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the dark half

Although he’ll probably always be known as the father of the modern zombie film, I’ve often felt that George Romero’s non-zombie films are highly underrated. Sure, there’s been the occasional clunker: Knightriders (1981) is a real oddity that never overcomes its inane premise, despite an enthusiastic performance by Ed Harris, while Bruiser (2000) is just as faceless as its protagonist. Despite these misses, however, Romero has a pretty good track record: Season of the Witch (1972) is a nicely understated character study with an interesting feminist angle; The Crazies (1973) is a tensely plotted little B-movie; Martin (1976) is a really fascinating, unique take on traditional vampire films; Creepshow (1982) is a minor classic; and Monkey Shines (1988) is a flawed but thoroughly entertaining piece of pulp cinema.

Along with these films, Romero has also helmed what I feel to be one of the best adaptations of a Stephen King novel, The Dark Half (1993). King’s novel about pseudonyms run amok was one of my favorites as a kid and I can recall eagerly heading to the theater when the filmed version was released, despite the trepidation that always comes with any new King adaptation. Filmed versions of King’s novels have always been something of a running joke, so it’s quite refreshing to find one that actually gets it right. And The Dark Half, for the most part, really gets it right. While rewatching the film for the first time in years, I was pleased (and more than a little relieved) to discover that it still held up after all those years.

Romero’s adaptation, which he also penned, follows King’s original novel pretty faithfully. The film involves mild-mannered writer Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton), who secretly writes pulpy crime novels under the pseudonym George Stark. While Thad’s own books are high-minded literary “art,” Stark’s trashy, violent work is the real bread-winner for Thad, his wife, Liz (Amy Madigan) and twin babies. Imagine Thad’s consternation, then, when a sleazy fellow named Fred Clawson (Robert Joy) approaches him after a book-signing and threatens to expose the truth about George Stark (whose made-up background is one of the biggest selling points for his rabid fans) unless he receives some payola. Incensed, Thad discusses the situation with his wife and editors, Miriam (Rutanya Alda) and Rick (Tom Mardirosian), and they all decide that the best course of action is to get ahead of the impending controversy: it’s high time that Thad “killed off” Stark once and for all.

Staging a mock burial ceremony using a Beaumont family grave and fake tombstone, Thad and Liz lay Stark to rest, although the symbolic “ending” actually signals a horrifying new beginning. When the photographer is found murdered (beat to death with his own prosthetic leg) and the grave is desecrated, Thad becomes the number one suspect, since his fingerprints were all over the crime scene. After Clawson is found brutally murdered, in the exact way that Thad was heard to threaten him, things look increasingly dire for the beleaguered novelist.

Faster than you can say, “Candyman,” however, we see the truth: Thad’s violent alter-ego, George Stark (also Hutton), has come to horrific, shuddering life and is rather upset at Thad’s attempts to kill him off. George only wants one thing and he’s willing to massacre everyone that Thad knows and holds dear to get it: he wants another Stark novel, something to keep his legacy intact. The problem, of course, is that Thad and George cannot, technically, co-exist: as one grows stronger, the other weakens and begins to physically deteriorate. As Thad begins to re-experience the headaches and visions of ominous clouds of sparrows that plagued him as a boy, he and George move relentlessly towards an end game that will involve Thad’s family, his past and his very future: only one will emerge victorious…will it be Thad…or Stark?

From the opening intro that cues us in to the existence of Thad’s unborn twin all to the way to the visually impressive finale, The Dark Half is an exceptionally close reading of King’s original novel. Romero even manages to toss in a few blink-and-you-miss-’em bits of fan service, including the revelation that Thad is currently working on “Here There Be Tygers,” one of Stephen King’s earliest short stories. The film, itself, looks great: there are several really nifty set-pieces, including the tense, protracted scene where Mike Donaldson (Kent Broadhurst) is stalked by Stark down a dingy apartment hallway that lit by alternating red and blue lights. Hutton does a good job portraying both halves of the equation, as it were, with his George Stark being a suitably sleazy representation of King’s creation. It’s also nice to see veteran character actor Michael Rooker in a rare “good guy” role as Sheriff Pangborn: it feels like a classic case of casting against type and it works spectacularly well. Romero also makes great use of practical effects, including a jarring stabbing via pencil and the impressive “ripped apart by sparrows” finale.

In many ways, Romero’s film is also staged in a similar manner to Bernard Rose’s Candyman (1992), which preceded it by a year: as people close to him are killed off, Thad comes under more and more suspicion for the crimes, similar to the arc that occurs with Helen in the Clive Barker adaptation. There are even moments where people are killed while Thad is in another room, just like various scenes in Candyman. This particular tact offers up quite a bit of tension and plenty of creeping paranoia, as Thad tries in vain to convince his wife and the sheriff about the true nature of the crimes unfolding around them. Paranoia is always a potent element of horror fiction and Romero delivers the goods in more than satisfactory measure here.

Thematically, The Dark Half brings up several interesting issues, not the least of which is a writer’s inherent connection to his/her creations. Like the real Stephen King, Thad Beaumont is a study in contrasts: on the one hand, literary, high-minded and grasping for greatness while, on the other, visceral, pulpy, audience-friendly and uber-violent. There’s a nicely realized moment where Liz explains to Thad that he doesn’t actually want to “kill off” his alter-ego: he enjoys Stark because it gives him an excuse to behave badly, as it were, smoking, drinking and acting like a complete jerk. It’s the true dichotomy of any artist, be they actor, filmmaker, painter or author: the person creating the art is not always equitable to the art being created. Live it to King (and Romero) to bring this concept to glorious life by, literally, splitting the artist in two.

As previously mentioned, there’s certainly a dearth of “good” King films but I’ve always thought of The Dark Half as part of the solution, rather than the problem. It goes to prove that, in the right hands, it’s not only possible to make a good Stephen King adaptation but a good film, period. It may be approaching 15 years since Romero turned to non-zombie properties but, with a track-record like his, maybe it’s time to leave the walking dead behind for a little bit. If you’ve never seen The Dark Half, give it a whirl: after all, how could you possibly go wrong with murderous doubles, ominous sparrows and Black Beauty pencils?