The Dark Half could have been George Romero’s Hollywood break­through: it was an adap­ta­tion of a hit Stephen King nov­el with a healthy bud­get and a cast of a-list pro­fes­sion­als.  Instead, the col­lapse of its dis­trib­u­tor, Orion Pictures, led to the film sit­ting on the shelf for over a year past its intend­ed release.  The results got a mut­ed respon­se from crit­ic and view­er alike and Romero wouldn’t make anoth­er fea­ture for the rest of the decade.  It’s a shame because The Dark Half is a solid piece of work that showed this DarkHalf-posindie-mind­ed direc­tor could do worth­while work in the Hollywood milieu.

The plot of The Dark Half is a riff on the “Jekyll & Hyde” mythos, par­tial­ly inspired by King’s expe­ri­ences writ­ing under a pseu­do­nym.  Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton) is the pro­tag­o­nist, a pro­fes­sor and nov­el­ist who aspires to a main­stream lit­er­ary career but keeps food on the table for his wife Liz (Amy Madigan) and kids by crank­ing out vio­lent, sexy pot­boil­ers under the nom de plume “George Stark.”  When a would-be extor­tion­ist (Robert Joy) dis­cov­ers this fact and threat­ens black­mail, Beaumont decides to go pub­lic with his dual iden­ti­ty and use it to pro­mote his book.

UnfortuDarkHalf-01nate­ly, Thad’s alter ego does not want to rest in peace and peo­ple tied to Thad’s work soon begin dying in mys­te­ri­ous ways.  Thad’s fin­ger­prints are left at each crime scene, forc­ing Thad to con­tend with the sus­pi­cions of Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Michael Rooker) as he tries to fig­ure out what is hap­pen­ing and how to stop it.  The solu­tion might lie in a child­hood ill­ness that could have to do with the present-day mur­der spree.

The Dark Half is no cheap shock-o-rama. Romero takes a rev­er­ent approach to adapt­ing King’s work, focus­ing on char­ac­ter and a delib­er­ate­ly paced buildup to the hor­ror ele­ments.  Fans of King’s work will appre­ci­ate how the quirky char­ac­ter­i­za­tions and fla­vor­ful dia­logue are kept intact.  The use of Pennsylvania loca­tions in the win­ter­time gives the film a dis­tinc­tive visu­al style (Tony Pierce-Roberts’ pho­tog­ra­phy is gor­geous) DarkHalf-02and its the rare mod­ern Hollywood hor­ror sto­ry that revolves around the lives of adults.

However, The Dark Half doesn’t shy away from the story’s creep fac­tor when it pops up.  The rev­e­la­tion of George Stark as a flesh and blood enti­ty has an almost Creepshow-esque vibe to it, with Hutton deliv­er­ing a styl­ized, glee­ful approach to the bête noire’s bru­tal­i­ty that off­sets the placid, sub­ur­ban nature of Thad Beaumont. Romero sup­plies an inter­est­ing com­bo of visu­al styl­iza­tion and painful­ly real­is­tic vio­lence for the killings to match this sto­ry ele­ment: a stalk­ing and killing in an emp­ty apart­ment hall­way is a par­tic­u­lar stand­out.  DarkHalf-03It’s also worth not­ing that the finale is pret­ty gonzo stuff that throws in large-scale make­up and visu­al effects into the pot for a Hollywood-sized pay­off.

The big crit­i­cism that can be lev­eled at The Dark Half is that it is mere­ly good when it needs to be great.  Romero’s state­ly pac­ing accen­tu­ates the fact that he’s adapt­ing a mid­dling exam­ple of a King sto­ry: there are some quirky ele­ments in the expla­na­tion of how Stark comes to be but there aren’t a lot of sur­pris­es once he starts killing and the sto­ry makes Thad a pas­sive hero for the first two thirds of the film.  The hor­ror fan won’t regret tak­ing this trip with King and Romero but they aren’t like­ly to feel like they’ve seen any­thing fresh on the jour­ney, either.

DarkHalf-04Thankfully, the pro­fes­sion­al­ism of The Dark Half keeps it afloat despite its inabil­i­ty to sur­prise.  Romero’s crafts­man­ship gives the film a rich tex­ture and he does great work with his cast of pros: in addi­tion to Hutton’s fun dual-char­ac­ter per­for­mance, there’s solid sup­port from Madigan as Thad’s spirit­ed wife and Rooker as the thought­ful but deter­mined sher­iff.  Fans will also appre­ci­ate Joy’s glee­ful­ly nasty work in his brief role as the sleaze­ball black­mail­er.

In short, The Dark Half occu­pies the mid­dle tier of Stephen King adap­ta­tions: the sto­ry is so-so stuff but the atten­tion to craft and the faith­ful repro­duc­tion of King’s sto­ry­telling style will enter­tain fans.   Like Monkey Shines, it shows Romero could have a nice Hollywood sec­tion to his career if the breaks had worked out bet­ter.