Monday, December 22, 2014

THE DARK HALF (1993) Blu-ray Review

The Dark Half (1993) d. George A. Romero (USA)

Aspiring writer Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton) has reached a certain level of fame and success cranking out hard-nosed genre novels under the pen name of George Stark. But now Beaumont thirsts for “respectability,” something that eludes his popular but critically dismissed alter ego, and believes his latest effort will provide just that. At the same time, an erstwhile fan (Robert Joy) discovers the link between Beaumont and Stark and threatens to expose the secret unless some monetary compensation is forthcoming. With the support of his loving wife (Amy Madigan) and publishers (Rutanya Alda, Tom Mardirosian), Thad decides to publicly put Stark to rest, even staging a fake burial for the papers. However, the decision sparks a series of increasingly violent murders of the author’s intimates and associates, all implicating Thad. The evidence proves particularly damning since the killer claims to be none other than George Stark, who shares an uncanny resemblance – right down to his fingerprints – to you-know-who.

As of this writing, Romero hasn’t made a movie in five years. That’s the same amount of time that passed between 2000’s Bruiser and Land of the Dead in 2005, but his greatest fallow period was just prior to that, following a pair of studio duds released by Orion Pictures. The first, Monkey Shines (1988), wasn’t a true “studio” picture, produced independently and then acquired by Orion. The second, however, an adaptation of Stephen King’s bestselling novel (of course, at that point, anything King wrote was an automatic bestseller), The Dark Half, was born within the system and some – including Romero – might say that it died there as well. From the initial casting to the rushed shooting schedule to the forced reshooting of the climax (as had happened with Monkey Shines), the suits were in Uncle George’s hair day-in-day-out, the interference largely responsible for the film’s ho-hum critical and box office reception.

The plot of both the novel and Romero’s faithful adaptation is clearly inspired by King’s real-life struggles with his own prolific nature, fame, and pigeonholing as a “horror author.” (In 1985, it was revealed that the author had published five novels under the pseudonym “Richard Bachman,” and it was to this alter ego that he dedicated The Dark Half.) However, it quickly becomes clear that this is no mere Jekyll/Hyde retread; Stark is a real corporeal threat, Thad’s dark side made flesh, and none too pleased with being prematurely laid to rest. Hacking and slashing his way toward his creator/doppelganger, this “high-toned sonofabitch” intends to keep his name on the byline.

On the commentary track for Shout! Factory’s recent Blu-ray release, shared with the affably knowledgeable Stuart Feedback Andrews, Romero cites his litany of disappointments and frustrations of the project, beginning with returning to “the devil you know,” i.e. Orion Pictures, who had already been authors to numerous headaches for the writer/director five years prior. The studio nixed several of Romero’s casting choices for the challenging dual role of Thad/Stark, including Gary Oldman, Willem Dafoe, and Michael Rooker (who eventually assumed the role of sympathetic but tenacious lawman Alan Pangborn, assigned to the case), with Hutton finally accepting the part. However, the Oscar-winner (for 1980’s Ordinary People) proved more than a handful, demanding separate trailers for his two characters and requiring cast and crew members to refer to him as “Thad” or “George” depending on the day. Over two decades on, you can still hear Romero’s annoyance dealing with his “method actor.”

Further complicating matters was the tension between Rooker and co-stars Hutton and Madigan, born of an inability to remember lines (the actor was doing a play in New York and traveling back and forth to the Pittsburgh locations). But Romero’s biggest disappointment in the final product lies with the extensive special-effects shots involving thousands of sparrows (signifying the collision course of Thad’s two halves), and that’s without factoring in the last-minute test-screening-prompted reshoots. The director isn’t shy expressing his disdain for the lackluster and overreaching digital effects or the fact that Christopher Young’s musical score for the climax had to be cobbled together from previous cues! (Orion was already entering bankruptcy proceedings and plugs were being pulled right and left.)

However, for this reviewer, the primary reason The Dark Half didn’t and still doesn’t work is Hutton. Despite the best efforts of makeup men John Vulich and Everett Burrell, Hutton’s Stark is a caricature of evil, mannered without menacing, a tired collection of sneers and snarls and fake foreheads and eyebrows. The actor does fine in his milquetoast wheelhouse, but – as Andrews points out several times on the commentary track – it’s impossible not to wonder the difference a superior villain played by Oldman, Dafoe, or Rooker would have made. (The studio’s concern that Rooker wouldn’t have been convincing as the kinder, gentler Thad is thoroughly dispelled by his turn as Pangborn, a man with both spine and heart.)

As with their release of Monkey Shines, the biggest attraction of Shout! Factory’s BR is the opportunity to hear the creative team discuss theories on why the film failed to take wing. With his 35-minute documentary “The Sparrows are Flying Again: The Making of The Dark Half,” Red Shirt Pictures honcho Michael Felsher assembles an enormous roster of talent which includes Romero, Rooker, Joy, Alda, Vulich, Burrell, Young, VFX supervisor Kevin Kutchaver, second unit director Tom Dubensky, and editor Pasquale Buba. The discussion is lively and enlightening, with our estimation growing for the effects artists and their creative solutions – the “sparrow head” hammers smashing through walls a particularly noteworthy touch – while also realizing that maybe a maverick like Romero could never have been at home working within the Hollywood machine. (This was the final film shot in his beloved Pittsburgh; he headed north to Toronto for Bruiser and never returned.)

There are also a number of deleted scenes, an animated storyboard sequence for the original ending, and additional vintage behind-the-scenes clips showing the monumental task that a decade later would have been rendered seamless with a few more computer keystrokes. Theatrical trailers, TV spots, and a still gallery round out the generous supplements.

The Dark Half is available now from Shout! Factory and can be ordered HERE.

--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine


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