There are few novelists who have had as much success getting their works turned into films as Stephen King. Seemingly every page that has come out of the writer’s prolific imagination has been made into a movie, mini-series, or anthology television episode. Big-name filmmakers line up to work with him, too; the movies made from his first six books alone were directed by Brian De Palma (Carrie), Tobe Hooper (Salem’s Lot), Stanley Kubrick (The Shining), Lewis Teague (Cujo), David Cronenberg (The Dead Zone), and John Carpenter (Christine). In 1993, another horror heavyweight took a crack at adapting one of King’s books when the legendary George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead, Martin) made The Dark Half.
The Dark Half stars Timothy Hutton (Ordinary People, Taps) as Thad Beaumont, a college professor who writes pulp novels on the side under the name George Stark. During one of Thad’s classes one day, a stranger named Fred Clawson (Robert Joy from Land of the Dead and The Hills Have Eyes) shows up and tries to blackmail Thad, threatening to go public with his secret pseudonym. Rather than cave in to Fred’s demands, Thad and his publisher decide to come clean themselves, staging an elaborate press campaign in which they “bury” the George Stark name. Soon after the symbolic funeral, people close to Thad start dying – and Sheriff Pangborn (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’s Michael Rooker) finds that all of the forensic evidence points towards Thad being the killer. Before long, Thad and his wife, Liz (Amy Madigan from Field of Dreams), learn the truth; George Stark has come alive, and wants Thad to keep writing his books. With the help of Sheriff Pangborn, Thad’s fellow professor Reggie (The Haunting’s Julie Harris), and Liz, Thad has to figure out how to outsmart a man who was created inside of his own mind.
Although they worked together on the anthology film Creepshow and the television show “Tales from the Darkside,” The Dark Half is the first (and so far, only) feature length film collaboration between Stephen King and George A. Romero. In addition to directing The Dark Half, Romero wrote the screenplay, adapting King’s tense, psychological page-turner into a very “Romero-esque” thriller. Unlike most of his movies, Romero made The Dark Half with the backing of a big Hollywood studio (Orion Pictures), so the film is a bit more polished and slick than some of his earlier work. Nevertheless, it still has the distinct Romero fingerprint all over it; it may lack the fun blood and guts of his Living Dead movies, but The Dark Half is just as disturbing as them…and just as much fun.
The concept behind The Dark Half is somewhat autobiographical for Stephen King. In the early stages of his career, King also published novels under the pen name Richard Bachman in order to avoid oversaturation of the literary market. When he was outed by an observant bookstore clerk, he came clean and confessed to being Bachman, much in the same way that Thad Beaumont admitted to being George Stark. There was no threat of blackmail or foul play in King’s real-life story, but the experience planted the seed that ended up inspiring The Dark Half. The Dark Half also served another personal purpose in King’s life; King was a major alcoholic and drug user through his early career, and The Dark Half was the last book that he wrote before going sober. The split-personality theme of the story reflects his struggle with addiction and his decision to quit drinking and using. There’s more of Stephen King in Thad Beaumont than initially meets the eye, and The Dark Half is one of King’s more surprisingly personal stories.
Timothy Hutton has a field day in The Dark Half. Joining the long line of actors who have played twins or doppelgangers that includes everyone from Bette Davis (Dead Ringer) and Boris Karloff (The Black Room) to Jeremy Irons (Dead Ringers) and Jake Gyllenhaal (Enemy), Hutton portrays both Thad Beaumont and George Stark in the film. Thad and Stark are actually two different parts of the same character’s mind (there’s even a cool early scene where doctors extract the unabsorbed parts of a pre-natal twin out of young Thad’s brain), and Hutton plays them as such – the two could not be more different, but are connected both physically and psychically. Timothy Hutton nails both roles, and his performance(s) is a big highlight of The Dark Half.
Although The Dark Half doesn’t have any of the trademark splatter of typical George A. Romero movies, it still looks very much like one of his films. Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts (Underworld, Doom) captures the look of the early-period Romero films like Day of the Dead and Creepshow without making The Dark Half look like a comic book by keeping the high-contrast lighting and dark color palette while not playing too much with the backlighting (at least, not until the climactic showdown between good and evil). Pierce-Roberts uses a ton of angled shots, both high and low, and plenty of selective close-ups to help build suspense. During the more shocking scenes, he really lets things fly with nauseating camera motion. And let’s not forget the Brady Bunch-style camera tricks that Pierce-Roberts uses to double Timothy Hutton in the scenes that show both Thad and Stark together. The Dark Half may have a Stephen King storyline but, thanks in large part to Tony Pierce-Roberts’ photography, the cinematic elements are pure Romero.
Like many of Stephen King’s movies, the music in The Dark Half is a key component to the film. Also typical of King, the most glaring example of this in the film is an old-time rock & roll song – the Elvis Presley song “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” announces the presence of George Stark to both the characters and the audience. Whether it’s being played from an old phonograph stereo or a car radio, the sultry ballad means trouble for whomever is around. The Dark Half also has a very competent cinematic score done by Christopher Young (Sinister, Trick or Treat), who is one of the more unsung film composers of the modern era – he’s been working steadily since the eighties, but his music is heard more than his name. His soundtrack for The Dark Half fits the bill for the film perfectly, building tension when it’s needed and providing an outburst once it has been built up. Both the diegetic Elvis music and the filmic score by Young help tell the story of The Dark Half.
Stephen King continues to let his books be made into movies, and filmmakers like Mick Garris (The Stand) and Frank Darabont (The Mist) continue to line up to direct them. Meanwhile, George A. Romero went back to making zombie movies with Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, and Survival of the Dead. But, for one brief moment in 1993, the two geniuses came together to make one of the best movies of the nineties, The Dark Half.