Riding the Bullet opens up like a low budget indie. Understated visuals and basic graphics play with your eyes as you listen to some very 60’s music and watch a home video of the main character’s vanished childhood. The credits roll and then the story begins…
In an Alice-in Wonderland-esque tale, young, troubled Alan Parker (Jonathan Jackson) must journey from his college to his hometown to visit his mother (Barbara Hershey) in the hospital. He has just had a stroke, and Alan fears he won’t get there before she dies. Along the way Alan hitchhikes and encounters some strange entities, including that of George Staub (David Arquette). George is a ghost who has come seeking Alan and offers him a choice; he can either take Alan’s life that night, or Alan’s mother will die. Either way, a choice must be made and if he doesn’t make it, George will take both of them back with him. Alan, trapped in a nightmare, must figure out a way to live with the choice he makes, or not live, as the case may be.
David Arquette’s miserable overacting really grates on your soul after a while. He’s almost impossible to watch.. Jonathan Jackson is intense and believable, as is Cliff Robertson as a suspicious driver who gives Alan a ride. Barbara Hershey is a great Mom, and Erika Christensen (Swinfan) is in the film so little I’m amazed she’s even in the credits. Maybe, thankfully, her career is winding down into nothing.
Mick Garris, best known for his television adaptations of Stephen King’s The Stand and The more recent The Shining, also made television history by working on the shows Tales from the Crypt, Freddy’s Nightmares, and Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories. Riding the Bullet looks and feels like a Sci-Fi Channel original television film; Garris just can’t shake that TV sentiment. In fact, the entire film seems like a very long Amazing Stories episode. Not only is it filled with slightly spooky, over-the-top characterizations, it has a moral lesson that Garris practically beats you over the head with. And, unlike the truly horrifying endings of films like Carrie or The Shining, Riding the Bullet is watered down, un-scary, and very predictable. I just need to add that there is way too much superfluous car chasing in this film.
Garris is, conversely, able to curb King’s desire for the ridiculous by adding an element of the magical instead. And I’ll say this, the film is not dull or boring, or even predictable, for at least the first hour. It also has some very classy elements; Traditional cemetery scenes, references to Night of the Living Dead, Urban legends, a traditional funhouse ruse stolen straight from a Twilight Zone episode. Garris is able to exploit them without degrading their memories or his film by paying a very decent homage to the themes that influence him.
Riding the Bullet has a very classic “Stephen King” story appeal. You know, that coming-of-age-in-the-50’s/60’s feeling that you’ll find in the many of his stories and film adaptations. (Stand By Me, It) Unfortunately, it tends to feel like a Wonder Years episode, and the dialogue in the voice-overs can be predictable and trite. The slightly confusing and out-of-sequence events make the storyline difficult to appreciate. The ending is so bland and predictable that it doesn’t do the rest of the film justice.
The film’s cinematography incorporates great sweeping shots, and dramatic and very artistic visual effects. Greg Nicotero, the extremely talented (and cute) special effects master definitely didn’t do his best on this one. Some of the gore isn’t scary or realistic, (I just want to say “ghost hand”. If you watch the film you’ll understand) and compared to what Nicotero is capable of, I was surprised to learn he did the effects.
Okay, so it might not all be Mick Garris’ fault. I mean, Stephen King did write the story and I’m sure that out of respect Garris didn’t want to change too much. But He could have filmed this tale in a more adult and classier way, instead of the 12-17 year old television version that graces our movie theaters. But frankly, though I know The Stand is a favorite among many horror fans, is there honestly one sane person who enjoyed The Shining (the television version) over Kubrick’s version? Standing alone, the television version of The Shining is entertaining, cheesy, and not very scary. Mick Garris is great with made for TV movies, and he’s a genius when it comes to short episodes. A feature filmmaker he is not, however.
Riding the Bullet is a sappy, cheesy, drawn out, contorted view of one young man’s deep-rooted depression and fear. It’s not frightening, it’s not that much fun, but it is interesting at times and if it’s ever on television, especially late at night on the Sci-Fi channel, watch it It’s worth it if you keep it in that perspective.