From The Grave

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Richard Matheson’s shadow looms long and large, even in the year 2018. Without his stories and work on Twilight Zone, American Horror Story, Salem, and even the remarkable Westworld series wouldn’t be mainstream. But back in the mid-eighties, Stephen King wrote a book under the Richard Bachman Pseudonym that resembled Matheson so close they had to check it for fingerprints and scrape King’s fingernails for Matheson’s fibers. Just like Carrie in the mid-seventies, Thinner (Film released in 1996) was a damn good idea, a pretty good book, and the sweetest love letter to one of the best writers of the twentieth century.

In the mid-nineties Tom Holland made a film of it. It wasn’t very well liked at the time. Of course I never listened to critics much. I just know I liked what he and writer Michael McDowell (Tales from Darkside head writer) did with the source material.

Obese lawyer Billy Hallek (Robert John Burke---Robocop 3 and Dust Devil.) seriously has to lose weight, which could put his life in jeopardy if he doesn’t. The man can’t help himself when it comes to food, even when his family places him on diets. Practicing criminal law, Billy has to defend underworld types from time to time, and after successfully representing mafia boss Richie “The Hammer” Ginelli (Joe Mantegna----Airheads, Criminal Minds.), he and his wife Heidi, (Lucinda Jenney—Matinee and Peggy Sue got married) go out to celebrate. In an attempt to get Billy to forget his obsession with food, Heidi gives Billy a blowjob while he’s driving. The town is having a having a huge carnival headlined by Gypsies. Most of the town hasn’t forgotten their prejudice of the Gypsy folk. That fateful night Billy hits elderly Gypsy woman Suzanne Lempke. Billy is good friends with the Judge (John Horton---Donnie Brasco, Shawshank Redemption), and no charges are filed. Outraged, 106 year old Tadzu Lempke (Michael Constantine----Room 222, My Big Fat Greek Wedding) curses Billy by touching his face and repeating “Thinner…..thinner…….”

Turns out, Lempke had also cursed the Judge, whose curse was “Lizard” and he grew scales on his body. He also cursed Police Chief Duncan Hopely. The curse, for helping Billy avoid punishment, was “Leper”, and boils form on his body. Hopley commits suicide. In the meantime, Billy starts to lose weight at a rapid pace. Heidi takes him to see Doctor Houston. Later Billy is convinced Heidi and Houston are having an affair.

“Thinner is one of the better adaptions of King’s work in the form of 1990’s cinema.”

According to Creepshows: The Illustrated Stephen King Movie Guide, author Stephen Graham Jones says that: “the movie's critical failure and near financial failure was based on the fact that the "mean-spirited film did not have one single likable character." I’m not so sure that was the problem. For me, some of the performances were not that great. The actors playing Gypsies were not “human” enough. Pretty much straight out of an old Bella Lugosi film, over the top a bit too much. As far as “likeable”, well, it is a pretty nasty story populated by nasty people. So, you aren’t going to find Mary Poppins likeableness in a story about a Lawyer who defends mafia bosses. Back to the performances of the actors: Robert John Burke makes some pretty stupid decisions about how to handle his character when he was a fat man. When he becomes thinner, his personality changes and that gruff-“I can’t breathe voice” is gone. That’s puzzling. I remember Burke in a few Hal Hartley films, and I was struck by subtleties in his performance. I think that was missing from this film. Maybe that’s why the audience couldn’t connect when it first opened in theaters.

Still, Thinner is one of the better adaptions of King’s work in the form of 1990’s cinema. Holland does deliver a well-made film and his direction as always on par. If only he had slightly stronger actors in the smaller roles like he had in Fright Night or even Child’s Play. The same producer (Mitchell Galin) produced Tales from the Darkside series.

Mark Slade, HMS

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