An appreciation of the undervalued 1990 Stephen King adaptation
With every movie-going human being tripping over their toes to ladle love and money on the lavish remounting of Stephen King’s gargantuan novel It, it’s nice to see that the veteran master of literary arcana’s source material still has the power to suck in the pundits. If you believe the hype, It (or at least the first part of It that has thus far seen release) might just be the most financially successful horror movie in history. Critics are hot for the movie too and, to be fair, It is a beautifully produced and faithful realization of the 1986 book, improving on the limitations of Tommy Lee Wallace’s flawed but effective 1990 TV miniseries and providing a wealth of scares, both of the slow-creeping and jump-out-of-your-skin variety.
But the problem with It is that the picture – which reframes King’s initially 60s-set tale in the 80s – feels kind of…forced. Netflix’s hit series Stranger Things is the poster child for this wave of Regan-era pop culture fetishization, a greatest hits of that decade’s horror and fantasy movie tropes and it all works. Because of the show’s success, it’s clear that IT was re-designed to ride those small-screen coattails, going so far as to its casting of Stranger Things‘ Finn Wolfhard. And because of that, IT sort of left me a bit cold. It felt fabricated, calculated. It’s a fairly safe blockbuster entertainment, goosed-up gore be damned.
Now, come with me as I dial-back the clock to 1990 and the release of the King-cribbed Graveyard Shift. The ’80s saw a boom of lower-budgeted films that licensed King’s short stories, fleshing them out to varying degrees of success. King himself directed one of these cinematic expansions, 1986’s Maximum Overdrive and while King has since rejected that film (his first and last as a director) as a coked-up folly, I adore the picture. In fact, I tend to love most of the King films blown-up from his short stories (Creepshow, Silver Bullet, et al). Truth be told, I actually find King the writer at his strongest in the short story format. His novels – while expertly constructed and realized – tend to be bloated affairs that are not always suited to cinema.
But those short stories? Damn. They have few peers…
Witness his now-legendary Night Shift collection, a 1978 book released after the success of his first novel Carrie that amassed most of King’s previously published early work. Many of the movies from the ’80s are cribbed from this collection and almost every story is a blood-freezer. Among the pack – which includes “Children of the Corn”, “The Lawnmower Man etc.” – sits King’s concise 1970 shocker “Graveyard Shift”, one of the scariest damn tales (tails?) of terror I have ever read. Ever.
“Graveyard Shift” shows King’s brilliance at setting up a drama, fleshing out characters and conflict and delivering massive scares, devoid of resolution in a tiny, page-bound space. The story sees a cotton-mill worker and his sadistic boss venturing deep into the basements and sub-basements of the rat-filled structure only to unearth a hive of mutant, blind and blood-hungry monster vermin. It’s a horrifying story and while it may seem on surface too brief to be fleshed out into a feature film, director Ralph S. Singleton did it and did it really, really well. In truth, Graveyard Shift the movie is my favorite King movie, or at least the one I think just might be the purest rendering of his shorter work.
Let me elaborate.
When Roger Corman made his celebrated “Poe Cycle” films in the early 1960s, he charged his writers – Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, chiefly – to expand tales that were more like snapshots. Take The Pit and the Pendulum for example. In the Poe story, we have a first-person piece of paranoia about a man strapped to the titular torture device during the Spanish Inquisition. As the swinging blade of the pendulum drops closer to his torso, he skirts madness before devising a way to narrowly escape. This is not a story. It’s a set-piece. So with the 1961 film, Matheson borrowed elements from other Poe stories to flesh out a drama of walled-up women, philandering wives, evil legacies, torture, madness, morality and just desserts served cold. At the center of the web sits the arc of the man and the pendulum and that nerve-shredding climax feels earned and organic, as does the movie constructed around it.
This thoughtful, ingenious and reverent approach is exactly what screenwriter John Esposito did with Graveyard Shift a film that was met with critical vitriol upon release, though trading on the King name still ensured a moderately successful box office take. Still, the movie was generally dismissed and the ensuing years saw very little in the way of a critical revaluation. Singleton never directed another feature, either. Shame that.
When I rented Graveyard Shift the following year (I was too young to see the film theatrically), I was instantly smitten with it. Like Eric Red’s Body Parts (another Paramount quickie release that still stands as an undervalued gem) I thrilled to the old-fashioned, air-tight, no-frills storytelling, genre irreverence and its acute sense of the Grand Guignol and was even more enamored by the way the movie built a convincing world around that skin-crawling source story. Here was a horror movie, a bona fide horror movie that was totally out of step with its time and loaded with personality. It’s a film ripe for rediscovery.
The movie tells the tale of the ancient Bachman (a nod to King’s pen-name) textile mill (the real-life Bartlett mill in Maine) that, after being boarded up for years, has been recently reopened for business. The machines are work just fine but the mill’s recent tenants – a dynasty of diseased rats – refuse to be evicted and run rampant. The blue collar workers, hard-up for employ, balk at the filth of the place but the sneering foreman Warwick (The Monster Squad‘s Stephen Macht) refuses to sympathize, treating his staff like sweatshop slaves. When a morally sound drifter (David Andrews) rolls into town looking for work, he immediately butts heads with the sadistic Warwick. Meanwhile, workers keep getting murdered and sucked into the bowels of the building by…something. Something wet, leathery, toothy and starving. And in the center of all this overheated EC Comics inspired mania, a wild-eyed exterminator (Brad Dourif, in one of his weirdest roles) lays waste to as many rodents as he can find and the neighboring graveyard spews out enough mist to fill another King film entirely.
Everything about Graveyard Shift works. We mentioned EC Comics and that’s no accident. Most of those shivery early King tales bore the influence of vintage Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror books, something King has long been proud of citing. The author’s most relevant collaboration with the late, great George A. Romero, 1982’s masterful Creepshow was itself a blatant nod to EC and Graveyard Shift often feels like an expanded episode from that anthology.
And as with many EC stories, rotting, shrill and broadly painted atmosphere and characters are the name of the game here and both director and cast are up to the task of bringing that four-color creepiness to lurid life. While Andrews makes a solid if somewhat flat hero, his muted energy is in sharp contrast to Macht’s absolutely outrageous turn as Warwick, who goes from full-fledged asshole boss to unholy asshole lunatic in the movie’s ballistic final act. Dourif’s eccentric rat-killer is electric, a skeezy yet somehow sympathetic creep who adds comic relief and absurdity to an already pretty out-there movie and future Wishmaster Andrew Divoff is fantastic as a sneering bully-worker turned snivelling victim.
Graveyard Shift is also perhaps the most noxious movie in American horror history. Remember that “body pit” sequence in Dario Argento’s Phenomena? The part where Jennifer Connelly is drowning in a filthy pool of oatmeal-ified corpses? Well, Graveyard Shift is that sequence drawn out for 90 minutes. Every inch of this rat-infested shocker is designed to drive you to the showers. I’ve rarely experienced a film that genuinely made me feel contaminated while watching. Ugh. And I mean that in a GOOD way.
But best of all, Graveyard Shift feels like it lives in King’s world. It’s actually filmed in Bangor, Maine. The locations are evocative and authentic, the actors nail the New England accent and my GOD does Singleton nail the dread of the original King story. Of course, he pads out the journey into the guts of the mill with other characters and FX man Gordon Smith’s central monster – and what a monster – is a sickening bat/rat mutant thing with gelatinous body and suffocating wings as opposed to the shivering “thing” King hints at. But it’s a great realization of King’s wordplay and Singleton pushes the entire ending into the sort of berserk vomitorium that the author suggested the story would become. And man, is this movie splattery. The MPAA may have been hacking apart slasher movies to secure R ratings but because Graveyard Shift is ostensibly a “creature movie” it managed to squeak (like a rat) by them, pouring on the gore and still getting that commercially coveted R.
Carrie is a perfect Brian De Palma movie. The Shining is Kubrick’s masterpiece. The Shawshank Redemption is Frank Darabont at his best. But Graveyard Shift feels more authentically King-ish than any of those rightfully celebrated films. It feels scrappy. It feels like punk rock, bursting with energy and laced with subtly angry social comment. It feels mean and dangerous and is deeply, unopologetically weird. Like all of King’s early stuff.
Give this giddy, messy and macabre movie another look, won’t you? It may not be “better” than It. But it’s better than It. Get it?