ME AND LIL’ STEVIE
Sweat It Out On The
GRAVEYARD SHIFT (1990)
(Interior/Night) Establishing shot of the basement of a textile mill, where a hundred years of old furniture, debris, and other miscellany have been carelessly scattered about, forsaken and forgotten. In the dank dinginess of the basement, we can hear the drip, drip, drip of water, and the hair-raising squealing of rats as they scamper about in the dark. Somewhere in the distance, in the blackened heart of the basement, we begin to hear the snarl of something monstrous and menacing, and the camera begins to zoom in, trying to find the source of the sound. There’s a light up ahead, and in the light we see the silhouette of a figure hunting our unseen monster. The figure turns toward the camera, and we see that it is a man holding a ventriloquist dummy in the form of Master of Horror, Stephen King.
Lil’ Stevie: Rats!
Peter: Yeah, they’re everywhere. Pretty creepy, huh?
Lil’ Stevie: No, I meant “Rats, I just broke a fingernail!”
Peter: (Sighing) Good evening, Constant Viewer. Me and Lil’ Pansy, here, are going to be discussing Ralph S. Singleton’s 1990 adaptation of King’s GRAVEYARD SHIFT. Now, this was Singleton’s film directorial debut, but he HAS worked extensively in the motion picture industry as a unit production manager and assistant director, so he does have some knowledge and credibility in the field. Choosing to adapt a King story for filming seems like a logical choice in terms of career building and turning a quick buck.
Lil’ Stevie: Nothing packs ‘em in like a good monster movie!
Peter: Well, that remains to be seen. The story itself was originally published in Cavalier magazine, and then republished in…you know, it seems like you published a lot of stories in spank magazines. What’s up with that?
Lil’ Stevie: You do what you have to do to keep food on the table, ya know? Besides, GRAVEYARD SHIFT isn’t the most literary work I ever put out. It’s pretty elementary. It’s the classic “submarine story,” where the protagonist and antagonist are compressed into an escapeless microcosm together. It’s also a nifty little campfire tale, inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s THE RATS IN THE WALLS (1923).
Peter: Maybe, but screenwriter John Esposito (THE WALKING DEAD) deftly follows the trend of previous screenwriters by taking your elementary little story and expanding on it to fill 90 minutes of celluloid. And based on previous films we’ve reviewed, that isn’t always a winning formula.
Lil’ Stevie: (Rolling his eyes comically) Alas. I hate it when they do that. They always have to add a love story or a coming-of-age angle that muddies and detracts from the story’s original impact. My original story was strictly protagonist, antagonist, and monster rats and bats. There weren’t any female characters in it whatsoever!
Peter: Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, okay? The story begins inside this very building we’re standing in, just a few floors above us, where a hapless worker falls into a giant metal-toothed cotton separating machine after being bullied by a horde of rats.
Lil’ Stevie: Didja notice the name of the mill? It’s the Bachman Mill, named after my alter-ego.
Peter: Quit interrupting! Naturally, after the fiasco, there is a job vacancy to be filled. Enter our protagonist, John Hall (David Andrews, HANNIBAL, 2001), a drifter who somehow has made his way up to Gates Falls, Maine after bumming around the country for a while. Of course, the townies don’t really care too much for the new guy in town, and they don’t mind showing it as he shows up at the local café (just when their graveyard shift is ending) for a bite to eat.
Lil’ Stevie: I really wanted to point something out here. The town of Gates Falls, Maine is fictional, but it IS based on Lisbon Falls, Maine…the very town where WE live! And right down the street from us is the Worumbo Mill, where I used to work when I was younger. It’s where I got the idea for the story!
Peter: You mean, where the REAL Stephen King used to work. And that’s a huge bit of information to throw out there. Got any proof?
Lil’ Stevie: As a matter of fact, I do! On page 23 of George Beahm’s biography, STEPHEN KING: America’s Best-Loved Boogeyman, it tells all about his experiences there during his high school years, and how he used to spend his downtime throwing cans at the rats that would watch him working.
Peter: (Picking up the book and leafing through it) I’ll be darned. It DOES say that.
Lil’ Stevie: Why would I lie about ME?
Peter: You’re NOT you. Er…You know what I mean. You’re just a puppet. Anyway, Hall goes and talks to the foreman, Mr. Warwick (Stephen Macht, THE MONSTER SQUAD, 1987) about a job. Warwick is obviously a sleazebag, with his anti-union bullying of the employees and “fishing off the company pier” with his secretary (Ilona Margolis, FLATLINERS, 1990). Warwick has his hands full with the Bachman Mill, with goals and demands to meet from the mill owners, the misbehavior of the surly employees, and the growing rat problem. Warwick has already employed an exterminator (Brad Dourif, CHILD’S PLAY, 1988) to flush out the varmints, a job that he seems to love and obsess over, but there’s just way too many for one man to deal with.
Lil’ Stevie: Of course, there was no exterminator in my original story.
Peter: Granted. And Dourif’s character does seem a bit over-the-top. He appears in several scenes where he goes off on his little soliloquies, but they seem contrived and unnecessary and do nothing to make his character remotely likeable. As the story unfolds, and the Workplace Safety Inspector arrives at the mill threatening to close it down, Warwick HAS to do something to keep the mill operational. So he pays off the inspector to come back in a few weeks, promising he’ll get the mill up to code and the basement cleaned out over the Fourth of July holiday. More mysterious deaths ensue (led by the monstrous thing lurking in the basement), and when Warwick puts his cleanup team together, Hall and company have no idea what they’re in for.
Lil’ Stevie: In the meantime, Hall starts getting a bit comfy with coworker Jane Wisconsky (Kelly Wolf, LESS THAN ZERO, 1987). Jane regales him with her woe-is-me story about being a hometown girl stuck in her going-nowhere job after her divorce, and blah-blah-blah, yadda-yadda-yadda. In my story, Wisconsky was a dude who whined a lot. Why they turned her into a hot chick for the movie, I have no idea.
Peter: Story building. Plus, it adds the whole “date movie” element.
Lil’ Stevie: Well, I don’t like it! Nosiree Bob, this is supposed to be a horror story, not a cuddle-fest!
Peter: Look at the size of that rat over there…
Lil’ Stevie: (Gasping) Hold me close. I’m scared!
Peter: (Chuckling) You big sissy. Well, Warwick manages to bribe some of the non-union workers into the cleanup detail with double pay. Other workers get bullied into it. And come evening of the Fourth of July, the crew meets at the mill and proceeds down into the basement to begin cleanup detail. It goes smoothly at first, with most of the conflict shifting between pain-in-the-ass coworkers who get into a scuffle as debris is removed and the intruding horde of rats get blown away by a high-pressure fire hose.
Lil’ Stevie: Again, most of these shenanigans never even happen in the story. No love interests, no employee brawls, just workers who go down into the basement to clean it out. But there IS one conflict that transitions from my story to the movie, and that’s the conflict that occurs between Hall and Warwick. There is enormous mistrust between these two characters, stemming from a notion of right and just authority. Warwick is clearly a villainous tool. Hall counters this with a kind of stand-off of wills and wits, pushing his antagonist deeper down into the basement to find the source of the rats’ nest.
Peter: That’s good stuff. Back to our movie…The cleanup crew does proceed deeper into the basement, and when the nimrod with the fire hose accidentally blasts debris off a trap door, they discover a sub-basement that leads them down deeper into the darkness, into a world that seems almost ancient and long abandoned. And here we feel that sense of Lovecraft’s ghost playing in. By this point of the film, we’ve already been introduced to the weird giant bat that has been roosting in the bowels of the mill (and feasting on hapless victims), and here is its domain.
Lil’ Stevie: In my story, we don’t meet the monster until we get to its lair. What I DO treat the Constant Reader to is rats the size of puppies and mutant bats, which are plenty disturbing if you ask my opinion.
Peter: The conflict between Hall and Warwick escalates the further they go into this sub-basement. One of the hired hands will fall through the floor into ANOTHER sub-basement where the river flows. Other workers are attacked and killed by the monster bat. And ultimately, Warwick will turn on Hall and Wisconsky in order to try and save himself. I don’t want to give too much more of what happens away, in case you were planning on seeing the movie, but I can tell you this much, the monster bat is cool as hell to look at. He’s a show-stealer!
Lil’ Stevie: (Sighing) And, of course, the ending is NOTHING like the ending of my story. My tale is a dread-inducing denouement that puts this ending to shame.
Peter: I think that’s a matter of opinion. This ending works for the treatment they rewrote in the screenplay. Overall, though, this movie is a bit of a throwaway. In more capable hands, this could have been infinitely more unsettling than just a “date-movie” horror flick. From the starting gate, I disliked Dourif’s exterminator character immensely, I found Macht’s Mainer accent to be absolutely ridiculous (for a much better Maine accent, see Fred Gwynne’s Jud Crandall in PET SEMETERY, 1989), and most of the other characters involved seemed cartoonish and stereotypical. But giving Singleton his due, the scenery is authentic (it was filmed in Harmony, Maine), and the mill with its labyrinth of tunnels and caverns is brilliantly designed and filmed.
Lil’ Stevie: And rats are always creepy. Especially in big hordes like in this film.
Peter: Agreed. The monster-bat is just gorgeous. As a fan of horror, I would die to have this thing perched outside my house on Halloween night. It reminded me of the monster from ALIEN (1979), and had that “submarine-movie” concept you brought up earlier. The horror of this tale doesn’t happen in OUR world as much as it does in the world of the Monster-Bat, in the labyrinth under the mill. And sadly, that horror is muddied by supplying the film with characters we care very little about. Aboard the Nostromo, we see a crew that is fairly unified and happen to need and rely upon each other. In the Bachman Mill, we see a group of macho idiots who hardly get along, and almost deserve it whenever one of them bites the dust. Which group would YOU be rooting for?
Lil’ Stevie: I’d be rooting for the RATS!
Peter: This story would have been much better suited for adaptation as a segment for CREEPSHOW. The King short story has the same ambiance as the old E.C. Comics stories. That would have been a much better vehicle to capture the same dread and creepiness. I’d have loved to see how Romero would have treated this one.
Lil’ Stevie: He’d have turned the victims into zombies. You’d have hated it.
Lil’ Stevie: What?
(Peter tosses Lil’ Stevie onto the ground and a horde of rats race over to begin feasting on him.)
Lil’ Stevie: Arrrgghhh! I’ll get you for this!
Peter: (Laughing) Be sure and let me know when you get passed! Goodbye, folks. See you next month.
© Copyright 2013 by Peter N. Dudar