THE CURSE OF THE WHITE MAN FROM TOWN
Main Cast: Robert John Burke, Joe Mantegna
Director: Tom Holland
How do you turn one of my favorite King novels into a below average “horror movie”? It’s actually easier than you’d think.
While I doubt that was the intention when director Tom Holland (FRIGHT NIGHT, CHILD’S PLAY) and writer Michael McDowell (BEETLEJUICE) teamed up in 1996 to film what I had originally thought, upon reading the novel, would be totally unfilmable, somehow, even with their previous credentials, they managed it just fine.
THINNER is the story of overweight lawyer Billy Halleck (Robert John Burke, ROBOCOP III) who, one day while receiving a little “street skull” for wont of a less obscene term from his wife, Billy accidentally runs over the daughter of Tadzu Lempke, king of a band of gypsies passing through town. When Chief Hopley and Judge Rossington help clear Billy of any wrongdoing, Tadzu takes justice into his own hands and curses the obese lawyer with one word: Thinner.
Almost immediately Billy begins to shed weight faster than he can try to put it back on. He goes from 300 lbs to 120 lbs over the course of the movie, and the transformation is–or SHOULD BE–terrifying.
Once he tracks down the gypsies and tries to get Tadzu to remove the curse–he refuses, of course–Billy enlists the aid of mobster Richard Ginelli (Joe Mantegna, “Criminal Minds“), who owes Billy a favor.
The novel is filled with tension galore, horrors abound, and Billy’s impending death is evident on every page.
The movie, however? Meh. I found myself getting way too distracted with the fat suit they shoved poor Robert John Burke into, and picking out the lines of dialogue that read so much like a Stephen King line, it was obvious McDowell had lifted it straight from the novel. And, sure, you want that kind of attention to detail in an adaptation of one of your favorite books by one of your favorite writers, but McDowell was either not using much discretion at all and yanking huge chunks of dialogue straight from the page, or he only pulled the really terrible lines.
Henry Halliwell: This diet you’re on, what is it? I’ve tried all the others, I might as well try this one.
Billy Halleck: I don’t think you’d like it Henry. In fact, I don’t think you’d like it at all.
So while I loved the novel so much, where did the movie go so wrong?
First off, I have to ding the script. That dialogue, man. And they expected people to utter these lines with a straight face.
Billy Halleck: Leda… there’s no such thing as, uh… gypsy curses.
Leda Rossington: Who are you trying to convince? Me or yourself? He came up to us as we were coming out of Lazupa’s, that place over in Milton. Cary was fried, as usual, hunting for his keys, he never saw the old man coming. I did, I tried to warn him, but it was too late. He touched him, then he whispered something in his ear. Cary claims he didn’t hear what it was. I heard.
Billy Halleck: What? What did he say?
Leda Rossington: One word. Lizard. His skin was plating, turning into scales, he’s evolution in reverse, a sideshow freak. Oh, Jesus. He charted a plane to take him to the Mayo, did I tell you that? Because he can’t bear to have people look at him. At the end, before he left, his hands were like CLAWS! His eyes were just two bright little specs inside of these deep hollows, like pieces of tin foil! And his nose…!
Yeah, no one, anywhere, ever, talks like that. Unless Stephen King wrote your dialogue.
The make-up. Yes, it was 1996 and special effects have taken some huge strides in that time, but Max von Sydow was made into an OLD man 23 years earlier in THE EXORCIST and it was some damned convincing make-up. Fat Billy Halleck, though … yeah, that’s obviously a fat suit. An ill-fitting one at times, and at other an anatomically inaccurate one. The scene with Billy and Judge Rossington in the showers after golf, there’s fat, naked Billy with this huge fake gut and a flat chest. I think someone on the special effects team forgot that people don’t get a fat gut without the upper half following suit. At least not the extent that Billy Halleck was fat. That one was hard to look at, for all kinds of reasons.
The acting. Look, no offense, but when the two most recognizable names in your cast are Joe Mantegna and Kari Wuhrer (“Sliders”), you’re not gonna see any Oscar nominations from your movie. Not for acting, anyway. Add the acting to that script and you might as well start from scratch. I mean, seriously, you’ve got Tom Holland, writer/director of FRIGHT NIGHT and CHILD’S PLAY in charge of your horror movie. That alone should spell success. And Michael McDowell wrote BEETLEJUICE for God’s sake. Why was THINNER not a smash hit?
It wasn’t even so bad it’s good. It was just … blah. With an $8 million budget, even in 1996 that looked really cheap. Watching Billy Halleck waste away, I just didn’t feel any of the dread that King conjured in the novel. Watching mobster Richard Ginelli deal with the gypsies didn’t carry the pace and intensity it did in the book. For years, the whole Ginelli vs. gypsies section of that story was something I carried with me, one of my favorite examples of a bad guy getting got by an even badder guy in the service of good. Or what passes for good in this story. Honestly, none of them are that virtuous.
But the movie just didn’t have any of that, despite the names making it. And the biggest problem? It’s not even a bad adaptation of the book, they didn’t veer wildly off the plot. In fact, THINNER is about as faithful an adaptation of a novel as you’re going to find. So why didn’t it work?
I wish I knew. Go read the book instead, then come back and watch the movie if you REALLY have to. But only if a gypsy is threatening to curse you if you don’t.
King on Film
1976-1992 (Carrie to Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice)
The Dark Half (1993)
The Tommyknockers (1993)
Needful Things (1993)
The Stand (1994)
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (1995)
The Mangler (1995)
Dolores Claiborne (1995)
The Langoliers (1995)
Sometimes They Comes Back … Again (1996)
Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering (1996)
C. Dennis Moore is the author of over 60 published short stories and novellas in the speculative fiction genre. Most recent appearances were in the Dark Highlands 2, What Fears Become, Dead Bait 3 and Dark Highways anthologies. His novels are Revelations, and the Angel Hill stories, The Man in the Window, The Third Floor, The Ghosts of Mertland and The Flip. He is writing another Angel Hill novel called Return to Angel Hill with co-author David Bain.