In 1990, horror legend George A. Romero finally made one of the Stephen King projects he had been circling around for a few years. Pet Sematary, which he was supposed to have directed, had been taken over by Mary Lambert. The Stand, despite a script having been completed by Rospo Pallenberg (who wrote John Boorman's Excalibur), wouldn't see the light of day until Mick Garris' TV miniseries came out in 1994; it was eventually scripted by King himself.
Unfortunately, The Dark Half - adapted for the screen by Romero - was shot and then ultimately shelved due to the collapse of Orion Pictures. Yet finally, in the spring of 1993, genre fans were finally able to see what Romero had wrought, and rightfully so. Of all the King pictures, this is one of the best. There have been may have been a fair number of detractors, but The Dark Half stands head and shoulders above many others. . .
Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton), college professor and middle-of-the-road mainstream author, is a family man with a wife (Amy Madigan) and two baby children - twins. He has not recieved the fame he desires using his own name but he certainly has recieved the fortune, due to a series of violent crime thrillers written under the pen name of George Stark. Thad enjoys his life quite happily until the day one of his students approaches him with a bombshell - he knows Thad is George Stark and wants to unmask him, as it were, unless some hush money changes hands.
Rather than be blackmailed, Thad decides to out himself as the popular scribe to People magazine (much to the dismay of his agents, who know that this particular cash cow is predicated upon being a certain George Stark and NOT Thad Beaumont) and be done with it; he will, in effect, metaphorically "kill" George. Little does Thad know that his "dark half" is much more powerful, and much more real, than he could have ever imagined. And, as the people in Thad's life learn the hard and painful way, this particular entity is much, much more bloodthirsty and vengeful than anyone could have feared, and - alter ego or not - none too pleased at any attempt to end his existence.
King's novel was a frightening allegory about the freedoms afforded to a popular author once he has reached a certain level of success; mainly, to be able to step outside himself and his wheelhouse, to move beyond those things that are normally expected of him - and what that freedom may ultimately cost him. There is, he learns (sometimes to his own detriment), always a price to be paid. And as Romero's film makes abundantly clear, sometimes that price is paid in blood. Lots of it. And that sometimes those you care for the most are the ones who will be forced to pay.
This film is easily one of the best King adaptations ever made, and not simply because Romero is so faithful to the source material. It is because he takes it seriously. Perhaps Romero understands, on a basic level, what it is that King is trying to say. This is not particularly surprising, as the two have been good friends for years (astute viewers will remember not only their work together on Creepshow, but the cameo that Big Steve and his good wife Tabitha made in Romero's Knightriders a few years prior).
Think of the introduction, where young Thad first begins to write, only to have debilitating headaches - ones which foreshadow the coming of a living ghost, if you will. Or when Thad, later on, channels George in a scene not unlike a seance - but he is connecting with a man who has never really existed outside of Thad's own mind (until now). Thad learns that George can be a harsh guide, one with a painful point to be made as he leads Thad farther down into the black.
As Thad/George, Timothy Hutton is nothing less than mesmerizing. Approaching the role as seriously as he would a straight drama piece, Hutton gets inside both the man and the man's own myth; he is truly a specter of his own creation. And quite honestly, his George Stark is absolutely singular in its execution - a fully realized individual of specfic body language and speech (he actually makes me think of Michael Keaton in scary mode, to be perfectly frank), to the point where there is no question that these are two different people. Amy Madigan, at the time coming off her tremendous supporting work in Field of Dreams, creates a character of will and strength; this is not a woman who will sacrifice her family without a fight.
The only supporting roles truly worth mentioning - aside from a small but pivotal role from the always welcome, genre-friendly Robert (Land of the Dead) Joy - are Michael Rooker's typically solid work as Sheriff Alan Pangborn (a character later essayed by none other than Ed Harris in Needful Things), who is distrustful and supportive in equal measure, and Julie Harris (The Haunting - the original, not the Jan De Bont CGI travesty) as Rawlie, Thad's colleague at the university. That role was written as a man in the novel, and although Harris makes it her own, she still maintains the charming affectation of smoking a pipe throughout most of her scenes, as well as handling much of the heavy exposition late in the film.
Romero's direction is suspenseful and effective throughout, and disarmingly low-key at times. There are moments where he seems to be trying his hand at the conventions of the stereotypical slasher flick, but, adhering closely to King's novel, he allows those moments to arise naturally from the story - they don't feel like additions to simply up the body count, as a typical paint-by-numbers killfest would. The movie, fittingly for a Romero film, doesn't skimp on the gore; Everett Burrell and John Vulich (who, separately and together, have worked on films from Phantasm II and Castle Freak to 1990's Romero-scripted, Tom Savini-directed Night of the Living Dead remake) handle FX duties, and provide a healthy platter of the wet stuff in addition to the superb makeup for Hutton as Stark. The locations, shot in Romero's preferred filming site, his hometown of Pittsburgh, are evocative and atmospheric; Christopher Young (recently tapped to replace Danny Elfman for composing duties on Spider-Man 3) contributes a dark, moody score.
The Dark Half is a scary, literate horror tale born of split personalities. Stephen King may have dedicated his book to Richard Bachman, his own former pen name (it has been said that Bachman died of "cancer of the pseudonym"), but in the film, different connections are made. In Romero's movie, Thad Beaumont realizes that "the sparrows are flying again," and indeed they are, perhaps in order to block out the light - and to bring us an overwhelming darkness, one of a chilling yet highly entertaining nature.