On paper Thinner seems set up for success. It is based on a Stephen King novel, is directed by Fright Night‘s Tom Holland, and written by Holland with Beetlejuice‘s Michael McDowell. As anyone who has ever failed at making dinner will tell you though, good ingredients mean nothing if the recipe is poor. Thinner is jaw-droppingly bad: not only weirdly amateurish but regularly offensive. Its presentation of Romani people and culture is soaked in negative stereotypes. Some might argue it was a product of its time, but it was inappropriate in 1996 and it was inappropriate when King’s novel (written under the pseudonym Richard Bachman) was published in 1984.
Billy Halleck (Robert John Burke) is an unscrupulous and obese lawyer, who fatally hits a Romani woman one night with his car. When he is cleared of any wrongdoing in the courts, Billy is cursed by the woman’s father (Michael Constantine). Losing weight at a terrifying rate, he races to find the man who cursed him before he wastes to death.
The key problem with Thinner is tone. It is a miserable, quite cynical story, based around an unlikeable protagonist, yet Holland appears to have applied the same knowing, humorous tone that he used in Fright Night (1985). It worked brilliantly there, forming a crowd-pleasing comedy-horror blend that has sustained its popularity for decades after the fact. In Thinner that tone chafes badly against the content. What could potentially be a frightening body horror story comes across as trite and inauthentic. For every decent moment of horror there are two that simply fall flat. The performances are, in the main, risible, despite being given by typically enjoyable actors. Not even Joe Mantegna, a Tony-winning actor cast to give the film a little star power, appears to be immune despite some decent work early in the piece.
Given the decade in which it was made, Thinner does some excellent make-up effects to render Burke obese and then skinny. While it falters a little in the beginning, later scenes feature a gaunt, exhausted Billy that is nicely convincing. Of course removing weight from a character with make-up is a lot harder than adding it, so this is one aspect of the film that is honestly worthy of praise. Burke’s performance as an obese man and then a frail, fatigued one is excellent as well, and belies the hammy over-acting he appears to have been instructed to do elsewhere in the film.
The anti-Romani racism hangs over the entire piece, of course. Every common-or-garden attitude and slur gets employed by the film’s characters. This could be fine. They are, after all, mostly terrible people. The greater problem is that the film as a whole uses the Romani community as a plot function and a supernatural menace, rather than find room to portray them as well-rounded characters. Holland and McDowell’s screenplay also finds room to mock Italians and the overweight, less unpleasantly but still unnecessarily.
Things do come around towards the film’s climax. A conversation between Billy and Tadzu Lempke, the man who cursed him, is very well played and emotionally effective. The conclusion itself is smartly bleak and points to a much stronger version should any studio or producer see fit to remake King’s novel. What we have at the moment? It is mostly very terrible.