This film has a couple interesting facts about it. First is that it was written after the Constant Writer's accident that saw him hit by a van and have him occupy the Central Maine Medical Center for three weeks. It was also released as one of the first e-books and crashed servers with the sheer volume of downloads. For the film, it suffered from a lack of promotion that resulted in a dismal box office and relegated it to obscurity. I am a big fan of Mick Garris and his work. In addition to being a renowned horror writer/director, he is also an author and a member of the splatterpunk scene of the 80's. The collection Splatterpunk has his short story "A Life in the Cinema" as well as Clive Barker's "The Midnight Meat Train". Pick it up, it will leave an impression on you. You can yell at/thank me later.
Ok, on to the film. Mick has a penchant for playing in the Stephen King sandbox and has quite the list of credits that I won't go in to. Except to say that his take on The Stand is brilliant and deserving of its restoration. Garris got the rights from King as a dollar baby (which he may or may not still owe as he mentioned on a recent episode of his Post Mortem podcast) and wrote a spec script that incorporated personal elements from his own life into the story.
Alan Parker has been in his mother's sole care since his father passed at a young age. While away at college, he receives a call that his mother had a stroke and is in the hospital. Foregoing a concert, Alan decides to hitchhike 120 miles to be at her side and it is on the road that really gets the story moving. As he is tested by his own mind as well as the elements and assholes on the road, Alan is struggling to come to terms with whether or not his mother is going to die. There's guilt he is feeling and, as well, his past that will come back to him as he thumbs his way through Maine. David Arquette's performance is really great as George Staub who may or may not be a minion of Satan or the devil himself. He carries Alan on the final leg of his journey and tells him that by the end he or his mother has to die.
This film really resonated with me because it brings up my own experience of losing my mother and there are some shots and scenes that hit me hard. It is a hallmark of Stephen King's stories to balance the supernatural with the reality of emotional pain and Mick Garris (using his own loss) brings this out beautifully. While not the most prestigious or well-known of his adaptations, this film is a perfect example of writing what you know and life experience serving as a basis for fiction. It is a movie about the journey one takes on the road of grief and how deeply personal, and simultaneously universal, the profound experience of losing a loved one can be.
I read King's novella some time ago, and I remember liking most of it but feeling a sense of anticlimax. The film is no different, which to me means that the story itself has a fundamental flaw. Riding the Bullet takes an intriguing concept and stretches it far too thin, to the point where it stops being scary and starts being introspective. In the right hands, this could be an interesting turn for the story, but Mick Garris was not the man to do it. Having said that, the film isn't nearly as bad as critics have made it out to be. But it's a far cry from the best of King's adaptations.
Jonathan Jackson plays Alan Parker, a young, depressed student who learns his mother is dying of a stroke. When he decides to hitchhike his way home to see her, he is picked up by George Staub (David Arquette, in a great performance), a ghost who traps Alan in a deadly choice he is forced to make. While this time with George is most of the novella, it's only the third act of the movie. The rest sees Alan facing random fears of the highway at night as he struggles to get a ride. Now, it's been a while since I read the story, but I don't remember any of that padding. The back-and-forth between Alan and the dramatic showings of his worst scenarios drain all the horror from King's story. There's no chill when we meet George Staub and the ultimatum doesn't have the same gut punch that it did in the story. It's just plain unfilmable.
The performances aren't particularly memorable, apart from David Arquette, and the film seems dragged out with unnecessary add-ins simply to pad the runtime of an awfully short story that loses a lot of its oomph when filmed. On the DVD case, it says Stephen King endorsed Riding the Bullet as the best indie film based on his work since Stand by Me. Makes me wonder what he considers to be the bad ones.