Sometimes They Come Back (Tom McLoughlin, 1991)
The all-King retro continues, unabated, through thick and through thin (with this latest entry definitely falling into the latter description), right on into this television movie adaptation, the latest in line to sift out another one of the ripe and ready tales from King’s absolutely essential short story collection “Night Shift” that so many opportunistic producers had already plundered (including legendary Dino De Laurentiis, a producer of many an early King film, who I noticed in the credits returned yet again for this one), with the results including some decent, fairly nasty 80’s B-movie numbers (like Graveyard Shift and even Children of the Corn), a pretty atrocious offering (the apparently cocaine-fueled effort by King himself known as Maximum Overdrive, the epically awful film that helped turn the author away from not only drugs but – perhaps an even more wise decision — any future attempts at directing) – and this one, the kinda… well… middling affair known as Sometimes They Come Back.
Teacher Jim Norman (Tim Matheson) has just moved with his family to a new town and teaching job after an altercation with a student led to his anger issues getting the best of him and him getting fired, to find an even greater threat to his well-being… namely, the childhood trauma at having witnessed his older brother’s killing nearly 30 years ago at the hand of some local delinquents is rearing its head, coming back again, only this time literally – in the impossible form of the menacing delinquent boys, appearing one by one, none having aged a day, as transfer students into his classroom, driving the same ’55 Plymouth they had back on that terrible night (only now it spews corny supernatural flames from its tailpipes)…
Keep in mind, kids, this was the days before the rise of pay cable TV, a more innocent time, so when I say a ‘television movie’, there isn’t any “Sopranos”-like eye-popping garrotting, or “Game of Thrones” barely legal, quasi-hardcore extended orgy scene, or “Walking Dead” flesh-chomping zombie set-piece to groove on. Not that a great film can’t come from that (I mean it’s not just sex, violence and profanity that makes Douglas happy – though it’s never a bad starting point) but when — in its family friendly mindset — the film randomly jams in the importance of the church in fending off evil (something King’s much darker short story thankfully goes nowhere near), a certain creative laziness — or perhaps more appropriately, a creative dearth – reveals itself.
And while King’s short tale — told in that satisfyingly grim tone of much of that first book, with the young author clearly eager to make a big, rebellious (and bloody) splash with his early collection – might get a bit convenient with having our ostensible hero suddenly managing to raise a demon (on a first go, armed with having perused a single self-help book titled, literally, ‘Raising Demons’!) in the image of his deceased brother to fend off the troop of ghostly switch-blade yielding juveniles, risen from the dead to finish what they meant to do to him as they did to his brother, King still manages to pull it off through sheer conviction in satisfyingly crude and effective exploitation-grade style (bolstered with some notable shocks, such as the teacher having additional loved ones killed by the comeback kids)… and the tale’s final twist, resonating nicely with “The Monkey’s Paw” (as did King’s Pet Sematary), with the realization that, sure, Norman may have solved his undead delinquent problem, but he’s replaced it not only with something more terrifying, but one in the shambling, grotesque form of his own dead brother, finishes it all up on an appropriately chilling genre note.
The movie, meanwhile, might have a few amusing if inoffensive gore-face gags (which were, amazingly enough, likely quite daring for television at the time) and while providing some simple fixes to a few narrative elements (ones that were surprising King didn’t initially recognize, or perhaps in the excitement of writing it, just said ‘fuck it’, as Clive Barker would do with his not-always logically coherent yet mind-bendingly visceral “Books of Blood” tales) that make the story a bit tighter and less cloudy as far as what the catalysts are for the supernatural events that suddenly follow (such as now locating Norman’s new school in his hometown where the terrible tragedy in his youth occurred, with his returning presence being what leads directly to the rise of the initial dead boys, something King never bothered to explain, and having the delinquent boys die immediately after murdering Norman’s brother, in fiery fashion, their car hit by a train, with the car keys that would have let them live stolen and in the hands of the young Norman, not realizing what he has done, and how this will haunt him into adulthood), with its happy ending, second-tier tv actors (other than Brooke Adams, who doesn’t exactly shine here, but I refuse to ever criticize after gifting us such great moments in King’s The Dead Zone and Kaufmann’s The Invasion of the Body Snatchers), uninspired shooting style and intrusion of – egads, man – Christianity into the mix, relegates it to that rather large pile of slightly-stinky television mediocrity so prevalent at the time (before pay cable television turned it all around, starting in the early aughts, with the medium eventually today supplanting the cinemas in terms of quality programming).
Television wasn’t there yet though in the 90’s, in terms of budget or talent. Looking ahead, I’m suspecting that the recently watched 1990 television miniseries It, and now Sometimes They Come Back, are just the first two in what are gonna end up being a substantial pile of small-screen mediocrities, as this was the decade where the Stephen King television adaptations started kicking in for real (perhaps due to the dwindling results at the box office for many of the numerous theatrical King films that had swamped the cinemas… with the books still selling massive numbers, guess they thought it was time television had a chance at him!), leading to the concurrent rise of that functional, if entirely unexceptional director (often handpicked by King, reminding yet again how pedestrian the author’s taste in cinema has always been), known as nice guy Mick Garris, who lead the decade’s charge with four – count ‘em, four! – King adaptations, including two ambitious television miniseries, one feature length small-screen entry and a theatrical film based on an original King screenplay no less.
Talk about a director whose career King built.