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Split: Stephen King and George A. Romero's The Dark Half on Blu-ray

  Considering George A. Romero changed cinema forever, and despite having at least a couple of big favourites in his filmography, he really deserved a better career, for his life was littered with projects he failed to get off the ground, projects that could have been inspired and even as entertaining as his zombie movies. Among them, The Mummy, a Tarzan adaptation and a version of writer Stephen King's The Stand are among his great what-ifs, but he did work with King on more than one occasion, most famously on Creepshow in 1982, a major hit for him at a time when King's books were being snapped up for adaptations like gold dust.

As many filmmakers discovered, a Stephen King novel may not be as easy to adapt as they seem, for pinning down his precise methods in telling a rattling good yarn to translate to a film or television show often serves to highlight the strengths of the page and the drawbacks of the screen. But these things seem to go in cycles, and with the blockbuster versions of IT cleaning up at the box office, another cycle of King's film and TV popularity arrived in the twenty-tens, yet in the early nineties that was not the case. The writer himself, having kicked his drink and drug addictions, set off on a course of horrors on a different tack from before.

Therefore, efforts like Dolores Claiborne, Rose Madder or his gimmicky double bill of The Regulators and Desperation were more memorable as books, and indeed some of his nineties efforts have yet to be adapted, suggesting King was chiming more with his "constant readers" than the multiplex. The Dark Half straddled those, a story written when he was finally shaking off his addictions, and brought to the screen by Romero in 1991 - or that was the idea. However, though the novel had been published in the dying embers of the eighties, the movie tended to be lumped in with the so-so adaptations of this new decade like Needful Things or Dolores Claiborne.

What had happened was the studio that produced The Dark Half, Orion, had agreed to back Romero without telling him their finances were in disarray, and they basically went bust while the film was nearing completion, meaning a release was held up till 1993, and even then only barely. Yet another example of how bad luck dogged Romero's career (famously, he did not own the copyright on Night of the Living Dead so missed out on making a fortune on a movie that went to public domain), and many King fans were unaware there had even been a production of The Dark Half at all, it simply slipped between the cracks of pop culture.

What was most notable about it as a piece of entertainment was that for those fans, they may appreciate it more than non-fans, or at least more than those who have not read the book (which is not one of King's most famous efforts). This was thanks to Romero's screenplay sticking very close to the text, so much so that if anything it was too faithful, and at over two hours could have been pared down to a leaner experience. But while it was not one of his most extreme items, it did have flashes of the nastiness King laced his novel with, which was in effect a slasher tale with the killer being a murderous writer who has made his name with lurid pulp.

It was easy to see the parallels in King's life: his lead character, Thad Beaumont (played by Timothy Hutton), was an author wishing to be taken seriously but finding his serious work eclipsed by his violent thrillers written under the pseudonym George Stark, inspired by King's alter ego Richard Bachman. When threatened with blackmail that could end this handy source of income, he goes public - but Stark doesn't like that, and his hard-drinking, bad drug habits representing him prove difficult to shift. To the extent that Stark becomes a living, breathing - and slaughtering - maniac, disintegrating but powerful and needing Thad to write more pulp fiction to survive.

It was a somewhat unwieldy metaphor that could only have come from the pen (or word processor, back then) of King since it was so blatantly personal, making the Jekyll and Hyde themes that anyone creative must tackle, especially if, like King and Romero, you are fairly mild-mannered in real life but intense and bloodthirsty in your fiction. The Dark Half, the book, looks tailor-made for analysis in a university course thanks to a complete lack of subtlety in how far it went in presenting its themes - that paper writes itself! - which meant that as with many a King story, it would be more satisfying on the page, but Romero worked hard to bring his film to life.

King was of course in a privileged position in that everything he had published would be of interest to his millions of followers, but Romero was in more of a cult talent who had his fans, but they were not as numerous, more specialised, and despite the writer's association, it was not enough to generate interest in The Dark Half as a picture. You can kind of see why: it takes its time, Hutton is not especially sympathetic when he's Thad, and not enough of a tough guy actor to pull off the Stark role, and even at the time some of the visual effects (including early adoption of CGI) were lacking, with the climax a bit of a letdown as far as imagery goes.

Yet all that said, Romero "got" the King material in a way that suggested more of an empathy with what the writer was aiming for than many other directors have, before and since, and he made those themes of addiction and how creativity can spawn a duality in personality, for better or worse, as clear as day. You could argue that was all in the book, but just because they were, it does not follow that they can be brought to fruition in a movie; Romero was attached to the film of Pet Sematary for a while, and you just have to look at the two results of that property to see some point-missing going on that would never have happened on Romero's watch. You would probably have more fun with their Creepshow movie(s), but this was a combination we could have done with far more of. Then again, we really should have had more Romero films altogether.

[Loads of features on Eureka's Dual Format Blu-ray, and here they are:

1080p presentation of the film on Blu-ray (with a progressive encode on the DVD)
LPCM audio (uncompressed on the Blu-ray) and 5.1 DTS-HD MA audio options
Optional English SDH subtitles
Audio commentary with Writer/Director George A. Romero
George A. Romero episode of Son of the Incredibly Strange Film Show [38 mins] - documentary on the director originally aired on UK television in 1989
The Sparrows Are Flying Again! The Making of The Dark Half [36mins] - Retrospective with George A. Romero, special make-up effects creators Everett Burrell and John Vulich, visual effects supervisor Kevin Kutchaver, actor Robert Joy, editor Pasquale Buba and more!
Deleted Scenes
A selection of Behind-the-scenes and archival video material
Original Storyboards
TV spot
Original Theatrical Trailer
Reversible sleeve
Limited Edition Collector's booklet featuring new writing on the film by Simon Ward.]

Author: Graeme Clark.

 

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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018