There are few films that I watch for these Bad Movie Night reviews that I’m willing to sit through a second time. Often, I am left so disgusted, that the mere thought of the film leaves me feeling violated and just plain icky!
But sometimes there are movies that spark a special feeling inside me. Their campiness, or cheesiness makes me light up with joy. The “so bad, they’re good” movies. The Thankskilling‘s and The Room‘s of the world. These movies hold a very special place in my memories and are worth watching a second and third time (though maybe not a fourth). I can now say, with much joy in my heart that the movie I just watched has joined those ranks.
Maximum Overdrive is a 1986 sci-fi, horror, comedy written for the screen and directed by Stephen King. The story centers around a group of truck stop patrons and workers who must figure out how to survive when all the machines in the world suddenly become sentient and homicidal.
I’ve reviewed a number of Stephen King properties for my Book 2 Screen reviews, and although I knew that this movie was inspired by Stephen King’s short story, “Trucks”, I decided to forgo comparing the two stories and simply examine the movie on it’s own. I was curious to see how a man lauded for his frightening and far out stories would mold his own work in a visual medium. After calling out the likes of Stanley Kubrick for distorting his vision, Stephen King was about to take the helm and do his story, his way. The result was a nonsensical, coke fueled, explosion fest with almost no redeeming value save for it’s pure enjoyability.
I’d heard that this movie was notoriously bad, but other than that, I knew nothing about it. I read the long, unnecessary, expository text at the beginning of the movie (already a bad sign) and came to the conclusion that this was a story that would take place over eight days, since the film states that “[Earth was in the tail of comet Rhea-M] for eight days, five hours, twenty-nine minutes and twenty-three seconds”. This seems to be giving the audience a timespan with which to put context to the events of the story. As I came to that perfectly sensible conclusion, the movie gave me a subtle hint that I should buck any notion that I could apply reason to anything that was about to transpire.
Yeah. That about sums it up.
This movie has a lot of problems. A lot. If I were to say what my major issues with the film were, I’d have to say it was the sound design, the pacing, and the general attitude of leaving things only half finished or half explained.
I watched this movie twice over the course of two days on two different televisions with different sound systems. Both times, I felt the need to put closed captions on the screen because the character’s voices were so low and so accentuated that I realized I couldn’t hear or understand half of what they were saying. Not that it really mattered, but still!
The pacing was also big hinderance. King has a tendency to linger on a lot of boring shots. Now lingering is a tool that is used a lot in visual storytelling, which when done correctly, can build tension in a scene. Unfortunately, in this film, it did nothing except cause me to zone out until the next explosion went off or the next suspenseful music cue started playing.
This leads to my last big issue. After taking a long, long time, lingering on the setup, King often cuts off his scenes very abruptly. As though realizing the scene is getting too long and he has to move on to the next thing.
Our hero is getting taken advantage of by his boss, and then… ok on to the next thing.
This character gets run over by a truck and then… ok on to the next thing.
The little kid is being chased by a lawnmower while trying to avoid a scary ice cream truck and then… ok on to the next thing.
It happens over and over again. And not just with individual scenes either. The entire movie feels a bit phoned in. Remember how I thought, at the beginning, that the movie would span over eight days? Well, screw that! Let’s stop at two days and just have our heroes get on a sail boat, meet with very little resistance getting there, and use a text scroll to explain that “a Russian ‘weather satellite’ which just happened to be equipped with a laser cannon and class 4 nuclear missiles” destroyed a UFO which helped bring about the end of the murderous machines. The End.
Maximum Overdrive has a ridiculous premise, questionable acting, continuity errors, and is ridden with plot holes. But I suppose this is all part of the magic. Because when I wasn’t getting annoyed by the fact that I could barely understand anyone, zoning out from the long boring setups, or being confused about why scenes ended so abruptly – I was laughing my ass off.
First of all, there’s the characters. Nobody is giving this performance their A-game. Every performance is hackneyed, bland, or just plain bad. The lead characters have zero romantic chemistry. They meet and are pretty much like,
“Hey, I’m attractive.”
“Hey, I am too.”
“Cool, we’re a thing now.”
“Ok, cool. Let’s bone.”
Like, how the hell does this happen? Not to mention, King gives them both these kind of half-assed backstories. Our protagonist, Bill, went to prison for robbing a store because he owed someone money… the end. Oh, and his love interest, Brett, is hitch hiking to Florida and carries a knife… for reasons.
But my personal favorite, was the superb performance of Yeardley Smith as one half of the newlywed couple. It’s as though King gave her specific instructions to never ever shut up. Ever. And I love it, because all she does is complain, call out for her husband Curtis, and scream. It’s pure magic.
I also loved all those little nuggets that were put in place simply for plot convenience. Like the fact that the Dixie Boy Truck Stop owner, Hendershot, just happened to have a friggin arsenal downstairs. An arsenal that included hand held rocket launchers and grenades. Mind you, he didn’t keep that arsenal in his home, he kept it at the truck stop. Sure. Got it. It might not make any damn sense but it does make for an amazing WTF GTFOH LMFAO ROFL moment.
Or how about the fact that some machines seemed to take on minds of their own, but others just never did. Like the newlyweds car, or the other boats in the marina, or pretty much anything inside the truck stop after the arcade machines and the knife. What about the stoves! The gas pumps! It’s also silly that it seemed that the decommissioned trucks could still move, but many of the cars with dead people inside, couldn’t. Like, are you only allowed to kill one person or what? They pass by all these cars that have apparently killed their riders, but the cars don’t keep attacking other people. They just sit there. Why?
But by far, one of the greatest moment of this whole damn movie, was the steamroller scene. Bursting through the wall like a psychopathic Kool-aid man, a random steamroller comes on to the scene and kills a helpless child. A child who is obviously not a dummy, and definitely didn’t put his hands up to cover his face in one frame, them magically have his hands to his side in the next one.
These scenes of gratuitous and meaningless violence and horror are what makes Maximum Overdrive such a fun movie, elevating it from a half-assed horror to an entertaining B-Movie. Who cares about developing these characters or how this plan to sail away to an island without machines will work? Fuck it! Here comes a steamroller!
And by the end of the movie, the audience is just saying, fuck it, too.
And that’s what makes this Bad Movie so good. Like Def By Temptation, I’d recommend it to anyone that understands good storytelling and just needs a good laugh. I’ll certainly make a point of watching this a third time. Although maybe not a fourth.