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Stephen King calls this “the best of the independent films made from my work since STAND BY ME”, and he’s probably right.  RIDING THE BULLET is certainly the best-ever film directed by Mick Garris, and everything horror fans claim to desire: unique, thoughtful and featuring a respectful ratio of heartfelt drama and cold-blooded shocks.  Odd, then, that so few turned out to see it.

The Package
     To be fair, RIDING THE BULLET suffered a severely under publicized release in late 2004.  Its distributor MPCA had little experience in the theatrical distribution arena, and the film further suffered when it played shortly thereafter on the USA Network, who cut it to shreds (the reason the DVD cover art makes a point of touting the “Full-Length Theatrical Version”).
     The film’s writer/producer/director Mick Garris is a thirty year Hollywood veteran who’s become pigeonholed into the horror genre (he’s the creator and producer of Showtime’s popular MASTERS OF HORROR anthology series), and, more specifically, Stephen King adaptations.  He directed the sanitized network TV adaptations of THE SHINING and THE STAND, as well as the feature film of King’s original screenplay SLEEPWALKERS.  I dislike all three intensely (particularly THE SHINING, a thoroughly routine horror miniseries that trashes Stanley Kubrick’s masterful 1980 filming of the same material).  RIDING THE BULLET was once again adapted from the writing of Stephen King; in this case a 30-page E-text written in 1999, but the film, made on an extremely tight budget, is a unique concoction in every sense.  Unfortunately its financial failure seems to have put Garris back in his place: his latest project is DESPERATION, yet another watered-down King adaptation made for network television.

The Story 
     Alan Parker is a young man coming of age in the drug-fuelled chaos of the late sixties.  He’s an unrepentant pothead obsessed with death, having lost his father at a young age.  One day he tries to kill himself in his bathtub, but is thwarted by his girlfriend, who rushes him to a hospital.  The next day Alan learns his mother has suffered a stroke and so decides to hitchhike over 100 miles across Maine, back to the town where he grew up, to see her.
     The journey is a nightmarish one, with Alan experiencing a plethora of hallucinations and childhood flashbacks.  Most notable among the latter is a painful memory of a time his mother took him to an amusement park for a ride on a rollercoaster called the Bullet, only to have him chicken out.  Alan also meets several apathetic strangers: a shell-shocked Nam vet, a senile old man, some violent rednecks and, most disturbingly, a reckless hot rodder named George Staub.  It’s quickly established that Staub is a ghost--having been killed in a car crash years earlier, he now cruises the material plane collecting souls.  After a chilling cruise in Staub’s fifties-era hot rod and an even more chilling ride on the Bullet (another hallucination?), Alan is presented with a choice: Staub can take Alan’s soul back with him, ending his life, or let Alan live and take his mother’s life.  Alan, in a moment of weakness, chooses his mother as Staub’s victim.
     Shortly thereafter Alan arrives at the hospital where his mom is convalescing.  She’s still alive, and doing reasonably well, but passes away a few years later, leaving Alan motherless...and spending the remainder of his days regretting the choice he made.  

The Direction 
     What distinguishes RIDING THE BULLET from Mick Garris’s other Stephen King adaptations is that Garris clearly put a lot of himself into the project, whereas in the other films he appeared to be following the dictates of the King, whose literary mastery is unassailable but who, as the saying goes, couldn’t write a script to save his soul.  For the first time in his post Stephen King-dominated career Garris wrote the screenplay himself, transposing King’s modern day-set tale to the late sixties, a change that works surprisingly well.  Garris also added a somewhat rambling but effective prologue to the protagonist’s nightmare journey that nicely sets up the character’s disturbed mindset.
     Admittedly, Garris might have imparted his protagonist’s skewed view of the world a bit too well, with a riot of flashbacks, fantasies and hallucinations in which the character of Alan carries on lengthy conversations with himself and sees things occur that aren’t really happening--we know this because Garris frequently repeats actions, first to show what Alan thinks happened and then to make clear what really occurred, a device that quickly grows tiresome.  At his best, though, Garris imparts a feeling similar to first person fiction (appropriate in a narrative that takes place largely within the mind of its central character) without resorting to clichéd devices like POV shots or narration.
     The casting is spot-on throughout.  Particularly shrewd was the choice of Barbara Hershey, a real-life late-sixties counterculture icon (check out her work in products of the time like LAST SUMMER and BOXCAR BERTHA), as Alan’s mother.  In the main role the little-known Jonathan Jackson is fine, if unspectacular, and TRAFFIC’S Erika Christensen makes a considerable impression in the rather thankless role of Alan’s girlfriend. 
     All in all a solid, deeply felt, one-of-a-kind piece of work.  It’s now readily available on DVD, so if you were one of the many who ignored RIDING THE BULLET during its theatrical bow then please, do yourself a favor and see it now! 

Vital Statistics 

Motion Picture Association of America

Director: Mick Garris
Producers: Vicki Southeran, Greg Malcolm, Joel L. Smith, Brad Krevoy, David Lancaster, Mick Garris
Screenplay: Mick Garris
Cinematography: Robert New
Editing: Marshall Harvey
Cast: Jonathan Jackson, Erika Christensen, David Arquette, Cliff Robertson, Nicky Katt, Barbara Hershey, Matt Frewer, Mick Garris, Barry Levy, Peter LaCroix, Jackson Harris, Jeff Ballard, Chris Gauthier, Robin Nielson, Simon Webb, Nicky Katt, Cynthia Garris

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