Cine Outsider header
front page    disc reviews    film reviews    articles    interviews  
The write stuff
Tim Hutton plays a writer whose invented alter-ego takes on murderous human form in THE DARK HALF, George Romero's 1993 film version of Stephen King's novel. Slarek revisits a film he's never quite made his mind up about on Eureka's recent and splendidly featured Blu-ray.
 

A couple of years ago, I found myself wondering out of the blue what had happened to actor Timothy Hutton. He'd made an early splash in 1980 with his Oscar-winning performance in Robert Redford's Ordinary People, and in the years that followed he starred in two films that I had considerable respect for at the time but criminally haven't watched for some years. The first was the 1983 Daniel, in which he played the son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two Americans who were executed following their conviction for passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. It boasted a cast that included Mandy Patinkin, Lindsay Crouse, Ed Asner and Ellen Barkin, and it was directed by Sidney Lumet, a name that everyone reading this should be familiar with. The second was the 1985 The Falcon and the Snowman, another true story-inspired tale in which Hutton played a disillusioned military contractor who, together with a drug-dealing friend played by Sean Penn, graduates to selling information to Russian embassy officials. Do I detect a pattern here? This one was directed by John Schlesinger, another filmmaker of serious note. Hutton was terrific in both, with his gift for tortured intensity put to excellent use by these seasoned directors. I also enjoyed his performance in Bob Clark's Turk 182, and in 1990 he reunited with Sidney Lumet for Q&A, an underrated late career work by this remarkable filmmaker. It was after this that the actor all but dropped off my radar. A quick check of his IMDb page confirms that he's never been out of work, but also that the films he has appeared in are not ones I've tended to seek out or in some cases have even heard of. Then last year he was back on my TV with a vengeance in Mike Flanagan's superb mini-series adaptation of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. That's when I found myself asking myself what had happened to Hutton in the intervening years. It turns out I'd forgotten about The Dark Half, a 1993 supernatural thriller written and directed by none other than George A. Romero and adapted from a novel by a certain Stephen King.

Here Hutton plays Thad Beaumont, a talented author whose critically praised books are not exactly big sellers, which is probably why he works primarily as a teacher. What his employers and the public are unaware of is that Tad also secretly writes as George Stark, the author of a series of phenomenally successful crime novels featuring ultraviolent avenger Alexis Machine. When a man attempts to blackmail Thad by threatening to out him as Stark, Thad elects to come clean himself and kill off the Stark pseudonym with a mock burial for the press in the family plot. Shortly afterwards, however, the Stark grave is dug up and the photographer who shot the burial picture is brutally killed. When Thad's fingerprints are found at the crime scene, he becomes the prime suspect, but as others connected to the retirement of Stark are violently murdered, it becomes increasingly clear that someone else is behind the killings. Despite this, local sheriff Alan Pangborn still believes Thad is somehow involved, but Thad starts to suspect that Stark has somehow taken human form and is going after those who stripped him of his life.

Thad and Liz bury George Stark for the press

As a concept this is fanciful stuff, but one of Stephen King's notable strengths as an author has always been his ability to make the theoretically preposterous seem plausible. What distinguishes this particular supernatural notion, however, is that it was partly inspired by King's own career as a writer. Wanting to publish novels as frequently as he was able to write them but also wishing to avoid glutting the market with works bearing his name, he began also authoring titles under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. It was a front he successfully kept up for eight years, even including a fake author biography and photo on the back of the novels, something Thad also does with the George Stark books. King was eventually outed by book store clerk Steve Brown, an avid reader who picked up on the similarities between the writing styles of King and Bachman, and in response, King decided to kill Bachman off, claiming that he had died of "cancer of the pseudonym, a rare form of schizophrenia." Just as with Misery – which was originally intended as a Bachman book – in The Dark Half there's very much the sense that King is not just taking inspiration from his experience as an author but trying work out some personal issues on the page. I've not read the novel for some years but remember enjoying it a great deal, though this, I have long since learned, does not mean that I'll be as enthusiastic about the film adaptation. Indeed, precious few film versions of King's horror novels come close to working as well as their source, and I'm including a couple of the more widely celebrated titles in that statement. But this is George Romero, who in partnership with King delivered one of my favourite genre films of the 1980s in the shape of the glorious Creepshow. This has to be a winner, right? Well…

OK, let's get this out of the way first. I like The Dark Half as a film. I don't think it's anything like as strong as the source novel, but it still has much going for it, and before I get to what stops it being one of my favourite Stephen King adaptations, I feel the need to talk about what it does right. Or at least what I think it does right. Feel free to disagree and leave a comment below the video. Sorry, forgot where I was there.

First up, the casting and performances are generally solid. As both Thad Beaumont and George Stark, Timothy Hutton demonstrates with some aplomb that he can be equally convincing as an easy-going family guy and a raging psychopath. Indeed, his manner and facial expressions (there is only minimal use of prosthetics here) transform him so completely that Stark really does feel like a different person and not just Thad in a bad mood with evil intentions. Having previously been asked to swallow her husband's mad theories as Kevin Costner's wife in Field of Dreams, Amy Madigan here sells the unspoken notion that Thad's wife Liz would know her husband well enough to buy into his theory about Stark's existence before logic dictates that any sane person would, and her later resilience when her family is threatened has real conviction. In a good supporting cast, Julie Harris is quietly terrific as Thad's colleague and trusted friend, Reggie Delesseps, a gender change from the novel apparently prompted by the difficulty of finding a male actor for the role. But my favourite performance comes from Michael Rooker as Sheriff Alan Pangborn, a rare good-guy part for an actor who tended to be cast in villainous roles and who first found fame as the title character in John McNaughton's Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer. Romero apparently wanted him for Thad but was vetoed by the studio (he also went after Gary Oldman and Willem Dafoe, both of whom had prior commitments – can you imagine?), but as Pangborn, Rooker displays an easy naturalism that makes him the most likeable of the film's principal characters. This does make the fact that he will not buy into Thad's theory and instead follow the logical path, despite their long-standing friendship, all the more frustrating – if there's one person you desperately want to fight in Thad's corner, it's Pangborn. King himself was clearly fond of the character, who also features in the novels The Sun Dog and Needful Things, as well as in the recent King-inspired TV series Castle Rock.

Stark contemplates the first signs of disintegration

As the film's scriptwriter, Romero does a workmanlike job of compressing the novel into two hours of screen time, although the claim by Romero's regular editor Pasquale Buba that the first cut ran for 3 hours and 20 minutes makes me wonder how much of this adaptation was lost to pace tightening. The film retains but never overstates the novel's theme of duality, with the physical manifestation of Thad's writing alter-ego as a demonic twin echoed in the partially formed sibling Thad absorbed at birth and his own twin children, who are later separated when Thad and the by-then decomposing George each hold one of them in their arms. George is also not an abstract villain but an extension of the personality change that Thad undergoes when writing as Stark, one that Liz is clearly deeply uncomfortable with. Intriguingly, this duality was apparently carried over into the making of the film, with Hutton staying in character when made up as Stark, insisting that the crew call him George, and even requesting a separate trailer for each of the characters, enabling him to let rip in Stark's one without causing damage to Thad's.

So why, even after three consecutive (re-) viewings does my enthusiasm for the film remain a little muted? It's something I initially struggled to pin down. I'd have to say that the first issue I have is that I didn't find the film scary or even particularly tense, although given how many horror films I've watched over the years I wouldn't read too much into that. It takes a lot for a film to scare me even a little these days (I've recently been playing Resident Evil 7: Biohazard in virtual reality and having a whale of a time with an experience that has had others screaming in terror), but I do feel the film works better as an allegorical drama than a horror-thriller. Part of the reason for this is that while Hutton's performance as Stark is hugely enjoyable, it never feels grounded in reality enough to pose the sort of relatable threat that someone like Don Logan in Sexy Beast did with seemingly every terrifying word that came out of his mouth. Stark does bad things, but does so with a larger-than-life flourish that – as with Randall Flagg in the TV mini-series adaptation of The Stand (though I'll be interested to see what Alexander Skarsgård does with the role in the upcoming remake) – makes him a lot scarier on the page than on the screen.

And then there are the set-pieces. By rights, we should fear every appearance of Stark as he goes on his murderous rampage, but aside from some genuine nastiness involving a woman of Thad's acquaintance (and absolutely full marks to the actor in question here, whose palpable terror is key to the scene's success) and a sudden appearance to cut the throat of a man inside his seemingly secure office (I'm trying to avoid spoilers here, hence no mention of names), they're not that big a deal. One, in which Stark stalks one of Thad's associates in the hallway of his apartment block, is a rare case of a scene whose effectiveness is handicapped in part by its staging, as the man in question drops and ‘accidentally' bumps keys across the floor in a manner that really does feel artificial, as does his subsequent stumble to the floor as he flees. This sequence does, however, contain one of Stark's finest moments, when a neighbour opens his door and demands to know what's going on and Stark smilingly replies, "Murder. You want some?" The climax also stutters a little from being a too-inevitable physical and mental tussle between Thad and George, one that lacks a surprising twist and whose struggle for survival and even existence didn't exactly have me chewing my fingernails. Compensation is provided by the final, apocalyptic invasion of soul-transporting sparrows, but the ending left me with a whole raft of questions about what would happen next in a story whose loose ends are left dangling in the wind.

Sheriff Alan Pangborn surveys the first murder scene

In the extras, Romero describes The Dark Half as his most technically polished film and he may well be right, but as someone for whom the occasional technical hiccups of his early works are rendered irrelevant by their sheer energy and imagination, this carries only so much weight. Night of the Living Dead still gives me the shudders 50 years after it was first unleashed, and it's not as if Romero had lost his touch buy this point, as evidenced by his previous film, Monkey Shines, whose climax is a lovely little tension builder. As I said, I like The Dark Half, not as much as primo 80s King adaptations such as The Dead Zone and Cujo but enough for those earlier mentioned repeated viewings to be more of a pleasure than a chore. It's an intriguing take on the Jekyll and Hyde story flavoured with just a pinch of Dorian Grey, and while not one of Romero's finest works, it's a faithful and intermittently inventive adaptation of a neat but frankly tricky-to-realise novel.

sound and vision

A very nice 1.85:1 transfer that boasts an excellent dynamic range, ensuring that the image has punch but not at the expense of detail at either end of the contrast scale. Colours are vivid when appropriate and naturalistic in daylight, and the detail is crisply rendered throughout. The odd dust spot remains, but for the most part the picture is clean and free of damage, and a very fine film grain is just visible, though is slightly more prominent on some of the effects shots.

Two soundtrack options are available, Linear PCM 2.0 stereo and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround. Sonically, there's not a huge difference between them. Dialogue, effects and music are all clearly rendered on both, but the DTS has a tad more finesse and the music does intermittently extend into the surrounds.

Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired are available.

extra features

As far as I'm aware, most of the on-disc special features have been licenced from the 2014 American Shout! Factory Blu-ray release. I have no problem with this, as it's a fine collection and the Shout! Factory disc was coded region A, which requires a modded player to watch in the UK.

Commentary by George A. Romero
Stuart Feedback Andrews of Cinephobia Radio plays host to the always-entertaining Romero, who is refreshingly open about the problems he had to deal with, but is also quick to praise the work of his collaborators. As well as commenting on individual scenes as they play, he discusses Stephen King's approach to writing, the circumstances that forced him to relocate from Pittsburgh to Canada, the ups and downs of his adventures in Hollywood, the film's special effects (not all of which he's happy with), and more. He's up-front about his irritation with Timothy Hutton's method acting but also repeatedly praises his performance, and following his delight at the chance to work with A Room with a View cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts, he admits that "I never had a worse relationship with a DP in my career." Perhaps the most poignant moment comes when he laughingly assures us, "Believe me, fans, I'm not dead, not yet."

A message left on the wall by Stark

Son of the Incredibly Strange Film Show: George A. Romero & Tom Savini (40:00)
Whatever your opinion of Mr. Jonathan Ross (my late mother would spit feathers at his every appearance on screen), his series on cult filmmakers, The Incredibly Strange Film Show and its knowingly titled follow-up, Son of the Incredibly Strange Film Show, are absolutely worth seeing and preserving for posterity. I say this not just for the filmmakers that they profiled (who included John Waters, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Russ Meyer, Sam Raimi, Jackie Chan and Ed. Wood Jr.), but for the content that was often unique to these shows. Here, for example, Ross visits both the graveyard location from Night of the Living Dead and the shopping mall in which most of Dawn of the Dead took place, as well as being made up as a zombie extra by Romero regular and horror makeup legend Tom Savini. We even get to see one of the commercials made by Romero's Image Ten production company before they started work on Night of the Living Dead. As you'd expect, Romero and Savini are interviewed about their work, but so are a number of his former collaborators, including producer John Russo and actors Lori Cardille and John Amplas, the latter of whom played  the lead in Martin and doubled for Timothy Hutton in The Dark Half when the actor had to play against himself. Original broadcast in October of 1989, it's a valuable and frequently entertaining piece, not least for Romero's smiling admission that, "I'll never get sick of zombies, I just get sick of producers." This is one of two extras unique to this release.

The Sparrows Are Flying Again (36:29)
Another valuable inclusion, this collaboration between Scream Factory and Red Shirt Pictures takes a retrospective look at the making of The Dark Half, and includes interviews with Romero, producer Declan Baldwin, special makeup effects artists Everett Burrell and John Vulich, actors Michael Rooker, Robert Joy and Rutanya Alda, editor Pasquale Buba, visual effects supervisor Kevin Kutchaver, second unit director Tom Dubensky, composer Christopher Young and the above-mentioned John Amplas. This proves to be an engaging and revealing, warts-and-all look at the film's not always smooth production, and includes some unhappy memories about Timothy Hutton's devotion to method acting ("to be blunt, he was a pain in the ass sometimes," recalls Burrell), though Amplas apparently got on fine with him and had no problems at all. The actors talk about getting cast and playing their roles, Kutchaver provides some detail on the challenge of creating the bird effects for the climax, and while many of the memories of the shoot are positive ones, first-time producer Baldwin admits that "if I had any clue at that time what it takes to take on a film like The Dark Half I'm sure I wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole."

Deleted Scenes (7:50)
Presented 4:3 from a standard definition source, three of the five sequences presented here are extensions of existing scenes, but there's a new one involving Stark and Liz and the original ending, which is discussed elsewhere and is a valuable inclusion.

Stark and Thad write

Archival Material
The following extras are all under this banner and produced at the time of the film's original release.

Behind the Scenes: Special Effects (15:42)
Home movie video footage of the effects team at work. There's an interesting look at the building of a diorama model of Thad's house, but the majority of the running time is devoted to a key effect used at the film's climax, so steer clear of this until after the main feature. The puppetry impressed the hell out of me, though.

Behind the Scenes: On the Set Featurette (8:45)
A structurally ramshackle but still worthwhile collection of behind-the-scenes footage that's valuable for the material of Romero directing.

Storyboards (1:17)
Storyboards for the original ending, played over the soundtrack of the version that replaced it. The footage of this sequence is in the deleted scenes.

Original EPK (6:43)
The usual EPK stuff, a mix of extracts and material from the other extras in this section, including behind-the-scenes footage and interviews, just a little of which is unique to this extra.

Interviews (7:02)
Brief interviews with Romero, Amy Madigan and Michael Rooker that were clearly shot during the film's production (Rooker is interviewed in costume), with predictable questions that restrict some of the replies to a single short sentence.

Theatrical Trailer (1:38)
A  very well-edited trailer that avoids serious spoilers and is a rather good sell.

TV Spot (0:36)
A shorter version of the above.

Booklet
The lead essay here is a fascinating musing by writer Simon Ward on the ritual of writing and how this relates to The Dark Half and King's relationship to his own writing alter-ego, Richard Bachman. Also by Ward is an illustrated piece on the video game adaptation of the film, one that I was unaware of the existence of but would love to have played. Finally, we have some detailed notes on the film's production with no author credit, though whoever was responsible, they did a sound job. Also included are credits, viewing notes and promotional imagery.

final thoughts

The Dark Half is a film that I wish I liked as much as I had anticipated that I would when I first went to see it. I liked the novel a lot, but while there's much to enjoy here it never quite clicks for me as a supernatural thriller, and as a result is not one of my favourite Romero films, though that doesn't mean that I won't pull the Blu-ray out occasionally and give it another watch. And this is a very good disc, boasting a strong transfer and containing all of the extras from the American Shout! Factory release, plus a couple of new ones that ultimately make this the version to own. Opinions will differ on the film, but if this is up your street then the disc is a must-have. Recommended.

The Dark Half Blu-ray cover
The Dark Half

USA 1993
122 mins
directed by
George A. Romero
produced by
Declan Baldwin
written by
George A. Romero
from the novel by
Stephen King
cinematography
Tony Pierce-Roberts
editing
Pasquale Buba
music
Christopher Young
production design
Cletus Anderson
starring
Timothy Hutton
Amy Madigan
Michael Rooker
Julie Harris
Robert Joy
Kent Broadhurst
Beth Grant
Royal Dano

disc details
region B
video
1.85:1
sound
LPCM 2.0 stereo
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
languages
English
subtitles
English SDH
extras
Commentary by George A. Romero
Son of the Incredibly Strange Film Show: George A. Romero & Tom Savini
The Sparrows Are Flying Again documentary
Deleted scenes
Begind the scenes: special effects
Behind the scenes: on-set featurette
Storyboards
Original EPK
Archive interviews
Trailer
TV spot
Booklet

distributor
Eureka Entertainment
release date
14 October 2019
review posted
20 October 2019

related reviews
Night of the Living Dead
Martin
Dawn of the Dead
Day of the Dead
Monkey Shines

See all of Slarek's reviews