Horror Film Review: The Dark Half (dir by George Romero)


It will always fascinate me that Stephen King, one of the most popular writers in the world and one of the legitimate masters of horror, also has one of the least inspiring accounts on twitter.

Seriously, he may be the most popular author in the world but he tweets like a retiree who has just discovered the internet.  Go over to his twitter account and you won’t find memorable descriptions of small town hypocrisy.  You won’t find scenes of shocking psychological insight.  You won’t find moments of unexpected but laugh-out-loud dark humor.  Instead, you’ll find a combination of dad jokes, boomer nostalgia, and an unseemly obsession with wishing death on any public figure who is to the right of Bernie Sanders.  It’s odd because no one can deny that King’s a good storyteller.  At his best, Stephen King is responsible for some of the best horror novels ever written.  Everyone who is a horror fan owes him a debt of gratitude for the work that he’s done promoting the genre.  At his worst, he’s your uncle who retweets the article without reading it first.

Of course, someone can be great at one thing an terrible at something else.  I can dance but I certainly can’t sing.  Stephen King can write a best seller but a good tweet is beyond him.  That’s the dual nature of existence, I suppose.  That’s certainly one of the themes at the heart of both Stephen King’s The Dark Half and the subsequent film adaptation from George Romero.

Filmed in 1990 but not released for three years due to the bankruptcy of the studio that produced it, The Dark Half tells the story of Thad Beaumont and George Stark (both played by Timothy Hutton).  Thad is a professor who writes “serious” literature under his real name and violent, pulpy fiction under the name of George Stark.  No one reads Thad’s books but they love George Stark and his stories about the master criminal and assassin, Alexis Machine.  (Alexis Machine?  George Stark may be a good writer but he sucks at coming up with names.)  After a demented fan (played, with creepy intensity, by Robert Joy) attempts to blackmail him by threatening to reveal that he’s George Stark, Thad decides to go public on his own.  His agent even arranges for a fake funeral so that Thad can bury George once and for all.

Soon, however, Thad’s associates are turning up dead.  It seems as if everyone associated with the funeral is now being targeted.  Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Michael Rooker) suspects that Thad is the murderer.  However, the murderer is actually George Stark, who has come to life and is seeking revenge.  Of course, George has more problems than just being buried.  His body is decaying and he’s got a bunch of angry sparrows after him.  The Sparrows Are Flying Again, we’re told over and over.  Seeking to cure his affliction and to get those birds to leave him alone, Stark targets Thad’s wife (Amy Madigan) and their children.

The Dark Half has its moments, as I think we would expect of any film based on a Stephen King novel and directed by George Stark.  Some of the deaths are memorably nasty.  Hutton is believably neurotic as Thad and cartoonishly evil as Stark and, in both cases, it works well.  Rooker may be an unconventional pick for the role but he does a good job as Pangborn and Amy Madigan brings some unexpected energy to the thankless role of being the threatened wife.

But, in the end, The Dark Half never really seems to live up to its potential.  In the book, Thad was a recovering alcoholic and it was obvious that George Stark was a metaphor for Thad’s addiction.  That element is largely abandoned in the movie and, as a result, George goes from being the literal representation of Thad’s demons to just being another overly loquacious movie serial killer.  Despite having a few creepy scenes, the film itself is never as disturbing as it should be.  For all the blood, the horror still feels a bit watered down.  Take away the sparrows and this could just as easily be a straight-forward action film where the hero has to rescue his family from a smug kidnapper.  Comparing this film to Romero’s Martin is all the proof you need that Romero was best-served by working outside the mainstream than by trying to be a part of it.

Add to that, I got sick of the sparrows.  Yes, both the film and the book explain why the sparrows are important but “The Sparrows Are Flying Again” almost sounds like something you’d find in something written in a deliberate attempt to parody King’s style.  It’s a phrase that’s intriguingly enigmatic the first time that you hear it, annoying the third time, and boring the fifth time.

The Dark Half was a bit of a disappointment but that’s okay.  For King fans, there will always be Carrie.  (I would probably watch The Shining but apparently, King still hasn’t forgiven Stanley Kubrick for improving on the novel.)  And, for us Romero fans, we’ll always have Night of the Living Dead, Martin, Dawn of the Dead, and the original Crazies.  And, for fans of George Stark, I’m sure someone else will pick up the story of Alexis Machine.  It’s hard to keep a good character down.

2 responses to “Horror Film Review: The Dark Half (dir by George Romero)

  1. Pingback: Lisa Marie’s Week In Review: 10/11/21 — 10/17/21 | Through the Shattered Lens

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