Maximum Overdrive (1986): Maximum Schlock

Maximum Overdrive (1986)

I still remember getting quite excited when I heard that Stephen King was going to make a film adaptation of one of his own books. Well, the short story Trucks, to be exact, and I also remember thinking, “At last. An adaptation of a King book that won’t deviate wildly from the source, like Stanley Kubrick‘s The Shining for example or John Carpenter‘s Christine.

Of course the pinnacle of the most laughable adaptation has to be the abysmal Salem’s Lot by Tobe Hooper.It’s still hard to believe that the same man who brought us The Texas Chainsaw Massacre so totally ‘balled up’ Salem’s Lot. I won’t go off on a tangent about the casting or the asinine decision to make Barlow look like Nosferatu.

But the winner of the all-time worst adaptation ever goes to the execrable The Lawnmower Man (1992). This film really didn’t bear even a passing resemblance to the short story it was adapted from.

When you consider the amount of adaptations that have so totally missed the mark it boggles the mind. And apart from the surprisingly good film version of  King’s novella The Mist, most of the film versions of King’s books have, in a word, sucked.

I will not get into a discussion of how ‘good’ Kubrick’s The Shining worked as a horror film. There’s no question that the film was good, but the casting alone (which worked for the film) was a polar opposite of the characters that King created. This changed the feel of the story so much that Kubrick could have changed the names of the characters and the film. Saving the studio the money spent on movie rights to the book.

I also won’t allow myself to waste time on the old argument of, “But King’s books are so cinematic! How can they be hard to transfer to film?” We all know that there are a lot of things that just don’t transfer well, character’s thoughts for instance. Perhaps the best example is from The Shining itself and those problematic hedge animals.

As for Maximum Overdrive with it’s AC/DC soundtrack and it’s slightly schlocky script, I will stand right up and say I liked it. When I found out that King was such a novice that he did things that didn’t follow cinematic rules, I loved it. Because the film still works. And yes, I know that King himself has admitted that he was so strung out on coke that he doesn’t really remember much about filming it. In answer to that I will trot out the highly popular movie ‘The Blues Brothers.’ If there was anyone out of the entire cast and crew who weren’t strung out on coke, I’ll eat my metaphorical celluloid hat.

The film looks like it sounds; bright, harsh, shiny and metallic. In fact the cinematography ‘looks’ like it was filmed in the 1970’s. I don’t know who had the final edit, but overall the film fits together well enough and it is entertaining despite what the nay-sayers will tell you.

The plot is pretty straight forward. The earth passes through the tail of an comet and all mechanical and electrical machines develop a mind of their own and turn against their makers. The results are a brilliant mixture of hilarity, (King, in a cameo at the beginning of the film, is called an asshole by an ATM machine) black humour and irony.

Stephen King, Maximum Overdrive (1986)

A group of disparate people get trapped in a truck stop  and are forced to work as slaves to the various vehicles that stop to be re-fuelled. Stalwart character actor Pat Hingle plays a suitably nasty bit of work who employs ex-cons at slave wages to increase his profit margins at the truck stop. Emilio Estevez plays the latest jail-bird who works for Hingle and who has big enough cojones to fight his opportunist boss every step of the way.

The acting jewel in the crown though is Lisa Simpson herself, Yeardley Smith. Smith’s distinctive voice and her diminutive stature has always been a comic attribute and her performance in Overdrive is both comic and a little touching.

The film did pretty good upon it’s release, although arguably it was  probably down to the fact that ‘maestro of horror’ King was the helmsman of it. But the film is darkly humorous. It is more interesting to note that even the original author had to deviate a bit from his own ‘cinematic’ short story.

Although the film garnered two Razzie award nominations for worst actor (Estevez) and worst director, King did a pretty good job, coked out or not. It would be interesting to see how a King directed film would fare now since he’s conquered all his personal demons. King himself has stated that he wouldn’t mind trying it (directing) again.

Like I said, I love the film. Just the novelty value of it being a  “King does King” vehicle (if you’ll pardon the pun) makes it special and worth a look. If you manage to catch it on late night television or stumble across it in a sale bin at your local DVD store give it a try. It will at least make you chuckle and might even make you think a little about machines and their effect on us.

I will happily admit that it’s the only time that a ‘Green Goblin’ outside of the Spiderman universe kind of freaked me out. I still think the HAPpY ToYZ truck is a little scary, how about you?

Maximum Overdrive (1986)

About Michael Knox-Smith

World traveler, writer, actor, vlogger, blogger, journalist. Cinephile who reviews films, television, YouTube shows, Books and interviews professionals in the industry. Member Nevada Film Critics Society

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