I don’t know where things go when they stop being here,” says a child in Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers (ABC, May 9 and 10, 9-11 p.m.). This poignant statement about loss and death is probably as poetic as horror writer Stephen King has ever gotten, and it helps to create a somber mood that makes at least the first half of this four-hour TV movie unusually melancholy and touching.
In The Tommyknockers, L.A. Law’s Jimmy Smits stars as Jim Gardener, called Gard, a poet who is also an alcoholic undergoing a rocky recovery. Gard lives with Bobbi Anderson (Marg Helgenberger, of China Beach), also a writer, in the fictional village of Haven, Maine. King, who lives in Bangor, Maine, has frequently used small rural towns as supernatural sites. Published in 1987, The Tommyknockers takes its title from an old children’s rhyme (”Late last night and the night before/Tommyknockers, tommyknockers/Knocking at the door”). In it, the author attempted his own version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with the souls of Haven residents slowly being taken over by the insidious vibrations given off by a buried spaceship.
The ship emits a luminescent green light, and it is first discovered by Bobbi as she walks in the woods near her house. Once exposed to the glow that emanates from a patch of ground, Bobbi starts shoveling, determined to find its source. Pretty soon Bobbi’s eyes are giving off the same green glint, and she enlists scores of townspeople who, zombielike, help her dig up this little chunk of Haven to expose more of the ship and get closer to this irresistible force field. They mutter about ”becoming,” a term that symbolizes their willingness to be enslaved by the green stuff. Bobbi becomes their leader, yelling, ”Are you ready to complete the becoming?” as the villagers nod blankly. Gard is the only person unaffected by this phenomenon, because — get this — he has a metal plate in his head. It’s up to him alone to free everyone in Haven.
As you’ve probably gathered, a lot of The Tommyknockers is tommyrot — particularly on the second night, when all heck breaks loose. Traci Lords, the actress (Cry-Baby) and former porn star, appears as the slinkiest postmaster the federal government has ever employed; once under the spell of the otherworldly, she stops licking stamps to brandish a tube of lipstick that shoots a green death ray. John Ashton (Beverly Hills Cop) plays a state trooper who does battle with a killer soda machine that tries to eat his hand when he reaches in for a bottle of cola. Joanna Cassidy, currently suffering as co-star of the deadly Dudley, portrays a cop whose death is caused by her doll collection, which comes to life and attacks her. And I haven’t even told you about the gooey-looking space monsters, lest I give everything away.
The Tommyknockers, directed by John Power (Charles and Diana: Unhappily Ever After), was adapted by screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen, who did the same for the 1990 TV movie Stephen King’s IT and what is arguably the best big-screen version of King’s work, 1976’s Carrie. Cohen has provided Smits and Helgenberger with a few warm scenes together, and veteran actor E.G. Marshall gets the most out of a secondary role, as the grandfather of two children (Leon Woods and Paul McIver) who become involved in the hugger-mugger early on. ”Kids and old people,” says Marshall’s elderly gent, ”we know that magic’s real, no matter what anyone says.” When Cohen taps into King’s greatest theme — families in peril from forces beyond their understanding — The Tommyknockers can be moving. The rest of the time, it’s never less than an entertaining goof. B