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MOVIE REVIEW : The Evil Within Personified in 'The Dark Half'

April 23, 1993|MICHAEL WILMINGTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There are two Timothy Huttons in "The Dark Half," (citywide), the kitschily gory new Jeckyll-Hyde thriller from Stephen King's 1989 novel. And it's hard to tell which is scarier: the Hutton who plays Thad Beaumont, small-town teacher and father and failed writer of serious novels, or the other Hutton--the one who plays George Stark, the killer from redneck Hell. That Stark is a sneering, leather-jacketed sadist, who roars out of the graveyard with a razor and a bad attitude, and, commandeering a black Toronado, leaves a trail of fear and corpses behind him.

As Mississippian George, Hutton suggests a Dixie demon in lizard-skin boots: Elvis' "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" is his nightmare signature tune. As Thad from Castle Rock, Maine--the character King obviously modeled on himself--Hutton looks glassy-eyed, checker-shirted, "normal." Surrounded by concerned wife Liz (Amy Madigan) and their kids--twins, naturally--he's almost a monster of niceness.

*

Does Thad's inner evil focus his energies? In the story, which director George Romero has adapted with his usual dark skill, George Stark is the pseudonym Thad invented for a series of bloody bestsellers, written in the hard-boiled style of Jim Thompson or Shane Stevens. And when Thad, threatened with exposure by a scummy little blackmailer ("Atlantic City's" Robert Joy), decides to kill off "George," and get on with his serious, unsellable stuff, his inner self comes hellishly to life and won't let him.

King's story is full of zingers, all aptly visualized by Romero. There's Thad's dead twin, who turns up as a tumor, or an eye, in his brain. There's the "Wrong Man" investigation of Thad by shrewd Sheriff Pangborn (Michael Rooker). And there's a hair-raising grab from Hitchcock's "Birds": flocks of thousands of sparrows, or "psycho-pomps," that keep mantling the landscape, like vast multi-winged harbingers of Angst .

The movie's other George, "Dark Half's" writer-director Romero, is, like King, a specialist at mixing the mundane with the gruesome. And, though Romero often seems to be working this material too gingerly, carefully, he gets the right tone of gradually rising menace. King and Romero are a natural match, and though this isn't the best of the King-derived horror movies--"The Shining" and "The Dead Zone" probably are--it's close.

Violent and credibility-straining it may be, but it's not cheap or thoughtless. The film captures the best part of the book, and since it's more compact--at 467 pages, the novel was a slightly gaseous over-read--it may be more effective. Romero prunes the story, revs it up. He gets a gleam and smoothness that offset the gore: the tony photography by Tony Pierce-Roberts ("Howards End"), the presence of classy Julie Harris, as DeLesseps, Thad's pipe-smoking colleague.

In a good acting ensemble, Hutton shines in both parts--though, as Thad, he doesn't always suggest the kind of shaggy introvert who might idealize a swaggering, maniac bully like George. Yet, if "Dark Half" has a major flaw, beyond simple overkill, it's something deep in the original book itself. Romero and King, who once had a pseudonym of his own (the "late" Richard Bachman), keep Stark too emotionally separate from Thad. The story might be more terrifying if it showed more mutual attraction and sympathy between the good and dark halves.

Thad Beaumont represents the author as he'd like to be seen, and George is what he secretly dreams of being: the cold-eyed wanderer and hell-raiser. In a way, the two mirror a great schism in American literature: the tendency of male writers to fail at home life and succeed with tales of the outlaw country, or what Huck Finn called the "territory ahead."

Using this split, "The Dark Half" (MPAA rated R for violence and language) performs a private exorcism on a huge super-movie stage. It gives us thrills, shocks, works us over. But it doesn't really touch us much--and, deep down, that's probably what King and Romero most wanted. Maybe the real tears and pain are in the side they don't show. Maybe they're in the other movie.

'The Dark Half'

Timothy Hutton: Thad Beaumont/George Stark

Amy Madigan: Liz Beaumont

Michael Rooker: Sheriff Alan Pangborn

Julie Harris: Reggie DeLesseps

An Orion Pictures presentation of a Dark Half production. Director/Screenplay/Executive producer George A. Romero. Producer Declan Baldwin. Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts. Editor Pasquale Buba. Costumes Barbara Anderson. Music Christopher Young. Production design Cletus Anderson. Art director Jim Feng. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (Violence, language).

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