It turned itself on and it bit me!
To read Stephen King‘s short story “Trucks” (from the compilation Night Shift) is to get embroiled in a nihilistic nightmare along the lines of a “Twilight Zone” episode. A few people are left stranded at a truck stop while diesel vehicles gain cognizance and begin killing any people they see until fuel stores run low and a truce must be met to acquire their victims’ pumping services. There’s little room for hope as the new order of things appears destined to continue until every diesel store on Earth is depleted. Surviving until then without doing something to make the semis angry won’t be easy once fear takes hold. It may not be the end of the world, but it very well could be the end of mankind’s superiority.
Adapt that into a twenty-five-minute teleplay and you’ll have sinister, proto-Terminator thoughts running around your head. Drag it out to feature length by adding the terror of mankind’s penchant to destroy itself when trouble appears and you could find yourself in possession of a cool hybrid marrying “Trucks” with King’s novella The Mist (released two years after this anthology). Or—and this is what King, making his directorial debut, chooses to do—you turn the premise into something wholly different with an aim to entertain via explosions and comedy in lieu of the supernatural horror of its origins. Enter Maximum Overdrive‘s text-based prologue about Earth being caught in a comet’s tale for eight-plus days of mechanical revolution. Rather than apocalyptic overtones, it concocts a low stakes survivalist romp.
The result is a mixed bag of overlong set-pieces, random characters coming together less because of what they add to the group than their entrance providing another chance to blow things up along the way, and the thinnest of romances accelerated by a heightened state of general chaos. Our hero leading us through is named Bill Robinson (Emilio Estevez)—a line-cook being exploited by the establishment’s shady owner Hendershot (Pat Hingle) because of his being on parole. As King (who also wrote the script) likes to remind us, Bill went to college and thus can easily become the de facto leader of this rag-tag band of tired drivers (Frankie Faison and Leon Rippy among them), frightened waitresses (Ellen McElduff‘s Wanda June), and simple mechanics (Pat Miller‘s Joe).
Add newlyweds (John Short and Yeardley Smith‘s Curt and Connie), a drifter (Laura Harrington‘s Brett) with her handsy chauffeur (Christopher Murney‘s Bible-salesman Camp Loman), and a little league player who watched a soda machine kill his coach with machine-gun precision (Holter Graham‘s Deke) and we get a little of everything where scared bystanders, courageous protagonists, and cowardly villains are concerned. If only King introduced some ground rules, things might have even made sense. But I guess “sense” doesn’t necessarily earn cult status like a complete lack of consistency does for the midnight genre crowd. It’s more fun to wonder what machines are alive so that the film can deliver its gruesome deaths with impunity. Just ask Giancarlo Esposito after he goes from opportunist to casualty with zero warning.
I won’t deny that the result is pretty entertaining. We never have to worry about the humans harming each other because they’re too busy letting emotions put them in positions that will ultimately harm themselves. So, we can just sit back and enjoy the theatrics like a drawbridge rising while cars are still on it or a hairdryer deciding to strangle its user. Some scenes go on far too long so metal can perpetually crunch beneath a full soundtrack of AC/DC tunes. Some murders are merely inferred upon by the visible aftermath. And most of the close calls arrive with a humorous lilt because to show there’s nothing to worry about. Only those actions that take themselves seriously demand trepidation. Those are the one’s leading towards swift deaths.
There are some iconic bits of imagery too between Brett’s sling blade “Mother’s Helper” and the green goblin grill of Faison’s “Happy Toyz” truck that’s wreaking havoc. Are they enough to overcome the unexplained decision to make it so that only some cars are alive while others aren’t? Curt and Connie have no trouble with their ride despite a woman’s neck being seen crushed by her automatic window later. King is playing fast and loose with his mythology since clocks running wild and jukeboxes exploding show diesel isn’t the culprit. It’s almost like King forgot he planned to hold over a plot point from the short story. Or maybe the newlyweds’ ride is too much of a romantic to harm on their wedding day. Wouldn’t that be sweet?
It’s therefore tough to blindly ignore the narrative’s many failures solely because I enjoyed the ride. Maximum Overdrive is nothing if not a perfect example for how a short story’s success is often in its underlying themes. The moment King strips away the feeling of futility that comes along with knowing there might not be an end to what’s happening, his built-in drama flies out the window. Suddenly we’re less interested in seeing these character live than we are to watch them die screaming as headlights run them down because them having an out in eight days destroys all suspense. Even when Bill rambles about the “real danger” that awaits them, King dismisses it as a fever dream. Until, of course, some throwaway epilogue text arrives too late.
Watched in conjunction with Season Eight of Buffalo, NY-based horror series Thursday Night Terrors, curated by Peter Vullo. Logo by Josh Flanigan.