|Stephen King's Riding the Bullet|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 19 April 2005|
Although Stephen King is best known as a horror fiction writer, when his work is translated to the screen, it is the adaptations of his more character-driven work – “Stand By Me,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Green Mile” – that tend to get the most respect. “Stephen King’s Riding the Bullet” splits the difference – it is a ghost story that centers squarely on the emotional life of Alan Parker (Jonathan Jackson).
It’s October 1969 and college student Alan, fascinated with the kind of imagery that will adorn Grateful Dead albums and comic book covers in future but just now is considered morbid, makes a suicide attempt. It’s a half-hearted effort that fails, but Alan has unknowingly opened a door to something ugly. When he gets word that his beloved mother Jean (Barbara Hershey) has suffered a stroke, Alan resolves immediately to hitchhike to the hospital. It’s Halloween night and Alan has a few scary adventures along the road, even before he accepts a fateful ride and finds out how the unwilling dead feel about people who have considered ending their own lives and the bargains they strike …
Director/scenarist Mick Garris (who previously helmed King’s “Sleepwalkers,” “The Stand,” the TV miniseries remake of “The Shining” and has ABC’s “Desperation” coming up) establishes a wonderful sense of period that subtly but potently enhances the material. Contrasting the “if I knew then what I know now” nature of King’s story (which in its prose form is set in the present) with a larger social sense of pained nostalgia deepens the story’s pervasive sense of loss and creates a resonance between Alan’s predicament and the larger world without ever forcing the issue. The filmmaker also handles some tricky transitions between naturalism, supernatural reality and Alan’s fantasies in a way that consistently delivers surprises without ever becoming narratively muddled.
Garris is an expert at staging scares and handles a helpful narrative device – when Alan talks to himself, there are literally two of him in frame – with a matter-of-fact manner that helps us accept it as easily as Alan does himself. The cast is excellent, with Jackson giving a thoughtful and fluid leading performance and Hershey providing a persuasive look at a woman who is trying desperately to hold herself together with very little outside help. David Arquette displays a combination of righteous rage, glee and pure menace as a driver who has been on the title amusement park ride and Cliff Robertson is affecting and eerie as a pathetic old man who may be senile or supernatural.
The film is loaded start to finish with seminal ‘60s songs on the soundtrack, starting with “Time of the Season” in Chapter 1, where the mix does a beautifully subtle job of combining the music with a sound that turns out to be the scratching of Alan’s pencil as he sketches. Chapter 19 makes playful use of James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” for a somewhat shocking sequence and the closing credits make good use of the Youngbloods’ “Get Together” (Garris explains on the commentary track that they really wanted “Instant Karma,” even getting approval from John Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono, only to have the deal fall apart over financial issues).
The video transfer has wonderful nuances, with lovely color reflections on a set road in Chapter 9 and clear effects, with effects of talking paintings in Chapter 2 and seamless green screen shots of Alan talking to his second self in frame clear and impressive.
Sound effects are fine, though the 5.1 track rarely ventures into the rears for anything except extra volume. Chapter 8 has great car skid effects through the center and mains and sonic scares register consistently throughout.
The DVD has two commentary tracks, one with Garris solo talking entertainingly and informatively about all aspects of making the movie, and a second track with Garris, star Jackson, producer Joel T. Smith, director of photography Robert New and special effects makeup creators Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger; Garris gently guides his colleagues into recalling some of the more interesting incidents in their mutual filmmaking experience, like a venomous spider that got loose on set one day. There are a number of agreeable featurettes focusing on different aspects of production, with an especially enjoyable one about a car crashing into a truck full of pumpkins, and there’s a gallery of the very “Tales From the Crypt”-like artwork created by Ben Wrightson to be representative of the character Alan’s work.
“Stephen King’s Riding the Bullet” does honor to both ends of the King spectrum: it is literate, stylish, nuanced – and still delivers a good spooky jolt of Halloween “Boo!”