The critics were not enthusiastic about GRAVEYARD SHIFT when it came out in the theaters in 1990. It didn't seem to make much of an impact at the box office either. But since then appreciation of King's unique subterranean, giant mutant, carnivorous bat seems to have grown.
Stephen King tries to be an all-around horror auteur. Yet fans and near-fans equate King with horror tales of the paranormal as underscored by one his most popular books and theatrical adaptations, THE SHINING. Yet King shows he is quite versatile with sci-fi horror such as, IT, which featured an extraterrestrial sentient monster in somewhat paranormal settings, and the science fiction, THE STAND.
Here in GRAVEYARD SHIFT King offers us a no-nonsense, straightforward, what-you-see-is-what-you get, mutant horrifying monster yarn. King's short stories are often overlooked by the mainstream reading public.
Like many of his writing creations, GRAVEYARD SHIFT takes place in the state of Maine.
King's depiction of his home state, Maine, is a two-edged sword. While the King books and movies bring Maine into the national spotlight, it's often not in a delightful, touristy, shining way to attract tourists. Nay, for those Maine citizens who wish to keep outsiders to a minimum lest Maine turn into a northeastern California, King's books are a godsend. Watching any King movie set in Maine is designed to keep you from ever becoming curious about visiting much less relocating.
If America's vision of the Deep South is one of backwardness, persistent grinding poverty and impoverishment, misery and general unhappiness, then King's Maine is of little doubt the North's version of a Deep North, still rural and mired in the past and stuck in modern economic stagnation and slow collapse.
Even a lifelong Maine denizen might cringe at the degraded vision of backwoods Maine in GRAVEYARD SHIFT.
The movie is set in the fictional Maine rural town, Gates Falls, which bears a long, deep past long forgotten and best forgotten. It was once a prospering mill town, one of several along a fictional Maine river that originally powered the milling machines during the time of manufacturing and economic growth of the North in the first half of the 19th century.
In 1990 all that is forgotten history by the economically depressed remnants of Gates Falls and its even more depressed remaining citizens, many now scrambling to find employment in a rural town that hovers on the edge. The encroaching river has eroded into the long-abandoned, local, once-stately cemetery, turning it into a rotting, corroded, collapsing eyesore that no one ventures near.
The intruding river has also contributed significantly to the deterioration of the recently re-opened Bachman Mill. For those in the know, Bachman is an eye-wink. King once used the surname, Bachman as a pseudonym in his earlier books. The movie does not explain who re-opened the mill or why but the movie's beginning makes it quite clear that was a gross mistake. The large, wood constructed mill is seriously dilapidated, run-down, and collapsing in places in the lower levels. Worst, the mill especially the lower levels are swarmed by near infinite numbers of rats.
The mill is run by a psychologically unstable plant manager, Mr. Warwick, played by actor, Stephen Macht, from the 1980 sci-fi movie, "Galaxina", which starred the doomed Canadian actress and Playmate of the Year, Dorothy Stratton, who would be murdered by her estranged husband in Los Angeles later in 1980.
Warwick is the odd character who outshines the main protagonist and anti-hero, John Hall, a college-educated drifter, through Warwick's intense, eye-glaring, psycho-mental character acting. Warwick is the mill's plant manager. Yet Warwick also functions as a department manager, supervisor, and foreman, all in one. He performs a full day's shift as plant manager but comes back at night to work the graveyard shift as supervisor and foreman. He even oversees the clean-up crew in the deteriorated basement. The crew shortly discovers an even lower basement level, one that once held the equipment to derive river water power to turn the mill's machinery.
The re-opening of the long-closed Bachman mill disturbs lowest level denizen, a giant mutated carnivorous bat with rat-like characteristics. The ugly freakish creature from out of hell metaphorically, had been dining on corpses the beast exhumed from underground of the deteriorated cemetery. The encroaching river's path was slowly going under the cemetery, loosening and washing away the underground foundation dirt, making it easy for the subterranean creature to burrow to coffins and drag it back to its lair, the long-abandoned, warehouse-size underground level.
The creature begins to prey on individual graveyard shift personnel whose absences go unnoticed.
Warwick recruits a special basement cleanup crew for the shutdown week of July 4th, offering double-pay as incentive. This includes the nice-guy drifter, Hall, his new girlfriend who was once the plaything of Warwick, who is slowly becoming what seems to be more unbalanced, even insane, at that point.
The cleanup crew discovers the large trapdoor to the bottom level. When they all investigate it, including Warwick, that is when the nasty, foul, giant mutant hellbat creature ambushes them. The monster quickly kills one of the crew then starts after the others. At this point Warwick finally goes insane and berserk, after the two men with him meet violent, deaths from the creature. In the small mountain of human bones in the bottom of the lowest level, Warwick has fallen into it. When Hall and his girlfriend try to rescue Warwick, he awakes and attacks both of them, beating Hall mercilessly and knifing his girlfriend to death.
Warwick runs off and into the monster. Rather than panicking and running, Warwick decides a la Viking to fight it out to the death with the creature, using his Buck sheath knife. Of course the creature kills Warwick. Hall awakens and runs after Warwick running into the creature still dining upon Warwick's remains. Hall beats a hasty retreat and finds his way back up into what was once thought the bottom basement which holds the picker machine, a large, grinding machine that swallows up bales of raw cotton into its multiple, grinding shears.
The bat mutant monster follows Hall to the picker machine level and almost succeeds in grabbing hold of Hall.
Hall succeeds in activating the picker machine which catches the long rat-like tail of the giant bat creature. The machine pulls the shrieking bat monster through its grinding shear machinery, shredding it until finally the picker jams and stops. Hall stares at the horde of rats that descend to consume the beast's shredded bloody fragments in the machine.
The last scene before the credits is a new sign outside the mill's front office, reading, "Help Wanted", with a secondary sign dangling beneath, "Under New Management". That is surprising since at the movie's beginning, a state inspector had written a report advising the mill's closure although Warwick bribed the man with two hundred dollars to delay the submission of his report.
A shout-out goes to a supporting character, the still young, Brad Dourif who gained his fame playing eccentric and sometimes crazy characters. He plays the role of a rat exterminator under a veneer of a crazy dude but who often shows the sane, professional side of himself while discussing his profession. The near psycho façade Dourif's character sometimes displays is supposed to be the result of really bad things he saw while serving in the U.S. Army in Vietnam. Later in the movie, Dourif's character is killed while exploring underground in the collapsing cemetery when a concrete stone sarcophagus coffin slides back and crushes him.