From Book to Screen: Graveyard Shift
It’s time for another gripping installment of the Stephen King Book to Screen series. We now diverge from our typical novel-to-film path as we enter into the realm of short stories. Our first short story collection is 1978’s Night Shift, the first of many such collections. King’s numerous follow-up anthologies owe much to the success of this first effort; in 1980, Night Shift won the Balrog Award for Best Collection and received nominations for the Locus Award and the World Fantasy Award. King’s narrative style tends to work well in the short story format, and many of his most famous works are indeed short stories or novellas. Night Shift contains many of King’s most enduring stories, ones that linger in the memories of his fans and in popular fiction circles as a whole.
The first story in the collection was the previously unpublished Jerusalem’s Lot. This story was already mentioned in our previous article on the two adaptations of ‘Salem’s Lot. As mentioned there, Jerusalem’s Lot was a prequel of sorts, taking place about 100 years before ‘Salem’s Lot. As of today, there have been no film or television versions and there are no known plans for one. With the right script the story could make for a decent 90-minute production, as it contains enough material to adapt it into something decent. That cannot be said for the focus of this article, Graveyard Shift.
First edition cover of the short story collection
Graveyard Shift was first published in the October 1970 edition of Cavalier magazine. Cavalier was one of many magazines from the mid-2oth century that combined pulp fiction with sex appeal to get men to subscribe. Many famous horror authors got started writing for these type of magazines, and Stephen King was one. There is no way to determine how well the story was received at the time other than King continuing to get his work published in the magazine. That and the fact that it was later included in the Night Shift collection.
Regardless of its earlier reception, today Graveyard Shift comes across as decent if not great. It is a very simple story overall, as most horror short fiction ought to be. An out-of-town drifter has found work at an old textile mill under the supervision of a cruel foreman named Warwick. He has been hired to help clean out a basement that has been left untouched for decades. Growing in the dark is a deep rat infestation that they must exterminate. Playing off of humanity’s natural discomfort with vermin and tight dark spaces, King works his characters towards a sub-basement where an even greater horror lies.
This story is an odd one in the King canon. Even with his shorter work, King usually places a focus on characters and uses them to involve the audience in the atmosphere and plot of the story. Graveyard Shift is shallow on characters, using them merely as vehicles for the atmosphere of the story. This does allow King to showcase his raw skill as a horror writer. His choice of words and the flow of his language builds a mood and atmosphere that is very effective at playing on our base fears. You can almost feel the leathery claws of the rats as they scamper across your feet. The build-up for the final descent into the deepest pits of the mill is a tense one.
Graveyard Shift isn’t essential reading for horror enthusiasts or really even for King fans. It’s no grand work of fiction and doesn’t stand among the great works that King has produced. Still, it is a good effort from the Maine native and is certainly an entertaining affair. It ends in a grim manner befitting horror short fiction, and if you go to the effort of reading Night Shift, this isn’t a story to skip over.
David Andrews as Hall
When I saw that Graveyard Shift had a film adaptation, I was already wary. The story is a short and concise, and trying to expand it into a film seemed a futile effort. The running time is a brisk 89 minutes, but even being that short couldn’t change the fact that there was clearly not enough story here to sustain a feature. My skepticism was justified; the adaptation seems to have been an honest effort from all involved, but their effort didn’t make this into a good film or even a decent one.
The film was released in 1990 and comes courtesy of director Ralph S. Singleton. If you’re scratching your head wondering who that is, you’re not alone. This film is Singleton’s sole directorial film credit with most of his work in the movies being confined to production. He was, however, a second unit director on films such as Taxi Driver, Three Days of the Condor, and Network, among others, and his experience probably saved Graveyard Shift from being a complete mess. He smartly chose to film in Maine and sescured the oldest woolen yarn mill in the United States to serve as the mill of the story. This helps establish a look that probably wasn’t too unlike what King and readers envisioned in their heads. The mill in the film was also renamed Bachman Mill as a nod to King’s pseudonym Richard Bachman.
The film was a modest box office success for Paramount Studios. It opened on the final weekend in October of that year and was the #1 film at the box office that weekend. It would go on to gross $11.5 million by the end of its run. Despite its financial successes, it was critically lambasted, and for good reason. Graveyard Shift is unable to escape the fact that its shallow source material cannot sustain a feature-length film, and its attempt to stretch the script to that length is a failure.
The film adds background to the short story by inventing several characters and trying to create a reason for the conflict between our main character Hall (David Andrews) and the sadistic foreman Warwick (Stephen Macht). These attempts are ultimately nothing more than cardboard cutout cliches in which Hall is conceived as a rebellious loner butting up against the authoritarian tendencies of the foreman. Hall also makes friends with two different female characters who are frankly very difficult to tell apart given their near complete lack of characterization and similar appearances. I had to check the cast listing on IMDB to make sure that there were in fact two named female roles.
Regardless, one of them has a hackneyed domestic abuse plot thrown in 2/3rds of the way through the film to gin up further anger against the foreman. It was honestly laughable given the actresses’s sub-par delivery of the dialogue. All of this really just serves to justify Hall picking Warwick to descend with him into the sub-basement at the film’s climax when Warwick demands Hall and one other go down to clean it. This happens in the short story where no reason is given beyond Warwick being a cruel man.
There is no reason for this to be a movie other than the money machine that is Stephen King’s name. Perhaps that’s too harsh, as it does seem like there was a genuine effort to make Graveyard Shift as good as it could be with the budget and script it had. Director Singleton could hardly be described as a visionary, but he did attempt some creative shots here and there. In one notable shot the camera sits at ground level and moves forward as a black muscle car moves towards the camera. This was an interesting visual even if it didn’t serve any narrative purpose.
The film is also fairly well-paced for the majority of the runtime. . . at least until they descend into the mill’s basement and the film slows to a grinding slog in order to reach 89 minutes. It was a painful ending all around given Singleton’s inability to create even a minuscule amount of tension. The final mutated rat monster is seen clearly multiple times but looks laughably stupid. Spielberg in Jaws, and other directors, had demonstrated how to handle creatures made of cheap rubber or plastic, but most directors don’t seem to learn from these examples. Graveyard Shift‘s attempt to come full circle is cute, though, as the first death in the film sees a man ground up in machinery and the same machinery is used for the final death of the film. This final death is also when Singleton bizarrely decides to use slow motion for the first and only time, producing another laugh-out-loud moment.
The Final Verdict
Graveyard Shift is in the unfortunate middle ground of horror. It’s nowhere near hammy or silly enough to be enjoyed as schlock. The entire cast is fairly mediocre, but not bad enough to be entertaining. There are some hammy deliveries and ridiculous lines (especially from Warwick), but it couldn’t keep me entertained. An exception is Brad Dourif, who is in the movie for some reason as “The Exterminator” and hams it up, fully aware of what kkind of movie he’s in. Had everyone taken the Dourif route, this might have been great B-grade horror. Instead it’s a bland if somewhat competent film that has to rely on a cruddy script.
The film weaves in some King references such as the aforementioned Bachman Mill and having one of the female characters hail from Castle Rock, the setting of much of King’s work. Still, that isn’t enough to justify a recommendation even to diehard King fans. The film just isn’t good, yet it’s not enough of a wreck to be entertaining. It’s a close enough adaptation to the original story in terms of plot, but adds a bunch in order to sustain a feature-length runtime, and carries over none of the tension or dread from the short story. There is one thing worth checking out: the end credits. This isn’t a snarky joke (though it sort of is), as the credits feature the most wonderfully bizarre part of the film— a song made from clips of dialogue that’s just insanely weird. Here’s a link. There, you’ve experienced all you need from this movie.
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- Ranked 33/80 of Stephen King adaptations