Stephen King’s “The Dark Half” novel addressed the multifaceted nature of being a horror writer – specifically, the question of “where do you come up with this stuff?”
Do macabre narratives with ghastly details spring from a genuinely rich and informed imagination, or is there something truly sinister, if not downright wrong, with the mind behind dread-inducing fiction?
Of course, this is not only the kind of questioning directed towards any great novelist (of horror fiction or anything else) but especially that of King. The insinuation his detractors seem to make is that he must be creepy, or downright monstrous, to come up with such works as “The Shining,” “Pet Sematary” and “IT.”
King’s 1989 book “The Dark Half” and, later on, the 1993 film adaptation, address the duality of the writer in a manner both diabolically clever and personal.
As King’s multitudinous fans know well, he once published works under the pseudonym Richard Bachman to write as often as possible and outside of the horror genre. Works like “Thinner,” “The Running Man” and “Rage” were published under the Bachman name.
King later informed longtime readers of the playful deception.
Naturally, rather than feeling betrayed and turning their back on The King of Horror, the authors fans simply flocked to the bookstore and bought all the Bachman books, since there were now un-read Stephen King novels to discover.
George A. Romero’s faithful adaptation of King’s novel (Romero wrote the screenplay as well), begins in 1968, centering on a young Thad Beaumont, a student of Castle Rock Junior High School. Shrill headaches interrupt his writing sessions, and a visit to the hospital reveals the headaches have a strange origin.
The fetus of a twin that was expected to be absorbed by birth has been living in Beaumont’s skull. A surgeon discovers that, in addition to the usual matter that can be easily removed, Beaumont has remnants that include a tooth and a still blinking eye.
The haunting prologue is followed by a flash forward to years later, as Beaumont (Timothy Hutton) is now married, a father of twins and the kind of college English professor who gives lessons that provide helpful exposition (he pontificates on duality, how every writer has two beings within).
A paparazzi reporter threatens to unveil to the world that this mild- mannered campus man is actually the author of the dark, ultra-violent novels penned by George Stark, Beaumont’s fake pen name. Rather than fight the reporter legally, Beaumont makes the news his own and tells all to People Magazine.
In retaliation for being “killed off,” Stark becomes a flesh and blood figure, who sets out to murder everyone in Beaumont’s social circle.
Hutton is playing Beaumont and Stark, and he understands his dual roles. He’s playing an erudite teacher and family man whose dark dark side only comes out to play when his imagination fuels his writing sessions. As Stark, he inhabits a man whose depravity and capability for cruelty holds no bounds.
Made during a brief flirtation with genre films, Hutton had this and the supreme camp classic “The Temp” (in which a cookie company is threatened by a serial killer) open in the same season.
It ushered in a time when this former Oscar winner (for “Ordinary People,” his film debut) followed a series of respected critical hits (“The Falcon and the Snowman” and “Iceman”) that put him in the same category as Sean Penn and Tom Cruise.
He turned his attention to character roles shortly thereafter.
Hutton cleverly allows us to glimpse little hints in his performance that Stark is just beneath Beaumont’s charmingly bland exterior. Beaumont uses Stark the way an actor uses an emotionally demanding, demonstrative role to exorcise pent up emotion, like an artist pushing an image into the world using a brush stroke or a thumb embedded in clay.
Hutton appears to be enjoying the natural duality that comes with being an actor, as the roles he’s playing both play off one another (literally, in fact, by the wild third act).
The supporting cast is overqualified, led by an excellent Michael Rooker as Sheriff Pangborn (the same character Ed Harris plays in “Needful Things” and Scott Glen plays on the “Castle Rock” Hulu series). There’s also Amy Madigan (bringing major dramatic weight to the reactionary role of Beaumon’t wife), Royal Dano and Julie Harris.
While not as demonstrably stylish as Romero’s “Creepshow,” it still has a comic book look in its framing and lighting. There’s striking imagery throughout, like a porcelain face that breaks and reveals a skull underneath. Romero isn’t above jump scares (a newspaper brushing by with a loud “shriek chord” is pretty cheap) but the violence is also shocking, grisly and pulpy.
“The Dark Half” understands better than most movies about writing (in the horror genre and otherwise). That difficult, downright magical process of being alone, staring at a blank white space and finding the inner voice to create.
In the same way that Rob Reiner’s “Misery” (as well as King’s novel of the same name) did, “The Dark Half” visualizes how the physical act of writing, a blend of concentration and unleashing an active imagination, is something of a supernatural act on the part of the writer. It’s amazing that anyone can shape an entire novel, let alone great literary works, when outside factors (like distraction) and an imposing blank sheet of paper are among the obstacles.
King’s story also notes the difference between the books that are written/read for enjoyment, versus “important” works of literature. As Beaumont’s agent notes, “I read George Stark because it’s fun, I read Thad Beaumont because it’s my job.”
Paul Sheldon, the protagonist of King’s “Misery,” is punished for writing a personal, gritty book for his own pleasure and is forced to write commercial hack work by his captor. Beaumont, on the other hand, feels empowered to write crassly violent work when it’s through the fake authorship of Stark, who delights in crafting a pulp anti-hero named Alexis Machine.
Whereas Sheldon must exorcise his lame protagonist, Misery Chastain, from his imagination in order to write great work, Beaumont finds uninhibited freedom in bringing Alexis Machine to life. If Beaumont’s “dark half” is the violent, alcoholic doppelganger named George Stark, then King, perhaps, was using fiction to exorcise that part of himself that once struggled with substance abuse and had wilder impulses.
Many have noted the personal nature of King’s story, though that goes for Romero, too; most have noted how he used his films about zombies to make blunt social commentary. While Romero has made “prestige” studio films, like this one, “Monkey Shines” and “Creepshow” (to name a few), his legacy is far more centered on how he made a zombie in nearly every decade since the 1960s that reflected the troubling nature of human behavior.
While “Night of the Living Dead” and the Romero-helmed zombie films that followed are full of walking corpses, cannibalism and ghoulish imagery, each of those films reflect Romero’s views and provide sharp social commentary
A victim of the bankruptcy of Orion Pictures, “The Dark Half” was completed in 1991, but finally arrived in theaters, to little promotion, in spring of 1993. This same fate, in which highly anticipated Orion films arrived much later and without much fanfare, was also met by Jessica Lange’s Oscar-winning “Blue Sky,” a forgotten Brad Pitt vehicle called “The Favor,” Woody Allen’s “Shadows and Fog” and “RoboCop 3.”
Released the same year as the uneven but exciting, equally underestimated “Needful Things,” Romero’s film quickly passed through theaters (as did “Needful Things”). While unjustly never mentioned in discussion of the great Stephen King films, it is an absurdly underrated work and one of Romero’s best non-zombie films.