Thursday, October 19, 2017

Riske Business: Why You Should Watch THINNER This Month

by Adam Riske
Thinner is a (touches your face) WINNER!

I’m surprised how much people dislike the movie Thinner. When I caught it on VHS back in 1997, I didn’t think it was great but I was a fan. Over the years, I’ve found myself coming back to it on cable or rental about a dozen times. It eventually got to the point where I thought “I should just buy Thinner already.” I don’t know anyone else who likes Thinner as much as I do. In fact, I don’t know that many people talk about it even when discussing Stephen King film adaptations. I’ve always thought this movie had something. So, I wanted to highlight it this month to get a conversation going (if no one comments…), encourage some of you reading this to (re)visit the movie and hoist it up with other solid ‘90s horror flicks that are getting re-assessed of late. As I revisited Thinner last week, I was stunned and depressed by how relevant it is to 2017. I recommend it highly if you are seeking some cinematic wish fulfillment centered on the comeuppance of white male privilege. I realize that’s a super specific mood.
Thinner tells the story of an obese upper-class lawyer named Billy Halleck (played by Robert John Burke) who runs over an elderly woman (Irma St. Paule) with his car when he’s distracted because his wife, Heidi (Lucinda Jenney), is giving him a blow job. Under normal circumstances, a person would pay for this crime, but not Billy, who is part of the Boys' Club. Facts are fudged, allowances are made and Billy’s friends, including a judge (John Horton) and the local police chief (Daniel von Bargen), ensure Billy evades punishment. This does not sit well with the father of the victim (Michael Constantine), who curses Billy to become thinner rapidly and excessively as punishment for his crimes. With his condition worsening (and his home life falling apart due to perceived infidelity between his wife and a local doctor), Billy grows increasingly desperate and paranoid, eventually enlisting the help of a one of his clients, a crime boss (Joe Mantegna), to retaliate against the man and his family.
This movie (and the story of which it is based) is no fan of white male privilege, and it’s a fascinating story when viewed through that angle. At every juncture, Billy refuses to take responsibility for his involvement in the accident and assigns blame to others. He represents the worst of white privileged male behavior when under pressure. He’s casually racist, misogynistic, selfish and willing to do anything to save his own skin, including exacting violent revenge on others. The judge and police chief are also punished with their own respective curses. The film is taking down the entire white privileged male establishment; not just those in the wrong, but also the peers responsible for cover-ups and enablement. The tragic irony (for those not in the Boys' Club) is that this group carries the plague that they accuse the traveling caravan family of carrying with them but to even worse communal effect. When you watch Thinner with that in mind, it’s impossible for it not to become a sort of revenge fantasy to the current assholes putting others in constant peril for their own gain. (I promise that’s as political as I’ll get for the rest of the column.) Besides the subtext, there are many other reasons I recommend Thinner. The film is directed by a total horror pro, Tom Holland, and it fits nicely in that Fall Stephen King Movie vibe so many of us are fond of with its small-town atmosphere and scares grounded in reality - albeit supernatural. Plus, it’s just a whole lot of damn fun, at least for me. I know the movie gets bagged on for being mean-spirited, but like The Hateful Eight, it’s a movie cast full of assholes. It’s to be expected. I don’t need a protagonist I can root for in a horror movie. It’s just as exciting to see a real POS get moral comeuppance and when the actors are having this much fun being bad, I’m game. The movie is also so gallows and nihilistic (especially the film’s ending) that it becomes amusing.
Thinner doesn’t have great performances across the board (the lead is just ok) but a few of the supporting turns are delightful. My two favorites are Michael Constantine as Tadzu Lempke, the 106-year-old father who puts the curse of Billy. Under some impressive makeup (one of the film’s strong points), Constantine seems to be having a blast and delivers amazing line readings like “Die clean, white man from town. Die clean!” which is one of my all-time favorite movie lines to quote. I have no idea why. It just is. Also, super fun is Joe Mantegna as pretty much Fat Tony from The Simpsons. Besides being an actor I always enjoy seeing on-screen, I’m a Joe Mantegna fan because of some personal history. Part of the reason I am into movies as much as I am because of my uncles. They would see tons of “grown up” movies and tell me about them even when I was in elementary school. It didn’t matter if they were movies way past my understanding; they would tell me about them anyway. I distinctly remember them seeing David Mamet’s Homicide and announcing to me that they had just witnessed the greatest performance by the greatest actor that will ever be on-screen. That performance was by Joe Mantegna. See, I like Joe Mantegna, but they LOVED him. Whenever I watch Thinner, I always think about how disappointed they probably are that he went from David Mamet to the (fun) caricature he’s relishing playing in Thinner. I still haven’t seen Homicide. I should finally watch it in November. Quick digression to this already existing digression: The Godfather Part III is not great, but has its moments. One of them is any time Andy Garcia says Joe Mantegna’s character’s name – Joey Zasa. It’s the best thing ever. Zasa is just a fun word to say. More characters in movies should have fun names. But back to Thinner
The production history of Thinner is interesting, too. The ending I mentioned before (which I won’t spoil) was changed from the book’s ending after it scored poorly with test audiences, who hated it. I’m presuming it was too downbeat, even though it’s more logical (imho) and gives the character of Billy at least a shred of culpability. The reshot ending used in the final cut was at the producers’ urging and director Tom Holland didn’t like it. I could go either way. I think both endings would have worked. The book’s ending gives the story more tragic gravitas, while the film’s ending is interesting in how ghoulish it is. Both work for the story being told.

So, check out Thinner this month. It’s the latest ‘90s horror movie I want to resurrect. I don’t take that lightly. As Wishmaster has proven, I have this power now. Need more proof? I got your proof. Tales from the Hood was out of print. Me and Patrick do a show on it and, boom, Scream Factory announces a collector’s edition! I’m a very powerful man. Like a millennial Joey Zasa.
What are your thoughts on Thinner? What other Stephen King film adaptations do you think are underrated?


  1. I'm old. I saw Thinner opening weekend. I loved it. It was also one of those movies that seemed to be on cable all the time. I think NeedFul Things is very underrated.

  2. I've just started watching this and I had to hit pause to come here and say that I am officially on board after seeing the "Spelling Films" logo.

  3. I love that you love it, Mr. Riske. I will spare you the curse, but I will say as a huge fan of the book, which is a really light, brisk read, this should have been easy as (wait for it)pie to adapt. I just think it gets the tone wrong, and you're on the money with Burke - he's just not very strong. But keep flying the flag for it, and maybe you'll get your weeesh and get that special edition someday!

  4. Gave Thinner a chance every now and then in hopes to improve my opinion. Never works for me. It may be time to try again as it's been awhile.

  5. Re-watched it again for #scarymoviemonth and certainly enjoyed it more than the first time I watched it on VHS back in the day... Not perfect, it felt a little too much like an over extended Tales From The Crypt episode yet it has some fun performances, great make up effects and just the fact it is directed by Tom Holland meant it deserved the revisit!! No Wishmaster (but how many 90's movies are??) but fun...

    ps. Adam don't forget next year you'd try look into revisiting 1998's Phantoms...


    1. I'm going to decline on the Phantoms article in light of the baggage around the movie. It doesn't feel right anymore. Sorry Richard. A different request? I'm game for your suggestion.

    2. A good point well made sir... I will put on my thinking cap and see what late 90's delight comes to mind!! Keep up the excellent word... :)

  6. Replies
    1. This guy knows! Thinner changed the word "lizard" for my friend and I the night we caught it on late night TV in high school. Our lives would never be the same again. Love this very fun movie.

  7. Never watched it, but now I will. Rented Night Flier a few days ago, absolutely loved it. Not real sure where it stands among ranks or fans, but its somber ending was magnificent. RIP Miguel Ferrer.