Judge Eric Profancik wonders what's so darn scary about riding the train to work.
The dead travel fast.
"Riding the Bullet" is a short story released by Stephen King around the time he was involved in a hit-and-run accident that almost killed him in 1999. The short story also marks another important event, for it was released only electronically; no printed version was released until it was included in 2002's Everything's Eventual. If you didn't have an e-reader, you couldn't get this story. King attempted to use "Riding the Bullet" to evolve the book industry, but his experiment, though a relative success, did not evoke the changes he had hoped. Five years later, the short story became yet another movie in the seemingly endless King canon. None of the big studios wanted to release the finished film, so the financiers put together a horrible plan: release it in three cities without any television or radio advertising, watch it flop, do a release deal with the USA Network and see the movie butchered, and then send it off to the direct-to-DVD market. Most of King's movies have disappointed me, so I expected another clunker. But while it certainly is no Shawshank Redemption, Riding the Bullet is actually one of the best King movies out there.
Facts of the Case
Alan Parker (Jonathan Jackson, Tuck Everlasting) believes he sees Death everywhere. As a budding art student at the University of Maine, Alan works the Grim Reaper into almost of all his drawings. Today is Alan's birthday, and he believes that his beautiful girlfriend, Jessica (Erika Christensen, Swimfan), has just dumped him. As he sits soaking in his bathtub, he ponders suicide. Slowly his bathroom door opens, and Death walks in and encourages him to slit his wrists. And then suddenly the bathroom door flies open again, and all his friends with Jessica at the lead barge in wishing him a surprise happy birthday. In the surprise of the moment, Alan accidentally slashes his wrist.
When he wakes up in the hospital, he realizes that Jessica was just messing with him and wasn't breaking up with him. Things seem to normalize until later that night when he gets a call from his mother's neighbor in Lewiston telling him she's had a stroke. He decides that he needs to leave tonight to see his mom (Barbara Hershey, The Last Temptation of Christ), but he doesn't have a car. Alan will have to hitchhike all the way down.
Today is October 30, 1969, and Alan's trip back home will be more than he can imagine. He meets many unusual people on his trip, sparking memories from his past. But he becomes even more haunted while he is walking and comes across a grisly accident. He begins to think about his father's death while driving home one night, and he also revisits the time he and his mother went to Thrill Village to ride the Bullet, a rollercoaster, but he chickened out at the last moment. Outside of Lewiston, he takes a moment to visit his father's grave, taking note of other nearby headstones. Upon leaving the cemetery, Alan gets a final hitch from George Staub (David Arquette, Scream). Something is not right with George, and Alan is very afraid. In fact, Alan is pretty certain he saw George's headstone in the cemetery. Is George dead? That question will soon be the least of Alan's problems as George takes him into Lewiston. Alan will have to face a difficult choice that could cost him his life and his mother's. And after all these years, Alan may finally have to ride the Bullet.
I do believe that I have read the vast majority of King's books, and I also believe that I have seen almost all of the associated films. It's a given fact that 95% of all movies based on a story by Stephen King suck. For me, Riding the Bullet falls in the good 5%, which was a total surprise. (You do need to know, by the way, that I have not read the short story "Riding the Bullet.")
In the director's commentary and in some quick online surfing, I've found that a strong contingent finds Riding the Bullet to be one of the worst of all the King movies. That one is hard for me to fathom since this film has many things going for it. This odd mix of nostalgia, horror, and drama is an honest interpretation of a King novel. Even though I have not read the story, I can feel King throughout the film. Riding the Bullet not only tells a good tale, but it also faithfully translates the quirks of King's writing to the big screen. That is something I haven't seen in any of his other films.
What do I mean by King's quirks? Let me focus on the two biggest: music and the inner voice. If you've read any of his novels, you are aware that King has an affection for rock and roll. Because of this, he always quotes song lyrics. And these lyrics always tie into the story, helping propel it forward in some subtle way and sometimes even pointing to a resolution. Yet, more often than not, they also help paint and evolve the backdrop of the story. King loves to let the music weave its way into a story, and in the movie, the music feels like King himself selected it and helps set the mood. (Again, as I haven't read the story, I don't know if the music in the movie is what is in the book.) Second is the main character's inner voice. Our "hero" usually has an inner monologue, and in this movie, director Mick Garris (The Stand, The Shining (1997)) allows the viewer to hear that second voice. Instead of using a dull voiceover, there's a second Alan Parker saying the things that Alan is really thinking. It may not be the most unique way of doing things, but it works in this case. It captures the duality of the character and the tone of King's writing.
But I do know that Garris changed many things from story to screen. This probably accounts for a good portion of the hatred for the film, and I would probably fall in that camp too had I read the story. Since I haven't, I can simply appreciate this movie for what it is. Still, these changes are pretty big. First, the timeframe changed from 1999 to 1969; second, Alan's mother's personality and "size" were changed; and, lastly, Staub's car changed from a Mustang to a Fury. (For those of you paying attention, "Christine" was also a Fury.) Those are pretty significant changes, especially when you realize that "Riding the Bullet" is fewer than 70 pages long. Garris says that while he tinkered with the exposition in the first half of the movie quite a bit, the last half is far more faithful to the original story.
So what do I like about Riding the Bullet? What makes it fall in the minority, good pile? Simple: It's a good story. King is a master when it comes to creating situations and characters. You seem to know who these people are as you read one of his novels. You care about their plight, and you hope they will make it out alive. With that, Alan Parker ends up in a rather peculiar situation—a situation that isn't out-and-out gore and horror. Riding the Bullet ends up being a solid ghost story with an emotional awakening. Yes, that's right—there's some drama in this film. You see Alan evolve, face the repercussions of his actions, and come to terms with dark memories from his childhood. And all of this is nestled within an eerie ghost tale.
Emphasizing this transition is Alan's imagination. As we all do as we walk through life, Alan often imagines the worst is going to happen. So as Alan meets new people, he constantly sees something bad; then the bad goes away and he sees reality. For example, he's walking and hears a rustling in a nearby bush. He stops in fear, but then a cute little bunny pops out. Then out of nowhere a wild dog comes and gets the bunny. But then the dog notices Alan, and Alan sees himself mauled to death by the dog. Luckily, that's not what happens. This bad prognosticating is a clever gimmick to keep you wondering really what's going on in the film.
The DVD from Lions Gates has some of the best transfers I've seen in some time. Both the video and audio are top of the line, which is another surprise considering the small budget (according to Garris in his commentary, due to no big studio involvement). The 1.85:1 anamorphic video sparkles with clarity and realism. Colors are bold, details abound, blacks are deep and rich, and there are no errors—which is doubly amazing considering the abundance of drizzly, night shots. You can choose between a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix and a DD 2.0 mix. Hopefully you'll pick the former because it is excellent. Dialogue is spotless from the center, the surrounds work wonderfully to create ambience, and the subwoofer really kicks in when needed. The movie itself is not an aggressive action film, but the audio track really shines.
A few bonus features are included on the disc, but nothing too grand. You'll find what seems to be the new trend: two audio commentaries. The first is by director Garris, and it is an honest and informative track. I enjoyed this one quite a bit, learning many of the ins and outs of this troubled film. Next up is a commentary with various members of the cast and crew (including Garris again). This track isn't quite as interesting as the solo track, since it's hard to balance out so many people talking. Once you get past the commentaries, there are a group of "mini featurettes" under the "Shooting the Bullet" heading. Seven items are here, without a "Play All" option: "David's Makeup" (2 minutes), "Alan's Artwork" (1 minute), "Picture Cars" (1.5 minutes), "A Cemetery Shoot" (3 minutes), "Fury Crash" (5 minutes), "Shooting at Thrill Village" (3 minutes), and "Storyboard Comparisons"(3.5 minutes). None of these has the opportunity to delve deeply into the topic—as evidenced by the brevity of each segment; as a result, none is all that interesting. The bonus items finish out with an artwork gallery (3 minutes) and the theatrical trailer. One item that appears to be missing is deleted scenes. While the "mini featurettes" were truly mini, there was additional footage in there. Where are the deleted scenes?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
An odd juxtaposition comes up in the film, and that is campiness. For the most part, Riding the Bullet is a serious ghost tale, but at several points, the story takes a turn towards camp. It adds a layer of levity at times, which is amusing yet ruins the horror of the moment. I did enjoy the camp value of the main menu, but, then again, it sets you up for one thing (silly) when you get something else (horror).
Also, I'm surprised I haven't heard PETA complaining about this film. I can't recall the last time I saw such carnage in the animal kingdom. Okay, maybe it was just a bird, a rabbit, and a dog that turned into roadkill, but they were all pretty gruesome.
Riding the Bullet is the exception to the rule: It's a Stephen King movie that's actually good and worth viewing. Perhaps I need to toss in the caveat that if you've read the short story, then you may not like the film adaptation. I don't know, so maybe one of you will tell me. Regardless, this latest King movie is a surprisingly enchanting ghost tale. At home on DVD, this movie is the perfect companion to give you goose bumps. So go ahead and give this one a rental. Not only do you get a good story, but you also get a disc with outstanding transfers.
The court hereby finds Riding the Bullet not guilty of illegally discharging a weapon. Alan Parker is free to go.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Director Mick Garris
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