Monday, March 13, 2017

graveyard shift

No pun intended, but there definitely was a shift in the direction of horror from its still-peak decade of the 1980s to the lesser years of the 1990s. Perhaps there was so much saturation with mainstream movies like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street and their plethora of sequels and knock-offs, that the genre had hit a tipping point. In the 1990s, horror morphed more into "adult thrillers" like The Silence of the Lambs which traded teen schlock charm for serious adult drama sheen. Even the teen horror flicks which popped up near the end of the decade were more meta in their approach, riffing off their predecessors with both glee and condescension. Looking back at all the movies which hit number one at the box office in the 90s, a movie like Graveyard Shift feels like anomaly. It was a short lived success, dropping a near-fifty percent in its second week, and ended up raking in a million or so shy of its $10 M budget. Like many horror movies of its time (especially Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan), Graveyard Shift boasts creepy, intriguing poster art and publicity materials which fail to live up its promise. However, if taken purely as a corny monster movie, Graveyard Shift is fun and effective. The crisp photography by Peter Stein highlights the gorgeous greenery and near-dusk blue skies of the Maine locale. Even when their subject matter is swill, Paramount films of the late 1980s and early 1990s have a beautiful, defining look to them.

Based upon Stephen King's 1970 story, later included in his collection Night Shift, Graveyard Shift is set at a ramshackle textile mill in Maine that's infested with vermin. King's story is fleeting and packed with punchy, descriptive dialogue from the workers and the mill's foreman. And while the rats are described, the horror is more suggestive than literal. The story's abrupt ending also leaves the horror to one's imagination. Somehow the rats are less menacing in the film: all squeaky and docile-looking. Only skin-crawling when they are regulated to nibbling on bloody cotton and falling prey to gunky effects.

The movie also elongates the short story by adding more characters and drawing out the arrival of the central character, Hall (played competently by David Andrews), a drifter who unlike many of the other workers, is not only an outsider but one who attended college, and ends up in the town to take on a job at the mill cleaning up on a July 4th-holiday weekend in midst of threats of closure from OSHA. The foreman Warwick (Stephen Macht) is a bit of a brute, harassing and abusing his workers and haplessly dealing with the rodent problem. He'd be a little more intimidating if Macht didn't have such a fussy and affected Maine accent ("The show's ovah" is a laughable, quotable line). It's an interesting, tongue-in-cheek acting choice indeed. In fact, many of the actors seem to be acting in different films. Brad Dourif amps up his goonish, gum-smacking Vietnam vet exterminator role to the highest of heavens. I guess that's what you'd expect with Dourif, but I was more interested in the naturalism of others like some of the bit parts including Hall's fellow worker Winsconsky (Kelly Wolf). A little bit of wandering into the lives of others is usually the strength of the best King film adaptations, unfortunately screenwriter John Esposito skimps on much detail of the local folks.  A friendly car ride between Winsconsky and Hall is too brief and doesn't go too deep, even if it's beautifully shot and a nice respite from the movie's on-going sense of conflict and meanness. The film kind of falls apart in the second half before the giant rat finale.

But director Ralph S. Singleton (his only feature film to date), gets a lot of things right--the sweat and sets--an amazing use of a real-life Bartlett Yarns mill in Harmony, Maine. The movie goes for a different conclusion than King's story, but in the end, this is all shallow monster movie entertainment. The rickety "End Theme" with its mimicking of the titter-tattering sounds of the rats and the mill machines intertwined with a repetitive use of the movie's dialogue is oddball and genius. Despite its faults, Graveyard Shift is one of the better American horror films of a decade meager in the genre and one of the last high budget studio pictures of the era to meld light camp with dingy played-straight horror. **1/2

-Jeffery Berg

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