Tuesday 1 May 2012


Based on the writings of little known author Stephen King, the 1991 horror Sometimes They Come Back is newly available on DVD. But, twenty years later, is it still scary?

Published as part of Night Shift, King's first collection of short stories that also included the original version of The Lawnmower Man, The Mangler and Children of the Corn, Sometimes They Come Back tells the story of English teacher Jim Norman (Tim Matheson), haunted by the death of his older brother as a child at the hands of a group of local hoodlums. When the malevolent spirits of his brother's killers start attending his English classes and killing off his other students, it's up to Jim to face his demons and avenge his brother's death.

The problem with adapting one of the very prolific King's many, many stories is that, in the wrong hands, the little idiosyncrasies of his ideas can be stretched beyond breaking point. The list of big screen Stephen King adaptations is almost endless, but if you wanted to compile a list of the good adaptations against the bad ones, you'd find yourself with one list noticeably longer than the other one. Sometimes They Come Back is erring somewhat towards the bad side, although there is an undoubtably goofy charm to this formulaic, by the numbers King story that covers all the themes and (almost comforting to see) family trauma that King does so well.

A middle aged man working with the English language finds himself troubled by events that had a powerful effect on his childhood. After some soul searching he decides to overcome his fear of history repeating itself and confront his fears head on. With a basic plotline as simple as that, it's a wonder that King has managed to get so many stories out of it. There's only a handful of writers who could successfully churn out so many variations of the same story, among them the (fictional) horror maestro Garth Marenghi, whose filmography this film would fit nicely into.

If you've seen any of the excellent Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, with it's unexplained mystic portals and curious flashbacks, interspliced with grotesque to-the-point-of humourous body horror, this is exactly the kind of film they were paying homage to. I knew Stephen King was an obvious reference point for the Marenghi character, but until seeing this film, I couldn't think of any titles they had so directly parodied. It actually adds another layer to the viewing experience of Sometimes They Come Back, just like Nicolas Cage's remake of The Wicker Man. It's much more enjoyable when you think of it as kind of a comedy.

The comedic moments may not be wholly intentional, but that's not to say that it's a complete failure as a horror. Some of the make-up work has a nice look and there's some top notch villainy by Weird Science's Robert Rusler, adding to King's weird nostalgia fetish by dressing like a 60's greaser. But, like a lot of movies that were made for TV (including Buried Alivealso starring Tim Matheson), Sometimes They Come Back struggles to find the right tone, mixing weird sentimentality with its gruesome horror elements. Still, it did manage to spawn its own franchise, with 1996's Sometimes They Come Back... Again and 1998's Sometimes They Come Back... For More setting the high bar for lengthily named horror sequels.

As with all of the short stories collated into Stephen King's Night Shift, Sometimes They Come Back was meant to give you a few chills before bedtime but never any sleepless nights lying awake with fear. To that end, I suppose it delivers.


Special Features:
+ Scene Selection


  1. "Based on the writings of little known author Stephen King, the 1991 horror Sometimes They Come Back is newly available on DVD. But, twenty years later, is it still scary?"

    Stephen King was NOT "little known" in 1991. In 1978 THE STAND was published. In 1980 THE SHINING was released on film. CARRIE was published in 1974 and the movie came out in 1976.

  2. Yeah, it was a joke pointing out the ubiquitousness of Stephen King, but thanks for that. At least one of us got a laugh out of it!

  3. In the novel, Instead of Carl Meuller, there was "Bleach". Also, the trennd of Stephen king bullies as greasers started from Billy Nolan from Carrie 1974.