Written by: Michael McDowell and Tom Holland (screenplay), Stephen King (novel)
Directed by: Tom Holland
Starring: Robert John Burke, Michael Constantine, and Lucinda Jenney
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Justice ain't about bringing back the dead, white man. Justice is about justice."
I’ve often mentioned that Stephen King was formative in scaring the shit out of me, as adaptations of his work were instrumental in inspiring one nightmare after another throughout my youth, with some leaving deep, traumatic scars. Thinner was not one of those times, however. For one thing, I was a cool 13 or 14 years old by the time I stumbled across it on cable, by which point nothing was going to unsettle me. I was a teenager in middle school goddamnit, and therefore no longer a child. But for another, much more pertinent thing, this was around the point when the King adaptation train was starting to careen off the rails. Like most things in the 90s, even this trend got a little too silly for its own good, resulting in stuff like Tom Holland’s ill-advised take on King’s already ill-advised novel. Not that this was necessarily terrible, of course, because we all know train wrecks can be entertaining as hell, especially when they burst into flames as spectacularly as Thinner, a positively hateful, mean-spirited piece of work that squares up the notion of decency, looks it straight into the eyes, and spits into it.
Billy Halleck (Robert John Burke) is a big man. Tipping the scales at nearly 300 pounds, he’s certainly medically obese, much to the concern of his wife, Heidi (Lucinda Jenney). She’s been trying in vain to put him on a diet, only to see him saunter out the door and shove Doritos into his face all day long while at work. To his credit, he is a successful lawyer, and his connections come in handy when a group of Romani (referred throughout the film as “gypsies,” but we know better now) carnival workers roll into town, drawing sneers of disdain from just about everyone who crosses their path. Billy, on the other hand, is mostly just horny for the attractive fire-twirler of the group (Kari Wuhrer), and his libido proves to be his undoing when Heidi decides to go down on him on a trip home, causing him to plow right into an elderly Romani woman. Because he’s tight with the judge and local law enforcement, Billy faces no consequences, as the incident doesn’t even go to trial. Rightfully feeling quite slighted, the slain woman’s father (Michael Constantine) curses Billy to grow thinner and thinner by the day, regardless of what he eats. Naturally, Billy is pretty stoked about this, at least until he realizes he might literally waste away, touching off a hellacious feud between him and the entire Romani tribe.
When deciphering where Thinner goes wrong, we must first reserve some words for King’s novel, which is sort of like the crumbling foundation of this rickety outhouse. Written during one of the darker stretches in King’s life (when the author himself ballooned in weight and was warned by his doctor to make a lifestyle change), Thinner was published under the Richard Bachman pseudonym and all the bleakness that typically entailed: not only is the story unrelentingly harsh, but it’s also just downright mean in its one-note depiction of the Romani as a backwards, mystical people who exist just to ruin white peoples’ lives with trite “gypsy curse” nonsense. I doubt King would engage this story in the same manner today, but it’s only fair to point out that the source material here is a deeply problematic guiding force for what is ultimately a pretty wrong-headed adaptation.
You could point out that Holland’s take arrived a whole decade after the novel’s publication, right smack dab in the middle of the progressive 90s, when everyone involved should have known better. Obviously, they did not. If nothing else, Thinner is a reminder that these tides are ever shifting, and perhaps slowly so as we come around to being more culturally sensitive. Watching this movie in 2018 is ghastly because you’re pretty sure it could never be made now, at least not exactly like this. But in 1996, nobody involved here was too worried about offending the Romani people, leaving Tom Holland to craft this completely unhinged display that delights in watching them terrorize—and be terrorized by—a complete asshole in Billy Halleck. To be completely fair to both King and the filmmakers here, they at least recognize that Billy sucks too, so Thinner takes an almost sociopathic delight in watching both sides tear themselves apart.
Some would argue that this makes Thinner an exhausting, nihilistic experience; I wouldn’t exactly argue to the contrary, but I would admit a begrudging admiration for how much Holland and company just do not give a fuck. Thinner doesn’t have any pretense of an empathetic center, and practically invites you to join in its savage delight. With nobody to really “root for” (though I’m still at least kind of partial to the Romani, who are clearly the victims here), the film barrels ahead like a freight train, stringing together one outrageous scene after another, nearly all of them in the service of a story that boils down to “watch this fatass jerk get his!” Burke is instrumental in realizing the appeal of that pitch: initially saddled with an absurd fat suit that accentuates his overly chipper demeanor. As the pounds shed, his performance only grows hammier, as Billy has a dumb smile perpetually affixed to his face, whether he’s stuffing it with cake or trying to feign concern as he listens to a woman describe how her husband has been afflicted with a dehumanizing skin cancer.
Nothing captures Thinner’s base aims quite like Burke’s turn as Billy, as he ensures that the ill-fated lawyer comes across as an unrepentant asshole who deserves everything coming his way. As he grows more paranoid about his wife’s apparent affair with a doctor (as if this story needed an extra layer of sleaze), you can’t wait to see that smug smile fade completely from his increasingly haggard face. At no point does Billy seem even the least bit redeemable: he’s a jerk to his wife before he suspects her on infidelity, he roundly ignores his kid’s pleas to seek help, and the fact that he kills a woman barely seems to register with him. Billy sucks, and it’s hardly surprising when he consults with a former client with shady mob ties (Joe Mantegna) to terrorize the Romani on his behalf by killing their dogs and tricking them into shooting one of their own family members.
Thinner is full of outrageously mean, violent outbursts like that: without a pesky conscience guiding the script, Holland is free to infuse the film with the trashy, page-turning intrigue of King’s novel. It rollicks along, very much enthused to spew a ton of crazy bullshit, including an entire, extended nightmare sequence where Billy visits the Romani’s carnival in another county, only to be chased away by the mob, into a car driven by a fellow cursed associate whose skin disease has transformed him into a lizard man. One of the most sneakily insane sequences from any 90s horror, it works because it captures the bizarre tenor of a nightmare: it starts out realistically enough but quickly descends into utter madness. One minute, Billy is approaching the carnival; the next, he’s on the business end of Kari Wuhrer’s slingshot before being trapped amidst the fiery carnage of a car wreck—or so it seems. A smartass might say that Thinner would be better off it this weren’t a dream, thus ending the film about 20 minutes early; I, on the other hand, would remind you that such a decision would rob us of an even more unhinged resolution that hinges on one of the meanest twists in the King canon, one that might be utterly haunting if it were in just about any other story.
But this isn’t one of those stories: no, Thinner is one of the trashier King efforts, brought to the screen with an adaptation that eagerly scoops up all of its pulp trappings and shoves them down the audience’s throats, taste or tact be damned. You don’t watch Thinner to be unnerved by its twisted morality tale, nor do you find catharsis in it; you watch it to delight in the fantastic effects (ridiculous fat suit aside, this movie is catnip for fans of gruesome makeup effects) as supreme dickhead Billy Halleck gets his just desserts. There’s definitely a genuinely disturbing, great movie to be carved out of this material, one that wouldn’t lean on racist caricatures and that would actually bother with nuanced themes. This, however, certainly isn’t it: Holland’s Thinner is an ugly, savage movie that has aged dreadfully—and yet I can’t really resist it. Like Billy Halleck, I sometimes have an insatiable appetite for junk, even when it’s completely and utterly ill-advised to consume it. Thinner is that food you voraciously consume in the moment, only to be dismayed at the aftertaste later on—not that it keeps you from coming back for seconds, of course.
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