From Book to Screen: Sometimes They Come Back
Whaaaat? You mean there isn’t a two month gap between our next Stephen King Book to Screen series article? Yes, we’re back, continuing onward with more short stories from Night Shift. And we don’t even have to skip past stories this time! A ghoulish story of revenge gave rise to one film and two straight to video sequels. As usual, we won’t cover the sequels, since they aren’t drawn from King’s own source material. Sometimes they stay away. And… Sometimes They Come Back!
Sometimes They Come Back was originally published in the March 1974 issue of Cavalier magazine. Like every other story from this collection, I could find nothing regarding the original reception of it. I guess book critics don’t bother to review short stories in magazines. In any case, it wound up in this collection, and the success of Night Shift spurred publication of more short story collections down the road.
This story is essentially a classic spook tale. The beginning takes place in the late 1950s and features a pair of teenage greasers murdering the older brother of our protagonist for no real reason other than being mean. The surviving brother, Jim, is understandably plagued by nightmares of the incident before we cut to him married and working as an English teacher.
He has just returned to this hometown of Stratford, Connecticut to teach when his students start dying off one by one. This introduces a mild mystery element, but really it’s kinda obvious where the story is going. The trio that murdered Jim’s brother begin to show up as students in his class looking like they did in the 1950s. Mystified by this, Jim learns that the trio died in an accident a few years after his brother was murdered. Now they’re back to haunt him because… reasons.
Jim eventually fights back against the ghosts and defeats them. There is obviously some sort of metaphorical action at work, what with the title of the story and the idea of old demons returning to haunt you. I guess the idea is that the pains of the past will destroy you unless you can learn to conquer them and properly control them. Presumably this is why the demon that Jim summons to kill the ghosts takes the shape of his brother.
Even so, the story feels a little weird due to the lack of logic. The ghosts return to haunt Jim as some sort of… revenge? But they were killed in an unrelated incident. And they were the ones who brought pain to Jim before. So, if anything, Jim ought to seek revenge against them. Again, I think I understand the metaphor King is attempting with him returning to his hometown where tragedy occurred and the tragedy rearing its ugly head. But the logic of the story just doesn’t quite work. Sometimes They Come Back is a decent enough story despite this, and it does create a sort of melancholy mood that befits a horror story.
Sometimes They Come Back debuted as a television film on CBS in 1991. Produced by Dino De Laurentiis, the Italian producer responsible for many Stephen King adaptations throughout the 80’s and early 90’s, it was originally intended as a segment in the film Cat’s Eye. This film is a semi-anthology that combines several King short stories together that will be covered by this series in the immediate future. Laurentiis eventually decided it would work better as its own film and turned it into a made-for-television production.
It debuted to mixed reception. One reviewer praised it as a “tight, moody work” while the TV Guide found it average while praising the cast. Call it lowered expectations after wading through a thick layer of murky garbage for this series, but I found Sometimes They Come Back to be fairly decent. It comes from director Tom McLoughlin, whose career consisted largely of television films. He did have a shot at a feature film when he directed Friday the 13th VI: Jason Lives, which is considered one of the better entries in the long-running series. McLoughlin did a pretty decent job of crafting a well-paced spooky film.
The script arguably makes several improvements on the short story. My complaints about the ghosts returning to haunt Jim for no real reason are answered, as the backstory about Jim losing his brother is ever so slightly altered. In the film, the greasers lose their lives in the same incident in which they kill Jim’s brother; they are hit by a train after Jim runs away with their car keys, leaving them stranded on the train tracks. This motif of the train is revisited several times, providing some scary moments. The script does add the somewhat annoying twist that the ghosts must kill Jim in the same manner as his brother in order to avoid being trapped in Hell. Such elaborate supernatural regulations could have been kept out.
Additionally, the film adds an additional member of the gang who’s still living. The only reason for doing this that I can determine is to help pad the runtime, not an uncommon concern when adapting King’s short stories into feature narratives. Jim’s actions to fight the ghosts is somewhat muted in that he doesn’t summon a demon but gets his brother’s actual ghost to help him. Perhaps CBS didn’t think it prudent to have their TV movie protagonist summoning demons to defeat the enemy.
Story changes aside, this film is a decent adaptation of the material. Tim Matheson, largely known for his role in Animal House as Otter, is a good enough leading man. He captures Jim’s horror and pain sufficiently. One couldn’t call him a dominant personality per se, but he is able to carry the film. Brooke Adams stars as Jim’s wife, who unfortunately is fairly forgettable. To be fair, she doesn’t have any of the haunting material she had to work with in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. William Sanderson plays the cop who reveals to Jim that the greasers are dead, and he’s a delight as always.
With a strong story arc and capable actors, Sometimes They Come Back is not unlike Twin Peaks in its heightened small-town melodrama, except it’s not being satirical in the slightest. There are repeated flashbacks – five or six – to Jim’s youth, done in a hokey white-cloudy-border aesthetic. A “happier” ending written for the film, in which Jim helps his brother’s ghost find peace, is cheesy and soap opera-esque.
The Final Verdict
Sometimes They Come Back is not a fantastic movie by any means. The director, whether by choice or network mandate, turns much of the story into silly melodrama that feels suited for daytime television and not a horror movie. On the more positive side, this cast actually knows how to act, and the film is put together by component hands. The haunting and spooky atmosphere of the original short story still manages to be present in the film, and it actually feels creepy in some parts unlike the useless piles of garbage that are most other adaptations of the Night Shift stories.
Is this enough to elevate it over the short story? I would say no, but the movie is a decent enough adaptation of the material. Perhaps a “better” film could be created, but King fans should watch this anyway. Non-diehards might also find a horror movie worth their time if they can get past some of the silliness, particularly in the flashback scenes. Overall, it’s a modest recommendation.
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