One year for my birthday my mom bought me Stephen King’s book On Writing, and the part that sticks most clearly in my mind is the section where he talks about how all of his books answer simple what-ifs. Like: what if vampires were real? Or: what if the devil went to a small New England town? The reason why that section stuck out to me is that the answers Stephen King provides tend to be the most obvious answers possible. (They would try to kill people. He would try to buy some souls.) Stephen King’s charm isn’t in terms of coming up with great scenarios, and it isn’t with plot mechanics – it’s in his ability to be evocative, to take those basic elements and render them in a way that readers can really imagine.
The same can be said of the movies made from Stephen King stories: the ones that stick to the plot mechanics tend to be fine, but uninspiring; the ones that graft an interesting mood on top of the plot are the ones that are good. When you boil down the story of the Shawshank Redemption it’s kind of Forrest Gump in a prison, episodic and full of stereotypical characters, but there’s something about the atmosphere that elevates the movie beyond the simpleness of the material.
Maximum Overdrive is the only movie that Stephen King ever directed, and it’s what-if is goofy. (What if all the machines in the world woke up and were homicidal? Not alive, mind you; not just moving around; but actively murderous.) And the plot elements on top of that are pretty silly, too. (All the characters are stuck in a truck stop, and for some reason the truck stop owner has an arsenal in the basement that includes rocket launchers. Which is admittedly convenient in this scenario, but a weird life choice, even for a Southerner. Why keep those at work around all the scuzzy teenagers he employs instead of at home?) Both the set up and the plot could plausibly work with the right touch, because the right director can wring a lot out of a premise where you never know what everyday item around you might suddenly become a threat.
King is not really that director. There’s a scene where a kid is biking down a street and he sees a guy who has been killed by his lawnmower, and then a man has had his brain liquefied by his walkman somehow, and then a woman has been choked to death by her hair drier. (How it got agency over it’s chord remains unexplained.) The longer the scene goes on the more you realize: oh, he ran out out of ideas, so he started looking around him and thinking “how could that thing kill somebody?” the same way a character in a farce might have to make up a fake name and end up picking “Grape McCano-Soda” because that was what was in his line of sight. The ambiance he’s going for is B-movie, but he ended up in full on camp, an overshooting of the mark that means that the only laughs to be had are ironic, and there’s nothing scary in it at all. There are worse fates for a movie like this, but better ones, too.