In 1985, Stephen King published Thinner under his pseudonym Richard Bachman. The movie version has King’s name all over its ads. King got it backward: he should have put his name on the book and Bachman’s name on the movie. Thinner, easily the worst movie of the year, is a wretched excuse for a horror movie and a flat-out disgrace on every level.
King’s premise has an air of AIDS/cancer paranoia. Billy Halleck (Robert John Burke), a 300-pound lawyer, tries everything to lose weight. One night, as Billy drives home from another high-calorie dinner, his wife (Lucinda Jenney) distracts him with, um, romantic overtures — bad timing, because an old woman picks that moment to dart out in front of his car. Splat. The old woman, it so happens, is the daughter of an ancient gypsy (Michael Constantine), who puts a weight-loss whammy on Billy. He goes from 300 pounds to 280, then 240, and so on. This worked in the book, because Billy’s deterioration unfolded in our imagination. In the movie, Billy’s curse is a matter of a slim actor wearing less and less (unconvincing) fat make-up and more and more (unconvincing) thin make-up.
Thinner wants to be a psychological horror film, but director Tom Holland (who made another bad King movie, The Langoliers, for TV) isn’t up to it. He and co-writer Michael McDowell (Beetlejuice) resort to it’s-only-a-dream clichés and pitiful attempts at humor, such as Billy and his daughter (Joy Lenz) swapping amazingly unfunny Godfather jokes in reference to Billy’s Mafioso client Ginelli (Joe Mantegna). Holland has no idea how real people talk or how real movies move; it’s a long 92 minutes.
The movie also deserves an ensemble award for inept acting, since Holland lets everyone underact passively or overact aggressively, shrieking at the poor innocent camera. This could be fun (Bronson Pinchot’s psychotic flailing in The Langoliers kept me amused), but here it’s just embarrassing. To be fair, the script is no help. Michael Constantine, whose gypsy looks like a homeless Buddy Hackett, gets to deliver great stuff like “You die thin, White Man from Town, but you die clean.”
In the difficult lead role, acting through pounds of latex, Robert John Burke is no Eddie Murphy. Partly it’s his dull voice, but mainly it’s his body language. Most real-life large men (John Goodman, for example) move with a mindful grace that comes from a lifelong awareness that they occupy more room. Murphy had it in The Nutty Professor. Burke just shuffles around in a fat suit, which was a rush job by Oscar-winning make-up artist Greg Cannom (Bram Stoker’s Dracula) and looks it.
Thinner is angry and depressing aside from being awful. It can be read as a metaphor for AIDS being spread by infidelity; Billy bitterly blames his wife for his condition and suspects her of honking his doctor buddy. King’s twist ending, involving a deadly pie, is nasty and ironic in the tradition of EC Comics and King’s own Creepshow, but the movie botches it. King, at least, served a tasty gypsy pie. Tom Holland’s pie is stale and tasteless.