We Who Watch Behind the Rows: Graveyard Shift, Pt. 2

[This is Part 2 of our discussion of Stephen King's short story, Graveyard Shift, and its 1990 film adaptation. To read the first part of this discussion, in which my partner Aaron Lowe and I dive deeply into the short story, visit Aaron's website, Working Dead Productions, here.]


The Film: Graveyard Shift 
[1990, Paramount Pictures; directed by Ralph Singleton; screenplay by John Esposito]

Rik: I saw the film version of Graveyard Shift in a movie theatre in Anchorage, Alaska in 1990. I was fully excited to watch the film, as I was then still quite hopeful that cool flicks could be built out of King’s stories. At that point in time, the hit-or-miss ratio for King films was still decidedly (at least in my opinion) on the hit side, thanks in part to filmmakers such as De Palma, Kubrick, Hooper, Cronenberg, Carpenter, and Reiner each delivering big on the entertainment front early on in the sub-genre. And yet, the overall quality had started to slip for me, with duds like Firestarter, Creepshow 2, and the King-directed Maximum Overdrive, so the ratio was bound to even out eventually.

And to say that we, as a group, walked out of the theatre entertained by Graveyard Shift would be an outright lie. It was a solid disappointment at the time, especially since we had fairly recently been thrilled pretty well by Pet Sematary, though the Tales from the Darkside film that came in-between was somewhat of a letdown. Graveyard Shift was more than a letdown for me; I hated it. Perhaps ignoring the fact that a film filled with rats and bats and mutant varieties thereof should make me feel like this, the film physically repulsed me. By the setting, by the acting, by the general sliminess of the thing… I was repulsed. I never recorded it off of cable as I did other King adaptations over the years, and I never watched it again until I just did for this conversation.

Aaron, what was your first experience with the film version of Graveyard Shift like? Do you remember how it affected you?

Aaron: As with the short story, I can’t tell you exactly when I saw it, but I can pinpoint where I was first introduced to the film: Video City on Jewel Lake Boulevard in Anchorage, Alaska. My family had a pretty regular routine at this time; every Friday my mom and siblings would drive over to either Blockbuster or Video City (Video City was closer, but Blockbuster often had a larger selection of the new releases) and rent one film each. Of course, the goal was to find something that everyone would be interested in, so no one had to suffer in boredom for their turn with the VCR, but I was the oldest and so I knew I had the luxury of staying up later than anyone else and having the TV to myself as long as I could keep my eyes open. As my love of film bloomed, I would often make solo journeys to Video City on my bicycle and peruse the selection for the umpteenth time, even if I wasn’t able to rent at the time. The one section I kept going back to was, of course, the horror section.

At the time, the horror section was its own tiny room with a saloon door dividing it from the kids’ section just outside. There were no racks in the center of the room; everything in the horror section was kept on the walls. The lights were dimmer in here, the walls were painted black and festooned with cotton spider webs. In the center of the room was a black pedestal upon which a glass case rested. Inside the case was a miniature coffin, and inside the coffin was an animatronic Dracula puppet about the size of an eight-year-old boy, hooked up to a motion sensor so that whenever someone entered the room he would pop up and say something in a thick Romanian accent. I do remember being startled by it early on, but eventually the room became a comfort to me, its relative isolation and emptiness (I’m surprised, looking back, how few people entered that section) always made me feel at home while I looked over the horrifying scenes on display.

VHS cover.
One of those scenes was the cover to Graveyard Shift, which was burned into my memory much more strongly than the movie itself (though, as it turns out, I remembered the movie pretty accurately). It’s not the most inventive of covers; just a grinning skull in a miner’s hat, but to this day the sight of it conjures positive associations. The movie itself did not exactly set my world on fire, but it’s eternally mixed up with the emotions and sensations of that time in my life, and as such I think my opinion of it remains higher than yours. Logically I know the movie isn’t very good, but in my memories I always enjoy it more than it probably deserves. Not that I think it’s a bad movie; there’s actually quite a bit in here that I think is great. 

You recounted feeling repulsed by the film on your initial viewing, and that’s certainly understandable. The characters are almost uniformly unlikable, and the film is almost oppressively grimy, but I think that’s actually one of the movie’s greatest strengths. The short story gives the aura of sweaty nights doing dirty work with dirty people, and the film version translates that pretty accurately. It also grasps the concept of the ‘Stephen King small town’ better than most filmed versions of his works. Graveyard Shift was filmed in Harmony, Maine, with certain location shots made in Bangor, and the decision to film in the actual places Stephen King was writing about pays off great dividends. What we see of the small town in this film straddles that line between quaint and rundown that I associate with all of the small towns in Alaska I’ve visited or lived in. It’s also a pretty good representation of the background I always imagine when reading Stephen King’s books (from what I’ve seen and read, Maine and Alaska share many similarities, at least on a surface level).

The film goes a little overboard at times with the hostility of the locals towards Hall, but I think I can excuse that the same way I can excuse the broadness of the character work in some of King’s own writing. Giving the local mill employees anger towards Hall is a bit odd, given that in the story they seem to be friendly with him, and there are signs they actually respect him (certainly more than they respect Warwick, at least). There’s a bit where Hall orders food at the one diner in town, and someone has a dead rat delivered on his plate. Beyond being senseless, I just thought about how that restaurant would immediately be shut down for an inspection if someone were throwing around dead, possibly disease-ridden rats.

The one place the film really fails for me, though, is in the depiction of the rats. Once, while working a nighttime security job, I happened upon a rat large enough that at first I thought it was a kitten, or a puppy (certainly it seemed larger than the rodents I had been around at that point), and only as I drew closer did I realize what it was. This rat was crouched in shadow, and as I passed within two feet of it, it refused to budge. It just stared at me with its beady eyes. That was honestly unnerving, and made me understand how some people can fear rats. It’s what came to mind while I was reading the story, but in the film they just seemed cuddly. In the story, the rats are described in disgusting terms, and make for some squirm-inducing reading. In the film, however, they’re forced to use domesticated rats, and as someone who has owned rats in the past, I had trouble finding them imposing. Even when they gathered by the dozens and surrounded characters ominously, I couldn’t stop thinking about how cute they looked perched atop rafters. They use the usual tricks of filmmaking to make them look wild and scary; basically, they matted their fur with various liquids, but it was to no avail; those rats were just too adorable to find menacing. 

Leaving aside, for now, the larger vermin we’ll meet later on, how did the rats do for you in the film? Did they give you the heebie-jeebies, or the warm-and-fuzzies?

Original U.S. movie poster
Rik: Neither. My heebies weren’t jeebied and my fuzzies weren’t warmed. I have far more limited rat experience than you do, but I have held a few of them through my years. My brother, as a young adult, had a pet rat, and I did have the opportunity of getting to know him a bit on a personal level (got to know the rat as well). There was also a swell rat named Willie in a biology class in high school of whom I was fond. Because I had a dispute with the teacher over another matter, I was accused initially by her of the rat’s death when it was murdered – along with numerous fish and other creatures -- during the school year. I was totally innocent, and the true culprits were found out and expelled. But I still hated that teacher. (When she ran for city government a few years later, I voted against her, even though we were politically similar.) Taken on their own terms as individuals, I am as open to rats as any creature; I am not sure how I would react, though, in a situation where I was alone with a wild one in the dark, let alone being surrounded by hordes of them. I grew up with rat movies like Willard and Ben, along with assorted others, though I tended to side with the people who were friendly to the rats, and not to their victims. The rats in Graveyard Shift were just rats to me, and posed no real menace in my eyes. But I also knew that there was something bigger underneath the mill, and so that was the direction of the true horror of the story. Rats were really just the appetizers for the horror enthusiast’s palate, so to speak.

And rats had nothing to do with what repulsed me about the film. It was just a general, as you suggested, griminess that wore me down and kept me at arm’s length from the thing. This was at another decidedly more immature time, however; while I am no more grown-up when I wish to be, it is necessary now for me to try to automatically accept a film’s general setting and mood (when I indeed feel it is appropriate to the story) and not let my personal obsessions or denials affect the viewing. But in my younger days, an unappealing setting or even a detail such as costuming could turn me away from films at their outset (though this was a very inconsistent device that I employed, and I think that I often used it as an excuse to just not see certain films).

Setting aside my initial feelings towards the film, having seen it a couple times more now recently, I absolutely agree that if anything works about this film, it is the setting and atmosphere. The hot, fetid air of the textile mill and its denizens, both townies and ratties, and eventually, the presumably even worse conditions of the sub-basement, is tangible and unpleasant, but adds immeasurably to the film. 

Getting back to your first points, what did turn me off from the film far more than in the short story was indeed the overly pushy and often disgusting behavior of the small town's inhabitants towards Hall (except the ladies, of course). Even though I shouldn't do this, I often place myself in the same situation when I watch a film and ask what I would do when confronted with such behavior. The answer is almost always, "Get the fuck out of that town right now. Catch the first bus and just head out." Again, I know that this is an impossible stance in relation to watching simple characters in a simple movie entertainment, but as I have tried through much of my life, I feel it is just best to avoid people who are outright assholes in the first place, and have found that the most obvious way to avoid them is to not go to places that they frequent once you have discovered they are there.

But Hall sticks around. And they tease him and try to get him to react in some way to their assholery, and then they try to feed him a rat for dinner. I too had thought about the health board coming down on that bar/eatery, especially in a story where the plot hinges around a county ordinance to have the basement of the textile mill cleaned up or else. If they are so gung ho about a small town textile mill having safe working conditions, you would think they would be equally hardcore about a place that serves food. But the bartender/owner is likely to be on good footing with the assholes pulling the prank on Hall, and he’s not going to talk. Old boy networks, you know. They may not wish to shit where they eat, but you can sure serve a rat dinner to an out-of-towner who will likely have no one to back up his story if he chose to “rat” anyone out at city hall. To be sure, it is a weird, off-putting scene, one that I found personally disgusting due to the still-shocking memory of seeing the original Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in my youth.

Mr. Subtle as a Crutch, Brad Dourif.
Speaking of adding atmosphere to a killer rat movie, the always creepy Brad Dourif has a small role in Graveyard Shift as a professional exterminator. The role is not in the story, and he seems to have simply been added to give a little more horror street cred to the film. While Dourif, a personal favorite since Cuckoo’s Nest for me, has an extremely over-the-top manner to his acting most of the time, he does nicely fill the role of the probably unhinged but oddly dedicated (perhaps too dedicated) exterminator. The role almost seems inconsequential to the rest of the film, however, and feels almost like filler, meant to distract from the general plot just enough to throw us off from the film’s true direction. What are your thoughts on Mr. Dourif?

Aaron: Brad Dourif was the source of the largest disconnect between my memories of the film and the actual film itself. In my memory, “The Exterminator” (as he is billed in the opening credits) was a larger part of the movie, and I had vague recollections of him leading the surviving cast members through some subterranean tunnels. In fact, The Exterminator never interacts with anyone from the main cast outside of Warwick, and it’s entirely likely that Dourif never even met the rest of the actors. This happens a lot in low budget films that snag a recognizable name for their cast; the film can’t really afford to have the name actor on set for the entire shoot, and so they film a bunch of scenes with an often reduced crew and maybe one or two other members of the cast over a couple of days. These scenes rarely, if ever, intersect with the main plot in any meaningful way, and it’s always super-noticeable when a production is basically getting an actor to do them a favor. 

As for your question, my thoughts on Mr. Dourif remain the same every time I see him; he is a supremely welcome presence. Odd, intense, and watery-eyed, Brad Dourif brings a jolt of unpredictable energy to every scene he appears in, and genre filmmakers should thank the deity of their choosing that he apparently attacks even the most minor role in the most off-brand film with the enthusiasm of a stage actor tackling the works of Shakespeare. He can and does go over the top frequently, but there’s always a passion behind it that extends beyond mere scenery chewing. There’s always something unsettling and unwholesome about Brad Dourif (it’s no coincidence he’s known primarily for playing killers and slimeballs), and I can easily see him adding to the general sense of unpleasant griminess that soured you on this film way back when.

You mentioned already that his character and plotline are new to the film, and have no analog in the source material. I believe his involvement signifies the largest alteration of the source material. His efforts to rid the building of rats are especially notable, as the characters in the story quite pointedly don’t care about getting rid of the rats, but rather they just desire to get away from them. His scenes also add an oddly literal meaning to the short story’s title, as he meets his fateful end while searching for the source of the rats in a nearby, shockingly ruined cemetery.  You could say that the story also contains zero women, and certainly no love interests or feuds inspired by sexual jealousy, but their creation for the film is no great stretch of the imagination. It’s easy enough to imagine Hall becoming involved with a woman in the town, or that Warwick is a sexist creep.

Original DVD release.
It may be this very invention that heightens the sense of disconnection in Dourif’s scenes, because aside from them and the aforementioned female characters, Graveyard Shift stays pretty faithful to the source material. The film feels very much like a natural extension of the original’s 26 pages. Whereas many Stephen King adaptations seem to throw out most of the original plot and invent out of whole cloth a new story to support the ‘hook’ of the project, Graveyard Shift’s alterations seem to actually extend naturally from the original story. Sure, characters and plot details are created, and events in the story are expanded or heightened, as would be required for a feature film, but everything seems to build off of the short story’s skeletal structure. This is true in regards to details both small (most of the belligerent townies bear the names of people mentioned in the story) and large (Warwick mentions in the story that lights have been strung in the basement, while in the movie we actually get to see the poor man stringing those lights up, and the dismal fate that awaits him).

Not all of this works, of course. I never felt really involved in the struggles Hall faced in the town, for many of the reasons you already listed. Hall should just move on, there’s absolutely no reason he should stick around that grimy little town. When we meet him he’s just arrived in town and is met with open hostility from the male population and smug disdain from, apparently, the only person in the entire town who is hiring. Plus I never cared about who was sleeping with whom and who was jealous because of it. Clearly drama needs to come from somewhere, but none of this was very interesting or unique. In fact, just having seen the film recently, I’m finding it hard to remember the details of these plotlines. All of these films feel like what they are; time fillers to keep us occupied until the next death scene.

There’s one other big change to the story, of course, which is the ending. In the short story, we get Hall urging on Warwick to his death, only to succumb shortly thereafter to the attentions of a mutated bat. In the movie there is, apparently, only one large mutated rat/bat creature, for which the rats we’ve seen so far are merely harbingers. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that they seem to hang around the large creature in hopes of getting at the leftover scraps of whatever it happens to kill. In the film, the ending starts out following the one in the story, but diverges pretty strongly once Warwick seems to enter a ‘Nam flashback and begins painting his face with mud from the tunnel floors. In the film neither Warwick nor Hall react the way they do in the story, and the film ends in one of those mad dashes through byzantine caverns while trying to avoid the killer. 

I know you weren’t creeped out or charmed by the rats in the films, but I’m curious how you felt about the final monstrosity on display; the giant bat/rat. It’s a practical effect, and plenty gruesome looking, but it also failed to excite my more discerning adult eyes. I don’t actually remember being wowed by at as a kid, either, but I certainly remembered it being more distinct and, well, cooler than it is. It’s a bit too asymmetrical, and rubbery, like the entire puppet was melted a bit before being put in front of the camera. Of course, it is a monster, and in concept I think it’s pretty cool, so it’s not a total loss for me. But how did it stack up with you?

Rik: Speaking of Warwick’s ‘Nam flashback (which I didn’t really pick up on until you mentioned it) – I just thought he was doing what jerks consumed with their own testosterone do when put in such a situation – The Exterminator has a line in reference to his own Vietnam experiences that might be my favorite line in the film. He yells, “I ain’t talkin’ one of those burning babies fuck-ups played by Bruce Dern!!” It’s exactly the sort of line that you would give to somebody like Brad Dourif to knock out of the park (though I do wonder somewhat if it came out of an ad-lib).

The giant mutant bat-rat indeed looks very much like an oversized puppet at nearly every turn. As a puppeteer, I appreciate that it appears to be pretty functional and generally well designed; but how good is that design if it never truly attains life of its own for the viewer? But as a monster guy of long standing, I can appreciate it a bit more. It makes its rounds and has a couple of decent attack scenes. But the giant mutant bat-rat does seems to roam about outside of the sub-basement and attack people in the early parts of the film, even in the upper levels of the textile mills, so it does make me wonder exactly why it was important for the lock scene to be included in the film, beyond adding to the atmosphere. If it is not keeping the creature in, then surely it is to keep others out? So was the person who put it there even aware of the creature? Without the Varney reference that is included in the story, does anything about the revelation of the sub-basement mean anything, beyond giving the character a watery, nasty tunnel system to run around and die inside?

Closing Statements

Aaron: Honestly, this story did not need to be told in feature length. Not only does the expanded length sap some of the grisly energy of the short story, the film completely shies away from the one true source of mystery that should have been explored further: that strange lock and the mysterious Elias Varney. However, if you were to edit this down to an hour-long episode of an anthology show, I think you’ve got a pretty great short film. Cut out almost everything not happening in the mill, because it’s garbage, and stick with the disgustingly sweaty work environments and the revolting mutated vermin, and you’ve got a winner.

Your contextualizing of the bat-rat monster in terms of your love of puppeteering and monsters strikes me as a decent and more forgiving lens through which to view the film. It occurs to me that Graveyard Shift functions pretty much as a throwback to third-tier monster flicks of the ‘40s and ‘50s. It’s no Them!, but maybe closer to Tarantula. The type of film I’m generally more than happy to spend a lazy afternoon with. So why, then, don’t I afford Graveyard Shift the same status? As it turns out, after some reflection, I do.

I do not own Graveyard Shift, and I doubt I’ll ever pay to rent it again, but it’s not a movie I would turn my nose up at watching again. If it came on cable or streaming on whichever service I have at the time, I’d probably sit down for it again. If I view it as a faintly retro monster flick, with a melodramatic story I don’t care about (seriously, we’ve barely mentioned the non-rat plot, and I can’t muster the energy to discuss it any further) but a cool monster with some adequately bloody kills, Graveyard Shift becomes a pretty decent horror movie. Nothing amazing, nothing I’d really recommend to most people, but worth your time if you’ve set your expectations accordingly. In the meantime, however, I’ll stick to the story, which is at least brief enough to enjoy in just a few minutes.

Rik: I don’t know if I am ready to commit to calling Graveyard Shift a "pretty decent horror movie," but it is certainly better, on monster terms, than I remember it. The movie overall is also certainly far better than some of the films we will be tackling in the months ahead in this column. But on a level with Tarantula? Heretic… I would go more for The Woman Eater or Zombies of Mora Tau.

Aaron: I felt Tarantula was a good example, because it’s got a great monster (though superior special effects to Graveyard Shift), and a melodramatic plot that I cannot begin to care about. But again, it seems I might have slightly more positive associations with this film than you do.

Rik: It is indeed strange how we managed to avoid discussion of most of the sub-plots and shenanigans (apart from the rat dinner plate) going on in the movie that are not really related to the original story elements. They are by far the least interesting bits of the film, and so perhaps it is fine we have glossed over them, except there is one thing I would like to mention. As I hinted at much earlier, it is interesting that the character of Wisconsky in the story, a male, has not only been given a gender switch in the movie, but has also been made the love interest of Hall. The relationship goes far enough that Hall is protective of her until near the end of the film, but still seems to be a half-hearted element and not nearly as developed as it should be.

The equally subtle apple-eating stylings of Stephen Macht.
I will say that after seeing it anew a couple of times, I have had a turnaround on the acting of Stephen Macht in Graveyard Shift. I knew who the actor was coming into the film the first time – I was and am a massive fan of The Monster Squad, where Macht plays the policeman who likes to watch drive-in monster movies with his kid from their roof – but Macht’s forced New England accent annoyed me so deeply it pretty much made me write the film off immediately and probably made the film more of a disappointment to me than it probably would have been without The Monster Squad floating through my head. Now, however, I kind of like Macht in the role; he seems at one with the film’s atmosphere, and as far as a committed villain goes, he is certainly up to the task. I still think some of the character’s motivations are not thought through enough at screenwriting level, but as far as acting is concerned, I am at peace with Macht in the role.

One last thing: the song over the closing credits. The 1980s and 1990s were a glorious time if you liked really shitty closing credits songs, often using remixing, scratching, or hip-hop styling. Graveyard Shift closes with a remix using ridiculous quotes from the body of the film, tumbling haphazardly over a bubbling bass line and bursts of other instrumentation. I suppose that if you actually got caught up in the movie by some miracle, this might be a fun digestif, but I find it very silly and that, like many such songs, somewhat damages whatever atmosphere the film did manage to build. (Then again, maybe I am just taking everything a bit too seriously.)

Aaron: I cannot believe I forgot to say something about that shitty song. That song leaves me fairly speechless; it’s so ridiculous, and so divorced from the preceding movie’s tone that I can’t imagine the discussion that went into its inclusion. I can’t imagine who it was for, or what the intention was. It seems to belong to a different movie altogether. Tonally it makes no sense, because the preceding movie is fairly light on humor, but then the song isn’t very funny either, and doesn’t seem to be trying for humor. It has the appearance of a joke, but it isn’t really. It sort of fits with the film’s final shot, which is a sign for the textile mill saying ‘under new management’, but the film up to that point hadn’t indulged in any of those winking Tales From The Crypt-style flashes of humor (although, clearly, the film would have been much more memorable if it had had a sense of humor about itself). In fact, up until the literal final second, the film is a pretty grim affair, and the ending is dark enough that a quick joke and cheap novelty song feels like a vast misunderstanding of the material.

This is such a minor story, and such a forgettable film, and every time I think we’re done talking, something else comes up. Am I going to spend the rest of my life writing only about Stephen King’s Graveyard Shift? Will I begin working on our next piece, only to look up hours later and discover I’ve written seven pages on the wonders of Kelly Wolf’s midriff baring shirts? This movie and story have actually risen slightly in my estimation, yet for my own sanity I think I’m ready to be done with both of them for the foreseeable future.


Rik: Thanks for checking out our first edition of We Who Watch Behind the Rows. Next time, we will be discussing another Stephen King story from his Night Shift collection, Night Surf. While Night Surf has never been turned into a feature film, it has been adapted numerous times into short, independent films through King's unique Dollar Babies program. We will review a few of those adaptations as well as dig into the story's surprising connections to his later classic novel, The Stand. See you then!


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