While undeniably one of America’s most successful authors, Stephen King’s track record in theaters has been almost consistently lackluster. Riding the Bullet does little to change that, coming across as something akin to a mediocre episode of "The Twilight Zone" with an extra bucket of money poured into it.
Based on the Stephen King web novel of the same name, Riding the Bullet is a hitchhiking tale of terror that follows a disturbed young artist as he tries to get home to be with his ailing mother. Though the film claims to be set in the seventies, it doesn’t always capture that era successfully, with many of the character’s clothes looking as if they’ve just been pulled off the rack at JC Penny’s. The time period is a necessity, since the film’s plot focuses around hitchhiking, a practice long since abandoned by all but the most mentally ill.
The film opens in a college art class, where student Alan Parker (Jonathan Jackson) is presented with a beautiful and nubile female model to sketch. Alan turns his sketch of her into a study in gruesome disfigurement, with the looming figure of death standing gleefully behind her. In short, Alan is obsessed with death, so obsessed that when his girlfriend dumps him on his birthday, he decides to commit suicide, since life no longer holds any attraction for him. Alan’s suicide sequence involves a lot of weirdness in which paintings on the wall start calling for him to slice his wrists and Death himself comes in to smoke a joint. I guess we’re supposed to gather from this that in addition to being ready to die, Alan has an overactive imagination. His friends catch him in the act, and though the next day they all keep asking him if he is ok, their concern for him doesn’t seem to go much beyond that. In fact, when he gets a call telling him that his mother has had a stroke, his friends all abandon him to go see John Lennon. Fearing for the life of his mother, Alan starts hitchhiking home.
The trip of course doesn’t go as planned, with Alan being picked up by progressively worse rides until he finds himself lost in the middle of the woods on a dark, foggy road. While most of the rest of the film has a fairly humdrum feel to it, Director Mick Garris’s work on that empty mountain highway is visually exquisite. I love his wide shots of the moisture slicked pavement, as shadows play across Alan’s face. It has an authentically creepy feel to it, which is helpful as the film starts resorting to cheap jump out of the bushes scares to get your blood pumping.
Alan keeps walking and looking for another lift and the night gets weirder and weirder. It becomes impossible to distinguish what in the film is actually happening and what is really just a product of Alan’s overactive and possibly schizophrenic imagination. At some point I gave up and just assumed that Alan was insane. You probably will too. That’s a bad thing in a movie working so hard to creep you out with the possibility of the supernatural. Even when he starts getting rides with the undead I found myself unworried, since I simply assumed the boy was completely mad. The big Treehouse of Horror question at the close ends up being “Did it really happen or didn’t it” but by then I wasn’t that interested in finding out.
Riding the Bullet is a fairly middle of the road fright film that treads dangerously close to being silly. Still, it delivers a few genuine scares and Jonathan Jackson has a nice presence to him, though he plays his character as a little flat. I could have done without the poetic voice over narrative at the end, as well as a lot of the sidetracks the movie takes by questioning unrelated back story on Alan’s father. Riding the Bullet has a few nice moments and some occasionally sharp directing from Mick Garris, which I guess sets it above some of the worst stuff that’s made it from Stephen King to film. The story itself though just isn’t that inspired, so there’s only so much to be gotten from it. I got a couple of jump in my seat moments and then a quiet drive home in which I quickly forgot Riding the Bullet.