Maximum Overdrive: Stephen King Takes The Wheel

February 14, 2019
With Stephen King continuing to be a treasure trove for filmmakers and TV producers, we look at the horror author’s lone foray into movie making: Maximum Overdrive.

“I’ve been a fan of the movies all my life,” titanic horror author Stephen King told Horror King. “I grew up on them. We used to look forward to it as a big deal. I went every chance that I got. Anybody who grows up with the movies, and who becomes a writer, wants the chance to write cinematically.”

Though the hugely successful Stephen King watched with interest from the sidelines as a number of his popular books were made into films both good (Carrie, The Shining, The Dead Zone, Christine) and not-so-good (Firestarter, Cujo, Children Of The Corn), he didn’t make his cinematic bow until 1986, when he directed the action/horror/thriller Maximum Overdrive, which was based on his short story, Trucks, and was made under the auspices of flashy super producer, Dino De Laurentiis (King Kong, Flash Gordon). “I didn’t get the job because I went to film school,” King has said of jumping into the director’s chair. “I got the job because I’m Stephen King. If you become famous enough, they’ll let you hang yourself in Times Square with live TV coverage.”

Stephen King in the Maximum Overdrive trailer.

Indeed, King’s statement is actually backed up in Blake J. Harris’ extraordinary oral history on the making of Maximum Overdrive. “How did this [film] get made?” asks producer, Martha De Laurentiis, also Dino’s new love interest at the time of production. “It’s because Stephen later said to Dino, ‘I want to direct.’ And Dino said to Stephen, ‘Why not? You should.’”

Starring Emilio Estevez (along with Pat Hingle, Laura Harrington, John Short, and Lisa Simpson herself, Yeardley Smith) and boasting a hard-driving score by King’s favourite band, AC/DC (“The best rock and blues band of all time,” he said of the legendary group on the BBC), the film tracks a disparate group of people who must fight for survival when machines start to come alive…and become homicidal. Featuring violent vending machines and marauding semi-trailers, the film is a loud, silly symphony of crunching steel and nonsensical motivation that today boasts a small cult following. Like a whacked out, chrome-and-crushed metal version of Hitchcock’s The Birds, it addresses society’s fear of technology in a truly rambunctious and absurdist fashion, but is way too goofy to sit with other tech-run-amok standard bearers like The Terminator and Colossus: The Forbin Project.

Emilio Estevez in Maximum Overdrive.

In the book, Hollywood’s Stephen King, the author turned filmmaker stated that he was “coked out of his mind all through production, and didn’t know what I was doing.” Though near deranged and uncomfortably camp in tone, Maximum Overdrive is not completely without merit, but the film still copped a major critical drubbing. “By making the machines’ malevolence so all-encompassing – so amoral – Mr. King loses the fillip of retribution in better horror films,” wrote The New York Times’ Jon Pareles in his fair-handed review of the film. “For the most part, he has taken a promising notion – our dependence on our machines – and turned it into one long car-crunch movie, wheezing from setups to crackups.”

The film failed at the box office too, and King was even unceremoniously nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Director. It was also the victim of a major lawsuit when cinematographer, Armando Nannuzzi, sued the production and King for $18 million after suffering an eye injury on-set.

Now a true head-scratching curio (though beloved enough in some circles to have inspired a features-packed special edition Blu-ray), Maximum Overdrive remains Stephen King’s only directorial effort. “I’d never say never,” King replied when asked by Movies Online if he’d ever like to direct again. “It would be great sometime to direct a movie when I wasn’t coked and drunk out of my mind to see what would come out of it. But, uh, I’m not crazy to do it.”

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