Stephen King is one of the most brilliant writers in the history of mankind. I love so many of his book to movie adaptations as his writing is so visual that nearly every story screams out to be seen on film. However, almost every time one of King's novels or short stories has made it's way to film or television it has been in the hands of someone else, only once did King himself step behind the camera and direct one of his own tales of the macabre, and that was in 1986 for Maximum Overdrive.
Adapted for the screen by King from his own 1973 short story Trucks, Maximum Overdrive is set during the aftereffects of Earth passing through the tail of a comet, which causes previously inanimate objects (ranging from weapons to electric signs, home electronics to vehicles, lawnmowers to an electric knife) to start to show a murderous life of their own. A small group of mostly unrelated people are held under siege in the Dixie Boy Truck Stop by a bevy of fierce killer vehicles, they must come together and fight the machines to survive.
Although it's not up there with the best of the best of King's features, Maximum Overdrive showcases much of King's style; the isolation, the small rag tag group hidden away from some monstrosity, the fighting against each other, and the supernatural. What's missing, though, is the scare factor, and this is probably because of the source material itself. After all, homicidal machines hell bent on killing humans is kind of a silly concept, one King acknowledges from the off with an ATM calling the customer an asshole. Wisely then, this movie is played very tongue in cheek, not very King-like as a whole (although there are many gory kills), but still an above average enjoyable feature.
The assembled cast all work very well together, Emilio Estevez takes the lead as the rough and tough bad boy hero, Bill Robinson. His character is very stereotypical and yet he is incredibly watchable in the role and alone adds enough to the film to keep it interesting. Pat Hingle is terrific as the snarly, egotistical diner owner Hendershot who immediately butts heads with Robinson. Laura Harrington plays Brett, essentially the typical eighties eye candy girl, but she does get a little more substance, actually putting forth a hero type effort, and her and Estevez are not bad together. Yeardley Smith (now best known as the voice of Lisa Simpson) plays the annoying Connie, one half of a newlywed couple stuck in the gas station. John Short is her new husband, Curtis. It's a shame we don't actually see more from his character as he's kind of underused compared to the others but does turn in a rather heroic performance.
Most horror fans really do appreciate a good campy horror movie, and that is exactly what Maximum Overdrive is. I mean, you can't help but laugh in horror as a multitude of electrical appliances start murdering people everywhere and massive transport trucks stage a revolution against a tiny gas station. The kills themselves are plenty gruesome (look out for the little kid getting neatly pressed by a rogue steamroller) and the trucks themselves are pretty cool, especially the Green Goblin one which appears to be the leader of the crew.
In a 2002 interview King said that he was...
"coked out of my mind all through its production, and I really didn't know what I was doing"He chalks the whole thing down as a learning experience and one that left him not wanting to return behind the camera anytime soon. Yet he gets a lot right here, including making you somehow feel like the vehicles have individual personalities, and, as the film progresses, slowly building the palpable claustrophobic tension on screen.
Maximum Overdrive won't ever freak you out like many of King's horror stories do, that's because this film is mainly a campy dark-comedy horror, but it's not actually trying to be anything else but that. The action is pretty good, the interesting choice of AC/DC for the soundtrack really works, it'll make you laugh, it'll gross you out at times, it'll have you screaming "WE MADE YOU!!" and it will likely stay with you long after viewing, like all the best horror movies should. In that respect, job well done Mr King.