There are a lot of strange films out there. Films that merge discohesive elements of reality or feature an unusual combination of stars. But today, I want to talk about a film that's strange in its own unique way. Strange, because although it tends to be a horror film that people are aware of, it's not one that they think of when they think of horror films in general.
I first saw this film when it came out on video back in about '87 or '88, back when video was ranked up there with ass-turkey as one of the coolest things around. I remember my fragile and impressionable mind getting warped right there in the living room while my dad and step-mom slurped it all down with a grain of salt, laughing most of the way through. Images of mass carnage swept across my TV set while I sat mesmerized by what Stephen King had done.
Stephen King had written and directed a full-length feature film. a film titled Maximum Overdrive, and it was blowing my 12-year-old mind.
Nowadays, I appreciate Maximum Overdrive with the same regard my parent's must've had when they watched it for the first time. It's good downright campy shit for the whole family.
I can't stress enough the deep and strong impression this film has left on my brain . in fact, I shall call it a dent. There's a certain degree of sympathy and humanity that Stephen King lacks which, I have to believe, makes for the startling visions you can expect to see in Maximum Overdrive.
The first scene features the earth with an ominous green glow to show you what happens with the planet gets caught up in the tail of a comet (what the fuck?!). Right away you get the huge overall scope of the film; total fucking apocalypse Stephen King style. As I like to think of it: Suspend all your beliefs and disbeliefs. We will no longer be following any set pattern of logic, sense, or structure. Nice.
Next scene: a big temperature and time sign in front of a bank starts to say, "Fuck you," over and over again. "Fuck," then, "you." Brilliant.
Next scene: Stephen King walks up to a MAC machine. The machine proceeds to tell him, "You are an asshole." "Asshole" then fills the screen as Mr. King calls back to his wife in the car. "C'mon over here honey buns! This here machine just called me an asshole!" Superb. Dynamic. I'm locked.
Did I mention this all takes place in North Carolina? Not only do you get maximum carnage, but you get maximum stereotypes! It's fucking awesome.
Now, of course, with Stephen King looking at you, the MAC machine, the AC/DC soundtrack starts kicking in with "Who Made Who" and we're brought to a nearby draw-bridge. The impending scene is one which will wreck your eyeballs. Lemme just say that King was thoughtful enough to put a truck full of watermelons smack dab in the middle of everything. Total fucking wreckage. Unbelievable.
We've got steamrollers, we've got electric knives, we've got rocket-launchers, we've got soda machines, we've got video games, we've got lawnmowers, we've got automatic weapons, we've got big trucks, we've got a gas station, and high-octane explosives, and we're not afraid to use 'em. We've got Dino De Laurentiis producin' this shit, and we've got AC/DC layin' down the soundtrack as well as the score, so just fuckin' forget about it. Lay your mind to rest. You won't be needing it for another 98 minutes or so.
As we all know, there are insane amounts of Stephen King movies out there, mostly bad with a few spurts of genius, but this is Stephen King's first and only attempt at directing his own work. He adapted the full-length script for Maximum Overdrive from his short story "Trucks," which he'd written back in '74 and included in his collection of short stories called "Night Shift." It originally involved the world-takeover by trucks only, but when it was bought up by producer Dino De Laurentiis, King suggested to him that the story could involve everything running by itself. Of course, Dino fucking loved it.
Dino's been around the block, producing more films than Woody Allen's stuttered in. He's had his finger in such films as "Blue Velvet," "Dune," "Death Wish," "Flash Gordon," "Barbarella," "Conan the Destroyer," the very recent "Breakdown" and "Hannibal," and another Stephen King adaption, "The Dead Zone." He's super Italian and his films reflect the Italian vibe for flamboyance and extremely graphic, mind-numbing scenes churning with special effects.
But now, couple that with King's inexperience yet sick mindfulness as a director, plenty of time to shoot, and plenty of money, and you've got yourself a fuckin' kick-ass film. King described the experience of making the film as "getting four years of film school in about 12 weeks. The first three years' worth were during the first five days that we shot."*
King's ability to turn innocent everyday items into thrashing death machines is well in place as an ice cream truck seems to be playing look-out for any straggling humans in the neighborhood, its comforting little jingle playing harmlessly in the background. As it nears, the sight of blood on the corner keeps us in check.
Emilio Estevez is the film's hero. (I can't watch anything starring Emilio Estevez without thinking of Maximum Overdrive. Not that there's a whole lot out there featuring Emilio Estevez. Now that I think of it, I think I went to see Young Guns AND Young Guns II because Estevez was the star. I'm such a douche.) He does a pretty good job as your average Joe Shmoe jumping into action once the shit goes down, but Pat Hingle steals the show as the classic red-neck gas station boss with a mind for money, black-mail, and exploitation no matter what the scenario. Is that even a classic character? Regardless, he makes it one. Laura Harrington plays, or should I say, ATTEMPTS to play, the street-smart hitchhikin' girl who just wants to play it cool and survive. She and Estevez are supposed to be the dynamic duo of ingenuity and stamina, but Harrington just plain sucks. It's easily one of the worst performances of any kind I've ever seen. Simply pitiful. Either she sucks a mean cock or King thought it would be cool to throw someone in there with no talent just to see what happens. Watch her every move to learn how not to act.
But see, it's all right because, overall, the casting is kick-ass. Yeardley Smith, voice of Lisa Simpson, plays an obnoxious newlywed who can't seem to shut up. Ellen McElduff plays the truck-stop restaurant waitress, giving an emotionally unbridled performance. She plays perfectly into the twisted hands of King. In one scene, the lights go out and it's quite obvious that she was, in fact, scared ta shit. And then, of course, there's Christopher Murney who plays the touchy feely God-fearing traveling bible salesman, bushy mustache and all.
One of the most classic things about the film is the Happy Toyz truck. Get this. it's a truck that ships toys for a toy company, right? So, the truck is totally black, the back doors boast a deranged clown picture, and the front has a green fiberglass goblin forged in hell. The tag-line for the toy company is, "Here comes another load of joy." Later on, the truck runs over a bag filled with bibles. Nice. What's great about the goblin-face is that it gives the truck a personality. a personification, as they say. No longer is it just another faceless steel grill, it's now a blood-thirsty evil green fuck-face. Classic. And not only that, but throughout the film, the machines periodically make horrible screeching sounds of banshee terror mixed with extreme gut -churning machine sounds. It's fucked up.
Jesus, the film is called, Maximum Overdrive. What more do you want? Why not just call the film, Muther Fucker? That title is so fucking huge. I love saying it over and over. Try it out? Give it a nice differential in your inflection tones each time you say it. Now, don't you wanna see the film called Maximum (fuckin') Overdrive?
What will undoubtedly be the most memorable scene in the film is the one involving the steam-roller running over the little leaguer. Unbelievable. It is so raw and vile that it will live with you till your dying days, guaranteed. It's right up there with the child shark attack victim in Jaws. There is absolutely no remorse.
Now, you must be thinking, "Jesus H. muther fuckin' Christ, Cody. This sounds like the most perfect film ever conceived. Is there anything wrong with it?" Of course there is, dip-shit. There're tons of gaping probability and believability holes. Dialogue and action intended to move the story along gets so contrived it feels like nails on a blackboard. There's a whole middle section that seems to drag on forever which just so happens to comprise most of the movie, but let's be honest; not every film can be totally kick-ass from start to finish, The Matrix being one possible exception. You must take the mundane with the explosivo, capeche? Pull some fuckin' tubes or somethin'. You'll get through it. Again, I can not emphasize how important it is to watch this film in a completely detached vein. Leave your brain in the fridge.
Oh, and have I mentioned that AC/DC is responsible for all the music? Yeah, just wanted to make sure that was totally clear. Fuckin' kick-ass. AC/DC became my first favorite band after seeing Maximum Overdrive. I bought their soundtrack album, Who Made Who, soon after viewing the film, thus becoming the first mainstream album I had ever purchased with my own chore money. (Dad bought me and my brother Thriller and Van Halen's Jump single a few years before.)
Apparently, the MPAA gave Maximum Overdrive (I love saying that) an X rating when they first screened it. Of course, this was back when they used to give out X ratings. Now it's known as NR (Like Y Tu Mama Tambien). It seems the steam-roller scene was a little more graphic than what we see in the R version. "I hated it when it happened," King said. "It was the first time in my life I had been censored, and that's what it comes down to."* King quickly re-edited the film to get it out to theaters. Hopefully, we'll see the director's cut coming out soon. (As I lick my chops and rub my palms.)
Final words of wisdom from Stephen King, Horror Jesus: "It doesn't take seven years to write a book. You're jerking off is what you're doing."* No wonder I can't get my shit together.
* All quotes are DVD commentary written by Jay Marks.
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