The ever fertile imagination of Stephen King continues to produce Hollywood fodder on an unprecedented basis, for better or worse. When successful, the King formula has led to many excellent entries in the genre (too numerous to name here). Though it has also backfired, sometimes quite spectacularly. Most recently, Lawrence Kasdan (!) and William Goldman (!!) took a shot at bringing King’s first post-accident effort, the ridiculous Dreamcatcher to the big screen. The result was Hollywood at its bloated, burping worst. It was the kind of big-budget train wreck only talented craftsmen could have made. Compared to that debacle, the short film “Night Surf”, while flawed, seems like a mini-masterpiece. Based on King’s short story of the same title, “Night Surf” is pure King: a near future, apocalyptic tale of teenagers, isolation, paranoia, and death.
The plot of “Night Surf” is similar to that of Dreamcatcher in the way that all King stories are similar, though conspicuously missing any “s**t weasels” (see Dreamcatcher, actually please don’t). Six teens take refuge at a vacation home in Maine from a deadly strain of flu known as “Captain Trips”. This modern black plague turns its victims into zombie-like wraiths before ultimately killing them. The entire world has felt the wrath of the “Trips”, with death tolls reaching some 100 million. The six teens believe they are immune to the plague however, since they had previously contracted the “Hong Kong” flu, a milder strain. Holed up in a beautiful house by the beach, the group unwinds and generally acts like, well, a bunch of teenagers. Before long though, or rather almost immediately, the group’s illusion of safety is shattered when one of the kids, Needles (Matthew Oliva) is suspected of being sick. Paranoia quickly starts eating away at the isolated community like the much deadlier virus that it is. The situation is polarizing. On one side are two brothers, Corey (Geoffrey Emery) and Kelly (Shon Robert Seward), whose parents own the house where they’re staying, who want to get rid of Needles and the sickness he may carry. On the other side are the troubled Bernie (Clarence John Woods) and his girlfriend Susie (Mary F. Ruble), who just want to save their best friend (and themselves) from the madness that has engulfed them. Of course, this being a King story, we know this won’t end with handshakes and hugs.
King apparently saw the potential in this tale of apocalyptic dread, since he later expanded it (to put it mildly) into the epic “The Stand”. On its own, “Night Surf” is rather slim. The minimalist plot works well enough in a shorter format, though suffers from underdevelopment of character and a wildly uneven tone. Throughout the first half of the film, the teens act as if they’re going away for spring break, while all around them millions are dying. Then, much like “The Shining” (the film version), the madness/paranoia kicks in way too quickly. And who are these kids anyway? On the basis of this film, I wouldn’t know, other than their lazy stereotypes: there’s the rich-kid jocks Corey and Kelly, the brooding hero Bernie, the perennial goofball Needles, the good girl Susie, and the oblivious cheerleader Joan. Having never read the source material, I can only assume these flaws are King’s and not first-time writer/director Peter Sullivan. Given its obviously limited means, Sullivan’s adaptation is a reasonably well-crafted mini-thriller. The score is appropriately ominous and the visuals effectively creepy. The young Sullivan does exhibit a knack for the genre and promise as a filmmaker. His emphasis is less on the grotesque and more on good old-fashioned technique to create suspense. While not perfect, “Night Surf” still creeped me out far worse than most of what Hollywood offers up for thrills these days. Give this kid some real money, but not too much, and I think you’ve got something.