Say Something Nice: GRAVEYARD SHIFT (1990)

The lackluster Stephen King adaptation’s twin saving graces are fun practical effects and a bug-eyed Brad Dourif.

The late night shift employees of Bachman Mills are disappearing, victims of something huge, hairy, and hungry in the depths of the old cotton mill. As a result, the textile mill owner, the shrewd Mr. Warwick, is obligated to hire an exterminator and a cleanup crew for the run-down, not-up-to-code basement. It’s here that the body count rises in a dated piece of bloody schlock. Ralph S. Singleton’s Graveyard Shift was released in 1990 to an abysmal reception, and it’s easy to see why.

The film has plenty of drawbacks. John Esposito’s screenplay is a dedicated but poorly-translated adaptation of Stephen King’s novella. Strong capitalist villains like Warwick and straight-out-of-a-Western drifter protagonists like John are reduced to caricatures of their literary counterparts, flat and cliched. Despite the familiar cadre of capable character actors (Andrew Divoff! Stephen Macht! Nic Polizos!), there’s just not enough for the actors to work with, leaving their performances somewhere between camp and cringe. Overall, the movie is another in the ever-growing pile of King-adaptive near-misses, save for two shining stars: the practical effects, and Brad Dourif’s performance as The Exterminator.

Regardless of the story’s quality, Graveyard Shift went all in on the gore. Following one of the horror genre’s golden rules, Singleton opted to keep the Big Bad Monster in the shadows for the most part, to great effect. A close-up shot of a wing here and a piercing claw there is enough to maintain the Lovecraftian ideal of keeping an element of mystery to its killer creatures. Plenty of blood is still spilled, from the opening scene in which a man is devoured by a wool-sorting machine to the final “From Hell’s heart I stab at thee” death. FX Smith and Image Engineering came together to provide arm amputations, claw impalements, and rad creature sculptures and mechanicals to make the icky scenes as visceral as possible. Of note: the effects were supervised by Peter Chesney, who also gave us the stunning effects seen in Men In Black and The People Under The Stairs, among countless other films.

Dourif’s Exterminator, tasked with ridding Bachman Mills of its massive vermin infestation, steals every scene he appears in. Displaying a fair amount of combat PTSD, The Exterminator maintains intense eye contact with everyone he encounters as he emphasizes every word with the utmost gravity. It’s an intensity that Dourif has brought to numerous other roles of horror films past, including that of Chucky the Good Guy doll in the Child’s Play franchise, and his scene-stealing turn as the Gemini Killer in The Exorcist III. Among the litany of memorable lines he rattles off through gritted teeth during Graveyard Shift’s 89-minute runtime is one about The Exterminator’s beloved dog: “He’s a special breed: rat terrier. He didn’t waste his puppy years down at the beach playing frisbee with Frankie and Annette! He was too busy trainin’.”

One of the more notable moments in Graveyard Shift comes courtesy of The Exterminator’s wild-eyed regaling of Viet Cong torture methods. In a scene not present in King’s original short story, The Exterminator reveals a personal loathing of the rat as a foul but worthy adversary.

As far as practical effects go, Graveyard Shift is an underappreciated treat for gorehounds. As The Exterminator, Brad Dourif’s tobacco-chewing sadism remains a gnarly gem in the grungy wasteland of underwhelming ‘90s King adaptations. His commitment to a balls-to-the-wall extreme performance is not only infinitely quotable, but forever enjoyable. I’d even go so far as to advocate for a Graveyard Shift reboot, with two conditions: keep the practical effects, and gimme that sweet, sweet Dourif cameo.

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