Robert John Burke, who I'd previously discounted as merely a second-string Robocop (due to his work as the title character in the disastrous Robocop 3), takes the lead in Thinner, an odd Stephen King adaptation that initially left me a little flustered as I thought about it. I'm not sure if the movie feels like a Tales from the Crypt episode that is stretched out way too long or if it feels like a deeper, more interesting story that is squeezed into 92 minutes. Since King wrote it, I'm assuming the latter is closer to true, because many of his works have suffered when filmmakers attempted to squeeze them onto the big screen. There's a good reason that the most beloved King films are generally adaptations of his shortest stories - because the man writes deep horror tales like no one else in our lifetime has.
I have not had a chance to read Thinner yet, which probably is part of the reason I'm so willing to give this film a pass and actually find myself interested in applauding this piece of horror from the mid-1990s. I'm still a little tentative - this might be one of those Midnight Movie of the Week picks that I look back on later and say "Really?" - but there's an incredible charm to this bizarre story of curses and revenge and wishes gone wrong.
The story is a kind of Monkey's Paw scenario with a twist. Obese lawyer Billy Halleck (Burke) wants to drop some pounds but doesn't want to change his habits, which include snacking, helping mobsters avoid prison, and mocking the pack of gypsies who are passing through his Maine town. Worse, Billy accidentally runs over an old gypsy woman while driving carelessly due to a favor (insert wink here) from his wife, which leads to an angry old gypsy man cursing him to become (you guessed it) thinner. It doesn't sound like a bad deal at first, but the increasing rate at which Billy loses his girth leads to some health concerns (most notably, imminent death) and he is forced to fight back to save his life.
I opened with Burke's name for a reason, which is the fact that the actor takes over the film's lead role and gives a terrifically entertaining performance. The actor attacks the film with a hammy tone that's kind of comedic (now that it's the future, I couldn't help thinking he sounded a bit like Will Arnett), which helps make the character worth watching when you consider who and what the character is. Viewers who are concerned about the morality of their characters might be put off by Billy, who is, to put it nicely, a gluttonous slob who lies, womanizes, and actually kills someone in a hit and run. Despite all that, the only way the film works is if you sympathize, if only a little bit, with this man. (Because, you know, the gypsies have curses. And curses are WRONG.) Burke's approach to the film doesn't necessarily make us like Billy, but it does make him an interesting man to follow, and the combination of the actor's talents and some impressive special effects regarding his body transformation do enough to keep us feeling a little bit of sympathy for him.
Speaking of morality that's flown out the window, Joe Mantegna gives another pulpy performance in a side role as a gangster, and his presence helps the film immensely in the final act. This is another part of the film that reminds us just how little the film cares about the viewer having positive feelings for the characters, as Billy enlists his gangster friend to take out one of the gypsies and kidnap the daughter of his curser (Kari Wuhrer in an early role) to try and get his curse lifted. Meanwhile, the only thing we really learn about the curser - played by Michael Constantine, who is also made-up wonderfully as a 109 year old man with a ugly visage - is that he likes to cackle and refers to Billy mostly as "White Man From Town." Characterization isn't the film's strongest asset, but each of the characters meets a specific purpose within the film's twisted parable. And the performers are having enough fun with the material that I didn't stop too often to notice the lack of depth.
Directed by horror veteran Tom Holland - the man behind Fright Night and Child's Play - Thinner works for me because it offers a very simple tale of unnatural vengeance with some fantastic special effects mixed in. I have to assume that King's story had a little more to it than this film does, but that doesn't take away from the fun I had watching it. Burke and Mantegna's performances alone make Thinner a horror film worth seeing, and the final product is another entertaining, if not slight, adaptation of the author's work.