July 17, 2011

Sometimes They Come Back (1991)



"Based on a short story by Stephen King, a man and his family return to his home town, but he is then harassed by teenagers that died when he was a kid."

"Sometimes They Come Back" is a film that makes me angry. A lot of things make me angry lately including the current popular trend of thinking it's cool to like stuff that's completely lame but I'll talk about that another time. This film makes me angry because its subject matter is actually rather good in bringing out that emotion in anybody who watches it. There's injustice of the highest order involved here, annoying asshole bully boys with girlish laughs, and a sickeningly sentimental ending which ruins the catharsis of all the frustration and anger caused by the rest of the story.

I never realised that "Sometimes They Come Back" was a made-for-TV movie back in the day when I owned it on VHS. All I knew was that it was based on a short story by Stephen King and that was enough for me to want to see it. Although I was never into Stephen King as much as some of the other grittier authors floating around, I was still an avid reader of his work. I don't remember if I ever actually read this particular short story due to having a film adaptation available to me instead but I'm sure that I must have done at some point. I've reached a stage in my life where I've forgotten more about the horror genre than most people will ever learn but I'm as fallible as everyone else and can't honestly claim to have seen every horror film ever made or read every piece of horror fiction ever written. I consider such an accomplishment impossible but I wish anyone who tries the very best of luck.

But, anyway, after a long day sweating in this ninety-degree weather and helping my downstairs neighbours to move out, I finally got chance to relax and rewatch "Sometimes They Come Back" on Netflix, or so I thought. What I wasn't prepared for were the memories it brought back to me or how much nearly everything about the film made me want to smash somebody's head through a brick wall. Apparently it wasn't only Tim Matheson's character who had anger management issues. And they say that horror movies don't cause violence.

Now, here's the thing, I've never really been a victim of bullying in real life. When I was a kid, I got into all sorts of fights and, of course, there were some kids who were pure evil with a reputation for being "hard" who I did my best to avoid. I'm sure that I encountered mild forms of bullying and even bullied a few people myself but it never really felt like it. I was always a bit of a fighter though so the other kids knew that I wasn't going to take it if they did try anything. I lost a few battles here and there but don't we all? That's just part of growing up and finding out how unfair life is anyway. The longer you live, the more you'll see things balance out though, call it justice or karma.

The trouble with "Sometimes They Come Back" as a story, is that it is so very unjust. The young brothers, Wayne and Jim, do nothing which should cause them to be attacked other than be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The bad "greaser" boys may not actually get away with murder as they all get killed themselves but they get to come back with grossly unfair supernatural powers. This made me furious. The superb acting abilities of Robert Rusler and Nicholas Sadler, in particular, made me hate them more than I've hated any villains in a film for years. Even if they couldn't act at all, these guys simply look the part enough to epitomize everything I've ever hated about psychopathic, cowardly, low-life scum. They are more than punks, they are the American equivalent of the modern British chav, and they are the kind of kids that, if I ever got the chance to, I just wouldn't be able to ever stop hitting them.


The big question is, for me, did Stephen King set out to create these angry emotions with his story or is this something that I'm reading into it? If I give him the benefit of the doubt, "Sometimes They Come Back" must be an absolute genre classic. Try as I might, however, I just can't accept that.

"Sometimes They Come Back" simply has far too many flaws to be a classic. It's a very good film but it's also annoying. Tim Matheson and Brooke Adams are so obviously into middle-age that it's hard to believe that they are supposed to be in their mid-30s. Although it's part of his character, Tim Matheson, as schoolteacher Jim Norman, looks so haggard that he gives away his true physical age very easily and Brooke Adams, as his wife Sally, is borderline scary. I'm sure there are some people who found her attractive back in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1978) but those 13 years really made a difference. Yes, I'm being somewhat overcritical but you have to admit that she really does have a very unhappy and harsh look about her in this film which doesn't exactly make her endearing. None of the other characters are very easy to empathise with either though but it's obviously not just to do with their looks or lack of them.

Every character in "Sometimes They Come Back" is quite well-rounded but also tragically flawed. Sally Norman is slightly patronising, nagging and insincere which, as it turns out, is just a mask for how weak, dependent and needy she actually is. Jim Norman is often distant, preoccupied, and has the potential to be an asshole, which is all the result of what happened in the past (which has come back to haunt him). The high school kids are all jerks but they each have a reason for being that way too. Even the ghostly bullies have mitigating circumstances if you look deeply enough but they are too nasty for you to really care. I could go on but I'd rather have you see it for yourself.

Underneath all this characterisation is a simple plot about unjustified revenge from beyond the grave which claims innocent victims and takes things to ludicrous extremes. While the murders of two of the kids are enough to be written off as accidents in somewhat suspicious circumstances, the final one jumps the shark entirely. Actually, the vengeful ghosts having a flesh and blood presence in Jim Norman's classroom is a little too far out there too though they are explained away as being transfers from Milford as far as an outsider is concerned. Did they arrive at the school with forged transfer papers or was it all some supernatural brainwashing? It's not explained. It doesn't help much that they are much older looking than the other teenagers in the class though.

All horror movies are ridiculous in their own way and, by their very nature, must contain elements which conflict with normality but "Sometimes They Come Back" is a ghost story at heart and really needs to follow the pattern of belief versus disbelief rather than provide such tangible proof of the afterlife. The internal logic of the story is sound but, much like Stephen King's "Christine", the supernatural elements strain and often break the willingly suspension of disbelief too much. Of course, this is Stephen King's trademark, from giant spiders who appear as clowns to the devil setting up an antique shop in a small New England town, and it's just another storyteller's fantasy which you can either accept or dismiss just as easily. I feel that a ghost story should be much less fantastic and a lot more creepy but that's just my personal taste. "Sometimes They Come Back" relies too much on pulp horror story elements rather than atmosphere and scares.

Technically, everything is superb, from the camerawork to the special effects, this is a very high quality TV production. The budget was probably nowhere near that of a theatrical release but you wouldn't really notice that at all from the various stunts. The normal make-up is often outstanding but there are some moments where the quality of the more horrific make-up doesn't quite match up. Added to this, there are a few goofs here and there but nothing I would consider important. It's a Dino De Laurentiis production so you have to make some allowances especially in terms of goriness and how terrifying it could actually be for TV.

Anyway, I've rambled on far too long here and gone all round the houses without really committing to whether or not I actually like the film. Yes, I do like it for its cleverness, structure and originality but I also find it incredibly obnoxious, loathsome and mean-spirited at the same time. The fact that it causes me to feel a range of negative emotions means that I'd be a fool to not rate it very highly although, because it doesn't allow any real catharsis of those emotions, I find it too frustrating and unsatisfying to call it a classic. It's a very close call though and I have no problem with recommending "Sometimes They Come Back" to anybody although I highly doubt that I'll ever watch it again.

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