MGM // 1991 // 98 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino (Retired) // January 3rd, 2008
"I'm just a jock!" -- The Chipster.
Stephen King adaptations have had some rare success critically and at the box office. Misery won an Oscar, The Shawshank Redemption was nominated for a bunch, and The Shining is considered one of Kubrick's best. King's ventures into television have been less successful, to put it lightly. This 1991 made-for-television movie based off of a short story from King's Night Shift collection has good intentions, but falls on its face.
Jim Norman (Tim Matheson, the original voice of Jonny Quest) is a high-school teacher with a haunted past. He has a reputation for being an educator with a violent streak, constantly rearing its ugly face each time he is bullied. Ya see, he was bullied by a gang of greasers back when he was a kid, but during a freak accident in a train tunnel, all of the bullies and Jim's brother died. Needless to say, Jim's forever haunted by the incident.
Jim and his family return to his hometown, and it doesn't take long for Jim's reputation as a crazy teacher to spread through the school. He's pushed around by the students, and is stuck handling a class full of freaks and jocks who don't want to be there. Soon, however, strange things start happening, and Jim's horrifying past begins to surface: students start dying, Jim is haunted by a flame-spurting muscle car, and the greaser bullies from his past show up for revenge. Perhaps he's imagining it all, or perhaps they really did come back.
Rarely does a Stephen King short story translate in to a feature-length film; 1408 comes to mind as being the most recently successful one. In Sometimes They Come Back, King's simple story of reliving the past is stretched out to the point where only the runtime is actually frightening. Then again, when you are making a made-for-TV movie, you are expected to fill that two-hour time slot, even when the material isn't there.
The story about greasers coming back to enact revenge on Jim, who caused them to get hit by a train in a rather convoluted series of events, is a simple tale that was fitting for a collection of short stories. When someone like King is compiling a book of shorts, he can be more experimental, or half-baked, with his ideas. Unfortunately, during that craze of early '90s King adaptations, studios didn't seem to care what the story was about so long as they could make some money off of the King brand. The overall plot of the film is rather entertaining (it does a good job in teaching us about the dangers of bullying), but the biggest issue is that everything is clearly spelled out for the viewer, so that we don't have to think too hard.
The teleplay essentially breaks every basic rule of theatrical storytelling. The film begins with awfully loaded expository narration by Jim Norman, telling us all about his haunted past. It's good to get that stuff out of the way, so that we don't have to learn about it later in any sort of suspenseful fashion. Then when things do start to go awry for Jim, and the bullies begin to invade his present life, we are reminded who they are through unnecessary flashbacks. Just in case you were wondering when people were going to get killed, just look for the painfully obvious foreshadowing accompanied by cheesy doom music. While I was watching it I could just hear my college screenwriting professor yelling "Show don't tell! Show don't tell!" There were plenty of television shows on in 1991 that challenged the casual viewer more than this movie does (shows like America's Funniest Home Videos and Blossom).
Sometimes They Come Back does have some redeeming qualities. While it's not Mystery Science Theater bad, it does have moments of unintended hilarity. This mainly comes from the character of Chip "The Chipster" Conway (Chadd Nyerges), a stereotypical high-school football player who thinks he owns the world. This character is one of the many foils for Mr. Norman; he's also a one-dimensional cliché machine: he speaks out in Norman's history class, he harasses the teacher for a good grade, and when asked to help in a time of need, Chip said he couldn't because was "just a jock." Chip meets his demise by being dismembered and having his limbs thrown off a train bridge and into the river in one of the movie's many low-budget moments. He's a hilariously bad character, to say the least. More humor comes in the form of the character Carl Mueller (William Sanderson, a.k.a. J.F. Sebastian from Blade Runner). Mueller is the only surviving member of the bully gang not to die and go to Hell. Late in the film, Jim gets a chance to meet him, and for some reason he drags Carl along for the final battle (which causes the bad guys to exclaim "It's Mueller time!").
Making matters worse, the film hasn't really been given the red-carpet treatment in terms of DVD releases. It was first released back in 2002 through Lionsgate, with a full-frame transfer and no special features. This new release, by MGM, comes in a restored 2.35:1 widescreen transfer...and still no special features. While the new release may have restored the widescreen ratio, the video quality is still grainy with a lot of noise in the shadows and the evening scenes. The 2.0 stereo sound is adequate -- about the quality you'd expect from a 1991 television movie. The complete lack of special features, along with the generic cut-and-paste DVD menu, tells me that MGM cares little about the re-release of this King adaptation. But after watching it, I'd say you shouldn't care too much either.
Sometimes They Come Back is one of the more forgettable Stephen King adaptations from the '90s. If you're looking for a King movie about kids with a disturbing past, check out Stand By Me, or even the almost-terrible It. This movie and its sequels are reserved only for the King completist.
And why aren't any of the kids in the high school freaked out that the new students are dressed like 1950s greasers?
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 1991
MPAA Rating: Not Rated