The Dark Half Review

The Film

George Romero only made one and a half films in the 1990’s, which is a crying shame. His low productivity was mostly down to a lack of independent funding. This coupled with a promise of working on a decent King novel lead to Romero making one of his rare “studio” films. The concept of Romero and King collaborating again got their respective fans very excited. Their previous work on Creepshow was a hilarious camped up horror schlock comedy affair. The fact that the new film was based on one of King’s more serious novels was intriguing to say the least.

King’s plots are not usually too taxing and this one is no different. Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton) is a writer of highbrow fiction that doesn’t sell many copies and his pseudonym George Stark writes very popular gritty crime novels. Unfortunately Thad’s pseudonym has been discovered and rather than be blackmailed he “kills” George Stark in a series of interviews and articles which reveal that he is in fact the writer of the salacious novels and there will be no more stories from George’s pencil. Suddenly a lunatic with a southern drawl starts killing off people close to Thad and leaving behind evidence that points the finger towards Thad himself. Calling himself George Stark, this man destroys anyone who caused or aided Thad in ridding himself of his pseudonym. The wrinkle in this is that Thad himself had a rather peculiar ailment that affected him in his youth, which seems to have some bearing on “George”. All of this comes together as George places Thad’s family in danger and his ultimate aim becomes clear.

Whilst Kings plots are usually fairly simple the depth of characterisation is mind-boggling. As a result his books rarely get decent film versions. Either the books are changed considerably to make them more cinematic (The Shining) or the books they are based on are shorter ones with a much more visual bias (Carrie). There are exceptions of course but this rule is a fairly good one to follow. One of the main hurdles for this film is that the original book is heavily dependant on character’s and their thoughts. The encounter with Fred Clawson and the first encounter with Sheriff Pangborn are perfect examples of this in the book. In the film these scenes have a negligible impact and therefore the film fails to clear this hurdle.

The other difficulty with this book is the use of wild and wacky phrases and plot devices (sparrows for instance), whilst these work brilliantly on the page they fall flat and seem very cheesy indeed on film. What I am trying to say is that Romero seems to have been too faithful to the book. It is a great book but it doesn’t translate well to the screen and it hardly seems to have been altered at all. Despite this the first hour of the film is actually very enjoyable. Tension is built up well and the mystery unfolds slowly and keeps the viewer’s attention. Unfortunately as the film is so faithful to the book the 3rd act is very weak. Also I’m not sure why but Romero’s direction style seems very muted here. There is very little of his trademark fast cutting and a lot of pedestrian/static long shots, which are not what we expect from Romero.

However it isn’t all bad news, the murders and gore utilised here are very effective and the Romero of old peeks through when Thad’s closest friends are bumped off. There were several points in the film where I jumped and whilst the killings don’t have the grittiness of Martin they aren’t slasher film fodder by any stretch.

The second major fault in the film is the casting. Timothy Hutton just isn’t convincing as either of the two characters he plays. He has very little edginess to his character, which is essential for the part of Thad; also his clumsiness is forced and unnatural. All the time I was watching him I was wondering how much better Michael Keaton would have been (Don’t ask me why, Keaton just sprang to mind). The rest of the cast are eminently forgettable with one exception. Michael Rooker has an excellent turn as Sheriff Alan Pangborn and seems to be the only character that actually cares. Amy Madigan gives a two-note performance as Thad’s wife… She is either emotionless or OTT, definite soap opera acting.

I realise that by this stage the whole thing may look very bleak and I have been very harsh. The fact is that this film is no worse than a lot of horror films out there. It is actually a pretty average horror yarn. I think my criticism above is based on the fact I expect so much more from a pairing like King and Romero especially as they have worked well together before. King and Romero fans may well get a kick out of this but the average Horror fan should think carefully before committing.

The Disc
My hopes weren’t high when I ordered this disc as it is hardly a stellar title in anyone’s back catalogue. The case is clear plastic and there is no insert inside as the chapter list is printed on the reverse of the cover. This details the 16 chapters, a figure that seems awfully low for a film clocking in at nearly two hours. The menus are perfunctory and easy to navigate but as with the rest of this release there is nothing to get excited about.

The first and only pleasant surprise is that this is in the correct ratio of 1.85:1 anamorphic as opposed to the R1, which only has a butchered 4:3 transfer. The picture itself is a bit of a mixed bag however. The print used is below average with plenty of spots and marks (both white and black) in fact this was so bad at the beginning of the film I was mentally sighing and wondering how much worse the 4:3 version could’ve been. However it picks up and at certain points the damage isn’t even noticeable. The transfer is pretty well handled although I think that there is far too much contrast in certain scenes. This renders some of the darker scenes difficult to make out with a lack of shadow detail. Other than that the picture is nice and sharp with only the occasional soft spot.

The main soundtrack is a DD2.0 track. This is a good clean track with no hiss or damage. Dialogue is always clear whilst the channel separation seems very good considering the stereo limitations (The sparrows fly convincingly across the soundstage). Whilst this obviously isn’t as dynamic as a DD5.1 track it certainly does the job here.

There is the usual trailer here and that’s your lot. It seems that unless Anchor Bay get hold Romero’s work we aren’t going to get any decent extras on his DVD’s.

I know I have been hypercritical but this film is actually nestling just on the average mark here. The disc is about as bog standard as you can get. The picture is disappointing whilst the sound is pretty decent and the extras are non-existent. I doubt this will get a better release so if you want a copy of this film then this is the one to get. The only other positive thing here is that this is a very cheap disc right now with certain suppliers selling it for less than £8.

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