In the old monster movies, one of the more charming rituals was The Explanation.
"My God, Professor Williams, you mean that thing mutated from radiation and grew as large as a city block?!"
Or, "Good heavens, Gridley, it was frozen in ice at the polar cap for 50 million years, and now it's been melted by our atom bomb and ... it's alive!?"
But that was the '50s, and we believed things had to mak sense. In the '90s, we know they never will -- there's simply too much random violence and ugliness in the world -- and so such moments of inspired scientific mumbo-jumbo are no more, as witness "Stephen King's Graveyard Shift." This one turns out to be a fairly classic monster movie, in which a large creature that is either a giant bat or a giant rat creeps through the catacombs under an ancient New England textile mill and eats whatever comes its way, usually workers on the 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift.
An explanation? Forget it. Ours is the infotainment age: The story must thrust ahead brainlessly, and therefore not one second can be wasted on explanations. This big sucker is, like a mountain, just there, to be dealt with. No one ever says, "My god, a giant bat!" or even "Good Grief, what is that thing?" They seem to think that there are giant, meat-eating bats under all the old mills of New England.
As for the characters, they too are unexplained. The "hero" (David Andrews) is a college boy on the road for some reason -- is he trying to be Jack Kerouac? The movie never says. And what about the mill foreman (Stephen Macht) -- why is he so wretchedly cruel and why does he flip out in the heat of the Giant Bat-or-Rat crisis and begin to kill his own crew? The movie has no idea.
This is narrative purified like mineral water, shorn of subtext, nuance and flavor: It just drives ahead remorselessly. It's meant to go straight to your subcortex, that ancient, reptilian ur-brain, where your deepest fears reside. But it's so harsh and loud it becomes meaningless.
A shame. As a physical production, "Stephen King's Graveyard Shift" is handsome and the movie, in the early going, gets a lot out of its spooky setting, that creaky, grinding old chamber of horrors with its menacing textile machinery.
But once the boys and girls of the shift head downstairs to "clean up," and in so doing become a box lunch for Mr. Bat-or-Rat, it becomes a festival of nameless, characterless drones yelling, bleeding and disappearing.
In an act of calculated child abuse, I took my impressionable 13-year-old son. His comment was the most eloquent. He fell asleep.
'Stephen King's Graveyard Shift'
Starring Stephen Macht and David Andrews.
Directed by Ralph S. Singleton.
Released by Paramount.