Remote Outpost: SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK (1991)

You find yourself on a barren and desolate world, light years from anything or anyone you know… Without much food or water, your oxygen running low, you strike out for the distant hills… After days of torturous climbing, you see an oasis below. An installation of quonset huts bedecked with hundreds of television antennae. Congratulations, Traveler, you’ve reachedTHE REMOTE OUTPOST.

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TV-Movie Review by Mark Onspaugh

We all know the problem with sequels.  Sometimes a movie is great and can stand just fine on its own, then greedy producers want to go to that well again and again.  Usually, what results is a series of films that steadily decline in budget and quality.  Films like the original version of THE PLANET OF THE APES (1969).  The first is a masterpiece, the second is quite good, the third is okay… By number four (CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, 1974), the miniscule budget forced the production to film in Century City, and many of the ape makeups were crude masks.  If it wasn’t for Roddy McDowell’s brilliant turn as Caesar, the film would probably have been forgotten and the fifth film would never have happened.

Titling sequels is also an issue.  Do you go with numbering (LETHAL WEAPON XXVIII) or new titles? Do you do both, hoping to show creativity but still cash in on that brand? (GREMLINS II: THE NEW BATCH, 1990).

SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK (1991) is a good movie, and needs no sequel.  It almost seems as if producers were kicking around joke titles and decided to greenlight the merriment.  Thus, we would eventually be enjoying the demonic hijinks of SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK… AGAIN (1996) and SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK… FOR MORE (1998).


(Warning: SPOILERS abound below! It’s a SPOILER Wonderland!)

The first movie in the series is based directly on a Stephen King story of the same name, first published in Cavalier Magazine in March 1974 and then later collected in 1978’s Night Shift.  Jim Norman is a teacher who’s had a sketchy history (wife injured in a hit-and-run, a mental breakdown) and is finally back teaching in his old home town.  His last class of the day is an easy class largely in place to give jocks something they can pass so they can play sports.

But Jim has another secret—his older brother was murdered when the two were just kids.  The Norman brothers were assaulted by teenaged toughs near a railroad tunnel.  Jim escaped, but his brother was brutally stabbed.  Years later, he still has nightmares about the four toughs who took away his brother Wayne.  As Norman works through the school year, students begin to disappear. Each time one does, a transfer from “Millford” shows up, and it’s one of the thugs from his past, now dressed in contemporary style but still seventeen.  They tell Jim he is unfinished business, and that they mean to finish him.

In investigating these delinquents, Jim finds out “Millford” is not a school, but a cemetery (nice touch, that).  All the toughs (but one) were killed six months after his brother.  Once Jim’s wife is killed, he makes a deal with some dark entity in an occult ritual where he sacrifices both his index fingers.  The toughs show up, but are done in by a demonic version of Jim’s older brother.  At the end, Jim knows this dark thing he has invited into his life will also… come back.

The story is a good one, and King does not compromise or cop out with a happy ending.  In King’s world, dealing with dark forces often means a sacrifice, usually a big one.

Not so the film version.  SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK was originally going to be an installment of CAT’S EYE, the 1985 anthology film that would also feature adaptations of the Night Shift stories “The Ledge” and “Quitters, Inc.” The producers decided SOMETIMES would be better as a stand-alone story, and substituted “General,” a story original to the film where a cat protects a little girl (Drew Barrymore) from a murderous troll.

The movie of SOMETIMES was produced for television by Dino De Laurentis (at one point in the film, Jim Norman and his family watch Dino’s KING KONG from 1976 on the old VCR).  Jim Norman was played by Tim Matheson, who has been acting since he was five, and may be best remembered as the ultra-cool ladies man Otter in ANIMAL HOUSE (1978).  Matheson commits fully to the role of a troubled teacher haunted by demons from his past.  In fact, he saves one of the film’s more maudlin moments from sinking into a vat of treacle.

Tim Matheson and Brooke Adams in SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK.

SOMETIMES takes its time developing Jim’s character and that of his family, as well as his normal (if somewhat troubled) world. This is fairly standard in King’s writing; he makes sure we are fully grounded before bringing in the more fantastic elements of his story.  The TV-movie, unsure if people will have read the story, hedges its bets by having Tim Matheson doing a voice-over that mentions his brother’s murder and his subsequent troubles, and concludes with, “If I had known the horror we were facing, I’d have taken Sally and Scotty in my arms like my parents took me, and run from this town forever.”

Although the story is fairly close to King’s, there are some important differences.  In the film version, the hoods block the two brothers as they are going through the tunnel, parking their car on the tracks.  Instead of deliberately stabbing Wayne in the stomach and crotch (ouch), Wayne is jostled by one thug and runs into the switchblade of another.  When the train comes, Jimmy grabs up the car keys from the ground as the thugs pile in. One escapes, but the thugs and Jimmy’s brother are consumed in a train-meets-car fireball.

The phantom car.

Present day, Jim is married to Brooke Adams (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, 1978 and THE DEAD ZONE, 1983) and also has a young son.  (NOTE: I always wished they had cast Adams in SUPERMAN, 1978,  because I thought she would have made a much sexier Lois Lane than Margot Kidder.)

As with Jack Torrance of The Shining, Jim Norman has had troubles because of his temper.  In the movie we see each student who is killed off as they are murdered, and, in the first instance, the student is run off the road by a phantom car that only Jim and the student can see.  Jim snaps at the thugs as they begin to take over his classroom, and also has a clairvoyant dream where he sees a bright female student being murdered.  Jim leads the police to her hanging body, which casts suspicions on him for the murder.

A great bit in both prose and film versions is class jock and bully, Chip, confiding in Mr. Norman that these new students scare him, and mean the teacher real harm.  In the story, Chip runs off (and is presumably killed), but in the movie he is taken for a ride in the phantom car and shown just what his new friends really look likewith burned corpse makeups right out of EC Comics… Cool, Daddy-O!


Another nice bit is that Jim periodically hears the train whistle, although the train stopped running years ago.

In the movie, Jim tracks down the only member of the gang to survive, Mueller, who is played by the great William Sanderson (BLADERUNNER, 1982 and TRUE BLOOD, 2008).  Mueller is also “unfinished business” for the hoods.

In the end, everyone gathers at the railroad tunnel for a nice reunion from Hell, and the thugs plan to kill Jim and his wife and kid.  Mueller valiantly takes a knife for Jim and his family, saying, “When someone dies… (urk, ack… expire)”

Out of a shimmering white hole emerges Wayne Norman, still looking twelve years old. He and Jim fend off the thugs until the Phantom Train from Hell arrives, right on time.  It takes the thugs and their ghost roadster to the Abyss.

Wayne is confused, and thinks Jim’s son is Jimmy.  Once he realizes he’s dead, Wayne wants Jimmy to come with him, and Jim tearfully explains his family needs him.  It is a very corny moment, but Matheson manages to elevate it into something poignant and real. Wayne goes back to Limbo, knowing now he will be able to pass on to something better, and Jim will see him again someday.

Robert Rusler as the leader of the thugs who COME BACK.

Obviously, the movie ends happily, and there is no hint of dark magic, sacrifices or Jim unleashing something hellish.  While King’s story is more satisfying in that regard, I found the movie to be entertaining, well written, directed and acted.  The film was directed by Tom McLoughlin, who wrote and directed JASON LIVES: FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VI (1986) and was a writer and director of a whole lot of TV.  The movie was written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, who also wrote such fine films as SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE (1987), STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY (1991), the remake of PLANET OF THE APES (2001) and everyone’s favorite Nic Cage sorcery film THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE (2010)or was that SEASON OF THE WITCH (2011)?  Which one has Cage screaming, “The bees! The bees!” with a beehive on his head?  Oh, right, THE WICKER MAN (2006) —but I digress.  Acting-wise, besides Matheson and Adams, the thugs were all good, especially the leader, played by Robert Rusler, who was also in NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, PART 2: FREDDY’S REVENGE (1982) and VAMP (1986). In fact, the only bad actor in the entire ensemble was the fellow that played Jim as a kid.  He had an unfortunate resemblance to Jerry Mathers (TV’s LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, 1957-1963) and he always looked constipated when he cried, which was a lot.  I checked his credits, and he only did one voice-over job after this effort…

Sometimes it’s good they don’t come back.

© Copyright 2012 by Mark Onspaugh

And There’s More to Come! A public service from your friends at THE REMOTE OUTPOST.  Not only will we review the two sequels to SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK, we will give you a fairly detailed synopsis – that way, you need never watch either, or you’ll know how far to fast-forward if you just want to see Hilary Swank in tentacle porn.


One Response to “Remote Outpost: SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK (1991)”

  1. Hmm is anyone else having problems with the pictures on this blog
    loading? I’m trying to figure out if its a problem on my end or if it’s the blog.
    Any responses would be greatly appreciated.

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