In 1963, nine year-old Jim Norman witnessed a group of juvenile delinquents murder his older brother Wayne in a tunnel before getting killed themselves when a train came barreling down the tracks. Twenty-seven yeas later, Jim (Tim Matheson) is a history teacher and he has returned to his hometown to take a job at his old high school. He is haunted by memories of what happened in the tunnel and then he is haunted for real as, one by one, all of the dead delinquents returns to life and enroll in his class. They want revenge on the man that they blame for their fiery deaths.
Based on a Stephen King short story, Sometimes They Come Back was actually produced for television. It originally aired on CBS, complete with a warning that viewer discretion was advised. Though the ghost greasers are too ridiculous to really be scary (one of them laughs like a hyena), the movie was still more graphic than anything else that played in primetime that year. I wonder how television audiences, in those pre-American Horror Story days, reacted to one of Jim’s students being dismembered in the backseat of a car and the ghost greasers then tossing pieces of his body over the bridge?
Tim Matheson takes the material seriously and gives an intelligent performance as Jim Norman. Fans of Newhart might enjoy seeing William Sanderson (a.k.a. Larry of Larry, Darryl, and Darryl) playing a serious role as the one greaser who wasn’t killed by the train. Most of the other characters, including Jim’s wife and his students, are forgettable. The movie’s glaring weakness is the ghost greasers themselves. Even with their Satanic car and their threatening ways, they’re too cartoonish to be frightening. Sometimes They Come Back has its strengths but ultimately, it’s a middling Stephen King adaptation.