By Owen Quinn author of the Time Warriors and Zombie Blues
Thinner directed by Tom Holland and written by Michael McDowell and Holland.
Based on the 11984 Stephen King book and released in the US on October 25th 1996, Thinner dealt with the supernatural aspect of gypsy curses. The book was written by King under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. I don’t know a lot of books about gypsy curses apart from the gypsy aspect of the Wolfman movies and the curse of the werewolf. So when I first read Thinner it was something that intrigued me. I enjoyed the book and when I heard there was going to be a movie version, putting it on my watch list was a no brainer.
Starring Robocop 3’s Robert John Burke as massively overweight lawyer Billy Halleck, the movie tells the story of Halleck mowing down an old gypsy woman while getting a blow job from his wife. The gypsy woman is killed on the spot but as the untouchable high flying lawyer who gets gangster Richie Ginelli (Joe Manteg) off the hook, he is able to use his connections to avoid any charges. Judge Phillips (Howard Erskine) and cop Chief Dunc (Daniel Van Bargen) allow their colleague to escape scott free fully knowing what he has done. Chief Dunc lies that Billy passed a breathalyser test when in fact he never gave him one after the accident. It would have proved Halleck had in fact been over the limit. Even the pharmacist (Stephen King himself) who served the gypsies in his drug store that night gives evidence that the old woman ran out from between two cars that night. However upon further questioning his story is thrown out.
Halleck is met outside the courtroom by the woman’s father, Tadzu Lempke. Lempke is the leader of the gypsy carnival that has now been run out of town. He touches Billy on the face and says ‘Thinner.’ Before long Billy’s wife Heidi (Lucinda Jenney) is delighted her ongoing efforts to get her husband to lose weight are finally working. What they don’t know is that Billy’s sudden weight loss success comes from a gypsy curse. Soon Billy realises something is wrong when he continues to eat as much as he wants but his weight is still dropping. He discovers the judge’s skin is turning him into a lizard and Dunc is covered in putrid sores like accelerated acne, his body becoming deformed. Billy’s only hope lies with tracking down Lempke and getting him to lift the curse. As he grows thinner by the day, Billy is joined by Ginelli to force Lempke to lift the curse; by any means necessary.
There was no CGI in those days which could convincingly show the progress of Billy Halleck’s weight loss but despite that the filmmakers successfully made Burke overweight with the use of a fat suit. These type of suits were also used in the Eddie Murphy remake of the Nutty Professor also released in 9996. Burke initially portrays a man who like every other one in that position is nagged by the wife to lose weight. He is 300 pounds and lying that he is following her diet plan. With the success of the Ginelli case Billy indulges in a celebratory feast on a night out and confesses to Heidi he just loves food. We get to see the top half of the naked fat suit in a shower scene where Halleck is teased by his peers about his weight including his doctor, Mike Houston or as Billy calls him Doctor Mikey. There’s also a rear nude shot when Mikey pulls Billy’s towel off him on the scales. This is a source of mirth for the others but impacting the audience that Billy’s weight is a concern. So involved is the doctor in Billy’s life the lawyer is sure he is sleeping with Heidi. When Billy keeps going on about his weight loss being about a curse they move to commit him but he flees to track down Lempke when Dunc shoots himself. We get the full spectrum of weight loss to the point of being almost skeletal. The make up is brilliantly done and Burke is almost unrecognisable when he reaches the final stages of his weight loss. It reminded me of the dessicated zombies from the day and convinces the audience the affliction is very real.
The prejudice against gypsies is right in your face and Judge Phillips orders Dunc to run the gypsy carnival out of town. He sees them as vermin and worries the high school team will get STDs. He passes comment to Billy in the shower scene that he probably got some sort of infection from Lempke touching him; famous last words if I ever heard them. Slider’s star Kari Wuhrer gives a wild performance as Lempke’s granddaughter Gina grieving from the death of her mother. She is the subject of lewd suggestions from one of Billy’s colleagues equating her worth to a mere quarter. Society looks down on them not realising their talk of the old ways is very real. She is filled with hate against Billy and even puts a ball bearing through his hand leaving him wounded. Michael Constantine who plays Tadzu Lempke is great. With his long white hair and cancerous mark on his face he is unsettling to say the least. When he gently brushes Billy’s face to place the curse there is a determined delicacy about it with a layer of satisfied justice. He knows what lies in store for Billy and in his eyes justice has been served.
When Billy tracks him down and begs for the curse to be lifted the confrontation is electric. every bit of his grief and bile over his daughter’s death comes flying out at Billy. The irony is you side with him because it is completely justified. Billy’s apology is empty and falls on deaf ears. So Billy’s promise of the curse of the white man from town initially is met with laughter. Soon there is real nervous tension among the gypsies at the white man’s curse. Billy has a hole blown in his hand by Gina’s lethal catapult but instead of dropping in agony he owns the pain and makes a fist blood pumping from it and curses them. As the blood pours the gypsies pause as they see the fury within the dying lawyer. When Ginelli shows up he launches an all out assault on the carnival by poisoning their dogs and attacking the camp with a machine gun. This results in the gypsies accidentally shooting Gina’s husband thinking he is Ginelli. Each time Ginelli leaves a note telling them to lift the curse. Manteg does a great job as Ginelli. When he impersonates a FBI agent to kidnap GIna and threatens her with acid in the face, the performance is electric. Manteg is coldly brutal in his treatment of Gina especially when he balances a jar of acid on her forehead while he and Billy escape.
The threat to Gina and the fact the white man will always hunt them down finally convinces Lempke to lift the curse through letting Billy’s blood into a pie. Whoever eats the pie will then die quickly from the same curse allowing Billy to live on. Billy’s descent into madness comes to the fore as he is convinced Doctor Houston has been having an affair with Heidi all along. It is clear Heidi hasn’t but it’s a nice gradual crumbling of the perfect marriage with everything to a desperate man who is believes it is only right his wife dies in his place. For me this is also part of the curse as Billy has lost sight of who he is and whatever moral compass he ever had. The woman he married, the woman who bore his child, the woman who from the beginning of the movie has only had Billy’s best interests at heart is little more than a sacrificial lamb.
However the end of the movie either through poor writing or direction left me a little confused. Billy successfully gets Heidi to eat the pie. When he wakes in the morning she is a deformed corpse. So far down has Billy fallen he even kisses her dead body and smacks his lips commenting on how she tastes of strawberries. The curse in reality has taken his soul leaving him what he has always been; corrupt with no morals. The movie makes it appear that Billy’s daughter has also eaten the pie due to the two plates in the sink but she is perfectly fine. Billy then moves to eat it himself so he can die too but Doctor Mikey arrives only to be invited in for pie. The movie ends with Billy closing his front door with a manic grin on his face. He may have stopped his weight loss curse but something else now inhabits his soul. I’m not sure if the daughter is going to die because from what I took from the dialogue between Lempke and Billy, I assumed the first person to eat the pie would be afflicted with the curse. This turns out to be Heidi so is the curse broken or does anyone who eats some of the pie die?
I dislike an uneven ending to a movie and that sadly happens here. Overall Thinner is a very effective movie dealing with an unusual subject. What I do like is there is no easy answer and that only another life will end a curse. It is not simply a matter of rubbing the victim’s cheek again. Performances are solid all round and is a worthy addition to the King movie canon.