Running Time: 98 minutes.
Tag-line: "The dead travel fast."
Notable Cast or Crew: Jonathan Jackson (GENERAL HOSPITAL, INSOMNIA), David Arquette (SCREAM, RAVENOUS), Barbara Hershey (THE STUNT MAN, HOOSIERS, BLACK SWAN), Chris Gauthier (FREDDY VS. JASON, INSOMNIA), Matt Frewer (MAX HEADROOM, every Mick Garris movie), Cliff Robertson (UNDERWORLD U.S.A., CHARLY, ESCAPE FROM L.A.), and Nicky Katt (THE LIMEY, DAZED AND CONFUSED). Makeup effects by Greg Nicotero, Rachel Griffin, and Howard Berger. Written and directed by Mick Garris.
I'll try and keep this brief. So I'm watching this movie, an adaptation of the lesser known Stephen King e-book/novella "Riding the Bullet," and I'm not gonna lie– I knew it was a Mick Garris flick beforehand, and I watched it anyway.
You've probably heard me talk Mick Garris/Stephen King before (DESPERATION, QUICKSILVER HIGHWAY, SLEEPWALKERS, THE STAND, etc.) and know by now that my condition is pathological. It can't be helped. Mick Garris is going to keep making bad Stephen King movies, King is going to keep sanctioning them, and I'm just gonna keep watching 'em.
No exaggeration: that font might be the best thing about this movie.
So we got all the Mick Garris standbys- the Cynthia Garris appearance, the Nicolas Pike music, and the obligatory Matt Frewer role. I've called Garris a one-man Frewer employment agency (they've worked together six times)
and his appearance here amounts to a walk-on as a groovy art teacher with a "cool" earring and a stiff turtleneck. So yeah.
Anyway, with all these Garris-isms going on, I started getting excited about seeing Steven Weber (ex-WINGS star and another Garris standby) put his unique acting "spin" on some role in this mess.
Here he is, for instance, out-Nicholsoning Nicholson in THE SHINING '97.
I'm excited for Weber. I'm jonesin' for Weber... Where's my Weber?... and then I look it up on IMDb and find out that there's no Weber. Could it be? Could it be that there was no role for him? No room at the inn for Weber? Then who is going to give us a Steven Weber-caliber performance? We'll return to this pressing issue later on.
I read "Riding the Bullet" a few years ago (it's collected in EVERYTHING'S EVENTUAL) and still remember it pretty clearly. It's a fairly satisfying, melancholy ghost story centered around an agonizing moral choice, and it plays around with the trope of the "Phantom Hitchhiker" for a while before coming in for a semi-emotional, King-ian climax. This movie has been heavily expanded from the novella in ways that I don't really care about (which is classic Garris) and this definitely would have played out better as a 25-minute piece in a CREEPSHOW-style omnibus, but I suppose it's too late for that now.
Due to the feature-length padding, it becomes increasingly dull and most of the filler is only tangentially-related to the original story, being largely devoted to silly roadside scares and random fake-outs and dog attacks and killer hillbillies and did-it-happen-or-didn't-it moments and dream sequences that possess equal smatterings of FINAL DESTINATION and THE SIXTH SENSE. This brings me to the wider question, which is "were people really clamoring to have 'Riding the Bullet' made into a feature-length movie?" I have no problem with the original story, but I can think of probably forty to sixty as-of-yet-unadapted Stephen King stories that I'd rather see turned into movies. And everybody knows that if you want to watch a Stephen King movie with "Bullet" in the title, you go for SILVER BULLET.
So this thing is a 60s period piece with an expensive soundtrack: Strawberry Alarm Clock, The Zombies, James Brown, The Chambers Brothers, The Youngbloods. No idea where that cash came from. (They shoulda spent it on Steven Weber!) You can tell it's the 60s because people are referencing Tricky Dick and LEAVE IT TO BEAVER and "John 'I am the Walrus' Lennon" (yes, someone actually utters that aloud). You can really tell it's the 60s though, because everyone has 90s haircuts and interior decoration
Pictured: The 60s. (Shockingly similar to JAILBREAKERS' depiction of the 50s!)
and Death smokes him some reefer, as he did in the 60s.
This really happens, dear reader.
There's this whole terribly-thought-out narrative device whereupon our hero (Jonathan Jackson) has his internal monologue voiced by a CGI double, and it plays out in ineffective, head-scratching, and spit-take-inducing ways
That Cheech and Chong reference is a few years too early for the 1960s... Also note: authentic beaded curtain.
that frequently plunge, headfirst, into a morass of unintentional comedy.
Hey, at least CHRISTINE gets a cameo:
And speaking of cameos, we have two pretty good ones, likely responsible for all 1.5 of the stars I'm awarding this film:
There's the venerable Cliff Robertson, who shows up as an off-his-rocker, crotch-grabbing yokel:
Cliff: you deserved better.
and then Nicky Katt appears, exuding an enjoyable bit of manic energy as a VW minibus-driving fake hippie, and while he does his best to make this feel like a real movie, he only has about two minutes to do so.
Nicky Katt: improvisin' up a storm.
Also, this movie co-stars Oscar-nominee and acting legend Barbara Hershey as our protagonist's mother. She has been given the opportunity to utter scintillating Garris dialogue such as the following:
Wow. Garris walked into a room with Barbara Hershey and said, presumably to her face, that "Today you will be saying 'Awful Damn Crapheads,' and you will be saying it on camera." That takes balls, I suppose. Or cluelessness. And I don't mean to pile on Garris, even though I usually do– the man's contributions to CRITTERS 2, THE FLY II, and FUZZBUCKET are noteworthy, and he rather seems like a warm and enthusiastic man. But wow. "Awful Damn Crapheads." It happened. It happened and there's no taking it back.
Furthermore, I believe I have pinpointed the exact moment, on film, when Barbara Hershey fully realizes that her agent talked her into a Mick Garris movie–
It's sinking in: the contracts are signed and there's no backing out. Study it for long enough and you can even see her internal pep talk at work: "I can handle this for two weeks. I can handle anything for two weeks..."
Anyway, the movie's almost over when you realize that the main thrust of the novella hasn't even been addressed yet– the part where our hero is picked up by an undead messenger who (metaphorically) skewers him on the horns of a (moral) dilemma.
Said (ghoulish, zany) messenger is played by David Arquette.
Now wait one gosh-gadoodlin' minute! Somebody call the police! Arquette stole Steven Weber's role! The above depiction was clearly intended for Weber. It's in his wheelhouse. That is Weber's wheelhouse.
The maniacal facial expressions, the vacant eyes, the dopey one-liners, the pain of WINGS that rests upon his shoulders like a shroud– could it be? Could it be that Arquette is playing the role as a Steven Weber pastiche?
Pictured: Steven Weber pastiche.
Pictured: actual Steven Weber.
That's my theory, anyway, and I'm sticking to it. And despite my better judgment, I'm sure one day I will watch BAG OF BONES (the final Garris/King collaboration I have yet to see). Whew. Till that day comes...