Fasten Your Seat Belts for “Maximum Overdrive”
Stephen King's sole directorial effort remains a goofy, gory good time.
September 10, 2019

Stephen King’s sole directorial effort remains a goofy, gory good time.

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. This month, we ring in the release of It: Chapter Two by exploring the various adaptations of the master of horror, Stephen King. Read the rest of our coverage here.

Stephen King’s directorial debut and swan song Maximum Overdrive fittingly opens on a bank with an LED message board that repeatedly scrolls ‘FUCK YOU’ across its display. The camera then finds King in front of an ATM screen that’s quickly filling with the word ‘ASSHOLE’. In a film with few successes, the tenor of this movie is beautifully set within these opening shots. Within seconds it’s made perfectly clear what the audience is in for – a truckload of omnidirectional, hateful, chaos.  

To enjoy this movie is to unabashedly embrace schadenfreude. Full of cocaine-fueled hubris, King uses the movie’s trailer to call his shot. Staring directly into the camera as though Stanley Kubrick’s complete creative control over The Shining is on the other side, he seethes, “A lot of people have directed Stephen King novels and stories and I finally decided, if you want something done right, you oughta do it yourself.”

Declaring that your directorial debut and third feature length screenplay will be better than that of one of the most revered modern filmmakers is a bold move, Cotton. Let’s see how it plays out for him.

The story follows a group of strangers stuck at Dixie Boy, a seedy truck stop during a freak natural occurrence where all machines on Earth become sentient and attack their makers. Bill Robinson (Emilio Estevez) is a mysterious hero fallen from grace who, despite having a college degree, works as a short order cook for a super shady boss, Bubba Hendershot (Pat Hingle).  We know that Robinson is the hero of this story through his near constant middle distance stare, his readiness to jump into action at a moment’s notice, and the fact that his love interest, Brett (Laura Harrington), tells him he’s the hero every chance she gets. If you’re looking for subtlety, it’s lost among the traffic tickets, piss bottles,and stale fries strewn along the floor of this vehicle. 

Through the course of the movie we also follow Deke (Holter Graham), a young kid (and, notably, the only likeable character) just trying to get home from a baseball game gone awry thanks to a soda machine interested in nut shots and taking the youth down a peg. We’re also obligated to meet newlywed Connie (Yeardley Smith) who spends most of the movie complaining that all of this supernatural mayhem dares happens on her wedding day in a portrayal of the nagging wife trope that would make Lisa Simpson deliver a 22 minute TED Talk on the persistence of the patriarchy. 

Within seconds it’s made perfectly clear what the audience is in for – a truckload of omnidirectional, hateful, chaos.  

More important than the plotline, however, is the soundtrack created by AC/DC that carries this movie like a tricked out Peterbilt hauling a load of gold plated pig anuses. The soundtrack titled Who Made Who is more or less an AC/DC retrospective which includes hits like “You Shook Me All Night Long” and “Hells Bells” along with three songs made for the movie. The wonderfully curated soundtrack elevates the many sequences of various machinery chewing up the scenery. And at five times platinum in the US and Australia, it is objectively the most successful part of this film. 

Maximum Overdrive is an enjoyably disastrous film made exponentially more entertaining the more you learn about it. At one point Deke is chased down the street by a lawnmower which, in and of itself, just barely makes it over the line of being so bad it’s funny. However, when you watch it knowing that King’s insistence on keeping the lawn mower blades fully functional despite the advice of the special effects team resulted in cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi filing an 18 million dollar lawsuit against King and the production company, the scene hums like a freshly struck tuning fork. The lawnmower blades struck wood which caused splinters to fly up, costing the cinematographer vision in his right eye.  Nannuzzi later settled with the movie’s producers for a little less than one million.  Considering that the movie cost 10 million to make and only made 7.433 million world wide, at least that 1 million hurt.

Fans of bad movies and King adaptation fans alike are in for something special with Maximum Overdrive, especially if watching with like minded friends. It’s full of wonder. Wonder how intelligent a military Mule has to be to learn Morse Code? Wonder do machines dream of steampunk sheep? Wonder if the prominence of a seven feet tall Green Goblin mask on the grill of the featured truck means this counts as a Marvel movie?  

Sound like something for you? Then get in and don’t mind the mess — let’s go for a drive.

Maximum Overdrive Trailer: