Saturday Nightmares: Graveyard Shift (1990)
I don’t usually like using the term “guilty pleasure” because I rarely feel guilty about the films I like. But this adaptation of one of Stephen King’s earliest (and most fun) short stories is such a mixed bag that it’s hard to type out any kind of legitimate defense.
It had been quite a few years since I last viewed Graveyard Shift, and so I was curious to see if revisiting it would sustain my initial impression. Over the years I’ve found that the author’s most hardcore fans are the most dismissive of this film, the general consensus being that the filmmakers took an atmospheric and claustrophobic story and failed in recreating any of those feelings. I don’t necessarily agree with the assessment, however. If Graveyard Shift does anything right, it’s the atmosphere part, the problem being that it never amounts to more than a subpar monster movie – one whose enjoyment will probably be determined by how much its audience enjoys this particular subgenre.
Set in the fictional Maine town of Gates Falls within a textile mill that keeps the majority of the population employed, a series of gruesome deaths occur during the mill’s graveyard shift. Hilariously, the mill’s foreman, Warwick (Stephen Macht), isn’t all that concerned about these deaths (each of them appearing to be accidents). Instead he’s determined to keep the place running, full steam ahead. It’s revealed that the mill’s basement is a cluttered, rat-infested death trap, and it’s up to him and a small crew to work the graveyard shift over a holiday weekend to exterminate these vermin and make the place manageable again. But they quickly discover the culprit behind the “accidents” is a gigantic mutant rat-creature that has made the caverns its home. It stalks the crew one-by-one, killing and feeding at every turn as the survivors frantically search for a way to escape.
If you’re familiar with King’s short story, then you’ll recognize the above description as part of the problem. It’s clear that the production couldn’t afford the numerous creature types found in King’s text, focusing instead on one monster. Most of the fun of the story was derived from finding out what kind of freakish rat-variation King was going to bring forth next: giant rats, flying rats, the queen rat, etc. The whole idea of these animals evolving into new breeds of monsters as a result of being trapped in the subterranean dwelling has been completely scaled back here – and once you know what could’ve been, what actually is is pretty disappointing.
As I said, Graveyard Shift does benefit from its setting. The grimy, dirty surroundings outfit the film in a gritty and realistic atmosphere. Beyond that, some of the casting is excellent. Our two leads (David Andrews and Kelly Wolf) are never developed beyond the broad strokes, but they’re likable enough. The film shines with the presence of Stephen Macht, however. This guy was always an underrated actor, but here he takes on the role of “evil boss” with bastardly relish – there isn’t a frame that goes by where he isn’t mentally and/or physically abusing one of his employees. Macht is clearly having a good time, and he gives the film some much needed energy. He’s actually outdone by the all-too-brief appearance of Brad Dourif as rat exterminator Tucker Cleveland. Without much to do, Dourif steals the show whenever he’s there. Particularly amusing is his conversation with Andrews’ character regarding his philosophy on extermination. In a drought of bland and forgettable players, Macht and Dourif really do rise above the production.
Director Ralph S. Singleton (who in part also produced the excellent Pet Sematary and the not-so-excellent Pet Sematary II) fails in generating the kind of scares this kind of film really needs to survive. Production design is beyond superb, lending the film a feel almost all its own, but Singleton fails to milk it for maximum effect. By the time our characters have entered the mysterious dwelling of the creature, complete with thousands of skeletal remains, the tension is strangely absent. Singleton takes the Ridley Scott approach with respect to showing his creature – perhaps to exploit the “fear of the unknown” element – but the massive rat/bat hybrid is glimpsed enough to be both silly and disgusting all at once.
This write-up may give off the impression that I didn’t really enjoy Graveyard Shift. It’s something of a mess and doesn’t work as well as it should. There’s really no question. So while I’m reluctant to suddenly embrace the term “guilty pleasure”, I will admit that I probably do like this sucker more than I should. I suffer no illusions with respect to its quality, although I’m always entertained whenever I watch it. There’s enough material in King’s original story that I’d love to see someone else try their hand a making a practical FX-laden creature feature out of the source. But catch this sucker on a rainy day (or whenever you’re at your least discriminating), and you may just find yourself entertained. I did.
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