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“I believe there is another man inside of everyman. A stranger. A conniving man”
Call it coincidence or a prompted attempt on Netflix’s part to cash in on Stephen King’s popularity post-Dark Tower (haha no) and It, but two adaptations of the author’s work dropped on the streaming service recently. Both are based on stories buried deep within the King cannon. One is a short epistolary novella tribute to Edgar Allan Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart, the other a novel predominately set in one room focusing on a character chained to a bed. Yet, the two adaptations manage to make premises that should struggle to translate on-screen cinematic.
I’ll discuss 1922 first, the most recent of the two. Set in the year of its title, it centres on Wilfred (Thomas Jane — Boogie Nights, The Mist), a rancher with 180 acres of land in the mid-west inherited by his wife, Arlette (Molly Parker, House of Cards). She desires to sell the farm and move to city, something her husband vehemently refuses to do. Thus, he plans to kill her, manipulating his son (Dylan Schmid) into cooperating. However, once the deed is done, the two begin to unravel as guilt and a possible haunting plague them.
1922 could have been a tough story to adapt for a number of reasons. It’s only 131 pages, shorter than a standard novel. It’s written as a first-person account, meaning the art of writing is integral to its structure. It only has a handful of characters and is mainly set in one location.
Yet, writer-director Zak Hilditch (These Final Hours) pulls off this tricky task, crafting a film which feels as effortlessly creepy as the Poe story it draws upon. Watching 1922 as a horror fan is like being in safe hands. From the moment the movie begins – with a dishevelled Wilfred kicking off the film with the narration: “This is my confession”, and an ominous violin swells as the title appears – it elicits a sense of dread (something missing from the otherwise entertaining It).
This dread continues throughout the film, slowly and gradually intensifying. Hilditch really plays into the story’s innate Gothicism. As evident from the quote that opened this article, the script is heavily focused on human duality. Like classic gothic literature such as Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (if one doesn’t want to read the novel, watch the fantastic adaptation starring Vincent Cassel), Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and Dorian Grey — the story shows how good people can easily be driven to darkness. We see this in the way Wilfred uses his son’s kindness and morality against him, essentially convincing him that matricide is the right thing to do.
Also, like in Gothicism, the home is symbolic of its character’s mental states. Following Wilfred earthly malfeasance, the house disintegrates around him (despite his efforts to renovate by taking out a hefty loan from the bank). The ceiling begins to leak, rats begin to pour out of drains devouring his livestock and terrorising him. As the house is consumed by external forces, it serves as a metaphor for Wilfred’s guilt eating and tearing away at him.
Hilditch stages some very impressive sequences. The movie isn’t very gory but when there is violence it’s sudden and bloody. There’s also a recurring reliance on the uncanny (Freud’s idea that things trapped between familiar and unfamiliar invoke a fearful sensation). An example is the moment where Wilfred catches a glimpse of his wife’s decaying corpse in the well where he dumped the body. The carcass’s mouth begins to move as if it is about to talk. Instead, vermin crawl out of it.
The cast of character actors is well-chosen. Molly Parker makes every second of her limited screen-time count. Meanwhile, the oft wasted Neal McDonough evokes tragic sympathy as a neighbour whose life is forever changed due to the actions of Wilfred and his son. However, the real star is Jane whose portrayal reminds audiences of how he was a blockbuster star (The Punisher, Deep Blue Sea, Dreamcatcher) for a brief period. When one thinks of portrayals of Midwestern farmers, it tends to be uneducated, unintelligent men. However, despite Jane’s thick, thick accent, penchant for talking out the side of his mouth and spitting, the actor brings a quiet cleverness and ruthlessness, something which makes Wilfred getting away with his wife’s murder more believable. Meanwhile, in the film’s second half, Jane – in portraying his character’s mental disintegration — manages to evoke empathy and pity from the viewer, an incredible feat giving Wilfred’s heinous actions.
Horrible husbands are a link between 1922 and the other King adaptation Gerald’s Game, written and directed by rising horror filmmaker Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Hush). The film stars Spy Kids’ Carla Cugino as Jessie, a middle-aged woman who attempts to spice up her marriage to Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) by visiting an isolated cabin. There, the two try sex roleplay. Jessie is handcuffed to the bed. However, when Gerald’s attempted rape fantasy goes too far (after his wife’s made it clear she’s not consenting) she kicks him – triggering a sudden heart attack. With her husband dead, Jessie realises she’s trapped. As visions of her traumatic past plague her, she attempts with the help of inner voices (taking form in a more confident Jessie and a less repressed Gerald) to battle dehydration, tiredness, a flesh-eating dog and a recurring vision of death.
Like 1922, Gerald’s Game is a tensely wound psychological horror which transcends its source’s novelistic structure with great performances, sharp direction and a focus on universal themes. Cugino and Greenwood are electrifying and the idea to get the actors to also play imaginary versions of their ‘truer’ selves (existing in Jessie’s head) was a masterstroke by Flanagan.
Despite mainly being set in one room, Flanagan (as King does in the novel) opens up the story through recurring flashbacks to Jessie’s childhood. During a solar eclipse, its revealed the young Jessie suffered a similar type of abuse to that perpetrated by her husband. As her current situation grows increasingly dire, she comes to realise that she blamed herself unjustly throughout her life for what happened as child, marrying someone she knew subconsciously would inflict the pain she thought she deserved. Realising she doesn’t want to die a victim, Jessie decides to do the unthinkable to survive. Thus, Gerald’s Game can be read as a feminist parable about a woman removing herself from under the thumb of selfish, sadistic men.
Personally, I think 1922 is a tighter movie than Gerald’s Game as the latter’s running time feels slightly over stretched in its final third. That said, the film’s denouement which wraps up a minor mystery is chilling and Flanagan shoots a courtroom confrontation in such a striking dreamlike way. It’s great to see Netflix give these talented, less experienced directors the chance to tackle the stranger entries in King’s oeuvre. The results are ambitious, inventive, and above all, creepy as hell.