A friend of mine used to accuse Stephen King of simply taking the stuff of old horror movies and novels and plugging it into contemporary settings. In a sense, that's exactly what King does. Yet since his books are written for and about an era that claims not to believe in the cornball monsters of yesteryear, his formula, at least during the first phase of his career, created its own alchemy. The vivid, scary, compulsively readable early King novels (Carrie, The Shining, The Stand) allowed you to experience the same dizzying, shock-of-the-old jolt that greeted his heroes. Even in modern America, it seemed, the heebie-jeebies still lived.
Well, they're hanging on by their fingernails now and so, creatively speaking, is King. The Dark Half, an adaptation of his 1989 novel (it has been directed with dull, workaday competence by Night of the Living Dead's George A. Romero), is a horror movie that literally has no surprises. Just listen to the premise. Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton), an aspiring novelist, supports his family by writing sleazy, violent pulp fiction under the pseudonym George Stark. When a blackmailer threatens to reveal his identity, Thad's ''dark side'' takes over: His alter ego comes to life and starts bumping people off, demanding that Thad continue to write his pulp novels.
It has been widely publicized that King wrote books under the pseudonym Richard Bachman and, in fact, that he was forced into the open in response to the efforts of a would-be blackmailer. While it's fair game for King to use this incident as a dramatic springboard, the contemporary story of The Dark Half has no life of its own; it's a synthetic mishmash of Jekyll and Hyde and previous King material. Thad the family-man writer with a demonic id is an obvious gloss on Jack Torrance in The Shining. The fact that he's being pressed into writing additional George Stark novels is just warmed-over Misery. And I haven't even mentioned the sparrows yet. Whenever George takes over, we see flocks of birds flying around in the ominous manner the exact ominous manner of The Birds. Watching The Dark Half, we keep waiting for a twist, a sinister gimmick, something that isn't merely regurgitated King or Hitchcock.
Okay, it's fair to ask: On its own derivative terms, is the movie a mindless good time? Well, a horror film can be only as much fun as its monster. With his sideburns and greased pompadour, gold chain and wide black lapels, Timothy Hutton's George is a satanic Elvis gone disco. It's amusing, at first, to see this perpetually buttoned-up actor try to let loose. Unfortunately, it's a lost cause: Hutton lacks the sadistic intensity to play a true, lusty demon he's just a generic slasher with a straight razor. The Dark Half goes on for a preposterously self-important two hours, climaxing with a Thad-versus-George showdown believe it or not, folks, it's a writing contest that's like a duel between two Timothy Huttons trying to out-bland each other. (They both win.) The most frightening thing about this movie is that King and Romero actually thought it was scary. C-