It is 1969 and in Maine art student Alan Parker (Jonathan Jackson) is morbidly obsessed with death, which comes through in his artwork which is admonished by his tutor (Matt Frewer) as being the opposite of the celebration of life he should be creating at his age. It is Alan's birthday today, and he was thinking of spending the evening with his girlfriend Jessica (Erika Christensen) but she tells him she's busy, so he opts to soak in the bathtub smoking marijuana. However, as he does so he has a hallucination of the Grim Reaper who goads him into taking a razor and slitting his wrists...
Luckily at that point all his friends and Jessica burst in for his surprise party (huh?), though not quite soon enough as he's so startled the blade slips and he cuts a vein by mistake anyway. Things are about to get worse for Alan as the universe conspires to jolt him out of his complacent death obsession which has made him so nihilistic and obnoxious in this, an adaptation of a Stephen King novella from Mick Garris. The mention of that name would have set alarm bells a-ringing in many a horror fan's mind, because they had sat through such a quantity of mediocre at best King adaptations by this director, and sad to say Riding the Bullet was little different.
Complicating matters was that Garris always came across in interviews like the nicest guy in the world with a deep and abiding affection for horror fiction, so to point out his efforts in that field were like cheapo TV movies even when they had a fair budget behind them seemed like giving him an unnecessary kicking, critically speaking. From his miniseries versions of King's The Stand which reduced an epic fantasy to piffle and Bag of Bones which embellished the original to the extent that its main tragedies elicited not much more than a shrug, it was clear he was dedicated to his craft, but lacked the inspiration to do something with it which would truly take off and soar.
Although Garris spent much of his time in television - the Masters of Horror anthology series was his brainchild, so we could thank him for that at least - he did make occasional forays to the big screen, even when those efforts remained stolidly televisual aside from the odd bit of bad language or stronger violence than the small screen would normally tolerate, and Riding the Bullet was one of those. It was, to be fair, more ambitious and effective than Sleepwalkers which he had made from a King original script, but the fact remained no matter how many tricks and ideas Garris threw at the wall, most of them slithered down it to rest in a pile on the floor. You appreciated his efforts to bulk up a slim tale more meditative mood piece than twisting yarn, but not the final outcome.
The source was one of King's works where he considered the death of his mother, an understandably traumatic occasion in his life, so Alan hears just when he is about to attend a John Lennon concert in Canada that his mother (Barbara Hershey) has suffered a stroke and is in hospital. Not knowing much more, whether she is close to her demise or not, he sets out to hitchhike to the hospital - that's right, his so-called friends are more intent on taking the car to the use the concert tickets and don't even consider giving him a lift. This is all setting up the encounter on the road between Alan and David Arquette's George Staub who is driving a Christine-esque red Plymouth and in a reversal of the old ghostly hitchhiker tale it is the driver who is the apparition, giving his passenger a choice of who he will send to their death, him or his mother. Given we only see his relationship with her in tiny snippets, it's difficult to invest much; also, Jackson's beard is one of the worst excuses for facial hair ever. Music by Nicholas Pike.