Apparently neither the great horror writer Stephen King nor the great horror director George Romero is aware that the "evil twin" concept has moved from the zone of the dramatic into the zone of the comical. Once "evil twins" start showing up in Daviid Letterman's Top Ten lists, it's time to retire the idea .
Not these guys. They've unleased the somewhat astonishing "The Dark Half," a full-bore dead-literal "evil twin" story, about a writer whose worse half starts taking charge of his career by eliminating those who criticize or otherwise irritate him. Hmm, where do you get an evil twin?
Anyway, the clear origin of the piece is the writer's curious duality, a theme that has obsessed King and many writers of greater and lesser talent. Consider the novelist, any novelist, but King in particular: a mild-mannered, extremely pleasant and on the face of it unremarkable man who sits in an office all day long tap-tap-tapping away to the sound of rock music; yet what all that damned tapping produces is a nightscape of fear, pain, horror and slaughter, terrible beasts from the super ego, childhoods haunted with violence and guilt. Then he comes out of the study and says, "Honey, is there any more Diet Coke?"
Fascinated by this curiosity, King gives it his customary bludgeon-to-the-cerebellum treatment, separating the writer into two distinct forces. As he works it up, the writer, given the effete name of "Thad Beaumont," is in his childhood assailed with headaches; surgeons operate and discover a brain tumor which, upon close examination, turns out to be the literal remains of his twin, absorbed during gestation.
Thad grows up to be a tweedy English-lit type played by Tim Hutton, who publishes a few novels that the critics love but the public ignores. (What can King know about that?) Frustrated, he creates an alter-ego trash novelist, named George Stark, his antithesis: instead of a smug Northeasterner out of the J. Crew catalog, he's a trashy white boy from down Mississippi-way; his hair's worn in a pomade, he sports lizard boots with those little silver toe-caps, he drives a Grand Am (of course) and he carries a straight razor. The George Stark books, of course, go through the roof and Beaumont becomes the custodian of a guilty secret, as well as an affluent lifestyle.
When someone threatens to reveal his secret identity, he decides to beat the miscreant to the punch by "killing" his alter ego. But by the physics of the King universe, the alter ego has by this time taken flesh, and he doesn't want to die; he sets about expressing all of Beaumont's repressed rage as a way of protecting his own life. Hutton, of course, gets to play this role too, and he has some fun swaggering around in his boots, issuing cracker rejoinders and cutting people into tiny pieces.
The movie is constructed, somewhat clumsily, as a mystery story, with local sheriff Michael Rooker (a very interesting actor) trying to figure it all out, while Beaumont's wife, played by Amy Madigan, sits around issuing wisecracks and looks of compassion.
Played as comedy, the film might have been terrific, but only seven people would have come. So Romero, who made the great cult hits "Night of the Living Dead" and "Dawn of the Dead," as well as any number of disturbing, provocative and astounding horror movies, soon embraces the cliches of the genre, with lots of throat-slashing, gatherings of evil birds and lunkheaded portentousness not quite thick enough to masquerade the idiocies of the plot.
As it proceeds, "The Dark Half" gets progressively more intense and progressively less interesting; it ends preposterously, with apologies to Alfred Hitchcock's great "The Birds." A lot less gore, a few less threats to innocent babies (particularly tasteless in view of the mess in Waco) and a few more ideas might have made this one remarkable; instead, it's merely long and violent.
"The Dark Half"
Starring Timothy Hutton and Michael Rooker.
Directed by George Romero.
Released by Orion.