George A. Romero's Knightriders
*½/**** Image B+ Sound B Extras A
starring Ed Harris, Gary Lahti, Tom Savini, Amy Ingersol
written and directed by George A. Romero
*½/**** Image B- Sound B Extras C+
starring Jason Beghe, John Pankow, Kate McNeil, Joyce Van Patten
based on the novel by Michael Stewart
written for the screen and directed by George A. Romero
THE DARK HALF
**/**** Image B Sound B Extras A
starring Timothy Hutton, Amy Madigan, Julie Harris, Michael Rooker
based on the book by Stephen King
written for the screen and directed by George A. Romero
by Walter Chaw Knightriders, George A. Romero's very own Fast Company, is another of the earnestly socially-conscious filmmaker's earnestly socially-conscious films, though one without the benefit of a metaphor that holds any kind of water. It doesn't even have an argument that makes sense. It feels like Romero over-identifying with the topic and losing the thread somewhere along the way--and padding the runtime with far too many pedestrian bike stunts. There's something to be said for personal projects (Romero's work seems like it's all personal, frankly), but with that intimacy comes real peril. I will say Romero's Night of the Living Dead is a no-kidding masterpiece. It's one of the best films ever made and perhaps the single most important Civil Rights picture, too. I'm partial to his Day of the Dead as well, for the cleanness of its execution and for the interesting things it has to say about identity and the military-industrial complex. It's fair to wonder, then, if Romero is tied so inextricably to the zombie genre not because (or not just because) of timeliness (and that he essentially invented an entire subgenre with a legion of imitators), but also because without zombies, his stuff is only leaden and clumsy. Without zombies functioning as they do, as both grand bogey and versatile metaphor, Romero's weighed down by a lethal payload of well-meant proselytizing, and just like that the flat artlessness of his films feels less "spartan" on purpose than "affectless" by accident.
In Knightriders, a travelling Renaissance Fair troupe stages jousts on motorcycle-back under the despotic eye of King Billy (Ed Harris), who, when not registering his approval or disapproval of his merry group's larping, monologues at length about how acting like this, living like this, is a way of sticking it to the Establishment. Because it's pure. Get it? Not like the Man and his jobs and his families and stuff, but like King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. When some brat wants King Billy to sign the motorcycle fan mag in which King Billy's been featured (without his knowledge, he claims), King Billy can't sell out like that; get the fuck out, kid. He's here to slay the dragon. And the dragon is being a grown up.
Romero admits to completely identifying with King Billy, and in that find some of the solipsistic romance of the independent filmmaker, battling against the odds, taking second jobs and selling blood and maxing out credit cards for the sake of some notion of artistic purity. Never mind if the product of all that maybe isn't terrific or meaningful to anyone else save the small cadre of people immediately contributing to it. (It's a fine line between "pure" and "empty," after all.) Consider the commune sequence of Easy Rider, or its final scene--both of which Knightriders eventually apes, along with the ending of Electra Glide in Blue. It's possible to read these pictures as noble; I read them as sad. King Billy, in any other context, is an Orwellian martinet played to perfect Method intensity by the clearly-insufferable Harris. He's a jerk and a demagogue. After "selling out" to minor celebrity, his troupe snivels back to a life of privation and knocking one another silly in juvenile contests that doesn't seem even a bit more genuine, nor spiritually nourishing, than punching a time clock for thirty years.
Knightriders' greatest strength is its greatest weakness. Something it shares with Romero: it's committed. It has no sense of its not having any idea what it wants to say, but relies on the fact that whatever it's saying, it's saying it repeatedly and passionately. Close to two-and-a-half hours is a lot to invest in a long conversation with a well-meaning social philosopher. Fans of the film invariably demur that they like it because of its unwavering devotion to its high concept. I would hazard that its climax--where King Billy loses his mind essentially and brutalizes a cop before driving off into Valhalla--has more to do with its cult status, in direct conflict with that assertion. The rest of it, more or less, is the biker sequence from Dawn of the Dead, the one that stops the movie cold and also features make-up artist Tom Savini giving a scare-quotes performance. But for two hours. Oh, and with drive-in exploitation elements, such as gratuitous tits and motorcycle stunts, à la the slapstick bit where a guy breaks through a few garden signs before ramping into a lake to a banjo score. I think stuff like that just makes Romero laugh. There are other scenes, too, between all the jousty nonsense. Scenes like jovial "Friar" Tuck (John Hostetter) eating pizza while naked with an equally portly, equally jovial photographer; like angry (?) Morgan le Fay (Savini) waggling his moustache; like giant Little John (Dawn of the Dead's Ken Foree) picking things up and walking around. It's paradise, or Camelot, or Sherwood Forest--don't you get it? Stop harshing my mellow, narc.
Better, if largely by dint of its relative brevity, 1988's Monkey Shines cribs its otherwise-inexplicable key art from Stephen King's Skeleton Crew, published three years before, in a rather transparent attempt to piggyback on Romero's Creepshow relationship with the author. Did I mention that King cameos as a rube in Knightriders? No? Doesn't matter. There's maybe nothing more '80s than the glut of terrible King adaptations from 1982 through to forever. There are a few good ones along the way, of course, but when they're bad, they're bad in the particular way that King adaptations are bad. It's a mysterious quality; the auteur theory was never so peculiarly applied. I'm getting ahead of myself, though: Monkey Shines has nothing to do with Stephen King, although it's bad enough to have been an adaptation produced during this era. It's about a health nut, Allan (Jason Beghe), who gets crunched while jogging with a backpack full of bricks and ends up a quadriplegic in need of a helper monkey. His slut girlfriend Linda (an impossibly fresh Janine Turner) rejects him for his sleazy doctor (Stanley Tucci), leaving him free to pursue ace monkey-keeper Melanie (Kate McNeil). Little do either of them know, monkey researcher/supplier Geoffrey (John Pankow) has been injecting his lab monkeys with human brains, making them telepathic or manifestations of the id or something. Romero is interested in the ideas that drive his pictures; he's less interested in--or possibly less capable of--executing them. Anyway, the monkey, Ella (Boo), acts out on Allan's homicidal frustrations, resulting in murder, monkey-style. Don't worry, there's a really, really happy ending.
Romero talks about the studio pressure that led to said happy ending. Alas Monkey Shines is terrible before its terrible ending. Beghe is sort of a more boring Ryan O'Neal, making him beige paint in a wheelchair. It occurs to me that one of the reasons George Romero is George Romero is that he had Stanley Tucci and John Pankow in his cast but handed the starring role to Jason Beghe. The oft-told tale of how he cast the fantastic Duane Jones as the lead in Night of the Living Dead simply because he was the best actor they knew is, sadly, a fairly unique case of good decision-making in that regard. The slapstick in this one involves Allan's mom (Joyce Van Patten) in the bathtub with a radio that trips a breaker--and, to its credit, it works. It's the best part of a movie with a sex scene that predicts the one in Born on the Fourth of July plus a lot of awful performances in the service of a lousy script. The pacing is poor, the jump scares likewise, and the premise is hackneyed and clumsily-executed. The gore effects aren't that great, either.
Yet admittedly, there's something nostalgically warm about Monkey Shines. Whatever the weaknesses of Romero's pictures, there's always to them this air of genial affability. Romero doesn't really want to scare you, or tell a tale too bleak--he wants to teach you something, maybe, and maybe share a few gallows-ready laughs. Take a scene where sweet Melanie wrestles with Ella in a death-grapple on the floor: shades of Bela throwing the rubber octopus over himself. Tom Savini is a second-tier cult personality/effects artist and it's moments like these that underscore that status. Take the moment of Allan's crippling, which Romero fashions into a montage of mismatched flash-edits, ending with Allan doing a literal pirouette in the air before cutting to a brick smashing on the road. I understand the appeal of this stuff, on some level.
Working with twice as much money as he had on Monkey Shines, Romero actually adapts a King best-seller next with 1993's The Dark Half (discounting a brief interlude where he joined Dawn collaborator Dario Argento for the anthology Two Evil Eyes)--a shot at the big time, as it were, with big shot (as it were) Timothy Hutton as author Thad Beaumont, who, like King had Richard Bachman, has a pseudonym under which he writes pulp fiction. Turns out, Thad as a kid had fragments of a Basket Case malignant twin removed from his brain. When he, as an adult, attempts to "kill" his alter ego in a publicity stunt, lo, his alter ego manifests as the rockabilly version of Thad. Fun fact: When I first saw the trailers for this movie as a 19-year-old fanboy, I thought Michael Keaton was playing the alter ego. That would've been cool. Soon, people who participated in the "offing" of Thad's fake persona are found murdered, the crime scenes covered with Thad's fingerprints. This confuses Sheriff Pangborn (Michael Rooker) and Thad's long-suffering wife Liz (Amy Madigan), of course, but luckily a billion sparrows appear to carry Evil Thad back to wherever it is that sparrows (and alter egos) go. It's stupid.
It's also another variation on the Monkey Shines conceit of Jungian shadows and Freudian id manifestations. George Stark, Thad's phantom twin, is practically one of John D. MacDonald's psychopaths: driven by misogyny and violence, building to a final battle where a child is imperilled and Liz gets to be plucky whilst tied to a chair. There's some quality violence in this one, the worst of it reserved for George himself--though the murder of publisher Miriam (Rutanya Alda) I found particularly difficult to watch. It's cruel. I'm not complaining. The problem with The Dark Half is that, again, whatever there is that's good is repeated to the point of bludgeoning and the rest is sweaty medium-shot exposition. There's something curious about all of it, for what it's worth. It seems to hail from an earlier era in filmmaking, where people wait for each other to finish their line and everyone stands in perfect blocking...for the stage.
Rooker is wonderfully understated in a thankless role as the cop who doesn't believe until he does, pointing again to the idea that Romero often has the right people in his films but seldom has them in the right roles. Rooker as Thad Beaumont would've been brave and brilliant. I hear the argument about marketability and studio interference and insistence; I get it, I do. And yet I skylark at the possibilities. For his part, Hutton is fine. He's intense in both roles. His late-film stand-off against himself is clever enough, but the movie never soars and is crippled, once again, by an ending so convenient it tests patience mightily. Still, give the picture credit for following through on its promise of The Birds in showing a cellar-bound avian attack from start to completion. Definitely there's a problem in having Hutton's character married to Madigan's: There's only so much furrowed earnestness permissible in a single shot, and The Dark Half pushes it. After this, Romero returns to the microbudget with the fairly solid Bruiser and the purgatory of more zombie sequels. If anything, The Dark Half demonstrates that Romero can make a cheap-looking, poorly-modulated picture no matter the budget.
THE BLU-RAY DISCS
The heroes at Shout! Factory bring Knightriders into next-gen video with a 1.85:1, 1080p Blu-ray transfer. Compared to the VHS I'm used to, it's a revelation. It looks like Deliverance. That's a compliment. Once you get past the deliberate fuzziness of the opening with King Billy, au natural, bathing in the Sylvan wie, the image takes on a dazzling crispness, with only the mildest trace of edge-enhancement. Whites peak, which is fairly common across these Romero titles, but blacks are deep and true. A 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track satisfies modest expectations for the original mono mix. Romero, Savini, actor John Amplas, and Chris Stavrakis (brother of actor Tasos Stavrakis) combine for a jovial, sometimes-rollicking commentary that casts back fondly on the shoot as Romero gets into how much of himself is in King Billy's tilting at windmills. The first mention of Morgan Freeman being kind of a dick surfaces here, to be knocked out of the park in Romero's video-based interview segment. Savini goes on about the great stuntwork in the piece (truly, no matter the difficulty, it's not cinematically exciting in the slightest), and compliments are freely exchanged. I was most affected by the fond recollections of Brother Blue, the troupe's "Merlin" and de facto medic. Sounds like a nice fella.
"Conscience of the King with Ed Harris" (8 mins., HD) has Harris reflecting fondly and generously on what he saw as a breakthrough opportunity. His thoughts on the ending? Vague. Still his eyes sparkle in the recollection. "Code of Honor with George Romero" (17 mins., HD) is where Romero reveals that Freeman auditioned for the Brother Blue role but bristled at Romero having specified that Merlin is black in the screenplay. Romero's rationale is worth the price of admission--as is his acknowledgment that had Freeman accepted the role, he may not have had the career he wound up having. Perhaps neither of them would have. In "Memories of Morgan with Tom Savini" (10 mins., HD), the F/X man talks about his relationship with Romero and, you know, a lot about himself. "Behind the Scenes: The Stunts of Knightriders" (8 mins.) is a contemporary piece that if nothing else captures the scariness of falling off a motorbike in a suit of armour. A block consisting of the movie's trailer, bumped up to HD, and a couple of hoary TV spots (3 mins.) rounds out the aces presentation.
Shout! Imprint Scream Factory brings Monkey Shines to Blu in a rather dull-looking 1.85:1, 1080p transfer that might speak more to the source than to the master. Colours, despite having an artificially pumped-up appearance, are drab and pink-hued; the image lacks pop in that typical late-'80s way, complete with a clumpy, ill-defined grain structure. Shadow detail is fine, although a stylized sex scene with Turner and Tucci is almost indecipherable. The DTS-HD Master Audio lands in 2.0 and 5.1 adaptations of the movie's Dolby SR mix, the latter doing a nice job of distributing David Shire's score to the discretes. Side note that Romero chose Shire to score the film after watching The Conversation, an anecdote that by itself might earn Monkey Shines an extra half-star. Romero returns for a feature-length yakker moderated by radio host Stuart F. Andrews that begins inauspiciously with an icky exchange regarding Turner's backside. "He pulls the sheets the wrong way in my opinion!" Andrews remarks to a chorus of leery hardy-hars. Then he says of Beghe's naked posterior that it's, you know, not the ass he wants to see, nudge nudge wink wink knowwhatImeanknowwhatImean? Yeah. Romero demurs, observing that Beghe was a beautiful specimen and that this is the only time we see him out of a wheelchair...well, until the stupid studio intervened. There's talk throughout of the horrors of working with monkeys and it's not boring, but I don't know if they ever recover from that early exchange, to be honest. Gross, guys, c'mon.
"Experiment in Fear: The Making of Monkey Shines" (49 mins., HD) is a new documentary in which the movie's principals (absent Tucci) discuss various errata. I liked the story of how Boo the Monkey tricked Beghe into eating her shit, just because it's set up as a hilarious tale of primate hijinks and ends up being terrible. Beghe, however, thinks it's funny. I appreciated, too, McNeil's candour. She had to lose weight from her pregnancy to win the role ("humiliating," she says) and recalls how frightened and vulnerable she felt shooting the sex scene. All the more reason that lack of dignity on the commentary leaves a bad taste. There's also a lengthy diatribe about the ending and the challenges of working within the studio system, etc. For what it's worth, Scream has dug up that "Alternate Ending" (5 mins.) and, real-talk time, it's not better. Or should I say, it's only marginally better. Imagine holding on a shot of Stephen Root clutching a monkey, Aguirre-like, then ripping off the most iconic image from Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator. It's different garbage from the studio-imposed ending, but garbage just the same. Joining these supplements: "Behind the Scenes Footage" (1 min.); a stills gallery (2 mins.) of monkey stand-ins; an obsolete "Making of" (5 mins.) from '88 where everyone speaks with much more pride and optimism about the final product; and a reel of old interviews with Romero (4 mins.) that shows the director playing the good soldier while going to bat for the ideas in the picture. Two Monkey Shines trailers and a TV spot (4 mins. in toto, HD/SD) cap things off.
Scream's Blu-ray release of The Dark Half features identical tech configurations (1.85:1, 1080p/5.1 and 2.0 lossless audio) but a noticeable uptick in clarity from Monkey Shines. Credit the film's higher budget, perhaps, or maybe its relative recency. The proceedings get off to a rocky start, mind, with a main-title sequence filled with chalky grain and black levels that are all over the map, and the split-screen opticals when Hutton interacts with himself are never not betrayed by a sudden drop in sharpness. Again, too, flesh tones are pretty ruddy. As for the soundtracks, there's not much difference between the two, ultimately. I switched back and forth a few times during the sparrow-heavy denouement and there's some increased surround usage, sure, but the impact is negligible. Romero and Andrews return for another yakker and dwell on how Hutton instantly alienated everyone on set, especially Romero, with his Method antics. As Stark, Romero recalls here and in his talking-head, Hutton wouldn't speak to anyone and was an asshole in general. I've heard only good things about Hutton so I don't know what to tell you. I did like when Romero says the sparrow effects are godawful and have aged horribly. This is true.
"The Sparrows Are Flying Again: The Making of The Dark Half" (36 mins., HD) is fantastic, with Romero elaborating that he felt like Hutton made him a better director with his difficult and demanding behaviour. Rooker is less diplomatic yet doesn't seem to be carrying a grudge: "I'm not friends with anyone on that film," he says with a smile. Rooker should be the star of everything. A shame he's wasting his time on that idiot television show. The "Deleted Scenes" (8 mins.) are typically expository and excised with good cause. "Behind the Scenes Footage" (23 mins.) covers some of the concepts behind the special effects and includes B-roll of the actors going through their paces. The set looks like a tense one, to be sure, but that could be the power of suggestion. "Storyboards of the Original Ending" (1 min., HD) is a ridiculous rendering of Stark getting carried off, Christ-like, by a few hundred sparrows. Though Romero laments the release ending (again) of this one, it's vastly superior to the original conception, which he admits they couldn't figure out how to pull off visually in any case. The Dark Half's trailer (2 mins., HD) and TV spot (30s) join a fun stills gallery (4 mins.), "Vintage Interview Clips" (7 mins.), and the nostalgia-inducing EPK (7 mins.) in closing out the disc. Credit Hutton for being a good sport at the time and going full promo. Guy's a professional. At the risk of seeming a little mean, maybe that's why he was so hard to get along with on this shoot.