Review: Sometimes They Come Back (TBC) / Directed by: Tom McLaughlin / Screenplay by: Laurence Konner, Mark Rosenthal / Starring: Tim Matheson, Brooke Adams, Robert Russler, Chris Demetral, Robert Hy Gorman, William Sanderson /Release Date: 9th April 2012
Based on a short story published in Stephen King’s 1978 anthology Night Shift, Sometimes They Come Back made its way to television in 1991 as this efficient, slightly cheesy US TV movie which only now sees the light of day on DVD in the UK.
Tom Matheson plays teacher Jim Norman whose quest for work forces him to return to his hometown nearly 30 years after the terrible tragedy of the death of his elder brother Wayne. Back in 1963 a gang of rock’n’roll teens confronted Jim and Wayne in a railway tunnel; Wayne was stabbed and the gang were killed when their car was demolished by an oncoming train. When Jim returns home he finds that the dead gang aren’t quite ready to lie down and that there’s still some unfinished business between them…
Although very clearly a made-for-TV effort and therefore not able to overdose on the gore, Sometimes They Come Back still manages to wrack up a few thrills here and there even if it’s never exactly hair-raising stuff. The story’s fairly typical, unsophisticated early King and whilst certain liberties have been taken with the original text (in which Jim’s wife is also killed and he’s forced to summon up a malevolent demon to help him see off his tormentors) the story’s themes of revenge from beyond the grave and family redemption power the film’s narrative. Jim reluctantly takes up his teaching post at his old school and is almost immediately wrong-footed by his unruly class. He’s suffering nightmarish dreams too, and his memories of the events of that terrible day nearly three decades earlier are as vivid as ever. His nightmares start to come true, however, when kids from his class begin to die in mysterious circumstances; for every pupil killed a replacement arrives, “transferred from Milford” - and each of those replacements is one of the gang killed in the railway tunnel. Exactly how and why everyone can see the ‘ghosts’ as new pupils in the classroom and yet they’re invisible everywhere else is a plot point the script doesn’t try to concern itself with, though.
The violence and horror are as brutal as American Network TV in the early 1990s would allow so it’s fairly bloodless; one boy is forced off the road and over a bridge by the gang’s ghostly, fire-belching car, another is found hanged and, in what’s potentially the most gruesome sequence in the movie, a third is dismembered, body parts flung out of the car’s window by the cackling ghoulish gang. There’s some creeping tension in the scenes where Jim confronts the only survivor of the gang and tries to get him to reason with the ghosts in their graveyard hang-out and later on when Jim’s wife is attacked in their home (the make-up effects of the cadaverous incinerated oldies of the gang are still pretty decent) but the film loses whatever edge it might have had as it abandons its subtlety for more obvious stuff, the gang resurrected and overacting as they continue to terrify and terrorise Jim and his family.
The film finally plunges headlong into schmaltz as Jim conjurs up the restless spirit of his long-dead brother, history repeats itself in the railway tunnel and Jim gets the chance to say goodbye to Wayne with the promise that one day they’ll be together again forever. Awww….
Sometimes They Come Back is a harmless way to spend ninety minutes but it’s really only for the determined King completist. Anyone else might want to wait the three or four weeks until this one turns up in the bargain bin.