Graveyard Shift (Ralph S. Singleton, 1990)
Next up in the Stephen King cinematic retro came this nostalgic trip down unapologetic grade B exploitation fare, an adaptation of a grim little no-nonsense gem from that essential first “Night Shift” collection, this one about a small group of workers who take on killer rats (more like a kind of rat empire) that have/has overtaken their workplace, a decrepit New England textile mill, with the men quickly discovering, the deeper into the bowels they go, the larger, the more mutated – and the more terrifying – the nasty, razor-teethed buggers are becoming…
Led by a cast of mostly unknowns (often asked to play their parts in that broad backwoods 80’s exploitation film style that can admittedly makes my eyes glaze a bit), including the entirely forgettable lead David Andrews as the drifter Hall, who takes a job at the mill immediately finding himself at loggerheads with the shady and sadistic foreman Warwick — played by the slightly-more-familiar Stephen Macht, who in his absurdly futile attempt at what I think is a Boston accent (the whole ‘pahk the cah’ thing) comes across more like an extraterrestrial learning human speech for the first time (it’s really distracting) — who is failing to hide the dangerously worsening rat infestation problem (so dangerous in fact it’s leading to the occasional employee gone missing) in order to keep the mill in operation, and Kelly Wolf as a butch fellow mill work-ah and Hall’s burgeoning romantic interest, with the added color of pockmark faced Andrew Divoff (still seven years away from his lower-end 15 minutes of fame as the evil lead Djinn in the Wishmaster series) playing an over-masculinized laborer (with his main narrative function, as we all know, being eventual audience-pleasing rodent-fodder) and total crazy-eyed (and rat-faced, I realized) wild man Brad Douriff thrown into the mix, delivering one of his mad performances that manages to be both entirely over-the-top yet oddly captivating at the same time, as it hints at a kind of legitimate danger (as you wonder if he isn’t actually a bit fucking nuts for real, or on drugs, or something) no matter how hard the script tries to push him over into goofy land, as a blood-crazed rat exterminator, accompanied by his cute little dog (yep, you know what that means — more rodent-chow), who uses his jungle-honed Vietnam vet skills in taking on these creatures, keeping at it no matter how many more keep coming… and how much bigger they keep getting.
Graveyard Shift has the distinct feel of one of those early 90’s fading indie horror entries of the time, of the kind that were getting supplanted by the Hollywood machine, which had become an unstoppable force that was devouring the last of the genre scene, turning it into that massive blockbuster assembly line, owning just about every theater screen, that still exists today. Even little ol’ twenty-something horror fan me had dismissed this one when it played (though that likely had more to do with my tiring of the author, than anything else). Apparently, if Wikileaks is correct, it was even a decent success for Paramount… alas, the studios were no longer satisfied with ‘modest successes’ – it was box office bonanza or bust time.
Seeing it now? I (and my daughter) both found a lot to enjoy in the film. For all its broad strokes, like with many indies (and just films) of the 70’s and 80’s p(re-90’s Miramax), it’s low budget and use of real locations, somehow (and admirably) manages a level of verisimilitude in its milieu of lower-economic, tough blue collar living, with its sense of a world in which it’s eat or be eaten, economically and emotionally (and sexually). I’m not arguing the film as some kind of sociological study, by any means, but as I was able to explain to my daughter, this was a type of film, and a time in American cinema, when it was okay to show the protagonists living a hard-scrabble life, for real; it didn’t need to be hidden behind some imaginary delusional version where waiting tables in New York City gets you a huge loft with an outside terrace in the middle of Manhattan.
The difficult task of working with the rats, trying to make them menacing, rather than bored or running off to hide, is achieved nicely through some clever cutting, and the bat-rat hybrid monster that runs the roost is an impressive practical creation, shot with creative flair to maximize its impact. Perhaps even more surprising, usual producer Ralph S. Singleton does a solidly effective job with this single feature film directing gig in his entire career (considering he never attempted it again, I can only imagine they had a director on who got fired or something for Singleton to have even taken on the job), finding all sorts of nicely interesting ways to shoot the scenes.
And the rat-infested textile mill set itself, while perhaps realistically overdone with its sense of utter decay and crumble (I can’t imagine anyone could possibly have been still working in that place), still ends up, through nice lighting and impressive set design, a vast, baroque and darkly fantastical place.
While nowhere near as fascinatingly grim as the original King tale (which plays out like some kind of inexorable pull into existential darkness, with the group of workers and the evil foreman being led into the heart of rodent-filled madness by the determinist, possibly suicidal protagonist), Singleton’s Graveyard Shift may be a lot less heavy, but it’s got more than enough to offer (including a fair enough share of gory bits) to check off as a worthwhile lower-brow entry on the King cinematic viewing list.