For someone who has had dozens of his stories turned into movies, Stephen King has only directed one. It's easy to forget that when a movie says “Stephen King presents” or “Stephen King's” he's not actually sitting in the director's chair. In the right hands, King's work can be immensely entertaining and incredibly terrifying, such as the Rob Reiner-directed “Misery” and the Stanley Kubrick-directed “The Shining”. In the wrong hands, we get mediocre movies like Cujo and Graveyard Shift. King's work has a wide range in terms of subject matter and pure horror. It takes skill and patience to lay out his works, especially his short stories. With this in mind, you would think that Stephen King's directorial debut of his own story would be great. Keep in mind, this movie came out in 1986. In the book Hollywood's Stephen King, King himself admitted he was “coked out of [his] mind all through its production, and [he] really didn't know what [he] was doing." Great.
Maximum Overdrive is 1986 horror/action movie based on Stephen King's short story “Trucks”. The movie stars Emilio Estevez (The Breakfast Club, The Mighty Ducks) as parolee Bill Robinson. Earth passes through the tail of a rogue comet called Rhea-M, bathing the planet in an eery green glow. Mechanical objects gain sentience with murderous intent. Bridges lift on their own, ATMs have smart-ass remarks, soda machines fire out drinks at deadly speed, and vehicles now drive themselves. The machines start killing humans and animals alike with no mercy. At the Dixie Boy truck stop in Wilmington, North Carolina, a waitress is attacked by an electric knife and a man is killed by an electric shock from an arcade game. The truck stop, containing cook and ex-con Bill Robinson, traveler Brett (Laura Harrington, The Devil's Advocate, Quantum Leap), newlyweds Connie (Yeardley Smith, the voice of Lisa Simpson) and Curtis (John Short), Bill's boss Bubba Hendershot (Pat Hingle, Batman, Wings), and a group of truckers is surrounded by a caravan of sentient trucks. The leader is a large tractor trailer hauling toys, complete with a giant Green Goblin mask on the grill. The trucks kill anyone who tries to leave and terrorize the survivors inside. Via morse code, the trucks demand that the humans fill them up with gas. Will Bill and the rest of the group come up with a plan to escape and stop the killer machines?
"Can you be a doll and get me some Visine? I've been up for days."
Killer sentient machines have been done many times before. In the abstract, like Terminator, Videodrome, and Westworld, the killer machines are given a “face” and possess some sort of personality. When it's just a regular old machine trying to kill someone, it usually comes off as silly. They tried with the giant Green Goblin mask (the real Green Goblin face, not that Willem Dafoe atrocity from the movie), but it's not really enough. Goofy is probably the best way to describe Maximum Overdrive. If he wanted, King could have actually made the movie scary, but instead of we get mediocre comedy and lots of explosions. The first thirty minutes of the movie are the best as we get to see all sorts of machines wreak havoc on the population. It's when we get stuck at the diner that the movie comes to a slow, staggering death. The movie was far more interesting in a heavily populated area as we see the spectacular crashes from a bridge raising with cars still on it. I'm sure budget had something to do with it, but with $10 million, they could have made it work. The isolated location of the diner allowed for more structural damage, but it's far less interesting to watch. Part of the problem is that there are a lot of people in the diner. It would be fine if a lot of them were killed, but we only get a handful and are stuck with too large a group to focus on and connect with.
The movie actually received two Golden Raspberry Awards nominations for Worst Director and Worst Actor (Emilio Estevez). While the direction is not good, I wouldn't say it's utterly atrocious. I've seen way worse which really says a lot. Certain scenes show a certain amount of style and skill, so it's not like Stephen King is completely devoid of talent. He probably just should have laid off the drugs. Think I'm wrong? Just take a look at this promo for the movie. King looks like a whacked-out Vince Russo ready to hit the clubs. I like Emilio Estevez and I didn't think his performance was that bad. Maybe that's just my Mighty Ducks love talking, but I didn't feel any disgust towards him. The supporting cast is fine, though Yeardley Smith's voice became very grating towards the end. The movie has a good amount of violence and plenty of explosions. There really isn't much horror to speak of as the constant blaring of AC/DC throughout the entire film takes away any fear or atmosphere. It may have helped revive their career, but I just don't care for them and would have enjoyed silence compared to their cock-rock shouts.
I think the movie is trying to tell me something...
I pretty much got what I expected from Maximum Overdrive, which isn't saying much. It was pretty clear that the movie's plot was stretched out to make it a full length. The movie differs strongly from the original short story, focusing more on jokes and action and than actual horror and atmosphere. Despite plenty of explosions and some good scenes of violence, the movie is generally boring and full of plot holes. There are too many characters in the diner and not enough of them are killed. Stephen King's directorial debut was pretty much a flop, but he did show some skill. I really couldn't stand all the AC/DC, both as a fan of music and a fan of horror. Maximum Overdrive is best watched with a group of friends ready to make jokes. Beyond that, it's just a product of the drugged-out 80's.