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Director: George A. Romero
Cast: Timothy Hutton, Amy Madigan, Michael Rooker
Length: 122 min
Label: Scream Factory
Release Date: November 18, 2014
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Audio:English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0
- The Sparrows Are Flying Again!: The Making Of “The Dark Half” Newly commissioned featurette with interviews with Romero, the special effects team and cast
- Newly commissioned Audio Commentary by director George A. Romero
- Deleted Scenes
- Animated Storyboards for the Original Ending
- Behind-The-Scenes Footage
- Vintage Making Of
- Theatrical Trailer/li>
- TV Spot
- Stills Gallery
The Dark Half, made by zombie king George Romero in 1993 and based on a novel by Stephen King, is an often-maligned film. It’s mostly ignored or derided by even the most hardcore Romero fan, and it’s easy to see why. The story follows a struggling writer and teacher, Thaddeus Beaumont, who, under the brash, boozy, and ballsy alter ego, George Stark, writes a series of very successful, pulp novels. Things seem to be going along well, until he is blackmailed by a petty criminal from New York; threatening to reveal his trashier counterpart unless he pays him off. Deciding, with his wife, to just “kill” George Stark instead of paying up, they pose for an article in a national magazine, reveal the truth, and hope that’s put an end to it. Trouble is, George Stark, in the guise of his ludicrously named leading character Alexis Machine, manifests himself from the grave and decides to starts killing people, in hope that it’ll get Thad writing again.
As the film does follow the book closely, the fault that the initial central predicament doesn’t seem all that problematic to regular folks lies with the source material. Yes, maybe the script could’ve embellished it a little, focusing on the supernatural or psychological consequences of having a murderous alter ego. Ultimately, it’s the just fact that King, a successful author with either of his pen-names, is asking us to care about a problem that just doesn’t seem that consequential.
All that being said, weak motivations and plot devices aside, the film is well shot, with some pretty tense and gory death sequences. There is some superb acting, especially by Timothy Hutton in the lead/duel role. It has a problem with pacing and is too long, but that has long been an issue with even Romero’s greatest films. It really could’ve been trimmed down to be a more desperate ‘will no one believe me, my supernatural, violent, alter ego twin is killing all my friends’ thriller, and it definitely has elements of that, but quickly gets repetitive. Michael Rooker, as the too trusting local sheriff, has the thankless task of coming up with tenuous reasons for not arresting Thad Beaumont while the bodies from New York City to Maine gruesomely mount up.It’s a hard film to condemn outright though. The Dark Half is the first film, since they began their collaboration, not to feature Tom Savini in some form, but there are still some great, creepy effects sequences. From an early dream sequence to the final moments of George Stark and those damn sparrows, Romero shows that he and his team can do unnerving and surreal as well as the visceral gore he’s become known for through the Dead series. Romero’s style is highlighted and elevated by English cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts (A Room With A View, The Remains of the Day and more recently Underworld), especially in the Giallo sequence where the killing of a pony-tailed journalist is bathed in the blue and red neon light coming through the skylight of an apartment building. It is somewhat peculiar, especially considering his love of social commentary and the examination of human psyche in his Dead series, that Romero doesn’t delve deeper into the duality of man elements, but maybe he was consciously trying to make something more commercial or didn’t want to derail his adaption of the book. Timothy Hutton’s central performance, especially as the malevolent rockabilly serial killer George Stark, is thoroughly watchable and enjoyable. He has a little difficulty portraying the normal and bumbling Thad Beaumont at the beginning of the film, because of his weird intensity as an actor, but by the time he is called upon to fall apart or fight for his innocence, he is pleasingly compelling.
The rest of the cast is pretty small. There’s Amy Madigan, who is fine as Beaumont’s wife; Michael Rooker as the cop confused by the whole proceedings; and Julie Harris, who crops up in two scenes as the eccentric pipe smoking, friendly college professor who, of course, has an interest in the occult.
While this review is sadly not quite the positive re-evaluation of a lost Romero treasure I was hoping it would be, there is still much to enjoy here and The Dark Half still points to the tantalizing possibility of a longer, more fruitful career George Romero should’ve had away from those pesky zombies. With just a little tighter editing, this could’ve been a fun, disturbing supernatural thriller.
The 1.78:1 1080p HD transfer The Dark Half is a real treat. Colors are natural and really pop in many of the scenes. There is a strong sense of contrast with a steady and healthy black level. There are some elements of debris apparent on the print, but, aside from a few scenes, nothing that is too distracting. The make-up and special effects definitely deserve to be applauded and are given a new lease of life in this cleaned up print. They help sell not only important plot points and events in the film but also Hutton’s performance as George Stark. They are brilliantly subtle and in the right places gruesome. As per usual, there is no over-zealous digital enhancement, leaving a natural amount of film grain present.
For The Dark Half, Scream Factory offers two audio tracks: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0. While there are really no major issues between the mixes, there is, as expected, a bit more spacious feel to the 5.1 mix, where the score and the sound effects have more room to add to the overall feel. Beyond this small factor, you can’t really go wrong with either mix. Both offer a proper blend of elements, and neither feature any noticeable issues or age related damage.
Vintage Making of: These are short, mostly promotional pieces shot at the time of filming with the actors and the director. Most of them are fairly non-committal pleasantries. Timothy Hutton, especially, looks bored and almost asleep, but it’s always fascinating to see what everyone looked like and try and read between the lines as to what they were actually feeling back in the day.
The Sparrows Are Flying Again!: The Making of The Dark Half: This is the real prize of the Blu-Ray, a fairly snappy but informative documentary newly commissioned by Scream Factory that details a lot of the issues the film went through. All the main players from production are interviewed but notable by their absence are Timothy Hutton and Amy Madigan. It’s fascinating to find out, for example, that Timothy Hutton took method acting to ludicrous and slappable extremes by having one trailer for Thad and one trailer for George, and generally behaving like a pain in the ass on set. There’s also a big section on the trials and tribulations they had trying to get the effects sequences done, especially back in the early 90s when procedures that are common place today, like motion controlled cameras, were just being invented. The old adage ‘never work with animals’ comes in to play too, as Romero had no end of trouble getting the bird shots, especially from the climax, the way he wanted them. Lastly, as one of the films that was sadly caught in the snarl that happened when Orion, the production company, filed for bankruptcy there is some interesting insight and discussion on the effect that had on the film. Does knowing about the production problems make The Dark Half a better film in retrospect? Actually, maybe yes. That the film works at all is a huge accomplishment. Sadly, though, it would be the last film Romero would make in his beloved Pittsburgh, and wouldn’t release another for 7 years.
Behind the Scenes Footage: This is also a great inclusion on the disc. It’s rare stuff, shot on set with Romero directing, some effects shot setups, and some all-access footage which is well worth a look.
Deleted scene: Not so much a deleted scene as a re-edit of an existing scene with a little added footage of George Stark in a phone booth.
A still gallery, trailers, animated storyboards, and a newly commissioned commentary track with Romero himself out this impressive set.