This is a really disappointing adaptation of an excellent and terrifying short story which appeared as part of American horror novelist Stephen King’s first anthology of short stories, 1978’s ‘Night Shift’. King’s story offers a dreadful sense of growing unease and a truly horrific ending which is completely scrapped in the movie version.
The good news about the film is that Linda Hamilton stars; if she has ever delivered a bad performance I have not seen it. She has a toughness and a vulnerability at the same time, and is an extremely likable actress. I just wish she made more movies; I remember seeing her many years ago as the violated wife in the harrowing telemovie ‘Rape and Marriage: The Rideout Case’. Hamilton made ‘Children’ shortly before playing tough heroine Sarah Connor in ‘The Terminator’, the role for which she is most famous.
Burt (Peter Horton) and Vicky (Linda Hamilton) arrive in the small town of Gatlin, Nebraska to find that a small group of mutinous children led by the Damien Thorn-like Isaac (John Franklin) have risen up and murdered nearly all the adults in their town. At the unhinged Isaac’s behest, they worship He Who Walks Behind the Rows, and they are not above sacrificing the odd grown up to this mysterious figure.
The shadowy presence of He Who Walks Behind the Rows pervades King’s taut tale. In the story, Burt is killed by this thing a few hours after he finds his wife crucified, her eyes plucked out and the empty sockets filled with corn husks. It is an incredibly downbeat and horrible ending to a great story, and draws most of its strength and power from the fact that we do not ever really find out what exactly He Who Walks Behind the Rows is. Is it human? This clever method of suggesting rather than showing horror is discussed by King in his wonderful and nostalgic non-fiction book ‘Danse Macabre’. He recalls always being disappointed when a monster was finally unveiled in a horror film. According to King, your imagination will always summon a beast much more frightening than something that a special makeup effects man has dreamt up. Unfortunately, the horror of He Who Walks Behind the Rows is totally diffused by this film. Instead of some terrifying presence, we get an awful electrical current, the product of some pretty shoddy early eighties special visual effects work.
But the worst thing about this movie is the happy ending. As I wrote, King’s ending is far better and a hell of a lot scarier. It would have been extremely powerful had Burt and Vicky met a grisly fate more faithful to King’s original vision. These are likable characters; we do not want to see something bad befall them. So a downbeat ending would have been that much more effective. The loss of these characters would have been depressing and unsettling. Instead, what we end up with is a forgettable ending to a forgettable film. ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ this most certainly is not.