“Stephen King’s Riding the Bullet” is small-caliber stuff, a movie thin on plot and character and mostly shooting blanks when it comes to thrills and chills.
Director Mick Garris, who also wrote the screenplay, has plenty of experience adapting King’s fiction and has assembled a solid cast, including Jonathan Jackson, Barbara Hershey, Cliff Robertson, David Arquette and Erika Christensen.
What this rumination on mortality lacks is not talent but sufficient story firepower.
“Riding the Bullet” is based on a short story King sold to readers by download over the Internet, the tale following a hitchhiker’s journey home along a desolate Maine road to visit his ailing mother.
This was supposedly the first thing King wrote after he was struck and nearly killed by a car in 1999, so the source of its notions of death lurking along the highways is obvious.
The trouble is, there’s just not enough meat to the story for a movie. Despite the alterations Garris makes and backstory he adds, the flick plays like a stretched-thin installment of the old TV anthology series “Amazing Stories,” where Garris got his start.
Garris, who previously directed such King tales as “Sleepwalkers” and the miniseries “The Shining” and “The Stand,” tacks on a first act meant to set a death-obsessed tone for the story’s main player, college student Alan Parker (Jackson).
Scares are scant
An aspiring artist, Alan imagines death everywhere — in the studio as he’s sketching a nude, in the bathtub while he smokes a joint — but the comic-book Grim Reaper images he concocts are so infantile it’s hard to take him or his brooding seriously.
Alan nearly fulfills his death wish in a bizarre accident that occurs as he’s contemplating suicide. Then he’s dumped by his girlfriend (Christensen) and gets a call that his mom (Hershey) has had a stroke, so he’s starting off in a dark place as he thumbs his way home through the night.
Alan has ghostly visions and encounters with a looney old man (Robertson) who may or may not be dead and a deranged speedster (Arquette) who may or may not be death incarnate.
Overshadowing all his morbid preoccupations is Alan’s boyhood memory of an amusement park visit with his mother, and the fear of death that kept him from riding the Bullet, a clanking old roller-coaster.
The scares are scant, and Garris is only sporadically successful at capturing the sense of morbid humor that flavored some of his previous King adaptations.
Garris punctuates the action with little fantasy sequences as Alan’s imagination runs wild, but the snippets often are so jarring and frivolous they serve only to distract. Jackson also does double duty as his own fantasy doppelganger, a clunky device to give Alan someone to talk with when he’s alone on the highway.
Oddly, Garris chose to transplant the story from present day to the Vietnam War era, figuring the movie’s death theme would resonate more tucked into that time frame. Yet Vietnam and the social chaos of the 1960s are barely present in Garris’ script, and most of the story plays out in a timeless void as Alan makes his way toward home.
So what was the point in distancing the story from teens and twentysomethings — the core audience for fright films — by setting it at a time when they weren’t even born? And honestly, aren’t thoughts of death always relevant, and hasn’t the last three years been as much a time for reflection on mortality as any other?