Me and Lil’ Stevie
Get Burned From
RIDING THE BULLET (2004)
(Exterior/Night. Establishing shot of a long, lonesome highway in Southern Maine. A full moon hangs over the highway, casting long, eerie shadows of pine trees onto the macadam. We can tell by what’s left of the foliage that it is mid-autumn. On one side of the road is an old cemetery, with swirls of fog drifting out of the entry way. Over the cemetery’s stone wall we see a mysterious figure doing some mysterious business. The figure turns and walks out of the cemetery gates. It is a man holding a ventriloquist dummy in the form of Master of Horror, Stephen King.)
LIL’ STEVIE: You never listen to me. I told you to do that back before we left the movie theater. Do you know how unprofessional that looks? It’s bad enough I have to watch!
PETER: I’m sorry, okay?!? Good evening, folks, and welcome to another edition of our little column. Today we’ll be discussing the 2004 Mick Garris adaptation of Stephen King’s RIDING THE BULLET. Now, if you haven’t read the story, it’s…
LIL’ STEVIE: Your fly is still down (rolls eyes comically).
PETER: (Struggles with zipper) …it’s a standard ghost story based on something that sounds right out of urban legend. It’s the phantom of the guy who died in a car wreck, but has been known to drive around this same stretch of highway on cold October evenings, just like tonight!
LIL’ STEVIE: Only, when I wrote it, I was dealing with own mother’s mortality, and…
PETER: When the REAL Stephen King wrote it, he was dealing with some very personal stuff. But in typical King fashion, he took lemons and made a pitcher of margaritas. Released back in 2000 (then later again in EVERYTHING’S EVENTUAL), RIDING THE BULLET was his transition into the age of digital downloads, and in the first 24 hours, over 400,000 fans downloaded the story onto their computers. It created havoc. Servers crashed due to the high Internet traffic. Unlike the road where we’re standing, where there is no traffic whatsoever…
LIL’ STEVIE: I was merely trying to point out that RIDING THE BULLET is more than just a ghost story…it’s a parable about morality and the choices we make when we’re alive!
PETER: You aren’t alive, pencil-neck. You’re a puppet. If I die, you’ll be pretty screwed. Now, can we get on with the review?
LIL’ STEVIE: (pouting) Fine!
PETER: The story concerns Alan Parker (Jonathan Jackson, who played Kyle Reese in the TV series TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNER CHRONICLES), a college student at the University of Maine at Orono (where King attended college) who has been obsessed with death ever since his dad passed away. The opening of the film is a montage of Alan’s childhood, including a pivotal moment of his life where he and his mom are at the front of the line to ride The Bullet; the big scary roller coaster at Thrill Village, but he chickens out and his mom smacks him for being such a candy-ass.
LIL’ STEVIE: What a Milk-Sop!
PETER: I’ll say. So there he is in college (circa 1969), taking an art class with his gal-pal Jessica (Erika Christensen, FLIGHTPLAN, 2005), and while the rest of the students are sketching the gorgeous nude woman in front of the class, Alan is drawing the Angel of Death standing behind her. In some weird exposition with Alan and the teacher (cameo by Matt Frewer, a Garris regular we talked about back in our review of BAG OF BONES), we learn that Alan has seen the Angel of Death around ever since his dad died in the car accident way back when. We also learn that Alan has built this wall around himself, which has kind of hindered his ability to deal with life and have real relationships.
LIL’ STEVIE: And it’s all hogwash! None of this came out of my novella. This always happens! The story is too short so let’s just invent stuff to fill in time! In my story, Alan gets the call that his mom had a stroke, and he’s out on the turnpike, thumbing a ride!
PETER: Calm yourself, Lil’ Stevie. You always get so angry. Let’s not jump the gun. Get it?
LIL’ STEVIE: Look at your leg. You’ve got drops on your pant leg. No matter how much you squirm and dance, the last few drops go down your pants! Hyuk hyuk hyuk!
(The headlights of an 18-wheeler appear in the distance, heading their way).
PETER: Wanna go for a ride? (Holds out Lil’ Stevie in the semi’s path).
LIL’ STEVIE: Aaarrghh! I’m sorry! I’M SORRY!
(The semi goes whizzing by just as Peter pulls Lil’ Stevie back at the last second).
PETER: That’s better. Where was I? Oh yeah. So Alan is the 60s version of an emo kid, and his desperate plea for help culminates with him drunk and stoned in his bathtub, ready to take his own life with a razor blade. This is the only compelling scene in the movie, as the Angel of Death shows up, and the giant women’s faces he’d painted on the walls come alive and begin chanting “Cut” at him. And then Jessica barges through the door with all of his best friends behind her to give him a surprise birthday party. Which is lucky for him, because otherwise he was a goner.
LIL’ STEVIE: Never happened!
PETER: Noted. What does happen is that a red car that looks incredibly similar to CHRISTINE begins showing up and lurking in all his exterior shots. At first I thought it was a clever nod to another King story, but as it occurs more frequently, it begins to feel like a rip-off. And as Alan returns from his hospital trip with his buddies en tow, we learn that Alan is also haunted by a mirror image of himself that serves as his conscience and voice of reason.
LIL’ STEVIE: Never happened! God, this drives me crazy.
PETER: Me too, actually. I hated the whole dual-persona thing Garris created. And I really hate how every scene has to play out with Alan’s scary imagined-reality scenarios before what really happens. It jumbles continuity and kills any chance for real tension to build.
(A mad dog suddenly lunges out of the woods and begins to attack Peter, as Lil’ Stevie Looks on and laughs).
PETER: What the…
(Then the dog disappears, and it’s as if nothing ever happened).
LIL’ STEVIE: You mean like that?
PETER: That was really weird. Anyway. We’re getting long-winded, so let’s break it down a little simpler. Jessica gives Alan tickets to see John Lennon and the Plastic Ono band up in Canada. Just as he shows his tickets off to his buddies, the phone rings with the news about Alan’s mom having a stroke. He passes the tickets off to his buds and begins hitchhiking downstate to get to Lewiston, where his mom is in the hospital.
LIL’ STEVIE: The SAME hospital I stayed in after that jerk-wad ran me over back in ’99.
PETER: If you were run over, you’d be sent to the firewood pile, okay, Humpty Dumpty? But you’re right…The real King did stay at that hospital after his accident. I wonder if he added that intentionally while he wrote this piece. Anyway, Alan thumbs rides down to Lewiston, all the while shadowed by his annoying double in the backseat, telling him his every move. First, he’s picked up by some old guy (Cliff Robertson, Uncle Ben in the Sam Raimi SPIDER-MAN franchise) who digs at his crotch like he’s got a urinary infection and rambles on about his late wife. When the old guy gets into town, Alan’s double tells him to get out and find another ride. Which isn’t easy, apparently, on this particular Halloween night, where NOBODY is outside doing anything.
LIL’ STEVIE: I’m really starting to hate Mick Garris right now…
PETER: I’m right there with ya. For everything he directs that is semi-decent, he throws a turd like this at us in response. Is he trying to be mysterious or something? Do you think he sits around watching this movie on late-night cable and saying, “Gosh, I really nailed this one”?
LIL’ STEVIE: I’d like to nail him! We should have saved this one for this year’s Holiday Turkey Shoot!
PETER: Alan travels on foot for a few miles. He gets chased by some redneck Mainers with a shotgun into a junk yard. Then travels a few more miles on foot to the cemetery over yonder, where we’re finally introduced to the ghost that is driving this movie.
LIL’ STEVIE: About freakin’ time! In my novella, Alan is already at the hospital.
PETER: George Staub (David Arquette, Deputy Dewey from SCREAM, 1996) is buried in the plot that Alan stumbles across. A quick glimpse at his tombstone tricks Alan into thinking the epitaph reads FUN IS FUN, AND DONE IS DONE, and is just certain that his mom has already kicked the bucket…Alan does this through most of the movie, mistaking events as supernatural omens that his mom has died…and it’s annoying as hell. But he glimpses again, and the epitaph now reads, WELL BEGUN, TOO SOON DONE.
LIL’ STEVIE: Unlike this movie…
PETER: Back on the highway, Alan finally thumbs another ride. And predictably, it’s the red car that looks just like CHRISTINE, and (cue scary music), the ghost of George Staub is driving! The rest of the flick is George tormenting Alan. Apparently, Alan will have to choose whether George will take HIS life or HIS MOM’S into the afterworld. Alan manages to escape, and is somehow transported from Maine to Thrill Village in Laconia, New Hampshire, where Staub will chase him down and eventually get him to ride THE BULLET, thus giving this turd a title.
LIL’ STEVIE: And Staub will reward him with a pin that says, I RODE THE BULLET, which actually DOES happen in my novella.
PETER: Of course, none of this really happens, as Alan had accidentally tripped back in the cemetery and knocked himself out on the corner of Staub’s tombstone. And yet (cue scary music again), he STILL HAS THE PIN!
LIL’ STEVIE: Somebody shoot me! No wonder this film got a limited released, then jumped right to cable television.
PETER: Alan arrives at the hospital, and low and behold, his mom is just fine. But by this point in the movie, we’ve also been tipped off that Alan’s dad had committed suicide, that mom’s a bit of a lush and cigarette junkie (hence the health problems), that his buddies from school died on the way to Canada, and that emo-Alan, who had tried to commit suicide at the beginning, pussied out and told George Staub to take his mom instead of him. What a shock.
LIL’ STEVIE: (holds up tape recorder) Note to self…kill Mick Garris before he damages my career any further.
PETER: That’s a little harsh. How about we just say that Garris should focus on one thing at a time? In this case, he should have let someone else write the screenplay instead of himself. What began as a neat little novella about a ghost from a campfire story has blossomed into a field of big, stinky flowers. Garris tried to throw too many ingredients into the stew and ruined dinner. He tried to put too much icing on the birthday cake. He…
LIL’ STEVIE: You really suck at metaphors. You’ll never be a REAL writer!
(In the distance, we see another 18-wheeler fast approaching behind them).
PETER: Oh yeah? Well, what’s FUN IS FUN AND DONE IS DONE!
(Peter tosses Lil’ Stevie into the path of the semi. Camera switches POV to inside the rig, where Lil’ Stevie’s face is screaming just outside the windshield.)
PETER: Thanks for joining us, folks. See you next time… (Peter turns toward an on-coming car and put’s his thumb out to hitch a ride. We see that the car looks a lot like CHRISTINE as he climbs inside.)
© Copyright 2012 by Peter N. Dudar