Like most kids, I didn't know anything about a film's box office or critical reception when I was seven years old, but somehow I was aware that Maximum Overdrive was considered a "bad movie" when I first saw it on video. Maybe my mom - a Constant Reader in those days - said something about it when she rented it, or perhaps Jeff, a neighborhood kid who was a bit older and got to read Fangoria already, had told me somewhere along the line, but it didn't matter. THEY may have had little love for Stephen King's lone directorial effort, but when you're seven there's no such thing as a bad movie, just as long as it offers something exciting for you. The Color of Money, rented around the same time? THAT was a bad movie, as far as younger me was concerned, because no one got run over by a steamroller or blew up a truck. They just played pool and talked!
Well now that I'm older and slightly wiser I've come around on Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winner, but I maintain that Maximum Overdrive isn't nearly as bad as its reputation - or its director - suggests. In a largely unrelated commentary track by Stephen King biographer Tony Magistrale, he relates an anecdote where King was asked about his critics, and the author's response was that their problem was that they took him far more seriously than he took himself. It's an important thing to consider when you look at the reviews for his lone directorial effort (based on his short story "Trucks"), because I suspect the film's critical standing would improve if folks put less stock into the idea that it was in the same pantheon as Carrie and The Shining. It's a pretty goofy concept and no one involved seemed to be under the impression it was meant to be a legit scary movie, but for some reason many seemed to be expecting something more psychologically fulfilling from a movie about a Green Goblin truck mowing down a bunch of rednecks at a truck stop.
To be fair to them, the ad campaign did feature King promising to "scare the hell out of you", so perhaps he's to blame for setting expectations so high even if he was just joking. It's hard to know for sure; he basically refuses to talk about the movie in any detail (it will surprise no one to learn he is not present on this jam-packed Blu-ray) and even when he does mention it, it's only to note that he can't remember making it due to his personal struggles of the era. But I like to think that he was joking with his claim (especially since he adds that, if you want something done right you should do it yourself, implying the likes of Carrie and Dead Zone were bad movies), and then I'll go even further and theorize that he purposely used the Halloween III music on the trailer to let the more informed audience members know that, like that film, you have a better chance of enjoying it if you're not comparing it to what came before. It's the Season of the Witch of Stephen King films!
Because, really - what's not to love here if you're in the mood for high-concept nonsense? The film's plot concerns all of the machines on Earth coming to life after the planet passes through the tail of a comet (science!), which proves to be quite deadly for mankind. Some of the machines just do odd things like eject all of their money or call the film's director an asshole, others turn murderous and kill anyone nearby, like a soda machine that shoots cans out with enough force to essentially beat a man (and perhaps some kids?) to death. And every now and then we see evidence that King has a loose interpretation of the word "machine", since at least one person is killed with a garden hose, and there are other inconsistencies it's best not to think about. But for the most part the danger comes from trucks, many of which circle the Dixie Boy truck stop and trap about twenty people inside.
Of course, if you're going to be trapped anywhere during an event like this, a truck stop isn't the worst place - you got food and showers, plus lots of people to talk to and presumably a few books and such to pass the time. But that'd be a boring movie, so of course our heroes (led by Emilio Estevez) continually try to escape and/or gain the upper hand, which usually results in someone's death. The trucks run people down, or shoot them (a military "Mule" is among the group, otherwise populated mostly by big rigs), forcing the heroes to come up with new plans and alternate escape routes. The film slows down for a few talky bits (and, since it's the 1980s, for two of the people who just met to have sex, despite the danger they're in), but I doubt King ever allows a full ten minutes to go by without another violent death, making it an ideal "midnight movie" option as there's plenty of carnage to keep folks awake.
It's also peppered with oddball characters that would have felt right at home in any other proper King story. Estevez's hero Bill Robinson is kind of a generic "ex-con trying to go straight" stock character, but most of the folks around him are delightful, in particular Pat Hingle as Bubba Hendershot, the slimy owner of the truck stop who thinks nothing of telling a young kid that his dad got "scrubbed by one of them big boys out there". For a certain generation of movie fan, Hingle was best known as the noble Commissioner Gordon from the Burton/Schumacher Batman films (he along with Michael Gough as Alfred were the only ones to stick around for all four films), so if that's your go-to version of the man's movie persona you'll get a kick out of seeing him clearly having a ball playing such an asshole. Then there's Yeardley Smith as a whiny newlywed and John Short as her harried husband, who seemingly own the only non-possessed car and possibly could have had the entire movie to themselves, driving around the country, escaping death over and over as Short presumably realizes he'd rather get run over than listen to her shrieking anymore.
Speaking of the characters, one thing I genuinely like about the movie (as opposed to the "I'm gonna have a few beers and enjoy this" kind of way) is that even though there's a respectable body count (one that includes a nearly unrecognizable Giancarlo Esposito as a guy who gets electrocuted by an arcade game), King lets around a dozen of the characters live, which is unusually high for any horror film, let alone one that originally got an X rating from the MPAA. It's the same thing I dig about Tremors: unless it's a slasher movie, there's no reason a horror film has to come down to a couple people (sometimes only one), and it's kind of endearing to see such a big group, many of them strangers when the film began, banding together and surviving. It's the rare film that never lets you underestimate the danger, but also gives you hope that should it happen for real, there's a decent chance you can survive if you work with your fellow man (it's the same lesson imparted in the superficially similar The Mist, albeit in a far less depressing manner here).
Really, the only thing about the movie that doesn't fully work (besides its insane text-driven post script) is that it's fairly episodic, offering scenes that on their own are fun and even occasionally shocking (the steamroller!), but could also be rearranged without it mattering much. King cuts away from the Dixie Boy to show Curtis and Connie inadvertently making their way there, but also does the same for young Deke, who survived the soda machine assault and is heading to his dad who works at the truck stop. It takes a while for them to get there and interact with anyone else, so it feels a bit repetitive, like you're switching between three episodes of a Trucks anthology show as opposed to watching a cohesive narrative. The original story was more contained; it only had like six or seven people in its 17 pages and (if memory serves) took place entirely at the truck stop, making it an odd choice for a feature. So obviously King had to flesh it out to make a full 90 minutes or so out of it, but could have done a better job with the middle section, after we've seen many of the highlights but before everyone's together and starting to fight back.
But hey, it was King's first time directing, so let's cut him some slack! For his second film, he - oh.
We'll never know if King could have proven to be a solid filmmaker like Clive Barker, and who knows why he chose one of his lesser stories right out of the gate as opposed to something that didn't need so much reworking to become a feature. We DO know that someone else tried making this movie in 1997 (it starred Timothy Busfield and kept the original title) and it's nowhere near as entertaining, so he deserves some credit for that. Alas, after all this time I doubt its haters are going to change their mind, but that's fine - it just means the Vestron Blu-ray will be easier to find for those who appreciate the film's gonzo, blue-collar charms. They packed this one with so much stuff I still haven't been able to get through it all; the aforementioned commentary is one of two (the other is with Ryan Turek and Jonah Ray, which is a blast as they toe the line between appreciating/defending it and making jokes at its expense) and there are like seven or eight featurettes, including a fun one where North Carolina locals share their memories of Hollywood coming to Wilmington, which was not yet the go-to shooting location it became in the 1990s. I was a bit sad to hear one of them call it one of the worst movies ever made, but there's another interview with Smith and Short talking about their experience, with Smith noting that she's not ashamed of the movie at all and proud of being part of something so fun. So stop being so snooty toward it, critics - none of you are as smart as Lisa Simpson and even she knows it's a blast.