Mick Garris’s 2004 indie Stephen King adaptation Riding the Bullet is a good time. It isn’t an especially good film, from a stylistic or formal aesthetic perspective. It does, however, use its camp and carny components as a functionally efficient way to reflect on important aspects of human experience–selfishness, loss, love, fear, family; you know, those primal, foundational topics common to horror’s entire history. More specifically, they’re topics central to Stephen King’s oeuvre since the beginning. And quite often King approaches those themes with his own heavy dose of camp and the carnivalesque–something he’s likely picked up from Bradbury, EC Comics, and those glorious 50s sci-fi horror flicks he discusses so generously in Danse Macabre. You could say that a certain low-brow vulgarity, honed through much time in gross theme parks and dive cinemas, is central to King’s whole thing. And with that comes many important insights into average America, especially the average white American male. Lots of fun camp and carny components that really are in King’s DNA. And like how King talks about B-movies (or even the C & D pictures), King’s fiction often comes with a heavy dose of sentimentality. He’s a big softy underneath that crass exterior, full of hope, charity, and corny fart jokes. Veteran adapter of King, Mick Garris’ film naturally also waxes sentimental, but, similar to Stand By Me and 11/22/63, it understands and successfully embraces King’s sentimentality to deliver a modestly fun and poignant tale.
Mick Garris isn’t an overly adventurous or creative director, but there’s a functional economy to his directing that works well enough. This obviously won’t win him any awards, critical praise, or deep fan devotion; but it pays the bills and scratches a personal and cultural itch I think is okay to have around. Riding the Bullet contains traces of Garris’s signature seen in some of his other King works, namely Quicksilver Highway, The Stand, and The Shining. This is both good and bad. Garris doesn’t have the chops to really breath expansive adaptive life into his source material. He often opts for a somewhat slavish devotion to the source material that confines the cinematic potential within King’s work. For such an imaginative author as King, often the adaptations are, well, lacking imagination specific to the cinematic medium. Hence why Garris’s adaptation of The Shining is a rather toothless affair–in trying to replicate King’s own imagination, Garris leaves no room for his own. So there’s little fun in the viewing experience. Riding the Bullet is having much more fun.
Watching the silly antics and mishaps of Alan Parker (Jonathan Jackson) recalled my teenage self watching the bizarre Quicksilver Highway, and the moderately more successful miniseries of The Stand. Neither is amazing, but still fun and modestly successful 90s TV works, especially for a younger person just discovering Stephen King, and who’d been nourished on a steady youth diet of 30s Universal Horror classics. While made in 2004, the look and feel of Riding the Bullet is straight out of 1997, which is kind of strange and also rather fitting for a film so interested in how childhood lingers into adulthood, how the past returns to haunt the present, and our own nostalgia for allegedly simpler times (even if we know they weren’t that simple). There’s a bit of effective time warping in a 2004 film feeling like the 90s, while being about a kid in the 60s remembering the 50s. It’s a peculiar space that never quite lands anywhere stable, but is instead a carnival mirror of oscillating time periods and sensibilities that actually enhances Alan Parker’s internal confusion, where fantasy, hallucination, disillusionment and yearning for something else all whorl together. It’s a weird place.
As expected, the acting is hamish, lacking nuance or subtlety. But this also fits into its strange aesthetic and works well enough. David Arquette‘s George Staub is understandably campy, chewing up the scenery where he can. Arquette isn’t particularly versatile, same as everyone else in this thing, but he works within the world of the story and the creative team around him. What Garris and Jackson get right is that Alan Parker is a very dumb boy. And the sympathy we have for this selfish moron isn’t one that turns him into some noble hero, but rather an ordinary human. People are often pretty dumb, and that’s neither overly noble or tragic–it’s just people, and it’s just life.
And there’s where the film ultimately works: it’s a humble work, made by people of very modest ability, with limited means, telling the tale of a dope who can’t seem to get life right, while never valorizing him, nor looking down our noses at him. Life’s pretty ordinary, even when strange and horrific things–both supernatural and coldly real–are happening to us and shaping us. We’ll do some pretty stupid things that’ll haunt us. But we learn to live with it, neither absolving ourselves of our guilt or trying to garner pity from those around us. This message, which is laced through King’s work, is an ordinary message, a daily grind message. And it’s worth our time.