From The Parallax Review Vaults: The Dark Half (1993)

The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of The Dark Half was for the “On Cable” section of The Parallax Review.

by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor

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The Dark Half could almost be seen as George A. Romero’s forgotten film. It’s not a part of his well-known Dead series, nor is it one of his engrossing, cheaply made indies like Martin, Knightriders, or The Crazies. Like Creepshow, another of his collaborations with Stephen King, it’s a slick effort to court mainstream success. While that plan didn’t pan out for Romero, he still wound up with a very solid genre picture buoyed by some strong performances.

Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton) is a respected novelist and creative writing professor at a college in a picturesque Maine town (never mind that the area surrounding Pittsburgh stands in for New England). With his loving wife, Liz (Amy Madigan) and their twin toddlers, he seems to live a charmed life. In many ways, that would be correct. Never mind that when he was a child, he had surgery for a brain tumor that turned out to be the absorbed fetal remains of his twin that was never to be born. But Thad is unaware of this moment in his life, or the fact that when these remains were cut from his brain, a swarm of hundreds of thousands of sparrows descended on the hospital in a panicked frenzy. No, when we meet Thad, the biggest problem is his life is that he’s being blackmailed by a sleazeball (Robert Joy, chewing every piece of scenery he can fit in his mouth during two short scenes) who has discovered that Thad has been writing trashy, violent crime novels under the pseudonym of “George Stark.” When Thad decides to admit that he’s the man behind the series of novels by Stark, thus ending their run, bad things start happening to the people he knows — namely, the people who supported his decision to symbolically put Stark six feet under.

From this decidedly pulpy setup, Romero turns out a very faithful adaptation of Stephen King’s novel about the duality of personality or, to put it more melodramatically, the beast within. For the first hour of the film, Romero wisely keeps the audience guessing as to what is actually happening. Has Stark really manifested himself in the flesh, hurting and killing those close to Thad to force him to begin writing as his alter ego again? Or has Thad gone off the deep end, his personality breaking to allow Stark to take over his body and commit savage, bloody murder? Even when Stark is revealed, it takes some time before the audience can be sure which is the true answer.

The main reason that Romero is able to keep this question going is the casting of Hutton as both Thad and Stark. I almost had trouble believing the same actor played them. Thad looks like Timothy Hutton, a handsome family man with great hair. As Stark, he slicks his hair back and wears subtle makeup prostheses on his face to make him look a little heavier and give him more angular jawbones. The result is a startling similarity to a demonic Michael Keaton. I spent the whole film wondering if Stark actually was Keaton in an uncredited performance. But it was all Hutton, and he’s great in both roles, creating two distinct characters, not just through the help of makeup, but with different accents, speech patterns, mannerisms, and ways of walking.

The supporting cast is uniformly good to the smallest role. Madigan does her usual tough-girl routine, but it fits her character perfectly. Michael Rooker is solid as the no-nonsense Sheriff Pangborn, taking an underwritten role and inflating it with his casually menacing presence. Add to this the presence of great character actors like Julie Harris, Beth Grant, and Royal Dano (in his final film), and you get a cast that can make even the most ridiculous expository hokum sound natural.

Of course, Romero’s main problem over his career is a tendency to write dialogue that’s a little too on-the-nose. While the overarching theme is the duality of personalities, Romero takes what should be the subtext of a good little horror flick and brings it to the surface, forcing the characters to talk through ideas that would best be left to the audience to consider on their own. Still, it’s hard to fault a horror film for daring to have more on its mind than just blood and gore, though there’s enough of that on display, as well.

Oddly enough, after the very grisly and disturbing prologue featuring the discovery of the fetal matter in Thad’s brain, the overt horror elements are the weakest moments in the film. Stark’s rampage tends to be nothing more than cracking a few bad puns, a la Freddy Krueger, before slitting his victims throats with a straight-razor. It’s a lapse of imagination on Romero’s part that takes some of the fun out of the film. Luckily, Romero’s investment in the characters more than makes up for this shortcoming.

For reasons that I am not aware of, the film has a reputation as being a mediocre entry in the Romero canon. Nothing could be further from the truth. It has its moments where it stumbles, but when it counts, The Dark Half delivers as a horror film that refuses to insult the intelligence of its audience.

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