Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, you couldn’t throw a stone without hitting some theater screen unspooling a Stephen King flick. The wildly prolific and legendary bestselling author was churning out reams of bloody, blue-collar Maine pulp,and hungry, greedy studios were tripping over themselves to repackage his novels, novellas, and short stories into commercial sausage. Occasionally we got winners. Occasionally we got….Sleepwalkers. But, like it (as your humble writer did) or not, you could not escape it.
However, like all fads, the bloom on the Stephen King fad began to wane. Box office and critical duds like Thinner, The Mangler and Dreamcatcher began to make the author less appealing to producers and new trends (snarky teen slashathons, ooky-spooky ghost stories, found footage) quickly made it so that there was no room for King’s brand of small town gothic. Proper adaptations became fewer and far between, and while they occasionally popped up here and there, they were never the event films they once were.
2017 has changed all that. King is back and bigger than ever. There are two limited-run TV series based on his work (Mr. Mercedes and Castle Rock) in the works for streaming. We finally got an adaptation of The Dark Tower, even if the final product was nowhere near worth the frothing anticipation. And, of course, there’s the 100 lb gorilla at the movies right now, the blockbuster adaptation of It that’s steamrolling records left and right, and is on track to become the highest grossing horror film — ever. One can safely say that Stephen King is back, baby!
Amongst all the projects to get in a piece of the action are two Netflix originals premiering at Fantastic Fest ahead of hitting home screens in the next month. In one corner is Zach Hilditch’s 1922, a Midwestern Gothic based on one of the author’s more recent novellas, from the Full Dark, No Stars collection. The other is an full on adaptation of the infamous and “unfilmable” Gerald’s Game. One film instantly joins the pantheon of great King adaptations. The other is a bland and undistinguished effort that feels like a throwback to the more forgettable TV films of King’s filmic heyday. (Do you remember any details about The Tommyknocker or Sometimes They Come Back?)
For years, filmmakers have been trying to crack the uncrackable nut that was Gerald’s Game. The novel has a juicy premise that is, unfortunately, rendered in a deeply uncinematic manner: in an attempt to enliven her failing marriage with her distant husband, Gerald, Jessie Burlingame agrees to a weekend stay in a remote cabin indulging in a little Fifty Shades of Grey sexual action. But, in the midst of their activities, Gerald drops dead of a heart attack — leaving Jessie helpless, handcuffed to a bed.
Most of King’s novel is told from Jessie’s perspective, a long interior monologue as she slowly loses her mind while attempting to grapple with her situation. How do you translate that to film? The novel thus became a Hollywood white whale — the film that could not be made. But Mike Flanagan did it. The director of Oculus, Hush and Ouija: Origin of Evil has figured out how to make one of King’s least cinematic works come alive on screen, and to not only bring it to life, but to actually make it good: tense, disturbing, thrumming with coiled nightmarishness. It helps that he has two terrific, committed performers on screen.
Carla Gugino, the vastly underrated actress finally given a lead role worthy of her talents, gives Jessie a mix of tremulous, fearful vulnerability and resilient inner strength. This is not an easy role, but Gugino nails it, bouncing both off herself (as an avatar for her inner Spalding Gray) and Bruce Greenwood as Gerry, an aging-handsome white collar master of the universe not always attuned to his wife’s needs. In the book, once Gerry is dead, that’s it, but here he’s effectively resurrected as Jessie’s other visual hallucination of her torment, with the invaluable actor bringing a combination of asshole menace, slyly smug indifferance and doting husband concern to a tricky role. (Henry Thomas and Chiara Aurelia also deserve credit for difficult, smaller roles.)
Not all of the movie is successful. Flanagan is too faithful to the the book in some spots, and attaches a baggy and distended epilogue that not only hammers home many of the film’s themes with sledgehammer subtlety but also dilutes some of the film’s impact. But the majority of the film is genuinely arm-rest clutching stuff. This is survival horror at it’s most effective, and by the time the film gets to a show-stopping gore set-piece, one has to stop to remember if they are breathing or not.
Thomas Jane drawls his way through 1922 like a hillbilly Bane, his stern-jawed, teeth-clenched guttural Nebraskan accent a thing of bizarre beauty. Jane is by far the best thing about 1922, a corn-fed “Tell Tale Heart” manque that never comes alive on screen. Jane plays Wilfred James, an overly proud farmer who kills his estranged wife Arlette (Molly Parker) with the coerced assistance of their teenage son (Dylan Schmidt) after Arlette threatens actions that would cause Wilfred to lose his son and farm to big city life.
Of course, in King’s EC Comics influenced world, a little murder to solve a problem will beget a series of bigger problems. Wilfred’s world begins to crumble around him as if cursed. His son turns to a life of crime. His farmhouse begins to fall into disarray. Wilfred begins to be haunted by visions of his wife’s ghost and encounter hordes of rats that begin to make his life a nuisance. Karma is not about to let the simple murderer off the hook.
If only this was at all engagingly staged. Jane is fine as the taciturn, glowering farmer, and the period-detailed production design is terrific. But Hilditch fails to make the film resonate as drama. The big problem is the film’s narration. King’s novella is presented as a confessional, and Hilditch adopts that structure to film, having Jane narrate events as they unfold. But that just robs the film of any power. Themes are stated and given a heavy hand; plot points are discussed. 1922 fails the rule of show, not tell, resulting in a film that plods along. The movie does pick up a bit by the time supernatural events begin to intrude on Wilfred’s rural world, but it’s also too little, too late, coming off like a self-serious Tales From The Crypt episode. As a movie, 1922 wants to be Poe but comes off as poky.