FILM / Mostly all new plots . . .: Kevin Jackson on the new releases

The Dark Half (18)

Director: George Romero (US)

Naked Gun 33 1/3 (12)

Director: Peter Segal (US)

A Home of Our Own (PG)

Director: Tony Bill (US)

Under the regulations set down by International PEN, only literary novelists are allowed to get away with writing fiction about writers of fiction. At least one genre novelist, however, has been operating in flagrant disregard of this rule: Stephen King. And though such formal narcissism might have been expected to alienate mass audiences, two of King's novels about writers have not only proved hugely successful but have spawned the best films of his spooky work.

If The Shining was King's venture into the haunted-house tradition of Shirley Jackson et al, it was also a convincing account of the agonies of writer's block, of the craving for solitude felt by writers trapped in family life, and of the monsters bred by a sleeping imagination. Kubrick's coldly brilliant film caught this side of King's book acutely; Rob Reiner's polished staging of Misery was more of a plain genre piece, but both the book and the film were about the strangeness of the contract a writer like King has with his readers, and were also black jokes about writing for a living.

George Romero's film of The Dark Half now joins the Kubrick and Reiner adaptations as the third part of an unofficial trilogy about writers, and while it's neither as complex as The Shining nor as gleefully tense as Misery, it's decidedly superior King. Loosely based on the prolific writer's experience of killing off his pseudonym 'Richard Bachman', The Dark Half makes no bones about being a Jekyll and Hyde yarn. The hero, Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton), is a novelist with high reputation but low income who has decided to make money by writing hard-boiled trash under the name George Stark. When a would-be blackmailer threatens to expose his secret, Beaumont preempts the move by announcing Stark's death in the pages of People magazine.

Big mistake. Stark, a swaggering redneck armed with a bottle of Jim Beam and a razor - Hutton doubles up enjoyably for the part in lumpy make-up which transforms his rather delicate features into a grizzled mask of aggression - becomes all too solid flesh and begins to slit the jugulars of Thad's friends and associates. 'It's a cut-throat business,' he muses to Thad's agent after leaving him dead.

The Dark Half is certainly gory, if less so than might have been expected from the creator of the Living Dead series, but it relies as much on (somewhat contrived) tension as on ketchup, and there's a good deal of sly wit in Romero's direction. Questions of plausibility aside, the only things which really cramp the film's energies are Romero's insistence on labouring its main metaphor about creativity, a cheating denouement, and the unhappy choice of the sparrow as an emblem of doom. Romero does, however, score heavily by featuring the eeriest use of an Elvis Presley song in any major motion picture.

Sages of all nations agree that Leslie Nielson's Lt Frank Drebin is a sublime comic invention. Anyone can play the fool, but Nielson excels at playing the suave fool, so confident of his prowess that he rises serenely above all the disasters his stupidity has wrought. The archetypal Drebin moment came in the last Naked Gun caper, when the Lieutenant, stepping out on to a red carpet, unwittingly slammed a door into Barbara Bush's face. Well-timed slapstick, to be sure, but the real joke was Drebin's manfully wary, nothing's-gonna-happen- while-I'm-on-the-case expression.

The same door gag is replayed in a different key in the new Drebin adventure Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult, as part of a swift flashback which explains why his fiancee had mysteriously disappeared on the eve of their wedding. Most of the other jokes are similarly familiar, and though this may amount to a flagrant breach of the poster's assurance of 'mostly all new jokes', it ought to reassure everyone who simply wants the team to deliver more of the same. This time, the same includes a sort-of plot about a terrorist bomber, a prison riot, the usual apocalyptic finale (at the Academy Awards; highlight: Drebin's song-and-dance number with Pia Zadora) and more Mad magazine-style movie parodies than ever: even Beavis and Butt-Head is spoofed. All right, the formula is starting to wear just a trifle thin, but custom cannot stale Drebin's infinite idiocy.

Tony Bill's A Home of Our Own is said to be closely based on the childhood of its screenwriter Patrick Duncan; if this is true, it just goes to show that life can be as hackneyed as bad art. Still, however miserable things may have been for young Patrick, at least he didn't have to put up with Michael Convertino's horrible score soaring and straining away at every fresh disaster. Kathy Bates stars as Frances Lacey, the widowed mother of an impoverished family which flees LA to set up home in an overgrown shack in Idaho, Edward Furlong plays the semi-autobiographical role of her oldest son, and both give performances of far more subtlety and substance than the film deserves. Home manages to milk all but one of the conceivable forms of pathos from the Laceys' honest poverty. A scene in which puppies have to be drowned was unaccountably left out.

(Photograph omitted)

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