Exploiting Our Archives: Cocaine is a Hell of a Drug Case File #95 Maximum Overdrive
Stephen King could very well be our nation’s single most popular fiction writer, as well as one of our best and most important popular entertainers. But he’s also a very well-liked human being who has retained an everyman charm despite achieving a level of success inconceivable to most people.
King has been refreshingly candid about his personal and emotional struggles, as well as the way they inform his life and work. One of the reasons King remains so staunchly against Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining (which most of us agree is a pretty good movie, maybe even better than the King-penned mini-series starring Steven Weber) is because he feels it failed to do justice to the story as an allegory for King’s own alcoholism.
To borrow the words of another best-selling author whose work has endured, 1986 was the best of times and the worst of times for Stephen King and his terrible, terrible cocaine addiction. That was the year King released a little book y’all might be familiar with called It. Actually, it’s inaccurate to call it little, because the full text runs a coke-fueled 1,138 pages. I think if King were high on life and off the Bolivian Marching Powder, he probably could have wrapped up things in 950 pages, tops. Oh, also the current film adaptation of It is on target to become the most commercially successful horror film of all time.
I really like King, and appreciate him making enough money for Scribner that they could publish money-losing tomes like The Big Rewind, My Year of Flops (an unmistakable flop itself, from a publishing standpoint) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me, but him scoring the biggest ever horror movie at this stage in his career is like J.K Rowling winning the lottery. It doesn’t seem entirely fair for someone with so much to get even more, even if he deserves it by virtue of doing work of tremendous quantity and quality.
On a less auspicious note, 1986 also marked the nadir of the cocaine addition phase of King’s career in the form of Maximum Overdrive, the first, last and I think it’s safe to assume, only, adaptation of Stephen King’s work to be directed by Stephen King himself. In Hollywood’s Stephen King, King says, with characteristic self-deprecating bluntness, that he was“coked out of [his] mind all through its production, and [he] really didn't know what [he] was doing.”
That comes through loud and clear in every frame of the movie. King is credited as director here but this might be another case of a giant bag of cocaine becoming sentient and deciding to direct a movie that reflected its sensibility in its purest form. King is one of our greatest storytellers, but a movie about a crazy world full of Southern-fried assholes where all the machines suddenly become sentient and try to kill all humans sure seems like the kind of idea a sentient bag of cocaine would come up with.
King’s directorial debut and swan song opens in outer spacewith the words “Dino De Laurentiis Presents”, a credit that engendered both feverish excitement and no small amount of dread from me. De Laurentiis is one of the all-time great schlockmeisters, whose credits include both Blue Velvet and Conan The Barbarian. It’s followed by “A Film by Stephen King”, a credit the film’s disastrous reception ensured we’d never see again, for better or worse.
Maximum Overdrive is a science-fiction/horror hybrid but it opens with a weird gauntlet of juvenile comedy. King can do anything with the fertile idea of every machine and electronic gizmo in the world coming alive and taking vengeance on the arrogant talking meat-bags known as human beings. So what does King, an ostensible adult, do? He has the LED display on a bank read “Fuck You” and an ATM machine skip the usual formalities so it can tell a sunglasses-wearing, white suit-clad doofus (played, of course, by Stephen King, who somehow imagined a close up of his coke-bloated visage was something audiences would want to see in the film’s first five minutes) gawking at it, “You are an asshole.”
King delivers the film’s all too representative first two lines in, “Honey, come on over here, Sugarbuns” followed by “This machine just called me an asshole.” Now, in the grips of King’s coke addiction, it sure must have felt like the ATM machine was calling him an asshole for wasting his fortune so carelessly. That doesn’t mean King should have started a movie that way, particularly since the film almost immediately abandons the “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if machines swore at us?” streak of puerile comedy that inform its embarrassingly broad, sloppy, silly opening.
It is not hilarious for machines to swear at people. Yet I will grudgingly concede that when the action switches to a Little League game and a mischievous sentient Soda Pop machine sends an ice-cold, lightning-fast can of Cola in the direction of a hapless coaches’ crotch I laughed longer and harder than I’m comfortable admitting.
There’s just something about a dude getting hit in the nuts that bypasses the intellect and hits your inner three year old like, well, a dude getting hit in the nuts with a flying can of Cola. I’m laughing now just thinking about it. The nuts! The soda! The injury! Oh but it is divine. It works on so many levels!
Ah, but Maximum Overdrive is not devoted solely to the timeless humor of machines swearing at people and injuring genitalia. I kind of wish it was. I would have preferred that astonishingly stupid movie to the one we ended up with.
After a flurry of bad comedy, the action relocates to a truck stop in the Deep South where an unlikely group of survivors, led by Emilio Estevez at his prettiest, gather together in an attempt to get sentient trucks to stop trying to murder them all. Early in the film, one of our two black characters is introduced “sassing” one of the machines antagonizing him in a video game/pinball room with a stiff cry of “Yo mama!” Then he figures out what’s going on and begins stealing things, most notably cigarettes, before he’s quickly and fatally electrocuted, and more or less forgotten about. So while Maximum Overdrive was nominated for multiple Golden Raspberry Awards, it understandably was overlooked at the NAACP Image Awards.
The Dixie Boy truck stop, alas, is nowhere near as cosmopolitan as its name would suggest. It’s run by Bubba Hendershot (Pat Hingle, glistening sweat and over-acting up a storm), who similarly is not as his continental moniker would suggest, but who keeps his employees (most of whom appear to be on parole, like Estevez’s brooding ex-con) in line by threatening to report them to their parole officers if they displease him.
Dixie Boy has a suspiciously vast assortment of powerful weapons stashed away, including a frequently used rocket launcher. It’s never explicitly established in the film itself, but it seems like these good old boys were stockpiling weapons for an upcoming race war, but figure using them against evil trucks and malevolent machines is almost as good.
A sinister group of driverless, sentient trucks circle Dixie Boy, most notably one with the ghoulish visage of Spider-Man villain Green Goblin on its grill. As a boy I was fixated on this image, which figured prominently in all of its advertising, on movie posters and on the movie’s deceptively alluring VHS box.
I could’t even imagine how awesome and weird and sinister that crazy-looking truck must be. Then I finally saw Maximum Overdrive and was disappointed both for myself and for the ten-year-old me that the Green Goblin truck is the only vehicle with any personality whatsoever, and that personality consists entirely of wanting to kill people because, hey, why not? The gang at Dixie Boy seems awfully killable. I’m a pacifist and I half-wanted to kill them themselves.
Maximum Overdrive is populated by such a thinly conceived rogue’s gallery of rednecks, goobers, buffoons and morons that I found myself halfway rooting for the sentient machines. We’ve had a good run, after all. Maybe it’s time we let the evil sentient machines have a shot? They can’t possibly screw things up worse than we did, right? I can’t see evil trucks electing Donald Trump President.
As it lurches unsteadily to a close Maximum Overdrive finds the embattled humans striking a deal with the evil sinister trucks. These aren’t just any evil trucks. These trucks are nothing short of monstrous, monster trucks as it were, not unlike that one movie, Monster Trucks.
How is that possible? Well, in the kind of idea that might make sense if you’re blown out of your mind on rails, and have been fucking coked out of your gourd for months, if not years, the trucks communicate with the humans through the Morse Code a little boy conveniently happens to know.
The trucks are all, “Hey, if you feed us some of that sweet, sweet gasoline we need to be healthy and strong, we promise not to kill you all. And if you can’t trust an evil, sentient assemblage of trucks who’ve aggressively been trying to murder you, then who can you trust?”
This makes perfect sense to the film’s characters, who I have to imagine are also whacked out on Booger Sugar, so we’re treated to a “Survivors wearily pumping gas into evil sentient trucks” montage that has somehow failed to make it into the pantheon of great horror and science-fiction set-pieces.
Holy fuck is this movie ever stupid. It’s just so fucking dumb. Christ, in the ridiculous, ridiculous third act, a sentient machine gun makes its present felt and becomes a major secondary villain. A machine gun in the hands of a realistic villain can be terrifying. A sentient machine gun that fires of its own accord, on the other hand, is just stupid, and, like everything else, much closer to silly than scary.
Speaking of stupid, a waitress understandably pissed by the whole “machines coming alive and killing everyone” thing spends much of the end of the movie yelling angrily at the sentient killer trucks and machines, “We made you!” as if one of the trucks is going to stop everything, magically gain the ability to speak English and answer, “Christ, I hadn’t even thought of that! Yes, humans made machines to do their bidding. They did not make machines to murder them, as I now realize. I am so moved and convinced by your logic that I’m going to stop trying to kill you and maybe, I don’t know, go to college and see if I can be an Art History professor or something. I’d love to be the first sentient evil truck in my family to go to college.”
The hillbillies eventually outwit the sentient cars (on account of the sentient cars being even dumber than the rednecks) and King’s inner three year old returns for the final line of dialogue in the movie, which Yeardley Smith (yes, the voice of Lisa Simpson herself) has the honor of delivering in her role as an annoying young woman who yells at her partner without end: she squeaks, in that inimitable Yardley Smith squeak of hers, “Oh, I think I’m gonna woof my cookies!” Then she lives up to her words and ends the movie by vomiting.
Ladies and gentleman, Un Film De Stephen King!
Stephen King gets just about everything spectacularly wrong with Maximum Overdrive, with one notable exception. Directing is largely a matter of choices, and thankfully King did one thing right in getting AC/DC to do the music. If you’re going to make a movie about trucks and video games and kitchen appliances running amok, there is no better soundtrack than the head-banging heavy metal awesomeness of AC/DC.
When trucks are barreling down the road to the nuclear-blast guitar of Angus Young and the urgent cat-scratch yowl of Brian Johnson, it briefly seems like King might actually know what he’s doing as a filmmaker but those moments pass quickly and the movie returns to a state of amateurish desperation.
The AC/DC soundtrack has endured in a way Maximum Overdrive has not for a very good reason: it’s fucking awesome. It doesn’t redeem or justify this woeful, semi-entertainingly terrible mistake, but it’s the only element of this mess that works, and it doesn’t just work: it works spectacularly. It works perfectly. It is an oasis of perfection in a sea of bad ideas terribly executed.
The big-hearted, generous and very wealthy King famously allows amateur filmmakers to adapt his short stories free of charge, perhaps because he knows all too well that they couldn’t do a worse job bringing his fiction to the big screen than he himself did.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco
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