A young man takes a ride with the Grim Reaper in this adaptation of a Stephen King short story, but the journey is likely ro prove deadlier for the audience than the protagonist. Perhaps the original “Riding the Bullet”–written after Big Steve’s own brush with death–possessed some power as a personal meditation. But this version by Mick Garris is just an incoherent melange of horror movie gimmicks that’s genuinely laughable when it strives for profundity. It induces more tedium than terror, and also shamelessly wastes the talents of some able performers.
It’s doubtlessly accidental that “Bullet” arrives in theatres the same week as “The Dust Factory”– both pictures deal with the necessity of choosing between life and death, and both prove inept, though in different ways. It’s weirdly coincidental, though, that each uses a carnival-esque metaphor for the choice: in “Factory,” it’s a trapeze swing, and here a roller-coaster called The Bullet. The central character here is Alan Parker (Jonathan Jackson), a gloomy, suicidal art student at the University of Maine in 1969. Alan’s having some difficulties with his girlfriend Jessica (Erika Christensen), and he’s also saddled with two goofball roommates. But his real problem is an inability to deal with the demise, many years before, of his father. Shortly after being released from the hospital after slitting a wrist (one would think some counseling might be in order, but none seems forthcoming), Alan gets word that his widowed mother Jean (Barbara Hershey) has suffered a stroke, and he quickly decides to hitchhike the hundred or so miles to visit her in the hospital. Amidst continuous portents of death–all of King’s usual tricks (corpses that briefly reanimate, a threatening dog, cars that come out of nowhere on desolate roads and nearly run people down)–Alan gets rides with a succession of dangerous oddballs. First there’s a drug-smoking hippie in a van, then an addled farmer who lurches all over the road and can’t take his mind off his dead wife (Cliff Robertson, embarrassing himself beyond all measure). But those are merely preludes to George Staub (a manic David Arquette), who drives a car reminiscent of Christine and whose name Alan had previously seen on a tombstone in the local cemetery. George also smells suspiciously of formaldehyde, announces that he’s the minister of death, and torments poor Alan, demanding that he choose between dying himself or allowing his mother to die instead. Much of the later portion of the picture is a ghoulish chase in which Alan tries to escape George (for a time in that very amusement park where he once chickened out instead of riding The Bullet) and reach his mother’s beside–and, of course, come to terms with the truth about how his father died.
Perhaps on the printed page King treated this stuff with something beyond his customary purplish prose, but for his part Garris offers nothing beyond the cheapest devices of the horror genre. Repeated abrupt entrances by animals, cars and people into the frame, always accompanied by a sudden whoosh of music, are bad enough, but even worse is the habit of having Alan arguing with himself in split-screen format and wrongly foreseeing horrible outcomes in his mind before the movie shows us what “actually” happens. Indeed, the picture is so cluttered with flashbacks, misleading premonitions, hallucinations and inexplicable apparitions that after awhile it becomes a ludicrous grab-bag of chintzy effects. (And toward the close, when it turns into a solemn “reflection on the past” homily told from the perspective of the grown-up Alan, the tone grows hilariously earnest; even the “joke” added to the final crawls doesn’t relieve it.) The cast may be game, but it can’t salvage much from such material. Jackson, coming across as a wimpier version of Ethan Hawke, struggles to find some consistency of character, but ultimately he can do little but look feebly frightened and run as fast as he can in the periodic sequences when he’s being pursued by cars and trucks. Arquette is like something that’s stepped out of a cheesy “Tales from the Crypt” episode–to be honest, he was a lot scarier in “Ready to Rumble” and “See Spot Run,” because the rottenness of those purported comedies was much more terrifying than anything on display here. Robertson makes an ineffectual Gabby Hayes, and Hershey, who used to be one of the screen’s most beautiful women, looks to have had entirely too much cosmetic work–her face has become so stiff that she’s nearly expressionless except for a smile that seems more like a grimace. Only Christensen, whose appearance is mercifully brief, emerges unscathed. “Riding the Bullet” is also technically mediocre, with a production design that never persuades from the period perspective and cinematography by Robert C. New that tries to obscure the physical deficiencies by emphasizing murky, indistinct tones. The result has a blah appearance that matches the narrative.
Among King adaptations, this may be slightly better than “Maximum Overdrive,” but not by much. One of the pearls of not-quite-wisdom that Alan’s mother periodically offers him as the picture proceeds is, “Fun is fun, and done is done.” In this case the only fun you’ll have is after “Bullet” is done.