You often hear people refer to The Shining, Carrie and Pet Sematary as "Stephen King movies," but in the purest sense, 1986's Maximum Overdrive is the only movie that can hold the title because the King decided to direct this adaptation of his short story "Trucks" himself. As he explains in the trailer (which is on the DVD, or you can catch it on Youtube) "if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. " Hard to say how much of that is hyperbole, but considering what a pop culture phenomenon the man was at the time (and continues to be), the idea of him taking the reins of this adaptation seemed pretty cool. King himself was not pleased with the end result, going so far as to call his tale of machines revolting against their masters a "moron movie," and I'm sure few would argue the point. As a fan of King's work and horror cinema in general, I've come to think of it as a failed experiment, but one that I was glad was undertaken.
An opening scrawl tells us that earth is passing through the tail of a rogue comet and will stay there for about eight days. The effects of the comet are first shown when a electronic bank marquee starts tossing F-bombs, and a bank patron (played by King) is angered when the ATM calls him an asshole. The machines are angry, it would seem, and as we all know payback can be a bitch, as is proven when a drawbridge decides to raise while there are still cars on it. Unlike King's short story, it's not just trucks but all machines that are revolting. In the movie we see items like an electric carving knife, gas pumps and lawnmowers turn on people.
After several scenes establish the growing crisis, including a not too graphic but still disturbing shot of a little leaguer disappearing beneath the mass of a steamroller, the action moves to The Dixie Boy, a truck stop where ex-con Billy Robinson (Emilio Estevez, at a time when the laminating on his Brat Pack membership card was still warm), works as a fry cook for slave-driving S.O.B. Mr. Hendershot (Pat Hingle). An employee is blinded by a face full of diesel from an angry fuel pump, and a customer is killed by some vintage 80's arcade games including Time Pilot '84 and Star Castle. Soon, the big rigs that frequent the truck stop are circling the place and taking out anyone who gets in their way, with a toy company truck sporting Marvel Comics' Green Goblin on its grill acting as ring leader.
After much mayhem fuel becomes an issue for the trucks and they communicate to the people in the diner by way of air horn morse code (say what?) that their lives will be spared if they help to gas up the trucks. Billy supposes that the whole thing might be part of an invasion plan by extraterrestrials, but this has the feeling of a something that was tacked on at the last minute, perhaps to appease a studio exec that felt the strange goings on needed better explanation.
Like a lot of horror films from the time, Maximum Overdrive didn't take itself too seriously, which was a mistake. Tension in the drawbridge scene is fatally destroyed by slapstick when a truck load of watermelons overturns and a stoner mumbles "far out, man." As silly as the whole idea is, if the movie doesn't take it seriously neither will the audience. The fact that some machines go bad while others do not is never addressed, leaving a hole in the film's logic. There are a few good moments like the aforementioned steamroller and and a lawnmower chase that recalls the Stephen King story "The Lawnmower Man." Scenes that were drawn directly from "Trucks" like the salesman being knocked out of his shoes by one of the tractor trailers put a smile on my face, and the all the AC/DC tunes on the soundtrack were pretty cool, but sadly the film as a whole doesn't work.
Since King has never directed another film, it's hard to tell whether or not the fact that he was behind the wheel was Maximum Overdrive's downfall. I've never liked the idea of padding a short story to feature length, and that was definitely one of the problems here. "Trucks" occupies a mere 16 pages of the paperback version of his Night Shift collection but moves like a semi full of overweight hogs going downhill with its break lines cut. This baby cooks. Characterization is whittled to a bare minimum -- only two of the characters are ever called by name -- and the story starts right in the middle of the action, not giving the reader even a moment to consider how ridiculous the premise is. It's a masterfully economical use of words, and it works because it's short. Blowing the story up to a full length film served to dilute the tale rather than expand it.
Still, I'd like to see that creepy guy from Maine take another stab at directing. "Trucks" was given a second chance when it was adapted again for a TV movie in 1997 (which I still haven't seen), so why shouldn't King?