Stephen King Gets into Gear: Directing MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE and Beyond…!

By Michael Varrati

In the world of horror, Stephen King is a man who requires no introduction.

Since the publication of his first novel in 1974, King’s work has gone on to shape the very zeitgeist of the genre. Endlessly celebrated and imitated, Stephen King is to horror what Bob Dylan is to rock. The man almost singlehandedly ushered us into the modern-era of fright, and is unequivocally one of the very best of us.

I’m an unabashed fan of King’s, and have never really been able to understand those who don’t care for his oeuvre. I’ve always chalked up any distaste for the author to pretentious snobbery or a rally against his popularity. However, love him or hate him, there’s no denying that he’s left an impact on pop culture.

Having written over sixty novels, many of which have been adapted for screen, King’s presence in horror is hardly waning four decades later. Echoes of Carrie and The Shining permeate modern fright films, and many of King’s adaptations have become milestone movies of their own. It almost goes without saying that Stephen King is as much at home at the theater as he is at the library.

Furthermore, King tends to be very active in the adaptation of his work, making cameo and starring appearances in many of the movies. Over the course of his filmic history, Stephen King has developed friendships with, and been directed by, such cult cinema luminaries as George Romero, Mick Garris, and Frank Darabont. He’s watched masters at work creating veritable classics.

Yet, for all the iconic films adapted from King’s work, the varied cameos, and the assorted screenplays, there’s one film I want to single out today. Because of all the works of King’s that have transitioned to screen, there’s only one that the master himself saw fit to helm.

That’s right, my children of the popcorn, the King of Horror was once…and only once…a filmmaker.

The movie in question is a high octane flick called Maximum Overdrive, and I’m here today to shift into gear and give it the much needed respect it deserves.

However, if knowledge of Steve’s directorial debut somehow slipped past you, don’t despair. The film, by and large, is often treated as a minor note in King’s history and was somewhat maligned upon release. Furthermore, Stephen King himself has often cited the film as the reason he doesn’t direct anymore, maintaining the belief that the movie just wasn’t up to snuff.

Now, far be it from me to contradict the master, but I’m here to tell you that Maximum Overdrive has not only bettered with age, but it’s a veritable gem of 1980s horror cinema.

Like most right-minded individuals, I went through a pretty intense Emilio Estevez phase (I still get chills of delight when someone mentions Repo Man) in my youth. Scouring my local rental stores for anything Emilio-related, I ran across Maximum Overdrive. The description on back foretold of a cinematic voyage wherein Martin Sheen’s favorite son was to do battle with alien-possessed machines. As if this notion wasn’t enough to throw me into throes of nerd ecstasy, the film was directed by Stephen King! As an avid reader of King’s, how had this movie escaped my grasp? I took that beat-up VHS tape home with me, and it was love at first sight.

The film, based on King’s short story Trucks, concerns a mysterious situation in which inanimate objects (mostly machines) come to life with murderous intent. As the world becomes a devastated war zone, a motley group of survivors (including Estevez and the voice of Lisa Simpson, Yeardley Smith) hole themselves up in a truck stop in an effort to wait out the crisis. Unfortunately, the machines, including a giant killer truck (with a Green Goblin grill), have other plans. Thus, the plot of Maximum Overdrive is set into motion.

With a pulse-pounding original soundtrack by AC/DC, Maximum Overdrive is a breakneck thrill ride of hilarity from the first frame. Supremely campy, it makes a lot of sense why the film didn’t sit well with King fans at the time. Known mostly for a somber, grim approach in his writing, Maximum Overdrive seemed the antithesis of King’s work to date. It was silly, whimsical, and definitely over the top.

Yet, even taking into account its criticisms, the film is hardly as bad as King seems to think. Rather, the movie, much like most cult cinema, just needed time to find its audience.

A viewing of Maximum Overdrive today evokes a whole era of 80s horror films, the kind of movies my generation was weaned on via late night cable and VHS rental stores. It has a nostalgic and kitschy value that is akin to magic, providing warmth for the horror aficionado’s soul. Furthermore, the movie is unique amongst the many slasher flicks of the era, providing for us a new villain and sense of fun that some of its peers were lacking. Maximum Overdrive has an abundance of spirit that was indicative of the time, and when the film was remade in 2000 (Trucks, dir. Chris Thomson), it was devoid of that tongue-in-cheek wistfulness that made King’s version so enjoyable.

There’s no question that Stephen King is a literary giant, but I think that Maximum Overdrive proves that there’s no reason he can’t be a fun, campy cult filmmaker too.

Ultimately, my point here isn’t to review Maximum Overdrive, but to make an earnest plea. In a 2002 book interview, King remarked that he didn’t feel like he knew what he was doing with the film, but would consider directing again.

Thus far, that hasn’t happened.

Now, maybe I’m just a fan with a pipedream, but as an actor, writer, and Maximum Overdrive enthusiast, I’m calling Stephen King’s bluff. There’s so many of us who love his directorial debut, not to mention the man himself, I think it’s high time he got behind the camera again.

At 64, King shows no signs of slowing down. His most recent book, The Wind Through the Keyhole, just was released last week, and he regularly publishes and produces new work. For someone with such overwhelming creative output, I see no reason he shouldn’t take another crack at the cinematic arts. Maximum Overdrive was such a definitive product of the 1980s; I would be overjoyed to see what King could bring to the screen for the new millennium.

Now, I’m not crazed enough to believe that Stephen King is sitting around reading any of my columns online or in print, but on the off chance he’s out there, I say this:

Get back in that director’s chair.

On the Maximum Overdrive soundtrack, AC/DC puts forth the question “Who Made Who?” However, the answer is simple: You did. With that wonderful brain and deranged world view, you made so many of us the horror fans we are today.  Take a cue from this constant reader and know, should you finally decide to direct again, we’ll be ready to welcome you back with bloody, open arms.

…and as for my constant readers, I leave you this week with a homework assignment. If you’re not already familiar with Maximum Overdrive, do yourself a huge favor and check it out. I guarantee the film won’t disappoint, and, if anything, you’ll learn of the King-sized hole that needs filled at our theaters.

Until next time, I’m hitting the road.

…and who knows, maybe I’ll find Emilio along the way.

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  • Maturin says...
    January 27, 2014 at 2:48 AM

    I could see him directing another movie. My fingers are crossed, fellow constant reader! My nephews are 11 and 9. I can’t wait to let them see Maximum Overdive. They are already ACDC Fans.

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