The Dark Half has an awful lot going for it. On the one hand, it united Stephen King and George A. Romero to make a delightfully misshapen horror maestro homunculus. It also boasts an entertaining premise, in which an acclaimed writer is tormented by a physical manifestation of the hyper-masculine, aggressive, pulp fiction pseudonym he has recently opted to retire. There’s also some very ropey stuff about sparrows and evil twins, but it’s better not to think about that.
That aforementioned writer is Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton), who writes highbrow literature under his real name and violent revenge thrillers as alter ego George Stark. When he is threatened at his university lecturer day job by someone who has worked out the mystery of Stark, Thad decides to get ahead of the story and formally come clean, laying the persona to rest with a bizarre photoshoot in which ‘George Stark’ is buried in a grave. Soon, Thad is experiencing foggy periods of memory loss and everyone close to him is being murdered in grisly fashion. Local sheriff Pangborn (Michael Rooker) is soon on the case.
As with many of King’s books, The Dark Half was a very personal beast, evoking clear echoes of King’s own experience writing under the pseudonym Richard Bachman in the 1970s and 80s. It’s an intelligent and sharp reckoning with the notion of how much a writer should allow themselves to lose their grip on morality in order to unmoor their mind from inhibition in search of pure, unadulterated creativity. Hutton’s performance conveys this delightfully, with even the nicer half of his persona never entirely likeable, as if he has allowed too much poison into his world.
The film leans heavily on the frustrating elements of creativity, with Thad stating early on that a story is “not coming out of me easy”. It’s telling that much of the creativity is lacking appears to be present in the murders, which are theatrical productions with an eye for drama. An offhand comment Thad makes out of anger is brutally enacted by the killer, while every murder scene is left as a gruesome portrait of splatter and gore.
And this is where George A. Romero comes in. Anyone familiar with the zombie movie master’s work will know that he understands escalating tension and, most importantly, knows how to construct a violent set piece. The prosthetic and make-up effects by John Vulich and Everett Burrell are deliciously squishy, allowing Romero’s creativity to shine through, both through the script he wrote and through the horrifying images he constructs in front of his camera.
The Dark Half is perhaps slightly overlong and certainly suffers from one or two too many plot contrivances in its third act. However, the performance from Hutton, as well as Amy Madigan’s excellent work as his wife, elevates the movie to a higher level and the most horrifying sequences genuinely pack a punch thanks to the innovative make-up work.
But the most interesting and compelling thing about this movie is the King story. This feels like a storyteller dissecting his own personality and exorcising his own darkness by turning it into a chilling narrative. And he couldn’t have found a better filmmaker than Romero to ultimately bring that tale to the big screen, in all of its gory glory.
Dir: George A. Romero
Scr: George A. Romero
Cast: Timothy Hutton, Amy Madigan, Michael Rooker, Julie Harris, Robert Joy, Chelsea Field
Prd: Declan Baldwin
DOP: Tony Pierce-Roberts
Music: Christopher Young
Run time: 122 mins
The Dark Half is available on a new Blu-ray in the UK now.