Written by: Stephen King (short story), John Esposito (screenplay)
Directed by: Ralph S. Singleton
Starring: David Andrews, Kelly Wolf, and Stephen Macht
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"I don't mind telling you, this place is infested."
Graveyard Shift is another great reminder that Stephen King is more than capable of fucking you up on a primal, visceral level. Sure, most of his best work usually explores deeply unsettling, existential fears (sometimes reaching all the way into the cosmos to find them), but, sometimes, he just spins a hell of a yarn that’s fit for the campfire. Originally published in 1970 and eventually collected in Night Shift, Graveyard Shift certainly falls into this category. You can imagine it being the sort of tale passed around a small town, particularly amongst kids who need to conjure up some kind of explanation for the spooky old place that no one dares to enter. “A monster lives there,” they might say as they stroll by, their eyes glued to the place out of both curiosity and terror. After all, looking away might give the monster a chance to get you.
In Gate Falls, Maine, that spooky old place would definitely be the Bachman Mill, a decrepit old factory that impossibly lumbers on with a staff that would rather not even bother with the bowels of the place. Not only is it facing an infestation of rats, but it has openings for new positions with regularity, as employees tend to disappear on the job. When drifter John Hall (David Andrews) strolls into town, he does so just in time to fill the latest opening, and he doesn’t do much to endear himself to the locals or his new asshole boss, Warwick (Stephen Macht). When John becomes privy to some dirt about the churlish foreman, Warwick offers him a spot on a special team assigned to work an overtime shift during the 4th of July weekend, where they’re tasked with cleaning out the dreaded basement, which houses a monstrous horror.
There’s an admirable efficiency and leanness to Graveyard Shift—simply put, it’s about a group of people descending into a gross old place crawling with rats and grime before they stumble upon a giant fucking monster. Latex, rubber, filth, and gore collide as most of the cast is dispatched by the largely unseen creature lurking within the mill. No grand statements are being made here about the nature of evil or the plight of man—this is just a gnarly, old-fashioned monster movie, one that delivers grungy, gory thrills with just enough indelible character work along the way. Director Ralph Singleton finds the perfect sweet spot between treating the material with dead seriousness and making a complete joke about it, so Graveyard Shift is has a wry sense of fun without being cheeky about it. He knows he’s making schlock and indulges it just so—sometimes, you just want to see a giant monster rip people apart, and this one delivers in spades. Let’s just say that the deadly potential of a mechanical cotton picker plays a prominent role.
Despite its modest budget, Graveyard Shift is an immaculate production, thanks in large part to the decision to shoot on location in actual mills (including one that’s the oldest in the United States) and surrounding Maine locales. The authenticity is obvious and palpable, especially the site of the Bachman Mill, which becomes something of a character itself. Most of the film is set within its walls, particularly the unseemly lower levels lined with grungy detritus, filth, and, of course, actual rats. If most of the film’s budget didn’t go towards crafting this spectacularly tactile, disgusting set design, it at least looks that way, as it’s practically slathered in junk. The entirety of Graveyard Shift feels like it’s been soaked in a layer of sweaty seediness as a result, with the heat and squalor working to transform the Bachman mill into a suffocating crucible before the monster ever shows up.
It’s the sort of place that will drive a guy crazy, which is what makes John such a cool presence. He’s perpetually aloof and very much above all the drama surrounding him, no matter how much the belligerent locals try to goad him. When he witnesses his boss’s abusive behavior, he’s the only one who dares stand up, and Andrews brings that perfectly bland sort of square-jawed hero quality to him. John isn’t the most exciting protagonist, but he’s exactly what the film requires: a sort of calm eye in the middle of a whirring storm. The same is true Jane Wisconsky (Kelly Wolf), a fellow employee who’s also trying to outrun a disappointing past, making her a natural companion for John. Both of these want nothing more than to clock in and do their jobs without incident so they can clock out, go home, and eke out some kind of decent existence. It’s not the most riveting character development, but it is quite natural and relatable.
Besides, many of the performers around them do more than enough to pick up the slack in terms of colorful characters. Warwick’s crew of sycophantic shitheads (which boasts the notable presence of Andrew Divoff) are the perfect fodder for a horror movie since they very much deserve any awful things that happen to them. Likewise, Warwick himself is an all-time great cinematic dirtbag, as Macht almost immediately abandons any pretense of subtlety. Despite the film being very much set in Maine, Macht’s dialogue is accented with a thick, Bayou drawl that often allows him to deliver outrageous, throaty line readings. He’s an almost cartoonish scumbag, but, again, that’s exactly what you want, especially since he’s unrepentant to the end, boldly declaring that both he and the monster will go to hell together. More monster movie villains should be this self-actualized.
And if that weren’t enough, Graveyard Shift graciously tosses in a terrific performance by Brad Dourif, who is billed only as “The Exterminator,” which is appropriate since his character is consumed with solving the mill’s rat infestation. Actually, his obsession with rats goes back much further than that, as an incredible monologue reveals his personal history with rodents being trained as implements of torture during the Vietnam War. It’s the damnedest little aside imaginable, yet Dourif delivers it with absolute conviction as the camera pushes in on his face, capturing every manic tic. This scene—if not this entire character—should be considered a masterclass in elevating a bit role with details and an invested character actor. Technically, The Exterminator is rather expendable on paper, showing up only to put over the rat infestation, but Dourif’s turn and those details make it one of those great little King-esque tangents that contribute to the indispensable, lived-in quality here. History weighs heavily not only on this character but everyone else—if not the entire town of Gate Falls, a small, seemingly idyllic town hoarding an awful secret (don’t they all in King’s work?).
Also in typical King fashion, the nature of the monster is both familiar and inexplicable all at once. King’s penchant for mashing up terrors is on full display in this rat-bat hybrid that’s taken up residence in the Bachman mill. Such a tactic has become a joke in light of modern-day monster mashes, but Graveyard Shift does it right by hinting at the monster’s presence in piecemeal fashion—here’s a peek at a wing, there’s a glimpse at some claws—before unleashing it in its full, very practical, rubbery glory for a climax that largely unfolds on a literal pile of skeletal remains. It’s a striking image that captures the gross-out vibe that guides a finale slathered in violence and gore as Graveyard Shift realizes its monster movie potential. If there’s a criticism to make here, it’s that Singleton cuts around the monster a bit too much, rendering it a bit too obscure at times; furthermore, there’s never a grand, money shot reveal to fully show off the tremendous effects work here.
But that’s a minor quibble that’s easily glossed over in light of how much Graveyard Shift rules otherwise. Few King adaptations feel this gleefully unrestrained and go straight for the throat like this one, and it sees its commitment to monster movie madness through to the end. There’s no explanation for what this bizarre creature is doing here or how it can even exist, nor is there any thematic pondering about what its presence might mean. Instead, it exists because this is Stephen King’s universe, where unfathomably monstrous horrors are a matter of course. Sometimes, there’s no accounting for the spooky old building up on the hill, the one that captures every kid’s imagination while simultaneously scaring the hell out of them. Sometimes, monsters exist simply because they can, and you’d better be handy with a slingshot if you come across one.
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