Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Maximum Overdrive
You had to know this film’s time was coming, dear reader. It has the pedigree of Dino De Laurentiis — more on that later — and the notoriety of being Stephen King’s only directorial effort. Also, its the sort of gleefully cheesey movie we need to celebrate from time to time. Make no mistake, Maximum Overdrive is a bad movie and a great time all at once. It’s a monument to King’s excesses and his infamous coke habit. But, for once, cocaine aided a project which might otherwise collapse in on itself.
Of course, there is a legitimate case to be made for cocaine’s positive effect on a number of films children found themselves watching in the 1980s.
The plot concerns the Dixie Boy truck stop near Wilmington, South Carolina. Its unscrupulous owner, Bubba Hendershot (Pat Hingle), employs a lot of parolees so he can push them around. One member of his staff is Billy (Emilio Estevez), a witty and intelligent man who bungled his first robbery and ended up in the clink. On June 19th, 1987, Billy’s shift as the truck stop’s short order cook gets interrupted so Hendershot can tell him exactly how he intends to commit wage theft. Since he can call Billy’s parole officer and claim he’s missing shifts, Billy has no choice but to work nine hours while reporting an eight-hour shift on his time card.
But June 19th, 1987 is significant for another reason. Scientists revealed the planet is passing through the tail of the Rhea-M comet. Unfortunately, the tail’s debris field seems to bring heavy machinery to life. Trucks begin to move of their own accord, soda machines pelt people with pop cans at lethal velocity, and a drawbridge opens up by itself; leading to some fantastic car crash anarchy.
Soon, the Dixie Boy becomes a refuge for its patrons and a few others nearby once the trucks, led by a rig with a Green Goblin head on its grill, decide to lay siege in an attempt to get Billy and the others to refuel the trucks. After a handful of people die, Billy complies, believing he can work out an escape route to a nearby sailboat. Free from the machines, he and the others can wait out whatever brought the trucks to life.
Which might’ve been an UFO in the end?
And if the whole thing sounds bananas, that’s the charm of the picture. By 1985, King’s novels and short stories had led to films like Carrie, The Shinning, Firestarter, and Silver Bullet. The last two were produced by our old friend Dino De Laurentiis. In fact, his various companies produced a number of films based on King material by the time the two had a meeting in which King lamented about the changes filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and Brian De Palma made to his work. Dino matter-of-factly asked, “why not you direct?” King immediately agreed and chose his short story “Trucks” as a starting point.
King’s opinion of the film adaptations of his work deserves some examination. To start: a novel is generally way too much material for a film. As a format, it allows for long digressions, interior dialogue and idiosyncratic pacing that is generally anathema to film. Sure, some novels make for pretty great movies, Kubrick’s Shining for one, but they often occur because the screenwriters and filmmakers identify a key level of fidelity to the source early on. Kubrick wanted to make a movie about cabin fever and realigned The Shinning to match that tone. Indeed, most of Kubricks movies began as themes he wanted to explore, later finding novels fitting his intent to use as a framework. For King, derivation from his work was a personal pain, but once in the director’s chair himself, he smartly sensed wisdom in building his film up from a 12-page story instead of pairing down one of his novels to fit an 80-to-90 minute runtime. For a moment, try to imagine what his version of The Dark Tower would be like.
Okay, it couldn’t possibly be worse than The Dark Tower we got, but if he couldn’t deal with Kubrick losing the topiary, there’s no way he was going to make comprises to The Gunslinger for practical or cinematic reasons.
Meanwhile, Dino assigned Martha Schumacher (who later became Mrs. De Laurentiis) to oversee the production and secured Italian cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi to shoot the picture. Fellow countryman Giorgio Postiglione designed the production. As a result, the film has a distinctly Italian feel to it. If told the Dixie Boy set was built at Cinecitta instead of an abandoned lot in South Carolina, I’d believe it. Actors are as sweaty here as they would be in a grungy Italian cop thriller or a spaghetti western. The color palette suggests cut-rate laboratory facilities. Overwrought zooms to make sure you get the point of the shot occur throughout. And while it is possible King had this vision himself, it is also possible he was happy to take the advice of seasoned professionals because, at the time, King was in love with nose candy. He’ll tell you that himself and it is easy to see from the wonderful trailer he cooked up for the film.
But even if the Italians did a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of cinematography and art direction — practical effects and other departments were staffed by locals from Wilimington’s then-emerging film industry — King is still the author of the work. Eyes get traumatized, the loud Christian ends up being the worst of the people at the Luck Boy, and a certain school boy meanness toward the adult characters permeates the film.
Another key King choice was to score the film with AC/DC’s music. New compositions like “Who Made Who,” a curious remix of “You Shook Me All Night Long” and some great instrumental cues gives the film a hard rock edge which compliments King’s coke-fuled miasma of sentient trucks and sweaty southerners. The film’s shocking moments come complete with a riff on Psycho‘s slasher theme which sounds like AC/DC guitarist Angus Young, but may be composer Basil Poledouris (who contributed some material to the film) uniting the band’s sound with his own facility for scoring wonderfully cheesy pictures.
By all accounts, King also led the company of actors well enough, though it seems the real trick there was picking people who needed little guidance with their performances. Estevez offers the Estevez bad boy performance. He may be a little more subdued here than in Repo Man, but it’s is clear the work is not a struggle for him. Pat Hingle steals every scene he is in as Hendershot. His oily, cigar-chomping low-life business owner is a complete cartoon, but it ages magnificently. Once he bursts out of the Dixie Boy with an RPG launcher ready to destroy some of the trucks, it seems like the most natural thing for the character and Hingle to do. Holter Graham also acquits himself well as Deke, the son of one of the trucks’ first victims at the Dixie Boy. Laura Harrington also does her best as the female lead, a tough hitchhiker named Brett, but she is overshadowed by Yeardley Smith’s intentionally annoying newlywed Connie. Familiar faces like Frankie Faison, Leon Rippy and Giancarlo Esposito also populate the film in early roles.
At this point, you might ask where the cheese is in the film? It saturates the production in a way that is hard to describe. While King is known as the Master of Horror, Maximum Overdrive is a giddy delight. It wants you to laugh when Deke’s father gets blinded by gasoline early in the picture. It definitely wants you to chuckle when Deke spots a plane blasting “Flight of the Valkyries” as it flies by. It expects you to cheer when certain characters die and when things start exploding. And that may be where the film gets its bad rep. A Stephen King film should, in theory, be scary. But the film he himself made is more akin to the second feature of a drive-in double bill: cheaply made, strangely mean to its characters, and yet confident in its peculiar world view. By conventional metrics, it is a bad film — the reveal of the UFO in a film-ending title card should sink this movie utterly — but by the time “You Shook Me All Night Long” starts playing, you’ll be glad you watched Maximum Overdrive.
Maximum Overdrive is available for rent at the usual streaming platforms and as part of a Starz subscription. It is also available as a superb Blu-ray release from Lionsgate’s Vestron Video label.