office.
Apparently caught between a rock and a hard place, Robinson agrees. Hendershot says, “Thank you, Bubba,” and laughs like a maniac, chomping on a big cigar. Robinson returns his card to the time clock, and he notices that there are lots of time cards with stars. I’m telling you, Hendershot is worm food. He might as well down a bottle of sleeping pills right now.
In the kitchen, Wanda June is trying to cook. She notices a newspaper report of the comet, and then we spot an electric knife nearby, which swivels ominously, so the blade is dangerously close to her arm. Now how did it do this? Being a movie audience watching a horror movie, we can accept that through supernatural forces or marauding bits of technobabble, machines can turn themselves on and off. But how is this knife moving? What part of its construction allows it to do this?
This movie will strongly indicate that machines are going nuts because of the comet, or because of a UFO that was hiding inside the comet. Therefore, we’ve got a sci-fi explanation for these occurrences. Big mistake. Sci-fi has to be at least semi-grounded in reality, so now we have ask what allows the knife to move–its only moving parts are the blade. Should have gone for the supernatural–then we could accept that knife springing up and flying.
Okay, the knife turns on and cuts Wanda deeply. She screams, and slaps it away. During this, that heavy-handed “wha what wha” music plays again, which delivers the already obvious point like a sledge hammer. So like, getting your arm sawed into by an electric knife is an unpleasant experience? Robinson rushes to her assistance. Meanwhile, the knife saws into her shoes, and she backs up, quite clearly putting her elbow on the grille, which is obviously not on, or she’d be in even more pain. Robinson asks for a “rag” to cover Wanda’s wound. Knowing the state of rags at greasy spoons and filling stations, I really hope they don’t do this.
Looking on are two twin gomer customers. They ask if the knife went “rabid on you, sweet thing?” as if she just nicked herself. Wanda June, who gives one of this movie’s most over the top performances, whimpers “It turned itself on and bit me!” One of the gomers says with a big dopey grin “Short circuit, maybe?” If I were her, these two would be sporting identical wounds before long.
There is blood all over the kitchen. If this happened under normal circumstances, a trip to the hospital wouldn’t be over-reacting. That these two are playing it down makes them look like creepy sadists, not laid-back but slightly dim good ol’ boys. “There it goes again!” whimpers Wanda, as the knife buzzes on and off in a pool of blood. As Robinson takes a hammer and smashes it, she squeals even while he’s destroying it. All right, relax. Sheesh.
Back at the arcade, Black Dude is picking up the last quarter. He’s stuffed all the cigarettes and change into his pockets and jacket. He’s about to leave, when he spots a hypnotic pattern on one of the video games. Hey, do you know what ages in a movie faster than anything else? No, it’s not groovy flower child messages, and it’s not even dumb pop culture fads like break dancing. It’s computer graphics.
The random geometric patterns that flash on the screen, accompanied by old Star Trek “You’re inside an alien ship” whooshing and humming noises, have Black Dude transfixed (his threshold for hypnosis must be real low). He reaches out to touch a Star Castle machine (kids, ask your parents!) and electricity begins to flow out. It takes a bit, but eventually the actor figures out this is supposed to be hurting him, so he begins twitching as he is electrocuted. He is thrown across the room.
Out in the kitchen Hendershot says “Now what?” Oh, the arcade is in the diner? Good thing he said this, because there was no indication of this earlier. Robinson goes into the arcade. Being the hero, he will do everything in this movie. Hendershot complained about having to wipe everyone’s ass, but he’s wrong. That’s Robinson’s job. He finds Black Dude on the floor, dead. Strangely, his head is reclining. At first I thought this was a weird angle showing him pinned to the wall, but we see a shot of Robinson looking down at him.
Cut to a baseball field. We watch the final inning of a little league game as a kid comes home to score. The proud coach goes to a pop machine to buy refreshments. He puts money in, but no can drops. He crouches and peers at the slot. You’re probably guessing that a can fires out and hits him square in the face. You’d be mistaken. A can shoots out and hits him square in the family jewels. See, if it had him in the face, it would have been scary. But it hit him in the family jewels, so it’s funny. Or something like that.
He drops to his knees moaning (a pretty realistic reaction, actually. He doesn’t shout “My balls!”). Now a can fires right into his stomach, and another to his head. Since when have Coca Cola and Pepsi put out machines capable of firing cans like a howitzer? Is it some anti-theft precaution? As a movie audience we’ll buy that a truck can drive itself under the influence of some weird alien ray, but how does this ray enable a pop machine to fire like a cannon? The cans drop down a tube, they aren’t pushed out. What’s propelling them? Did someone shake the can real hard or something?
Anyway, the kids approach, and suddenly the machine begins showering them with cans. The kids begin fleeing in one of the film’s more ridiculous moments (it’s obvious the cans are not travelling at lethal velocity). Some kids are knocked out, or perhaps killed, and fall to the ground. The machine pauses a moment, allowing one kid to try to help the couch, who is lying in front of the machine. We learn later this is Duncan’s son Deke (Holter Graham–oh, why do I keep providing the actor’s names? Like most of the people in this dud ever worked again).
Once he gets close, the machine opens up again. He puts on his catcher’s mask and crawls towards the coach, but it seems he’s dead. He is now sporting a bloody circular wound on his head where the can hit him–but we saw his head after the impact and it didn’t draw blood. Sloppy, Steve-O.
We see Deke trying to pedal away, but for no discernable reason he falls off his bike. (He must be the son of one of those movie women who are always tripping and twisting their ankle while running away from an axe murderer.) A steamroller bursts onto the field, and runs over him. The running over sequence is actually well shot, so it does look like a young boy has been run over. That’s entertainment! Suddenly Deke gets on his bike (whoops, apparently that was some other kid that was crushed. Thanks to the uniform and bad direction, it seems like were seeing Deke’s identical twin or something). He takes off.
Cut to another country road. We see a car with a young woman Brett (Laura Harrington) and a Lecherous Bible Salesman (can’t be sure, or bothered). She is sitting with her leg conveniently raised so LBS can put his hand on it. She shoves him away. She probably wouldn’t sit like this if she wanted to avoid his advances, but our director needs to establish that this is one of those hypocritical religious types. By the way, I lay 2000 to 1 odds against him making it through this movie intact. Any takers?
The radio is talking about the weird goings on, and says “If you are near or on a major highway, get away.” Oh, that’s helpful. Brett wants LBS to turn into the Dixie Boy, and when LBS doesn’t do so right away, she grabs the wheel and forces the car to turn into the truck stop. “Didn’t you hear anything that man said?” she snaps at LBS. He asks “Are you on something?” Yep, all you need to do for a laugh is to make a drugs reference. Watch. Marijuana. LSD. Heroin. See? Isn’t that hilarious? Aren’t you rolling on the floor right now?
LBS is annoyed at Brett, but Brett gets out and says “Eat my shorts.” Ironic, because that’s the catchphrase of one Bart Simpson, and his sister is in this movie. LBS starts complaining about her manners, and then launches into a lengthy tirade about the Bible. I’d like to make an amendment to the horror movie survival rules that they introduced in Scream: Never make lengthy references to, or speeches on, God or Jesus. Especially if you’re deep down not very Christian yourself.
The Goblin truck is being refueled again, and now its engine revs up. The attendant, Joey, bellows “Ain’t full yet!” but the truck takes off, ripping the still attached gas line in the process. It’s headed right for Brett and the LBS. She spots the truck and yanks him away. The truck roars on by and stops at a swing set. For some reason the swings are moving, even though nothing is nearby.
Later, they’re all gathered in the diner, trying to figure out what’s going on. The number one question is who was driving the truck. Andy says whoever it was “must have been a hot-wiring champion,” jingling the keys. Hmm…It stopped just a few yards from them after missing LBS and Brett. If they really wanted to know who was inside, I have a small tip. GO LOOK, YOU MORONS!
Cut to another road, where a car decked out in streamers and “Just Married” written on the back is driving merrily along. Inside, Hubby Curtis (John Short) and Wifey Connie (Yeardley Smith) are still dressed in formal clothes. She’s not wearing a wedding dress, but something more like what you’d wear if you got married at City Hall…in 1985.
Yeardley Smith incidentally does the voice of Lisa Simpson on The Simpsons. She also had a role in the series Herman’s Head. So I think she earns a ranking on the Embarrassed Actor’s Scale. Now, think about Lisa’s voice. Give it a country twang. Now make it whine or complain constantly. Gripping your chair so tightly that you’re about to puncture the upholstery yet? Good, that’s what listening to her is like.
Curtis says he’s going to pull into a gas station. Connie says she needs the ladies’ room. Curtis asks “Can I come in and watch?” Whoa! This is supposed to be the ol’ Horny Newlyweds Routine, but quite frankly I think they could have chosen some other way of establishing it. She whines “No, you cannot” and slaps him. She looks mildly annoyed, but I think divorce is in order.
As they drive, they pass by some crushed car wrecks, whose lights are blinking ominously. An odd moment follows as they approach a railroad crossing. The lights are active, but for some reason they drive over the tracks, and then stop (?). Curtis looks around and says “Did you see any…” and trails off. She asks “What?” but Curtis says “Never mind.” Uh…okay.
They pull into a different gas station. They spot a bloody hand, and she starts screaming. Well, we now know that, like all horror movie women, Connie screams at the sight of anything remotely unpleasant. Curtis does his part for horror movie stupidity by getting out of the car. Looking around, he finds blood everywhere–a bloody handprint on the wall, and blood splattered on a clock above the door to the station. Now how in the world did that get up there? Somebody go to correct the time and suddenly the clock turned into an airplane propeller? “Curtis,” says Connie, anticipating the words of all respectable movie critics, “I don’t like this.”
A tow truck appears and Curtis waves it down, but it takes a run at him. He jumps out of the way and it plows into the station. “Are you dead?” calls Connie, as if merely curious. Curtis gets up and checks the cab, but of course it’s empty. Connie is strangely quiet. You’d think someone would be little more excitable when their newly wedded hubby might have bought the farm. Of course, given Connie’s usual whining, perhaps I shouldn’t complain.
Curtis rounds the truck, smiling like an idiot, and noticeably cleaner all of a sudden. They embrace and kiss a moment. Oh, they’re horror movie denizens all right. They can’t recognize a threat even after it’s moved on them. The truck revs up again, and Connie freaks and immediately gets in the car. Curtis decides to look on stupidly for a moment, until Connie barks “Get in, right now!” Naturally, rational human beings would have been ten miles from this place at the sight of the dead body by now.
Back at the Dixie Boy, a large garbage truck labeled “Zeke’s Trash and Garbage” pulls in. Say Zeke, what’s the difference between trash and garbage? Inside the diner, Joey is lighting a cigar for Hendershot. Hendershot asks “Did you do what I told you to do with the body?” Joey responds with a piece of IMMORTAL DIALOGUE.
Outside, Robinson is looking at the Goblin truck. As he approaches, he hears two “plinks” like a Jack in the Box being turned. He gets inside the cab, and gets ready to punch whoever might be hiding in the compartment behind the cab. He opens it, but there’s just a Jack in the Box, which opens to reveal a mini goblin head. So, they’re only now investigating the truck, huh? What makes them think the supposed driver is going to hang around this long?
Robinson goes around to the back, and looks under the carriage. Inside the cab, the controls begin to move. The truck is about to start up again. Suddenly, an arm appears on Robbie’s shoulder. It’s Brett. “Vroom vroom,” she says in greeting. They walk away from the truck chatting. As they do, the side mirror of the truck turns to keep them reflected in it. Is this how the truck “sees”?
It’s exactly this kind of thing that shows you why Trucks should not have been made into a movie. The longer it goes on, the more you run into questions like this. How does the truck see? Through its headlights? Through its mirrors? How do machines without mirrors see? How did the knife see? And more immediately, we wonder why the Goblin truck stopped turning on when Brett approached. It could have creamed them both quite easily.
Brett observes “You’re cute.” Robinson laughs. “Not that cute,” she concedes. “Yeah well, maybe’ I’ll grow on you,” he says. Yep, these two are on the fast track to sleep together all right. She tells him to “Look at that,” as if they’re in front of a wonder of nature, like Niagara Falls or something. He accurately says “It’s nothing.” Specifically, they are looking at a field behind the station. Gas stations are not clean places, particularly any that repair vehicles as well as fill them. We’ve also got a greasy spoon diner here. If you’ve ever been to a rural gas station, you know that they tend to be harsh on the local plant life.
That’s what’s she’s looking at, plus Zeke’s garbage truck. This is not exactly post card material (It’s possible that they were meant to be looking at the effect of the comet on the sky, but there’s nothing there. Missing Special Effects, perhaps?). “You ever see that much nothing at 10:15 in the morning, hero?” She asks. I, for one, have not: I started the movie at 11:45 A.M.
Okay, cut to Deke riding his bike down a road. He’s passing through a residential area, and the locals have been massacred. Oddly, as he rides down the center of the road, sprinklers on either side of the road activate as he passes. When he turns around, they shut off. This may have been done for humorous effect, but it’s played perfectly straight. These are standard lawn sprinklers too, not fancy automatic sprinklers. I wonder how the UFO is controlling them, and why? Bent on the destruction of humanity by over-watering their lawns?
By the way, at this point we don’t know who this kid is, where he’s going, or his role in the story. For a lot of his early scenes, we’re left wondering who this kid is and why we’re supposed to be following him. It’s a touch irritating.
We can hear a radio talking, saying that machines are “under some kind of agent we don’t understand” and are “going under homicidal rampage.” We can see various dead people, who seemed to have been electrocuted by their walkmans. One woman appears to have been strangled by her hair dryer (how did the cord wrap itself around her neck? There are no moving parts in the cord!). She’s conveniently leaning out the window so Deke can see her. I know if my hair dryer tried to kill me, my first destination would be a window. We also see a pizza boy hanging out the window of his delivery car. Hey, what service delivers pizza at 10:15 in the morning?
The announcer advises us to “unplug all appliances.” Like, uh, the…radio? I must admit though, I do have an urge to unplug my VCR.
Deke hears the bells of an ice cream truck (labeled “My-T Tas-T”), and hides behind a bush. In order to avoid it, he hides in full “view” of a bloody lawn mower. The ice cream truck passes by, and Deke gets back on his bike. Now the lawn mower comes on. If it had come on earlier, Deke would have been royally screwed. Why is it only coming on now? As it is, Deke is able to get back on his bike and escape easily.
Back at the Dixie Boy, Bible Salesguy is trying to sell Wanda and a trucker a Bible. While he does his sales pitch, an undertaker comes over and begins taking his measurements. All right, not really, but let’s add up the facts. He’s lecherous. He’s a fire and brimstone religious type. He’s a hypocrite. And a sloppy eater. Break out the jam because this guy is toast.
One of LBS’ pitches is that his Bible covers everything from “creation to the fall of man.” Gee, it looks a little thick to go from “In the beginning” to the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Must be the big BIG print version, like two words per page.
Duncan, the guy who got sprayed, wants to go find Deke. The rest of the diner is trying to persuade him to stay. His eyes are puffy and bloody, until he turns around and the camera angle changes. Suddenly his eyes are just puffy. Robinson tries to talk him out of it “How many fingers you see 8? 12?” A POV shot shows his vision is blurry, but he’s determined. The obvious idea of sending someone else to find Deke isn’t raised.
Hendershot says “You leave without punching out, you won’t ever have to punch out again.” Ooh, that’s evil, if nonsensical. We all know that Hendershot is a capitalist pig, corrupt, and he smokes. He has the annoying habit of calling everyone “Bubba” and he probably doesn’t recycle either. This movie will hit us over the head with Hendershot’s jerkiness again and again. But, Hendershot’s threat indicated he only wants Duncan to punch out before he goes. You’d think being an evil capitalist, he wouldn’t want him to go at all, and miss a full shift. That would make more sense.
Duncan swears at Hendershot. It looks like it will come to blows, but Robinson intervenes. “Stop or I’ll knock your teeth in, Bubba,” he warns. Duncan wanders off, while the garbage trucks starts up. Duncan pulls a rag from his pocket and drops it–he’s dead meat. The garbage truck runs him down. There is a big splatter against the grille of the truck–which wouldn’t happen because it’s not moving fast enough. His body also starts spinning in the wrong direction–it should be thrown forward, whereas it roles to the side instead.
The garbage truck continues past the diner. Inside, LBS is still going on. He says the Bible offers “protection in times of danger.” Yuk yuk, incoming irony! Outside, the garbage truck bumps into his car, spilling a lot of the garbage on it. LBS begins swearing, and says “Out of my way, bitch” to Wanda. Gosh, what a hypocrite. Specifically, what a dead hypocrite. For some reason, he grabs his case on the way out.
Outside, he begins hollering and cursing at the garbage truck, which is still circling. Robinson tries to get him back inside, but he’s too wired. The Goblin truck starts up, and backs up towards them. Seeing this, LBS shoves Robinson out of the way, and begins to run. Yes, the door of the diner is about a second away (he thoughtfully shoved Robbie towards it), but instead he chooses to run directly with its path and out race it. Needless to say, he loses the race, and is fired into a ditch accompanied by the Psycho music.
For good measure, the truck runs over the Bibles he was carrying. Gosh, they didn’t offer much protection in a time of danger. What can we learn from this class? The Code of the Horror Movie is much stronger than the Bible. Break the Code, and no amount of Hail Marys can save your ass. The trucks go and park themselves, and all is quiet again.
Inside the restaurant, Hendershot tries to raise someone on the CB, but no luck. Robinson says that no-one is in the trucks (if he went to investigate, they passed up a second opportunity to kill him for no good reason). Hendershot says this is “horse puckey.” Meanwhile, Brett is slightly distraught and is changing her clothes. It’s hard to determine where she’s doing this, but it doesn’t seem to be the ladies’ room, where you might think she would change. Wherever she is, Robinson can see her bare legs. She explains that LBS had his hands all over, and she doesn’t like to have his smell on her now that he’s dead. As opposed to his wholesome scent when he was alive?
Andy and a mechanic bring in the body of other Duncan wrapped in a sheet. The LBS can rot I guess. No-one discusses going after his body. Hendershot is mad that the body’s dripping on the floor. Okay, have we all got it now? Life insurance companies refuse to sign him. He’s a jerk in a horror movie. He’s gonna die.
We get a pointless shot of Brett showing her new outfit to Robinson and saying “Okay,” then cut outside. The trucks are starting up. All of them. They blare their horns and begin circling the diner. It’s hard to say, but there seems to be about 18 trucks or more. Where are all the drivers? The diner seems rather empty to have all these trucks hanging around. The diner and filing station do seem to be part of a larger complex—it looks like there’s a warehouse nearby–but there is no talk of contacting whoever might be in there, and the trucks don’t seem to be interested in anything other than the diner.
Somebody helpfully observes the trucks have “no right to be runnin.'” There’s gratuitous shot of them running over LBS’ shoe (the Bible can’t save your sole! Ha ha ha! Stop me before I pun again!). We also get a shot of truck baring the Bic and Miller logos for some semi-product placement.
Back on the road, Curt and Connie observe a convoy of trucks heading the opposite way. Suddenly, a truck roars out of nowhere and cuts them off. “I think I just loaded my van,” says Curtis. Oh. Did you really. A pretty lame chase begins. The car they’re driving should be able to keep ahead of the truck, but it swipes at them and rear ends them. By the lines on the road, we can tell they’re not driving very fast. Though their gauge indicates 90, I’d say 40 or 50 tops.
And now another question occurs. Trucks, walkmen, automated bridges, a pop machine…all of these things have gone nuts. Sooooooo…why not cars? If their car began acting up now, it would be the end of them. We have seen (and will see) people dead in cars, hinting that perhaps cars are affected by whatever’s going on. Why this selective machine revolution?
During the chase, Connie starts whining about not letting him drive again. The chase ends when he literally does a slight turn near a hill. For no apparent reason, the truck bursts into flames and rolls down the hill. I’m serious. It was obviously on fire before it went down the hill.
They stop to watch it explode. “Curtis, what is going on?” whines Connie. Curtis yells “I don’t know!” then more calmly says they’ll go to a truck stop to call the police. He kisses her, and they drive off. Awhile later, they are in front of the Dixie Boy, watching the trucks circle. “Oh my God,” says Connie. Then she mockingly says, “When we get to that truck stop everything will be all right, oh yeah, ha ha ha.” They are in full “view” of the trucks, but the trucks aren’t doing anything for some reason.
Curtis shifts into drive, and explains he’s going to race the car through a gap in the circle the next time it comes around. Connie isn’t too thrilled by this idea. Curtis insists that he can make it. Connie says “So we can end up where they are?” A very relevant point. Curtis asks “What do you think is going to happen to us if we stay out here?” She doesn’t answer, because if she did, she could only arrive at more reasons not to.
This is an obviously suicidal plan. While on the road and in their car, they have options. Yes, it’s dangerous, and they might be trapped by the trucks, but if they make it into the diner, they are definitely trapped. A more rational plan would be to hide someplace in the woods.
Inside the diner, someone accurately opines “Look at these fools.” Someone else says “They’re dead.” Robinson mumbles “Maybe not,” and goes outside. He’s the hero and knows that these dopey but noble people shall live. Loyal Brett follows. We can now see she’s changed into a skirt–good choice of clothing for this situation.
Back at the car, we cut to a rear view of our newlyweds. We can see “Good luck Curt and Connie” is written on the back. Hey ya know, that might have a dual meaning. Curtis goes for it, and the car just gets tagged by a truck near the rear. Somehow, this propels the car trunk over engine through the air. The car lands upside-down, and would surely have killed them both. Robinson and Brett run up to the car. Curtis crawls out, but Connie is caught in her seatbelt. Bitching continuously, Brett hands Curtis a straight razor, which he uses to cut her loose. She complains about this too. Kudos to our hero for resisting the temptation to leave her behind.
The four run for the diner, and suddenly Hendershot appears, holding a small rocket launcher. The four hit the dirt as Hendershot fires a rocket at a truck pursuing them. For some reason, I have this formula running through my head: Gas Station + Rocket Launcher = Bad Idea.
So much so that I didn’t notice at first that things taken out by Hendershot’s rocket launcher tend to not actually blow up. Instead, they belch flame and smoke, but remain unscathed. In this case, rolls of toilet paper scatter all over the lot. Most are on fire. I suppose it doesn’t really matter that the trailer didn’t seem to rupture. I just think there may be some unintentional symbolism in that toilet paper. Everyone gets back inside the diner. A cut back shows the truck has been replaced with an actual flaming wreck. It’s also sitting uncomfortably close to the pumps.
Later, we’re having a tender moment between Brett and Robbie. She takes back her straight razor and tucks it in her boot. She remarks that a girl hitching her way down to Florida needs some protection. “That’s what I was doing before every machine in the world went into maximum overdrive.” Hey, she said the title!
She then starts crying. “I’m scared,” she says. Robbie says “If put my arm around you, will you stick me with that thing?” She laughs and says “You don’t stick a person with a straight razor. More like…” she makes a cutting motion. The she adds “And I wouldn’t.” Dean Martin begins singing “When your gal won’t slash you with a straight razor blade..That’s Amore!” They embrace.
What’s Deke up to meanwhile? He’s looking at a wrecked truck. It might be the one Curt n’ Connie (sounds like a phone service) somehow disposed off, but it seems to be sitting at the wrong angle. Deke remarks “Holy Crow!” I must say, this boy has some strange amazement priorities. Not too long ago he was passing through a residential area full of violently slaughtered people. He looked nervous then. Now he sees a burnt-out truck and thinks this is remarkable?
In the distance we hear a plane. Deke hides again. Cut to a cockpit of a plane flying itself. “Ride of the Valkyries” begins to play. Are you A) Scared? B) Laughing? C) None of the above? The scene with the plane is very brief, and soon Deke is on his bike again.
Cut to the washroom of the Dixie Boy. Joey the mechanic is on the toilet reading. Robinson comes in and asks where Hendershot got the rocket launcher from, a thought that might have occurred to you. Joey reveals reluctantly that the basement is full of arms. After Robinson peers over the stall (all right, just back off, hero!), Joey says “He’s got everything.”
Presently, Brett and Robinson are in the basement. Indeed, Hendershot does seem to have an impressive collection of arms–machine guns and rocket launchers. Brett speculates that Hendershot stole it. Robbie believes he bought it. “Buy cheap and sell dear, it’s the American way.” Class, nod sagely at this ironic commentary on rampant consumerism in American culture. I think this is meant to imply that Hendershot is a gunrunner. Otherwise, all these goodies down here would be real convenient. Actually, any way you slice this, it is suspiciously convenient.
Hendershot comes down and catches them. Brett says “We don’t want to steal anything, we just want to get out of here.” Hendershot starts spilling the beans about Robbie’s past. Apparently, he committed armed robbery. Because of the low evil voice and authentic Wilmington accent, forget about making out most of his dialogue.
Robinson gets to a more relevant point–“Look what’s going on outside!” Hendershot says “I’m warning you, boy-” Robbie grabs a gun off the rack and says “No, I’m warning you.” This would be intimidating, but the gun probably isn’t loaded. Perhaps Hendershot is sufficiently intimidated or he’s just bored with the conversation like we are, so he goes to leave. Before he does, though, he says “When this is over, your ass is grass, boy.” Surprisingly, he doesn’t add “And a I’m a lawn mower.”
Despite his bravado (well, sort of), Robinson is feeling ashamed now that the truth’s out. “I was about 20,” he begins. “Not real bright about most things.” Yeah, like what pictures to turn down. “Hey it’s all right,” says Brett. “No it’s not,” he snaps. Yes it is. Nobody gives a toss about Robbie’s criminal record. In a crisis situation, the fact that Robbie knocked over a 7-11 has little bearing.
But this deep dark torment must be removed from Robinson’s soul, so he continues. “You know what gets to me is the stupidity.” Oh, Amen brother. “Cops put that spotlight and I just froze like a rabbit…” Brett says “It’s all right,” again. If she wanted to end this, and increase my respect for her, she should’ve said “Bill, nobody gives a rat’s ass.”
Thankfully, we’re spared more of this scene. Deke has arrived at the Dixie Boy, and his hiding in the ditch. Some kind of drainage pipe is down here. He tries to pull of the mesh but is not strong enough, and slumps down in defeat.
And now for the most horrific, stomach turning scene of this movie. Our next shot is off two pairs of naked feet, playing a nauseating game of footsie. The weak of stomach are advised to keep a finger on fast forward. “You sure make love like a hero,” remarks Brett. They look out through a window up at the night sky. There’s some green guck in the sky, reminiscent of the shield from Highlander 2, only that shield was orange. Brett says she believes the comet is causing all this, so all they have to do is hang on for seven more days. You mean…THIS WAS ONLY DAY ONE? NOOOOOOOO!
Where is this bedroom anyway? They’re in a diner, not a motel. Anyway, Robinson has an idea. He says there’s an island called Haven 6 miles off the coast. No motor vehicles are allowed on the island, so they should be safe there…Safe? Haven? Safe Haven? Wow, clever! Once again you can see why a pro writer was needed over the usual Hollywood Hacks for this masterpiece. “You are not only a hero, you are a genius,” says Brett. Brett, you might want to reserve judgment. You’ll see what I mean when we get to the refueling scene.
Later, one of the mechanics is fooling around with the jukebox, which for some reason has a picture of The Last Supper on it. The jukebox is playing “Sink the Pink,” another AC/DC song. At least for a moment–it shorts out, causing a generic trucker to snort “Whole goddamn world is going tits up.” America lost a great poet when he decided to become a trucker.
Wanda has been drinking and is beginning to crack. “We made them!” she moans. Somebody tells her to settle down and calls her “sweet thing” again. “Don’t…you…sweet…thing…me!” she emotes. Let’s just say this waitress is serving up the ham. She dashes outside. Curtis goes after her, but Connie restrains him.
And now she goes into the kind of performance that I’m sure has her cringing whenever she thinks about it. “You pukey things!” she screeches. “We made you!” She jumps up and down to each word. “We-made-you!” You actually begin to feel sorry for this performer, who is making a total ass of herself. Robinson, being the hero and only person allowed to do good things, hauls her back inside. In response, the horns start honking, and the lights turn on and off. Spooky!
A little later, we get a pan of the restaurant showing the gang doing not much. Connie is giggling like a maniac as she and Curtis do a nauseating Love Birds routine, and Robinson and Brett play cards. Outside, the trucks seemed to have thinned out a little, and Brett says “Maybe tomorrow it will be our world again.” Robinson asks “Was it ever?” Wow, really makes you think, doesn’t it? Really makes you think about turning this movie off, going outside, maybe take in a ballgame…
Suddenly, they are able to hear the cries of Lecherous Bible Salesguy. Gee, if they had gone out for his body like they had with Duncan’s, he’d already be inside where he’d be relatively safe. Curtis immediately says they should help him, but Connie restrains him again. “Let one of those strong men do it.” Not to be emasculated, Curtis insists on going.
There’s something in my notes this point about Deke pulling off the cover of one of the pipes. I’m not sure what it means. Since I returned the movie I can’t check. I should probably rent it again to see what my notes mean, but this movie ain’t worth that kind of trouble. I just don’t give a ladybug for all this horse-puckey. (Editorial Note from Ken: This seems a probable follow-up to the earlier described scene of Deke finding a meshed-covered drainage pipe near the Dixie Boy.)
In the diner, Robinson and Curtis are preparing to make their run. Apparently, a pipe large enough to carry them safely to the ditch runs underneath a nearby shower house. I think that the forces of good (moral good, not quality good, obviously) have a conspiracy going. They have engineers planted in companies who design installations, who always make sure that they build ventilation shafts and drainage pipes large enough to smuggle heroes through.
Connie tries to stop Curtis. Brett says that if it were Curtis out there, she’d want someone to go get him. “Well it ain’t,” she snaps. You know, I actually find this attitude refreshing. She’s acting on selfish motivations, and she makes no apologies for it. Sadly, this interesting development fades away when she acquiesces, her parting words being simply “Don’t make me a widow on my wedding day.”
Hendershot and Robinson exchange some pointless swearing first, and then they’re off, armed with the rocket launcher and a coil of rope. They duck behind a car halfway between the showers and the diner. Why aren’t cars also going nuts again? Anyway, they are soon inside the shower building without too much trouble.
Accompanied by the sounds of “For Those About to Rock,” they pull up one of those convenient man-size shower grilles, and go down. Before the go down, they accurately remark “Bombs away.” They should have said this closer to the start of the movie to warn us, though.
Down below they are slogging through a partially filled pipe. “Great smell!” remarks Curtis. Then he says “I wonder how many people have peed in here?” You know, I’m really beginning to wonder about this guy. First he wants to watch his wife in the ladies’ room, now this. A moment later, when Robinson slips and gets splashed with water, he asks “How does it taste?” I think this pretty much slaps the urophiliac label on him.
They emerge from the pipe. Cut to Deke, who is crawling around the ditch. He is only now finding LBS, even though he should have been the first to hear his cries for help. LBS isn’t moving. Naturally, Deke gets very close to him and listens to his heart. I don’t suppose anyone would really be all that surprised if I said that LBS isn’t dead, and jumps up for a cheap scare.
In a strangled voice, LBS demands that Deke pull him out of the pit, or he’ll kill him. His choked speech and these threats are supposed to be intense. But let’s remind the director that this character was portrayed as being buffoonish and stupid. That was when he was healthy. Now that several tons of truck have slammed into him and thrown him into the ditch, he’s even less intimidating.
Robinson arrives, and pulls Deke away. LBS expires at some point here, I’m not sure where though. Suddenly, a truck comes crashing into the ditch. They run, and duck inside the pipe. The truck demolishes the opening, but they are all inside safely. I guess there are two identical pipes, because when they ran from the truck, they ran in a different direction from the one the arrived by.
Back in the shower house, Deke wants to know where his dad is. Robinson is unable to answer. Which is as good as telling him. It’s strange that Robinson wouldn’t do this. Except for his not so deep dark secret, he is noble and compassionate in every other way.
They run over to the diner, Robinson taking a moment to blow up another truck with the rocket launcher. Apparently these things are very easy to use. The folks at the diner cheer, all except Hendershot. “You ain’t going to be satisfied until you get them right in here with us,” grunts Hendershot. Well, what is Robbie supposed to do? He’s only doing exactly what Hendershot was doing earlier.
The movie really has a black and white approach to heroes and villains. Heroes are good, they can do no wrong. Villains are bad, they can do no right. Hero and villain can not have any common ground. Villain must oppose hero on all fronts no matter how ridiculous this will make the situation, even if they logically share the same interest. If Robinson says “I don’t like getting punched in the head,” Hendershot will say “You’re crazy. Getting a shot in the head is the best thing for ya Bubba, in fact I could use one right now. How about winding up the ol’ dukes and smacking your boss?” See, Robinson’s the hero, Hendershot’s the villain. They have to disagree.
Deke asks for his dad, and there are long looks all around. Hendershot casually says Daddy got “scrubbed by one of those big boys out there. Tough break, kid.” Ah, this is why Robinson didn’t tell Deke earlier. So Hendershot could do it, and do it offensively, establishing that he’s a jerk. Which we knew already. I wonder if he’ll die?
Brett curses at Hendershot, and Deke demands to know if it’s true. Robinson quietly confirms the awful truth, and then gives Deke what looks like a headlock to comfort him. Maybe that’s the way you comfort people in Wilmington, NC. “Mr. Hendershot?” says Brett, and slaps him. “Just a little lesson in manners from the road-twitch.” What? Road-twitch? What the hell is a road-twitch? Something he called her earlier when we weren’t looking? Has anyone ever heard this expression before or since? Must be part of that mysterious hitchhiking language (see also “Busting a thumb,” The Oscar).
By and by, morning comes. We see Deke absent-mindedly blowing bubbles. He got over the death of his dad right quick. Down the road, a tractor is appearing, and so is some kind of weird military vehicle. Now if we have any military types out there who’ve seen this movie, can you please tell me what the hell this thing is? If the US Army actually uses something like this for combat, here’s a tip–join the Air Force. It appears to be little more than a mobile platform with a wheel, and an M60 mounted on top. There is ZERO protection for the gunner and the driver. Honestly, you’d be better off mounting an M60 on an old Ford Pinto.
In fact, how is the driver supposed to control this thing? The steering wheel is very close to the edge of the vehicle. There is no seat, and I didn’t see a brake or gas pedal. Could it be this thing was created just for the movie? Why didn’t the machines just send in a tank if they had access to military vehicles? Well, we can answer that one. If they sent in a tank, one round from the main gun would end this movie pronto (so please, send in a tank!).
This thing actually resembles a stripped-down version of the automated robot/vehicle some police departments use to negotiate with hostage-takers and defuse bombs. That would make sense. The movie crew could stick a steering wheel on it, and use the remote device to make it look like the thing was driving itself. (A little unsteadily, though. During the introductory shot it looks as if it’s going to go off course).
Tractor and…uh thingee pull into the parking lot. The trucks stop circling as the tractor clears the wreckage away. Deke wakes everyone up. The kids gather round to see what’s up. Wanda June is, for some reason, still wearing her entire waitress ensemble. One of the truckers has fallen asleep with a gooey sandwich on his stomach (hardy har har). The tractor pushes Hendershot’s car through the window. Since it has a plate personalized with “BUBBA” on it, the machines have struck a blow for good taste. Why aren’t cars acting up again, though? Are they puppets of the Imperialist Human Oppressors, unworthy of the Glorious Socialist Machine Rebellion?
“You want a war, you got a war,” snorts Bubba, and goes outside. He fires a rocket at the tractor and blows it up. Well, he blows off a bit of the cab frame. In the next shot we’ll see actual damage. Naturally Bubba’s got his priorities all wrong. There’s an automatic weapon out here. Maybe that’s more important.
The M60 starts shooting. Ding Dong, Bubba’s dead. Or at least, red splatters appear on his shirt, but there are obviously no holes. Maybe that’s an M60 paintball gun on top of that thing. The military thingee kills three generic truckers, including two who are standing like idiots well after the shooting started. It stops, and the survivors slowly get up.
Wanda begins to freak again. She calls the trucks “son of bitches,” and slowly steps forward. We can now see that Brett seems to have been using a metal bowl to cover Deke during the shooting. Oh, yeah. Unless that bowl is made of Titanium, I don’t think it’s going to do much to stop a heavy machine gun.
Wanda picks up the rocket launcher…or rather, a rocket launcher. Since Hendershot was outside with it when he was killed, and this one is in the diner, this must be a second one. Or this is just a horrible continuity lapse. But in this quality flick, that couldn’t possibly happen, could it?
As she picks up the launcher, it’s obvious they have plenty of time to stop her. But they don’t seriously start moving until she does, and by then she’s out the door. Now her acting goes into maximum overdrive. “You can’t do this, we made you!” She wails. This display isn’t is bad as her earlier tirade, but the machines don’t like it. She is gunned down. Sheesh, everyone’s a critic. As she falls, the rocket launcher goes off (I guess it must be a second one after all), and another truck is destroyed.
Another major film flaw. How can the M60, mounted on what is probably a very simple stand, aim itself? How can it pull its own trigger? An audience can accept that a weird space ray might cause electrical equipment to do this stuff, but an M60 is strictly mechanical. If whatever’s making the machines go bonkers also works on such simple objects, it should be able do things like make a bicycle move by itself. Make ordinary doors close. I could also point out that this gun is not ejecting spent casings, and doesn’t appear to have a source of ammo. There is a small box attached to the gun, but that should empty out very fast.
Suddenly, the military thingee starts beeping its horn in a pattern. Deke recognizes it as Morse code, and the script throws in some obvious expository dialogue that Deke has a merit badge in it. Getting a piece of paper, he doesn’t write down the dashes and dots, but the actual letters. Hey, he is good.
The message reads “Someone must pump fuel someone will not be harmed this will be done or you will all die.” One of the truckers remarks “Let ’em starve.” Joey says they can’t do anything anyway, there’s no power. Suddenly, the lights are on. Now, horror movies aren’t noted for the brilliant characters. As Scream pointed out, they’re mostly populated by large breasted women who run up stairs when they should be running out the front door. Compared to Mr. William Robinson, though, these women are the offspring of Albert Einstein and Marilyn vos Savant. Guess what he’s about to do?
“I’m going to turn on the pumps,” says Robinson gleefully, and jogs out of the room. Now, I’m guessing that most of you out there might want a word of explanation from Robinson, such as WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU THINKING? Amazingly, only Brett runs out to talk to him about his intentions. You’d think the rest of the diner would propose talking about it first, at least, or taking kitchen utensils and putting him into the chili at most. Brett stops Robinson and compares refueling the truck to Neville Chamberlain giving in to the Nazis. Wow, a historical reference. A bit overstated, but I’m impressed anyway.
Robinson explains his (HA HA HA HA) ‘thinking.’ The trucks can’t crash into the diner he (SNICKER) ‘reasons,’ because the floor would collapse. Then he points out the vehicle with the M60. “But that bastard, ain’t no reason why he couldn’t call a truckload of napalm and hose the place down.” Oh right, good point, Bubba. I’m convinced.
Amazingly, this is enough for Brett. “You take care of yourself, okay,” she says. Now, look, this is a suicidal plan. It’s so bad I feel kinda silly pointing the flaws out to you, since I’m sure you’ve got plenty of objections too. By Robinson’s argument, the machines could wipe the diner off the map at any time. Think of all the jet aircraft they have access too. I’m guessing the Dixie Boy would not have a lot of hope against an F16. Since they haven’t done this, you can only reach two conclusions. One, they can’t do it, for some reason. Two, the movie is so poorly plotted that they just won’t.
What’s even worse about this plan is that there is no incentive for them. What will they be given in return? Now, I’m sure that whatever the machines might offer would only end in a doublecross, but the point is they don’t even try to gain something. Like, say, refueling them in exchange for safe passage out of the diner. The machine’s offer is simply refuel us or we’ll kill you. What were they trying to do before–scare them a little?
“He won’t run me down,” says Robinson confidently, explaining that it would be like “a junkie killing his connection.” Great argument. We all know that people addicted to drugs always act logically and in their own best interests. Never once has there ever been violence during a drug deal. Robbie goes outside. The gun covers him while he covers up Wanda’s body. He goes up to the Goblin truck and begins doing the dumb schpiel equating gas to drugs. (Suddenly we see a shot of Brett at the pump. When did she get out here?)
“Hells Bells” begins to play as trucks from all over come to the station for refueling. It appears that most of the people in the restaurant have come out to help fill the trucks. All of them thought this plan was okay? We see a montage of various trucks being filled by various cast members. When Deke is seen, he says “That’s it, big guy.” It’s all in good fun, eh? You know Deke, for all you know this could be the truck that made road pizza out of your dad. The idea that Deke would participate in this is beyond crazy.
This goes on for a while, until the station runs out of fuel. One of the trucks nudges Robinson to an underground tank, and so Robbie hooks the hose up. After a hard day of pumping gas, he seems to have sunstroke and goes inside the diner, where Brett comforts him. Robinson begins mumbling about a theoretical alien race that wants the planet, but they find it “dirty and smoky.” So they send in machines to clean up the population. That doesn’t strictly follow, as machines dump the pollutants.
A while later, Curtis goes back outside and does this elaborate ruse, but here’s the bottom line. He slaps the M60 away and drops a grenade on the thingee. They all run back for the diner. Robinson apparently has realized what an idiot he’s been. If they had just used the rocket launcher on the thingee earlier, they’d have achieved the same results–except the trucks wouldn’t be refueled. Any more bright plans, Fearless Leader? How about we all walk outside with our eyes shut, because if we can’t see them, they can’t see us, right? Isn’t that how it works?
Later that night, they decide to all evacuate the Dixie Boy, using the same method Robbie and Curtis used earlier. It seems like they decided this just in the nick of time, as the trucks are through playing around and go pummeling into the Dixie Boy. So much for Robinson’s theory that they wouldn’t do that.
We also get a shot of the tractor running over another vehicle a few times. Why? It looked kinda cool. And since this movie stopped making sense after, oh, the main titles appeared, we might as well sacrifice any kind of logic for something that looks cool. From the ditch, they stand and watch the trucks go crazy. Deke says “Can we get out of here?” Bright kid. Good thing he’s here. A truck labeled “Oxygen” goes barreling into the Dixie Boy, and blows up the rest of it. The hundreds of trucks we saw earlier seemed to have vanished.
A bit later, we see the Goblin truck passing a sign that says “Marina One Mile.” How did the truck know where they were going? Guess it read the script. Catching up to our zeroes, I mean, heroes, we see them stop at a fast food place. We get one of those group-of-commandos-running-in-tandem-and-then-crouching-by-a-wall shots so beloved of army movies. The drive-through speakers begin squawking “Humans here.” Steve-O, we know it’s been a long time since you’ve had any kind of degrading job (director of this picture excepted) but drive-throughs don’t actually talk, the humans behind them do.
I guess someone realized Deke had more brains than most, so they gave him a machine gun. “This is for my dad,” he snarls, and shoots up the drive-through, which goes dark and silent. No actual damage seems to have been done–no bullet holes, nothing, but it shuts down anyway. Very good Deke. They killed your father, you shot a sign in retaliation. Family honor is satisfied.
Suddenly, the ice cream truck appears. Curtis wants this one. He gets on the road and pauses a moment, looking confused. This is probably meant to create suspense. And yes, we are horrified at the prospect of him getting killed. Oh, the character we could care less about, but if he goes, that means Connie will go into bad acting overdrive. Curtis fires (watch the cab of the truck. The driver can be seen briefly). Something about this gun not only makes the truck blow up, but flip forward and over. Are we all having fun blowing stuff up? It’s even more obvious that the script it is out of ideas than the conclusion of The Island of Doctor Moreau.
Finally they get to the dock, where there are lots of boats. A generic trucker spots a woman, who seems to have been throttled by the window of her car. (I guess cars are revolting after all. Why doesn’t this one start up and run at them?) The woman’s arm is hanging on the window, with a big and obviously fake diamond ring on her hand. Trucker goes up to the body and pries off the ring. He puts his rifle down to do this, and even steps away to admire his prize. As he does, we see that somehow Goblin truck has managed to sneak up on him. Just like the T-Rex in The Last Dinosaur. When the monster/enemy is off camera, it instantly cloaks and teleports to where it needs to be.
So greedy but stupid trucker gets run down. We get to hear that great Psycho music one last time. Robinson breaks out the rocket launcher, delivers a Schwarzeneggerish line, and blows it up. Well, he doesn’t really, the plastic on the goblin face doesn’t even appear to be scorched. But lots of black smoke comes from underneath.
“Who Made Who” begins to play again, and everyone climbs in the boat. There’s no green stuff in the sky from the comet (“Helllllooooooo! Continuity!) We hear Deke’s voice. “Think we’re going to be all right?” Robbie replies, “Deke, I know everything’s going to be all right.” Yes, somehow Robbie knows a C-130 won’t troop a tank platoon on the island, or get some F-18s to bomb it clean.
The boat sails off, and we can still hear Connie whining. Disappointingly, we don’t see a splash signifying they’ve tossed her overboard. A caption appears. “Two days after,” (try “two days later” Mr. Professional Writer) “a large UFO was destroyed in space by a Russian ‘weather satellite,’ which happened to be equipped with a laser cannon and class IV nuclear missiles.” Whoa! Does the Pentagon know about this? Nuclear missiles that can be launched from orbit? That would cause a huge Cold War panic attack.
“Approximately six days later, the Earth passed beyond the tail of Rhea-N, exactly as predicted.” This caption fades and is replaced with “The survivors of the Dixie Boy are still survivors.” Well, not all their careers survived. Only Yeardley Smith has steady work, and Emilio Estevez isn’t doing much of anything of note, except suffering through three Mighty Ducks in penance for being in this one.
The credits roll, and “You Shook Me All Night Long” begins to play. For some reason I’m thinking of the AC/DC album “Blow Up Your Video.” Can’t imagine why.
The short story Trucks is very short indeed–16 pages. It’s a short but sweet examination of what if the roles were reversed–what if machines could somehow decide that humans were to serve them. It ends (spoiler alert) with the refueling scene we saw in the movie. The difference in the story is that this scene acknowledges that the machines have won…from now on humans will serve machines. By refueling them, humans have bowed to their conquerors.
As a short story, it works just fine. The machine rebellion is not explained, but that doesn’t matter because the central theme is “What if humans were controlled by the very things they use to control and dominate the planet?” In this brief story, details like why and how do not need to be explained. It doesn’t take up much of your time, leaves you with some food for thought, and then you move on to the next story.
Now, expand this idea into a 90 minute movie, and suddenly you’ve got problems. Unlike the short story, you are going to need more ideas and concepts to fill up the space. This idea doesn’t really have the kind of mileage to make a movie. At best it’s an episode of Tales From the Crypt (and even that is probably stretching it). By making a movie out of it, you only draw attention to what’s lacking in the story–why is it that only certain machines chose to go nuts at certain times? How can an electric knife move by itself?
No-one seems to have learned a lesson from this. Tobe Hooper, who directed great horror flicks like Poltergeist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre made a movie of King’s short story The Mangler, about a killer laundry steam press. Are we sure a movie is long enough for this concept? Maybe a TV miniseries is needed to cover all the intricacies of the story.
After getting the piss taken out of him by the critics, King tried to defend himself by saying that he was deliberately making a modern ‘B’ movie. In fact, he went so far as to go around bragging that he had made a modern Plan 9 From Outer Space. Let’s take a close look at that.
1. Why is it that we always learn that the filmmakers ‘intentionally’ made a bad move after its release? Peter Bogdonavich tried the same tactic when At Long Last Love got chainsawed. He tried to say that he intended it as a parody of old Hollywood musicals. Perhaps this sort of information is best revealed before the movie premiere…if in fact that’s what you intended.
2. Sorry Steve-O (according to Skeleton Crew, King hates to be called Steve-O), but I distinctly remember the commercials for Maximum Overdrive where you personally promised “I’m going to scare the hell out of you.” You didn’t look like you were kidding then. You looked like you were taking this very seriously. That this movie is produced by good ol’ Dino De Laurentiis, who is famous for taking bad ideas far too seriously, only reinforces this impression.
3. Say you’re a big movie exec. Your career depends on green lighting a money-making movie. One bomb, and you can kiss your Beamer and your nice Beverly Hills house good-bye. Suddenly, you’ve got the rights to a Stephen King short story. “Excellent,” you think, “big best-selling author. Tremendous name recognition.” Then you find out King himself wants to write and direct. You can hear the cash registers ringing. You envision ordering your publicity twerps to play up the fact that this a Stephen King movie by Stephen King himself, so we’re going to see a movie that is solely “King’s vision.” You start thinking about maybe getting a summer place up in the mountains. Then you find out that King wants to make a deliberately bad movie. In fact, a modern Plan 9. And that he’s not going to mention this until after the movie premieres. Your reaction? “Please let the door hit your ass on the way out of this office.”
4. A modern Plan 9? BLASPHEMY! How dare anyone make this claim? I know that Ken will be talking about the folly of trying to make a “modern B movie” in his Sleepwalkers review * (another piece of Stephen King sludge) so I won’t get into it now. I’ll just say that the fundamental nature of B movies has changed, and the idea that Hollywood can make an entertaining Bad Movie when it more often than not can’t make an entertaining good movie is just ludicrous.
I will also say that this sucker can’t hold a candle to Plan 9. For sheer entertainment value, Plan 9 is brilliant, it’s just brilliant in a way no-one ever intended. In other words, I don’t believe King’s claim for a second. It’s not that comedic horror can’t be achieved–take a look at Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness, and to a lesser extent House (William Katt, George Wendt). The difference between those movies and Maximum Overdrive (other than the fact that they don’t suck) is that those movies have characters and situations so over the top that you know it’s deliberate. In fact, the Evil Dead movies are so lively that they manage to get both scares and laughs without compromising either.
Maximum Overdrive’s characters and situations aren’t over the top, just overwrought. The characters are too typical (the evil boss, the dashing hero, the lecherous hypocrite), and there is absolutely no sense of irony. Everyone to the director on down to the cast takes this very seriously, ruining any chance of parody value. If Robinson had been as thick and obnoxious as Ash (the invaluable Bruce Campbell from the Evil Dead series), if the Evil Boss had been played against type and instead been overly kind and sensitive, then I would have believed it was a deliberately bad. As it stands, if King had tried to make a deliberately Bad Movie…he did a bad job.
And then he can go appear in Candyman, a much better horror movie:
Brett: “If you don’t get your hand off my leg, you’re going to be wiping your ass with a hook the next time you take a dump!”
LBS: “I never heard no talk like that when I was a boy.”
But I wanted medium rare:
Hendershot: “Did you do what I told you to do with the body?”
Joey: “Pretty crispy, Mr. Hendershot, what happened?”
This is the ’80s, darling. Gonna see a lot of things you’ve never seen before:
Brett: “I ain’t never seen a hero with his ass in the air like that.”
*An Editorial Note from Ken: When Jason mentioned to me King’s quotes about making a Bad Movie ‘on purpose,’ I noted that this confirmed a theory I came up with after seeing Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers. Since I don’t know if I’ll ever get to doing a full piece on this film (although it certainly could support one), I thought I’d include the following. It’s from a collection of short Horror Movie reviews I put together for my friends (all three of them) quite some many years ago (the following was a later addition):
SLEEPWALKERS (STEPHEN KING’S) – (1992; USA)
Touted as King’s first original script, Sleepwalkers turns out to be a stew of all the de rigour King film elements: Rock ‘n’ Roll and cool old cars (Christine), small towns in Maine (pretty much everything), goofy “in” jokes (ditto), and, oddly enough, cats (Cat’s Eye, the “cat-from-Hell” sequence from Tales from the Darkside – The Movie, Pet Sematary). In fact, this ‘original script’ is really just an extended riff on the final story from King’s script for Cat’s Eye. That featured a heroic cat who saves little girl Drew (E.T.) Barrymore from a doll size gremlin, who attempts to kill her by sucking out her breath while she sleeps. This film, meanwhile, posits the existence of half-human, half-feline shapeshifters called Sleepwalkers. Living among us, they sustain their eternal lives by sucking the life energy out of the mouths of virginal girls, in an effect extremely similar to the stealing of breath in Cat’s Eye. We open with a shriveled corpse being found in a secluded house. To give us a nod towards the plot, a sheriff looks at it and somehow figures out that it’s the remains of “a little girl.” The outside of the house is festooned with massacred cats, and it’s eventually revealed that cats alone can cause the Sleepwalkers harm. When we meet the Sleepwalkers they are revealed to be a mother (Ghost Story’s Alice Krige) and son who have a sexually active relationship (pointless, yet tasteless). The son picks on local gal Tonya (Madchen Amick, one of the ubiquitous actresses from TV’s Twin Peaks) as their next meal: he will feed off her life-force and then in turn feed his mother. The film starts off slowly, at first attempting to build up sympathy for the Sleepwalkers. We focus on their nomadic existence, living disguised among their prey and fleeing when things get too hot, alone and cut off from any of their own kind that may still exist. However, once the action kicks in, any such nuances are tossed out the window. The Sleepwalkers wreak havoc in the town, slaughtering folk in show-offy ways left and right, while avoiding the packs of cats who instinctively attempt to destroy them. Sleepwalkers isn’t really awful or anything, but it fully shares the sloppiness that makes so many of King’s films so tedious. One is poor scripting. For instance, it turns out that not only can the Sleepwalkers shapeshift, but they can turn invisible. Then we find out they can turn other things invisible (like cars). Then that they can turn things like cars invisible from a distance. And that they can change a big car (a blue Thunderbird) into a small car (a red Camaro). And that you can see their true forms (humanoid, hairless cat-people suits, which, to put it kindly, suck) if you see them in a mirror. And that they can apparently sustain grotesque physical damage without harm, unless inflicted by a cat, which wounds then spout flames. And that they have telekinetic powers. Andâ€¦the point is that no ground rules are established at the outset. So as these powers materialize the audience’s suspension of disbelief leaks away. You soon come to notice that the filmmakers are just allowing things to happen for plot purposes or ‘effect,’ without any sense of continuity. At one point the transformed car changes back into the blue Thunderbird the police are looking for, just in time to get spotted by a cop who then saves Tonya’s life. And why, since you can see their true forms in a mirror, does Krige invite Tonya into their living room, where there’s this gigantic mirror on the wall (which Tonya unbelievably fails to notice). And why do the cats let Sleepwalker Krige walk out of her surrounded house to go on a rampage (the film’s big set-piece) and later let her kill the town sheriff and menace Tonya in the front of the house for a while before the obligatory mass attack that results in the monster’s destruction? And why does the aforementioned rampage include a really silly scene where Krige grabs a revolver and shoots two police cars with it, which both proceed to blow up? Are we supposed to believe that she shot the gas tanks, causing the explosions? Maybe so with the first car, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that the second car is facing away from her, so that she’s shooting the car’s trunk. Plus, the Sleepwalkers are so indiscriminant and show-offy that it’s impossible to believe that they’ve been able to remain undetected for all these years: The kid not only writes and recites a “fictional” work about his life in class, but later initiates a high speed, Smoky and the Bandit-esque chase with local cops. Also, both Mom and Son end up killing lots of people in very public ways before the movie’s over. Another thing? How can we believe they captured and killed all those cats from the opening scene, when they are shown to be so inept at it throughout the rest of the film? It’s this sloppiness that makes so many of King’s films, especially the ones he has a direct connection to (Maximum Overdrive, Creepshow, Cat’s Eye, etc.) so lame. The thing is, I think the illogic of King’s films is purposeful, that King is trying to recreate the charm of the silly horror movies he grew up on. However, what makes those films’ silliness fail to injure them, and perhaps even increase their nostalgia value for fans like King (and me) is that the silliness is rooted in, and protected by, their essential innocence. In contrast, King’s films, this one particularly, are chock full of “sophisticated” elements like explicit sexual content, foul language and extremely gory violence. One of the functions of such content is to make the films more ‘realistic,’ in a certain context, anyway. Therefore, by their own nature, such elements diminish our tolerance for the kind of lackadaisical disrespect for logic and continuity that films of the ’50s and ’60s thrived on. Unfortunately, King obviously feels free to use less rigorous standards when working on film projects than he uses when writing print fiction. And I believe that his cinematic body of work proves this to have been an unwise decision. It’s instructive to note that the most effective film adaptations of King’s work (Carrie, Pet Semitary, Stand by Me, The Shawshank Redemption) are those that retain more of what makes the best of King’s print work function so well: well drawn characters that act in consistent ways, and stories that have the kind of internal logic necessary to get people to buy into King’s bizarre scenarios (vampires in a modern small town, a man possessed by an evil hotel, etc.). King might want to reconsider his overall approach to film work. All this aside, though, I guess if you want to give the brain a rest, and can’t find anything better, this is as worth a buck for rental as anything else. By the way, the film does have one nicely classy element: Irish singer Enya’s (whose work is showing up in an ever more eclectic body of films) Boadicea, which pops up in snippets throughout the film and plays over the end credits. If only anything else in the film were so low-key and proficient!