Although it’s not considered one of the better film adaptations (it rates a dismal 13% on the Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” [http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1031376-graveyard_shift/ retrieved 10/19/2013]) I do get a kick out of watching the 1990 film adaptation of Stephen King’s short story “Graveyard Shift”. While I freely concede that it is not a classic like Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” (1976) or Stanley Kubrick’s re-envisioning of “The Shining” (1980), it isn’t nearly as bad as some of the other silver screen atrocities that have been perpetrated in the movie houses across the land in the name of Horror Cinema.
So, even with King’s loyal and forgiving fanbase, why has this movie been so largely dismissed? I believe that perhaps the root of this diss might lie in the faithfulness (or not) of the adaptation. To test my theory, I re-read the story, which can be found in King’s short story collection “Night Shift” (1978). Having first read “Night Shift” on a family road trip back in 1985 or so, I’d largely forgotten the details of the stories, especially the ones which weren’t overtly horrific (I was an impressionable teenager after all). Re-reading it was quite an enjoyable experience, and with the movie fresh in my mind from a recent viewing, I kept my eyes peeled for any obvious differences between the tale and the film. I didn’t have to go far before I noticed the first big divergence in the story: there are no women.
The whole movie subplot of foreman Warwick being a womanizer who sexually harasses his female staff is solely an invention of the screenwriter John Esposito, and it also follows that there is no love interest for Hall, the protagonist of the tale. I understand Hollywood’s annoying habit of fleshing out classic horror stories with fodder for for the masses in order to broaden their box-office appeal, but in this case it’s distracting and it takes up a good portion of the film. A fan of the original story, watching the film for the first time might wonder when the storyline is going to resemble its source material.
Another weakness in the film adaptation is the decision to make Hall an outsider who is bullied by the other mill workers at the local eatery. He does nothing to defend or redeem himself, so why should we care what happens to him? Also, actor David Andrews’ portrayal of the story’s anti-hero is lackluster at best. Even at the movie’s pivotal moment when his co-worker / love interest Jane (Wisconsky, who in the King story is a whiny, fearful man who like the other characters of the tale is only ever referred to by his surname) is fatally stabbed by Warwick as she attempts to pull him off of Hall, after he has pinned him down on a pile of human bones in the monster’s lair; Hall just holds her briefly in his arms then leaves her body to the vermin of the mill without a backward glance as he makes a run for it. Also, I just have to say that I lived in New England for 8 years and never met anyone with an accent like the one actor Stephen Macht used for the character of Warwick.
Another significant change in the story is the addition of the exterminator, Tucker Cleveland, portrayed by Horror film veteran Brad Dourif in an over-the-top performance, even for him. This character was created for the film and was not featured in the King story. Although Dourif’s performance is arguably amusing to watch, his monologue about the rats in Vietnam betraying the US soldiers by eating them in the VC prison camps after they’d shared their food with them is laughable and not a little insensitive to the many soldiers and citizens who suffered horribly during that war in such camps.
The film does pick up a bit when it gets to the part that involves the original plot-line where Warwick takes a select crew into the bowels of the Bartlett Mill (dubbed “Bachmann Mill” for the film in honor of King’s nom de plume) to clean out some old files and rotted furniture during the off- season. The environment down there is creepy, with crumbing fungus-ridden floorboards, hidden passages and trap doors, nasty bugs and the icing on the cake is that the whole dilapidated mess is totally infested with rats, which they ward off with high powered water hoses. In the story, the deeper they go into the bowels of the mill, the larger and weirder the rats become. Eventually, in the deep, dark corners of the mill, they come across 3 foot tall blind albino rats with missing hind-legs, which seem to be on part of an evolutionary chain to becoming giant rat-bats, sprouting wings but retaining their rat-tails.
This is the model for the monster of the film, which seems to be a giant rat-bat creature that slinks around the mill, picking off the mill workers one by one. The monster in the book however, only appears once and seems more like Jabba the Hut, a giant hairless slug-like creature, reclining in her lair. She has no wings and also lacks hind-legs. Hall forces Warwick into her den where he is killed. Hall, trying to get away, ends up being overwhelmed by the encroaching rats and the rat-bat hybrid creatures. The movie, on the other hand, ends on a semi-happy note with Hall luring the “magna mater” (“great mother”, i.e. the queen rat) into the upper levels of the mill where she gets her tail caught in a thresher of some sort, which reels it in to be crushed twixt its rolling pins.
Over all, I still enjoy watching the film, and I understand the logic behind some of the changes, I just think they might have worked better if they’d been wrought by hands that were more accustomed to working in the Horror genre.