Sunday, December 9, 2018

Off Script: Maximum Overdrive

Film: Maximum Overdrive
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on The New Portable.

There are some movies that have to be experienced to be believed. Maximum Overdrive is exactly that sort of movie. Starting from the decent but flatly weird Stephen King short story “Trucks,” Maximum Overdrive is what you get when, given a series of decisions and possible directions to go in, a group of people make the wrong choice every single time. Staggering in its dumbness, there is not a part of this movie that isn’t head-slapping in some way. Because of this, I almost love it despite it being so terrible. This is a movie that has the foresight and wisdom to set up a series of rules and then break them consistently when it’s convenient.

Here’s the basic premise: the Earth passes through the tail of a comet and suddenly mechanical devices come to life and try to kill everyone. That’s it. Seriously, that’s literally it. While our suddenly homicidal devices will include video game cabinets, soda machines, and electric knives, most of what comes to life is vehicles. Specifically trucks.

The movie takes place at a North Carolina truck stop owned and operated by a man named Hendershot (Pat Hingle, one of the more recognizable actors in the film). Working for him is Bill Robinson (Emilio Estevez), a short order cook who is going to be our putative hero. We get a few instances of machines coming to life and a little bit of carnage. A waitress at the truck stop (Ellen McElduff) is attacked by an electric knife and a customer is killed by a video game cabinet. A soda machine attacks (and kills) a Little League coach and some players by firing cans of generic soda at them. A steamroller then runs over one of the kids. But really, it’s the sequence where a drawbridge opens on its own causing death and carnage, cars falling off the bridge, and (I’m serious here) watermelons smashing through sugar glass windshields that really sells our premise. Eventually, the sentient machines hit the truck stop in force. A worker (J.C. Quinn) is blinded when a gas pump squirts him in the eyes, and suddenly the trucks start trying to run people over.

But we don’t have enough people here, so let’s add some more. First in are Brett (Laura Harrington), who is hitchhiking to Florida, and a handsy Bible salesman. I honestly don’t know who played this guy because I don’t know the character’s name and I don’t really care. We also get Curtis (John Short) and Connie (Yeardley Smith), a newlywed couple, who wind up at the truck stop after being chased by a truck and then having their car flip over.

I’m not going to spend a great deal of time with the rest of this. Essentially, the people in the truck stop battle it out with the trucks. Eventually, one of the Little League kids makes it to the truck stop. Turns out he’s the son of the dude who got blinded, who then got run over by one of the trucks. Lots of people die off one-by-one. Eventually, Bill the cook, who is also an ex-convict and Brett the hitchhiker decide that sentient trucks isn’t going to stop them from fuckin’, and while the world caves in around them, they get busy.

Their goal is to make it to a nearby island where apparently there are no mechanical devices. To do that, they have to fight their way through the trucks. Fortunately for them, Bubba Hendershot, 2ho owns the truck stop, also appears to be prepping for World War III and despite being in North Carolina, is evidently an Idaho militia member. He has—and I’m not exaggerating—rocket launchers in the basement storage. So, exploding we go as the humans run from the trucks.

I can’t create a comprehensive list of everything wrong with this film, but I can give you some idea of just how bad it is.
*) The film fails at its own premise. Mechanical devices are somehow being controlled or have come to life, but this is not consistent. A soda machine attacks a dude, as does an electric knife, but none of the other devices in the truck stop become killers. Why not the toaster? The fridge? The lights?
*) In fact, cars don’t seem to be affected. The Bible salesman and the married couple don’t have any issues with their cars. Somehow, Buicks are immune to turning on their owners.
*) Yeardley Smith is the most annoying character in this film. The world is in a position where trucks are literally attacking people, where military vehicles show up and somehow fire mounted weaponry despite not having a way to press a trigger, and she complains about everything she can think of constantly. I like Yeardley Smith. I think she’s an interesting actor and I tend to enjoy when she shows up in things, and I hated every frame of her in this movie.
*) At one point, our humans are trying to escape the trucks and they end up squatting next to a fast food drive through. The speaker starts announcing their presence despite the fact that the speaker don’t themselves have the power of speech and require someone on the other end of the microphone.
*) When they flee, one of the characters stops to pick a huge fake ring off a corpse and is thus killed for being greedy. Incidentally, he essentially stands still and lets the truck run him down.
*) The ultimate confrontation with the big bad truck that has plagued the people for the entirety of the movie is resolved in about 4 seconds. That’s not an exaggeration.

There’s so much more. In fact, I’m going to spoil this movie, so if you haven’t seen this, actually still want to, and don’t want the incredibly stupid conclusion ruined for you, skip the rest of this paragraph. We’re told via text at the end that a Russian satellite that happened to be armed with a nuclear missile and a laser cannon destroyed a UFO. Eventually, the planet passed out of the comet’s tail and everything went back to normal. So was it aliens? Was it the comet? We don’t know. The movie suggests both and perhaps we call get to take our pick. I don’t know. I don’t care.

Stephen King has admitted that he made this movie (the only one he’s ever directed) while out of his mind on cocaine. It shows. When asked why he hasn’t directed a movie since Maximum Overdrive, his literal answer is, “Have you seen Maximum Overdrive?” I think that says it all.

Why to watch Maximum Overdrive: If you ever wondered what it would be like if a coked-up Stephen King directed a movie, this is here for you.
Why not to watch: Do you know how bad a movie has to be to make me dislike Yeardley Smith?


  1. And now, I almost want to see this.

    1. It's rather remarkably bad...and I can't stop you.

  2. The scariest part of the movie was actually King starring the trailer. I was too young at the time to see just how coked out of his mind he really was, and that it wasn't just an act. Too bad nobody warning me about "Cujo" either.

    1. I remember the television ad. In retrospect, I think we was fueled by pure cocaine for that, too.