Scary stories

How Stephen King made one of the worst sci-fi movies of all time

The horror writer’s first (and last) stint in the director’s chair was doomed from the start.

“If you want it done right you ought to do it yourself.”

The most successful horror novelist of all time boasted these words down the lens in the trailer for his 1986 directorial debut — and directorial swansong. “I just wanted someone to do Stephen King right,” the writer said.

This was an odd and antagonistic promotional tactic. King was famously dismissive of Stanley Kubrick’s take on The Shining in the past, of course. But throwing shade at John Carpenter (Christine), Brian De Palma (Carrie), and David Cronenberg (The Dead Zone) as well? If ever someone was setting themselves up for an almighty fall, it was Stephen King with his 1986 sci-fi thriller Maximum Overdrive, which quietly celebrated its 35th anniversary this July.

And fall King sure did. The adaptation of his 1973 short story Trucks bombed at the box office, raking in a paltry $7.4 million on a budget of $9 million. Had it not been for Prince’s vanity project Under the Cherry Moon, both King and leading man Emilio Estevez would have picked up Razzies, too. The former never took the director’s chair again.

“I was coked out of my mind all through its production.”

In his defense, King gave a perfectly rational explanation for such bravado 17 years later in a book about his relationship with Hollywood. “The problem with that film is that I was coked out of my mind all through its production, and I didn’t know what I was doing.”

He’s continued to apologize for immortalizing his drug-addled state on film ever since. Only last March, Estevez revealed to Vanity Fair that King begs for forgiveness every time they reconnect.

Stephen King promoting Maximum Overdrive a day before its ill-fated debut.

Boris Spremo/Toronto Star/Getty Images Emilio Estevez in his first and only Razzie-nominated role. De Laurentiis Entertainment Group.

King’s first error was his choice of source material. Published first in Cavalier magazine (and selected for his first short story collection Night Shift five years later), Trucks was always going to be difficult to translate to the screen without descending into B-movie cheesiness. As the opening title card explains, a radiation storm caused by a rogue comet has, for some reason, turned all appliances, gadgets, and vehicles into killing machines.

We then see Breaking Bad’s terrifying overlord Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) electrocuted by an arcade game, a baseball coach pelted to death by a soda can-spewing vending machine, and even a poor Little Leaguer flattened by a steamroller in graphic detail. These unintentionally hilarious deaths initially position the movie in so-bad-it’s-good territory.

Maximum Overdrive is about as scary as a novelty bumper sticker.

But King, as signified in the ill-advised trailer, genuinely wants to “scare the hell” out of audiences. Unfortunately, other than the surprisingly effective opening scene — a Final Destination prototype in which drivers plummet to their death from a rising drawbridge — Maximum Overdrive is about as scary as a novelty bumper sticker. This is a film whose ultimate villain is a cumbersome toy store truck.

While the first half-hour entertains for all the wrong reasons, the remainder commits the cardinal sin of any horror: boredom. Once the action gets confined to a truck stop, all sense of urgency is lost. And, apart from Pat Hingle’s cigar-chomping, rocket-launching hick, the captives possess even less charisma than the HGVs waiting to kill them.

Emilio Estevez in his first and only Razzie-nominated performance.

Embassy Pictures

Still, that Maximum Overdrive even made it into cinemas at all is something of an achievement. King apparently lost all enthusiasm for the project after the studio’s new owner Dino De Laurentiis refused to cast Bruce Springsteen as leading man. The producer’s insistence on hiring an all-Italian crew meant several things got lost in translation, too.

In a bizarre case of life imitating art, cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi lost an eye thanks to a horrific accident involving a runaway lawnmower. Little wonder that King, who settled the resulting lawsuit out of court, decided to stick to writing.

That wasn’t entirely the end of his sentient machines tale, though. In 1997, Thirtysomething regular Timothy Busfield starred in a TV movie adaptation, which upped the gore but drained all humor, unintentional or not, from the story. In 2021, King’s son Joe Hill expressed an interest in an updated remake where an electronic virus sends all self-driving cars on a murderous rampage. If he can avoid an injunction from Elon Musk, he may be able to atone for his father’s directorial sins.

Related Tags