Written by: Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal (teleplay), Stephen King (short story)
Directed by: Tom McLoughlin
Starring: Tim Matheson, Brooke Adams, and Robert Rusler
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"You always wanted to be like your brother didn't you Jimmy?"
Sometimes they come back. There was a time—right around when this film’s box art began haunting video stores in the early 90s—when these four words were enough to send a shiver right up my spine. I’m not sure what it was about this particular movie that scared me off, especially since I would have already been exposed to the nightmarish world of Stephen King. Maybe it was something instinctual because I was genuinely spooked away from this one until I worked up the courage to watch it a few years after its release. Between the evocative title and the artwork (which featured menacing silhouettes outlined by what I assumed to be the flames of hell itself), I could sense that there was something unnaturally disturbing about it. Perhaps I could still hear those famous words from Pet Sematary echoing in my head: “sometimes dead is better.” Things aren’t supposed to come back—they’re meant to stay buried, and the notion suggested by the vague menace of this title was profoundly unnerving to my young mind. To this day, I still find it hard to explain beyond writing it off as one of those odd, nonsensical things an 8-year-old brain dreams up.
Fittingly enough, the film (adapted from King’s short story of the same name) deals with inexplicable childhood horrors returning to wreak havoc. High school history Jim Norman (Tim Matheson) has returned to the hometown he and his parents fled from following the death of his older brother Wayne back in 1963. He and his wife vaguely hint at having recently left behind their own issues in Chicago, where Jim had to give up his teaching post following an incident. Seeking a fresh start, Jim develops a typical rapport with his gang of mostly-disinterested Western Civ students—it’s a bit unnerving at first (every teaching gig is, as this writer can attest), but nothing is out of sorts until one of his students is killed in a freak accident involving a black, flame-spitting 50s coupe that only he can see. Soon thereafter, a new student (Robert Rusler) transfers into his class, and the hoodlum bears an uncanny resemblance to one of the greasers who murdered his brother 27 years ago.
Much of the narrative intrigue here rests in sifting through Jim’s memories to uncover the specifics of that fateful day back in ‘63. Doing so allows both Jim and the audience to come to the realization that those childhood memories are literally haunting him all these years later, as the gang of bullies that terrorized him and his brother return one-by-one. But not before claiming one of his current students first, so the first stretch of Sometimes They Come Back unfolds with a bit of a slasher movie verve, with a handful of teenagers being slaughtered by various means. It’s quite as gruesome as most of the era’s splattery offerings (it was made-for-TV, after all), but it boasts a grisly assortment: one student plunges headfirst off of a bridge, another is stalked through a cornfield before being hung, while another is literally torn apart before his appendages are tossed out of a car window (via a long shot that obscures most of the nastiness, of course).
There’s a nice escalation to it all that coincides with that growing realization that Jim isn’t dealing with a typical mortal slasher. Instead, the bowels of hell—or some similar nefarious netherworld—have spit its demonic denizens back onto earth to take revenge on the man who helped to cause their death. As they grow more omnipotent, the film becomes more ominous, thanks in large part to the undead trio’s genuinely unsettling presence. For one, they’re unfathomably weird anachronisms, having been transplanted from the 60s to the 90s, here representing an inversion of boomer nostalgia. That they all seem too old to be high school students is so fitting, as they’re sinister, predatory beings vaguely reminiscent of Arnold Friend, the almost preternatural greaser menace from Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Coming, Where Have You Been?” Rusler is especially unhinged as the lead bully—he’s all cackles and sneering grins, particularly early on when Jim is piecing the puzzle together.
Underpinning this pulp and restraining the obvious schlock impulses is an emotional core of Jim’s journey through the past. He’s never quite gotten over the death of his brother, which haunts his dreams and left him with a nasty anger issue to boot. Matheson plays Tim as a man who’s obviously unsure of himself despite his cool exterior, and his wounded vulnerability establishes the human stakes involved here. Not only must Jim protect his wife and young son from these demons, but he must also confront his own guilt surrounding the death of his brother and his tormentors. Sometimes They Come Back isn’t just concerned with the horrifying implication of unrested spirits (which, in true King fashion, are nebulous creatures, something blurring the line between ghosts and zombies, not unlike Pascow) returning from beyond, as it also reserves some time to ruminate on grief and catharsis, making it one of the more emotionally-charged King adaptations. A denouement featuring a scene between Tim and his brother is absolutely gutting in a way you might not expect from a movie that’s otherwise concerned with undead teenagers raising literal hell.
As such, it’s one of those adaptations that captures the mournful, melancholy wistfulness of King, an author who’s capable of bumming you out just as easily as he can terrify you to your core. Sometimes They Come Back does a little bit of both, and it doubles as a fine grab-bag of King’s preoccupations and themes. Most obvious is the confronting childhood trauma in the form of literal, returned demons (which are even recurring here in a 27-year cycle, a la It!), a conceit that leads to a natural perversion of that Boomer nostalgia. Among the many motifs I associate with King, this is perhaps the main one: his sense that something awful lurks beneath that wistful veneer of golden-tinged Americana, and Tom McLoughlin captures that wonderfully with the Anytown, U.S.A. trappings here, where football season is in full swing and parades line the streets. Nothing terrible should happen here, but it absolutely can, just as Jim’s anger issues (shades of Jack Torrance!) and guilt might consume him.
I’ve spoken so often about the essence of King, and it occurs to me that his prodigious output makes it hard to pin that down exactly. However, that vague notion of finding the melancholy strain running through time and memory is chief among it. McLoughlin’s film almost achingly replicates that, and there’s an added twinge of nostalgia to it now, as one can’t help but look back fondly on a scene where Jim’s son eagerly convinces his parents to visit a video store. The first impulse is to long for those good old days, blissfully and willingly ignoring those deep pangs that insist time must march on. Realizing that can be freeing, as it is for Jim Norman and his brother, yet one can’t help but hold on to those comforting moments. These days, Sometimes They Come Back doesn’t shake me because it insists some spirits never rest; instead, it shakes me because I now realize some things will never return. Maybe sometimes, dead isn’t better—it’s just a bitter fact of life.
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