The Other Stephen King and George Romero Classic: The Quiet Fury of The Dark Half

Movies Features George Romero
The Other Stephen King and George Romero Classic: The Quiet Fury of The Dark Half

The late, great George A. Romero wasn’t a guy usually in the business of adapting someone else’s work for his features. His stories were his own, which only serves to highlight the particular kinship he seemed to feel with Stephen King. The pair bonded because they were fans of each other, then bonded further because they shared a love of gore-laden, darkly humorous EC Comics stories, which led to the anthology horror masterpiece Creepshow. King trusted Romero enough to let him not just adapt his stories, but to direct him in one memorably cartoonish Creepshow segment. Romero trusted King enough to let the author’s fiction be a road map for some of his best-known cinematic output.

For many horror fans, this partnership between two icons of the genre begins and ends with Creepshow and its sequel (less impactful than the original but still packed with outstanding stuff like “The Raft”). But King and Romero remained friends and mutual admirers, enough so that they managed to work together in a big way one more time, three decades later. Released this month back in 1993, The Dark Half has become the semi-forgotten King/Romero team-up movie, in part because it lacks the flash and genre-shifting impact of Creepshow, and in part because the film wasn’t nearly as warmly received as their previous work together. Take a look back at the film now, though, and you’ll find a fascinating merging of Romero’s cinematic sensibilities and King’s instinct-driven storytelling that holds up better than its reputation would suggest.

Inspired by King’s own alter ego, Richard Bachman, and what happened when King was outed as the author of books like The Running Man and The Long Walk, The Dark Half is yet another Stephen King story about a writer. In this case, it’s Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutto), a frustrated literary novelist who finds fortune and success when he decides to adopt a pseudonym, writing popular and brutal crime novels under the name George Stark. As King lays out in his novel, and Romero touches on in the film, Thad develops a whole series of rituals to get into the Stark frame of mind. He only uses a certain kind of pencil in a certain kind of jar. He allows himself to smoke and drink when he’s in Stark mode, despite swearing off both substances when he’s “himself.” Through these rituals, the writing flows with ease and fury, and gives Thad, his wife Liz (Amy Madigan), and their twin babies a great life. When a whistleblower threatens to out Thad as Stark, it all grinds to a halt, and Thad decides to “kill off” his alter ego. 

George Stark, of course, has other plans, and the horror of King’s novel stems from what happens when the pseudonym starts to gain a sentience and a body of his own, using it to first ruin, then take over, Thad’s life. Like many of King’s books, it’s a story driven by internal terror: Thad comes to realize what’s happening to him and works to stop it through a combination of magical thinking, slasher movie struggle and a willingness to embrace his own inner darkness.

Moving the story to the screen, of course, necessitates a certain whittling down of the more cerebral, internalized elements of King’s book. Romero has to make the threat something tangible for viewing audiences, and he does that (through a script he wrote himself) by playing up both the more overt slasher elements of the story and by using years of horror prowess to craft memorable fantasy sequences that stoke the sense of dread. 

We don’t get to see much of George Stark—a leather-clad, ragged version of Thad also played by Hutton—until near the end of the film, but we do get to feel him. The air changes when he starts to circle his victims with a straight razor; the light shifts, things get red and haunting and layered with the approach of doom. In these moments, you can feel the pulp artist in Romero rising to the surface, infusing his own gleeful touches of violence and mayhem into King’s narrative, and it works, even if the film sometimes has trouble balancing those scenes with the more intimate horror of Thad’s life.

Which isn’t to say there’s nothing compelling about the more quiet moments of terror, particularly thanks to Hutton, who gives it absolutely everything he’s got on both sides of this dual role. Even if the movie’s not working, he is, and that makes even the more clumsy parts of The Dark Half at the very least interesting. But there’s another layer to Thad’s story, and to Romero’s take on that story, that makes the film an essential piece of the filmmaker’s canon, not to mention his collaboration with King. 

George A. Romero’s great horror legacy is defined by a lifelong focus on a single theme: The savagery lurking just beneath our humanity. His curiosity about this idea, and what we’re capable of when pushed to our absolute limits of depravity and desperation, fueled not just an entire series of his films, but an entire subgenre that’s still being explored today. But even the Living Dead films aren’t the end of Romero’s preoccupation with this theme. You see it in The Crazies, in Martin, in Monkey Shines and yes, in The Dark Half

Like King, Romero is exploring the darkest parts of human imagination, and what happens when those parts are unleashed, left to roam free without any moral or psychological check. And like King, Romero is in his own way turning the lens on himself with the story of Thad Beaumont and George Stark. What’s lurking in the mind of the guy who wrote that gruesome finale in Day of the Dead? Is there a darker Romero lurking under the surface of that smiling guy with the big glasses and the fishing vest? If so, has Romero made peace with him? Could he? Did he ever come out at night?

The Dark Half doesn’t really answer these questions, and perhaps we’re wrong to hope that it ever could. But within its runtime lurks a fascinating exploration of the dark side of creativity, delivered by two of horror’s great masters, and that makes it well worth watching three decades later.

Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin