Sometimes They Come Back Reminds Us That Sometimes Not All King Stories Should Be Adapted

By and large, if Stephen King has written it, Hollywood has filmed it. From his major works (The Stand, It) to minor short stories (Children of the Corn, Graveyard Shift), studios have left no stone unturned in adapting the Master of Horror’s visions. When studios didn’t want to bankroll a major theatrical release, they could always go the made-for-television route. One of the best adaptations of King’s work – Salem’s Lot – was a made-for-television movie. And the original It mini-series has its supporters. Though it’s largely forgotten, the CBS production of an early King short story, Sometimes They Come Back, earned enough fans to spawn two straight-to-video sequels.


Hard on his luck, high school teacher Jim Norman brings his wife and son back to the small town where he grew up. Old wounds have kept Norman away for years. When he was just a boy, Norman watched greaser thugs murder his older brother in a train tunnel. A train killed the punks – and Jim survived. Nightmares have haunted Jim putting pressure on his family and job. But something has changed. One by one, Jim’s long-dead tormenters begin appearing in his class. Suddenly, his nightmares are very real.

Sometimes They Come Back Offers Minor Chills, Cookie-Cutter Story

Sometimes They Come Back reminds us that Hollywood sometimes recycles tired plot lines. By the early 1990s, psychological thrillers and light horror movies had a tried and true formula. And screenwriters Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal borrow quite a few of them in their adaptation. Here, the writers give us a protagonist, Jim Norman, plagued by a real nightmare. Of course, no one believes him. Not the police. Not his boss. Even his own wife doubts him. As the bodies pile up (and it’s a small body count), the authorities will eventually suspect Norman. Will a minor character from the past turn up to offer some expository dialogue? Yes. And it’s exposition so lazy it barely counts. There isn’t really storytelling here – Sometimes They Come Back advances story through coincidences and clichés.

Too bad the network television restrictions clearly limit what McLoughlin can do here

At least Sometimes They Come Back occasionally taps into some old school chills. No, it’s not a scary movie. You won’t find so much as a jump scare. Rather director Tom McLoughlin (Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives) borrows the kind of light horror atmosphere that once defined the better made-for-television thrillers. Ghost trains, dark and windy nights – there’s some horror mood to be enjoyed. Too bad the network television restrictions clearly limit what McLoughlin can do here. That is, you’ll find cheap make-up effects and ghostly images that reach far past whatever budget the studio gave McLoughlin. An intentional B-movie can get away with it, but Sometimes They Come Back never positions itself as a tongue-in-cheek horror movie.

Sometimes They Come Back Hides Potential For a Better Movie

Just about the only thing that consistently works in Sometimes They Come Back is Tim Matheson’s performance. Despite largely being known for comedy roles, Matheson’s performance is surprisingly convincing. In fact, Matheson consistently outpaces everything else about the movie. In a thriller mostly absent of thrills and a Screenplay 101 story, Matheson looks like a man genuinely traumatized by his past. And the movie’s ‘Greasers’ are actually somewhat intimidating. Sadly, McLoughlin et al let them down doing absolutely nothing with the gimmick. Minor ‘Scream Queen’ Brooke Adams (The Dead Zone, The Stuff) looks appropriately bored with her ‘filler role’.

…Matheson’s performance is surprisingly convincing.

Oddly enough, there’s an argument to be made that Sometimes They Come Back deserves a remake. There’s good bones in this story. With a modest budget and fewer restrictions, a decent horror filmmaker could squeeze out some scares. Moreover, there’s plenty of room for interpretation in King’s short story. What you’ll find in this 1991 thriller is a lot of melodrama with a helping of cheese. But a modern re-imagining that treats its character’s trauma as literal ghosts coming back would work in the 2020s.

Sometimes They Come Back Should Probably Stay in the 90s

Audiences for Sometimes They Come Back are going to be pretty limited. Aside from its status as a minor King adaptation, this is a made-for-television movie that’s a product of its time. The story is an absolute cookie cutter characteristic of just about any late 80s, early 90s thriller. Yes, Matheson delivers a compelling performance and the ‘greasers’ make for worthy villains. But cheap TV effects and workmanlike scares don’t set the movie apart. It’s too bad – the idea of trauma re-visiting someone should make for good horror. Maybe this is one that can come back – as a remake.


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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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