Stephen King’s speciality is dreaming up nightmares. It’s no wonder virtually every book he’s written has made it to the screen--King’s a horrormeister with a vivid visual imagination. Unfortunately, his latest shocker and his directorial debut, “Maximum Overdrive” (citywide), offers a variation on what has become a hopelessly hackneyed theme--technology as monster. As long as King is tinkering with his crazed machines, the film sustains a certain amount of ominous tension, but as soon as the author turns his attention to his actors, the movie’s slender storyline goes limp. It’s dreary to the max.

The premise is disappointingly simple. As the Earth has begun to pass through a comet’s tail, machines everywhere go haywire. Lawnmowers slice up home-owners, electric knives dice up waitresses, trucks mow down their drivers and soda machines start pelting Little Leaguers with soft-drink cans as if they were hand grenades. A few plucky survivors hole up at a local truck stop, where Bill, a short-order cook (Emilio Estevez), leads the fight against a noisy squadron of homicidal 18-wheelers.

King is an expert at mixing horror and humor and he does a nice job of creating some deliciously macabre comic moments. The film’s most menacing vehicle, a Happy Toyz truck, is decorated with a devilish-looking front end that looks just like a Marvel Comics Green Goblin.

Most of the action, however, is centered around the truckstop, which King portrays as the last outpost of civilization. Here, though, the film falls apart, thanks to draggy pacing and painfully bad dialogue, the low point being a clunky romance between Bill and a spunky hitchhiker (Laura Harrington).


Worse still, the movie never really builds up any momentum or jars us with unexpected jolts of horror.

“Maximum Overdrive” (rated R for its violence) might have made an intriguing installment of “Amazing Stories,” but as a feature film, it’s just another generic thriller with a lot of padding. It’s not a bad effort for a first-time director, but you wish King had given the ignition keys to someone who could’ve really put the pedal to the metal.