The world’s longest, jerkiest roller coaster ride has nothing on “Stephen King’s Riding the Bullet,” a ponderous, incoherent horror mishmash that turns King’s short story into utter nonsense. Settling for cheap “gotcha!” moments and jumpy sound effects in place of honest thrills, pic may make auds jump, but it certainly won’t bring them out in droves.
Written after the car accident that nearly ended King’s life, the 30-page “Riding the Bullet” (published as an e-book in 2000) can be read as a personal meditation on mortality. It is also a meditation on car accidents, and no fewer than eight vehicular collisions and near-collisions occur in the film.
The accidents, however, are tame compared to the scenes where David Arquette’s character gets decapitated, or where a dog rips out a boy’s throat, or where a man sticks a gun in his mouth and blows his brains out (twice). Following in the bloody footsteps of most teen-oriented horror fare, pic is gory, excessive and in-your-face unpleasant — all of which might be forgivable if pic were actually scary.
Scribe-helmer Mick Garris moves story’s action from the present day to October 1969. Alan Parker (Jonathan Jackson), a troubled Maine art student, has been obsessed with death ever since his father (Barry W. Levy) was killed in a hit-and-run accident when Alan was 6. One night after seeing a vision of the Grim Reaper, Alan attempts suicide by slashing his wrist in his bathtub. He is rescued, however, by his girlfriend, Jessica (Erika Christensen).
Next day, Alan learns that his mother (Barbara Hershey) has suffered a stroke, and he decides to hitchhike to the Maine hospital where she is a patient.
So begins a one-night Halloween odyssey, during which Alan — in between morbid hallucinations and gruesome near-death experiences — gets picked up by a series of drivers, each one more sinister than the last. The third driver, George Staub (Arquette) who smells suspiciously of formaldehyde, says he is a messenger of death and tells Alan he must make a choice: his life or his mother’s.
Figuring into all this are Alan’s memories of the eponymous Bullet, a theme-park roller coaster he was too scared to ride, as well as the ominous suggestion that his father’s death may not have been an accident. Through this narrative shambles, pic appears to be attempting to say something meaningful about personal fears, choosing life over death, and growing up in the ’60s.
Garris uses flashbacks, hallucinations and daydream sequences, practically to the point of self-parody. Virtually every scene is preceded by Alan’s phony worst-case-scenario speculation about what might happen, making pic feel at times like a 98-minute blooper reel.
Despite the graphic violence, Garris’ attempts to evoke horror are corny. His relentless deployment of shock cuts — each one signaled by a deafening, Dolby-augmented blast of music — is self-defeating. Absent any real tension, this well-worn technique quickly turns monotonous.
Jackson, the Emmy-winning former thesp from the sudser “General Hospital,” doesn’t quite have the chops (or adequate facial hair) to play a brooding tortured artist, though he does have a gentle, unforced rapport with Christensen and Hershey, who are both underused.