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'The Dark Half' (R)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 23, 1993

If "Misery" wanted company, she might enjoy "The Dark Half."

After all, the Stephen King book, and now the George Romero-directed film, are variations on a familiar theme. "Misery" was about the dilemma of a writer whose biggest fan won't let him kill off a favorite character. "The Dark Half" is about the dilemma of a writer trying to deal with character assassination -- in this case, killing off his own alter ego -- only to have his fiction turn to deadly fact.

In Stephen King's world, you can publish and perish.

King's 1989 novel was inspired by the real-life revelation that he'd written several novels under the name Richard Bachman. In "The Dark Half," Thad Beaumont is a teacher with literary aspirations whose most successful work is a series of graphically violent novels credited to George Stark. In real life, King simply 'fessed up to what many suspected and cited "cancer of the pseudonym" as cause of Bachman's death. Beaumont tries to do the same with a People-publicized graveyard service where Stark's tombstone is meant to be a symbol for Beaumont's rebirth as a serious writer. Only problem is that Stark proves all too vivid a creation, refusing to accept his fate lying down.

In its transition to 124-minute film, "The Dark Half" necessarily loses the subtlety and convolution that can work in a 484-page novel. Romero, who directed the King-penned stories in "Creepshow," does script honors here, and his adaptation streamlines a few too many elements. Until the finale, the film does not rely on genre special effects; it's more a study of character -- in this case, the ultimate split personality.

Timothy Hutton, who seems to favor angst-rooted roles, has his work cut out for him playing both Beaumont and Stark. As Beaumont, he's a mild-mannered family man, husband to Liz (Amy Madigan) and father to ... twins! And that's not including his literary identities. In class, he tells students about "innies" and "outies" (selves, of course) and counsels them to let those inner beings loose. He doesn't mention his own use of Stark to unloose gruesome fiction.

When a sleazy journalist (as if there were any other kind) threatens exposure, the Stark byline is ceremoniously buried. Soon after, the journalist is too. In fact, a number of Beaumont's associates wind up dead. The police, led by Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Michael Rooker), suspect Beaumont, but that's because Stark is now the one controlling the scenarios and he has the same fingerprints!

"The Dark Half" kicks off with a Kingsian setup involving the young Beaumont, an unborn twin absorbed into his body and the spooky envelopment of a hospital by millions of sparrows when those buddy parts are surgically excised (which sets up the possibility of a doppelgaenger, except that most people can't even spell it, much less understand the concept). As Beaumont and Stark gradually sort out their fates, the birds come back to fulfill their destiny as "psychopomps," transporters of the souls of the dead. But whose soul is for the birds? (Incidentally, cutthroat finches serve as birdie-doubles for the sparrows).

Romero's film starts out well and clearly benefits from some higher-on-the-line elements, ranging from the cast to the cinematography of Tony Pierce-Roberts ("A Room With a View," "Mr. & Mrs. Bridge"). But like too many King transfers to the screen, it falls apart in the last reel.

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